Putting Into Words the Importance of Space Exploration: Apollo XI, September 16, 1969

All of us are here at Tor.com because we love good writing, and expect it in our science fiction. We don’t expect it from scientists, though, and even less so from engineers. And if those engineers happen to be test pilots who happen to be astronauts, our expectations drop further.

Reading through reportage of the space program during the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo era, you encounter grousing about all sorts of things, including the complaint that the people we sent off-planet couldn’t communicate the splendor, the beauty, and the awe of space in ways that the public hungered for. There’s truth to this — “Roger that” and “Nominal” and “A-okay” are not the words of poets and artists. On the other hand, when you think about the emergencies on Gemini 8 and Apollo 13 (not to mention the scores of minor crises that occurred on every mission because Space Travel Is Dangerous, full stop) I don’t think the public would have preferred the screams and curses of a sophisticated wordsmith (even if they rhymed) to the affectless, get-‘er-done communications of the astronauts who brought themselves and their spacecraft home safely and with the knowledge needed to get ‘er done right the next time.

All by way of leading into a couple of obscure, but great, speeches. They’re from an address to a joint session of Congress on September 16, 1969. Each of the Apollo XI crew wrote their own offering and took their turn at the podium. Here’s some of what Michael Collins said:

… Many years before there was a space program my father had a favorite quotation: ‘He who would bring back the wealth of the Indies must take the wealth of the Indies with him.’ This we have done. We have taken to the moon the wealth of this Nation, the vision of its political leaders, the intelligence of its scientists, the dedication of its engineers, the careful craftsmanship of its workers, and the enthusiastic support of its people.

We have brought back rocks.

And I think it is a fair trade. For just as the Rosetta stone revealed the language of ancient Egypt, so may these rocks unlock the mystery of the origin of the moon, of our earth, and even of our solar system.

During the flight of Apollo 11, in the constant sunlight between the earth and the moon, it was necessary for us to control the temperature of our spacecraft by a slow rotation not unlike that of a chicken on a barbecue spit. As we turned, the earth and the moon alternately appeared in our windows. We had our choice. We could look toward the Moon, toward Mars, toward our future in space — toward the new Indies — or we could look back toward the Earth, our home, with its problems spawned over more than a millennium of human occupancy.

We looked both ways. We saw both, and I think that is what our Nation must do.

We can ignore neither the wealth of the Indies nor the realities of the immediate needs of our cities, our citizens, or our civics. We cannot launch our planetary probes from a springboard of poverty, discrimination, or unrest. But neither can we wait until each and every terrestrial problem has been solved…

Then Neil Armstrong went took his turn, and though the two had not coordinated their messages, they had taken away similar ideas from their experience:

… In the next 20 centuries, the age of Aquarius of the great year, the age for which our young people have such high hopes, humanity may begin to understand its most baffling mystery — where are we going?

The earth is, in fact, traveling many thousands of miles per hour in the direction of the constellation Hercules — to some unknown destination in the cosmos. Man must understand his universe in order to understand his destiny.

Mystery however is a very necessary ingredient in our lives. Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis for man’s desire to understand. Who knows what mysteries will be solved in our lifetime, and what new riddles will become the challenge of the new generations?

Science has not mastered prophesy. We predict too much for next year yet far too little for the next ten. Responding to challenge is one of democracy’s great strengths. Our successes in space lead us to hope that this strength can be used in the next decade in the solution of many of our planets problems.

Several weeks ago I enjoyed the warmth of reflection on the true meanings of the spirit of Apollo. I stood in the highlands of this Nation, near the Continental Divide, introducing to my sons the wonders of nature, and pleasures of looking for deer and for elk.

In their enthusiasm for the view they frequently stumbled on the rocky trails, but when they looked only to their footing, they did not see the elk. To those of you who have advocated looking high we owe our sincere gratitude, for you have granted us the opportunity to see some of the grandest views of the Creator.

To those of you who have been our honest critics, we also thank, for you have reminded us that we dare not forget to watch the trail…

Buzz Aldrin’s address was more along the lines of what you would expect from a engineer/test pilot (you can read the complete transcript of the event here), but the emotion and joy is palpable in his speech too.

Apparently some of that joy and most of the gravitas of the event was leeched out — at least for the astronauts — when they were ambushed in the restroom by Senators who wanted their autographs, but the eloquence, especially of Collins and Armstrong is still remarkable. That’s great writing… doubly so given that they were not, you know, writers.

Jim Ottaviani is the author of eight graphic novels about scientists (so far), on topics ranging from physicists to paleontologists to behaviorists. He’s probably the only comics writer whose books have received acclaim from Physics World, the New York Review of Books, and Vampirella Magazine. His biography of Richard Feynman was just released in August, 2011 from First Second (check out excerpts here) and upcoming works include The Imitation Game, about Alan Turing… keep your eyes on Tor.com in 2012 for that!

1 Comment

Subscribe to this thread