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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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The Funny Side of the Moon

Friday, July 11, 2008

Last Friday, I gave a conference paper on the moon. Well, OK, the paper itself was delivered in an old grammar school, the walls of which were carved with rather elegant seventeenth-century graffiti; but the paper was about the moon, particularly the NASA missions. Recently watching the elegiac documentary In The Shadow of the Moon (which won Best Documentary at the Sundance Festival), I was struck by the reading of Genesis performed by the Apollo 8 astronauts as they orbited the moon on Christmas Eve, 1968. Once back on Earth, the astronauts were astonished to learn that not everyone was happy with this Biblical reading, which they had thought was just “something appropriate” to the context; they were sued, unsuccessfully, by militant atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

My paper was about the way in which ideology is apparently neutralised from the context of space, so that a specifically Christian passage is perceived – I argued naively – to apply to all mankind. Likewise, the plaque left by Apollo 11, “We came in peace for all mankind,” belies the fact that the missions were precisely the product of the Cold War, and that Communists probably had a less auspicious sense of the occasion. I argued that these moments maintain the myth of the Enlightenment: that scientific reason is also automatically socially reasonable, being applied for the good of universal humanism. In a sort of quasi-Marxist, quasi-postmodernist reading, I tried to deconstruct the myth of the moon missions as being the pinnacle performance of science for the audience of all mankind. I also looked at 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Norman Mailer’s A Fire on the Moon (1970), showing how the first, though an apparently operatic celebration of scientific progress, is actually as doubtful about science as a universal humanist pathway as is the second, A Fire on the Moon, Mailer’s caustic retrospective on the Apollo 11 mission. In there markedly different ways, both texts encapsulate a comparable uneasiness about the moral universalism of the space missions, an uneasiness which retrospective celebrations, such as A Shadow on the Moon, can elide.

I am hoping to write this into a full journal article, so I don’t want to say any more about it now (though just in case you get the wrong impression, and have not read my other Science and Culture pieces on this blog, I am not anti-science per se, just against unselfconscious science which fails to appreciate that society may not unanimously view science in the same positivistic way as the scientists within it do). However, I did want to provide a video that should, in and of itself, demolish that myth that the moon missions were a pure ambition, untainted by realpolitik, ideology, or crass commercialism. Take a look at the following, an excerpt from CBS News’ contemporary coverage of Apollo 11, and when you have stopped laughing, come back and tell me that the space missions were truly transcendent affairs, not grounded in the reality of Western capitalism:

If my paper was about the dark side of the moon, however, it was pleasant to discover that there is also a humorous side to the moon. When I returned to my computer that evening, the BBC carried a story about a caller to the police who was worried about an unexplained "bright stationary object" in the night sky. Here is the transcript:

Control Room: "South Wales Police, what's your emergency?"

Caller: "It's not really. I just need to inform you that across the mountain there's a bright stationary object."

Control room: "Right."

Caller: "If you've got a couple of minutes perhaps you could find out what it is? It's been there at least half an hour and it's still there."

Control: "It's been there for half an hour. Right. Is it actually on the mountain or in the sky?"

Caller: "It's in the air."

Control: "I will send someone up there now to check it out."

Caller: "OK."

The mystery was soon solved, as the exchange between control and an officer at the scene, makes clear.

Control: "Alpha Zulu 20, this object in the sky, did anyone have a look at it?"

Officer: "Yes, it's the moon. Over."

Actually, of course, it's not so funny when you stop and think about the waste of police resources. But for a brief moment it is worth a laugh at the funny side of the moon.

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Posted by Alistair at 7:45 am


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