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  • Claire L. Evans’ project
    Polytopia
    The human species is rapidly and indisputably moving towards the technological singularity. The cadence of the flow of information and innovation in...
    Now playing SpaceCollective
    Where forward thinking terrestrials share ideas and information about the state of the species, their planet and the universe, living the lives of science fiction. Introduction
    Featuring Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames, based on an idea by Kees Boeke.


    Yesterday we lost Neil Armstrong, an accidental hero, thrust by fate onto a rock in the sky. Many dreamt of walking on the moon before he did, and a few men did after him. He happened to be the first. Hopefully many more men, and women too, will echo his iconic footsteps in the future. Perhaps even future space tourists will huddle around Tranquility base, laying nostalgic 60s filters over their high-resolution snapshots of an upended American flag from a long-ago mission.

    We can only hope. A lot of my favorite humans have died this year: Armstrong, Sally Ride, Ray Bradbury, all people who variously embodied an earlier era’s seemingly limitless capacity for wonder. Every time, I’ve asked myself: who will replace them all? Who will raise their hands and grasp forcefully at the stars? Who, like a figure in a William Blake etching, will prop their ladder across the moon and climb it, rung by rung?



    The real triumph of the Apollo program was its unforeseen shift in tone; driven by a desire to objectively beat the Soviets down to the wire–most Americans don’t know the unmanned Russian craft Luna 15 was beginning its descent just as Armstrong and Aldrin were tromping about the moon’s surface–and catalyzed by feverish nationalism, it instead precipitated dreamy wonder in its participants and the millions who watched the ghostly images from below.

    Did you know NASA accidentally erased the original moon landing footage during routine magnetic tape re-use in the 1980s? The footage the world saw on television that July day in 1969 was actually taken of a slow-scan television monitor and re-broadcast, picture quality reduced. The space between the primacy of that moment–in Armstrong’s life and in the narrative of the 20th century–is obscured a layer of irretrievable analog decay, time, and distance. Now death, too.

    The Appollo 11 mission would have been impossible today. It was too quick and dirty, too risky. Today, wiser, we send robots ahead of us. I am not necessarily sentimental about manned missions to space; I know it’s a messy business, limiting, and often more trouble than it’s worth. The human explorer defecates, sweats, needs sleep, is afraid. But exploring the moon wasn’t just a matter of rock samples and spectrographs, either: the real laboratory was the human mind. It’s not without reason that the things we remember most about the Apollo program are its words and gestures, the famous “first step” and the steps which followed, the proclamations, then, later, the reflections.

    Neil Armstrong said a great many beautiful things about his experiences. Most astronauts did. Going to the moon has a tendency to turn test pilots into poets. That matter of cortex-shifting is called the Overview Effect. Neil Armstrong articulated it with his characteristic clipped decorum:

    “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

    We lose heroes from the space age and the temptation is to eulogize an era, not a person. Neil Armstrong’s death does not signify the dwindling hopes of a different America. Today we have a completely new approach to space, from which we’ll learn a great deal. Maybe not from humans coming home and struggling their whole lives to convey the gravitas of their experiences in words, from astronauts whose dreams at night are forever colored by dusty panoramas and pea-sized Earths. Rather, from smart machines serving as our eyes and ears.



    Instead of famous footprints, we now leave tread marks.

    NASA’s Curiosity Rover is wonderful, and has already proven a robot’s capacity to ignite the global imagination, but it cannot perform the simple acts of grace that can be the lasting effects of a mission to space. Perhaps we should invent poetry engines, rovers equipped with algorithms that can turn vaporized soil samples into poignant insights.

    For now, unmanned space exploration can tell us everything, but not how the dust feels under its boots, nor that giant loping strides and kangaroo jumps are the quickest way across the surface. It can’t, like Buzz Aldrin, privately take communion before stepping out onto lunar surface, or quote Psalms in its final broadcast before splashdown (“What is man that Thou art mindful of him?”). It has no thumb to blot out planet Earth, no heart to feel very small, and it can’t retire from the space program to live the rest of its life on a farm in Ohio, like Neil Armstrong, who was forever mindful of his position as only an incidental figurehead for an effort of thousands of people.
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    The moon is a rock.

    But it's also Selene, Artemis, Diana, Isis, the lunar deities; an eldritch clock by which we measure our growth and fertility; home of an old man in the West and a rabbit in the East; the site of countless imaginary voyages; a long-believed trigger of lunacy (luna...see?). It's another world, close enough to our to peer down at us; to it, we compose sonatas. It can be blue, made of cheese, a harvest moon; we've long fantasized about its dark side, perhaps dotted with black monoliths or inhabited by flying men.

    The moon is a totem of great importance in all religions and traditions; in astrology, it stands for all those things which make this fine scienceblogs readership develop facial tics: the unconscious, parapsychology, dreams, imagination, the emotional world, all that is shifting and ephemeral. According to the Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, as the light of the moon is merely a reflection of the light of the sun, "the Moon is the symbol of knowledge acquired through reflection, that is, theoretical or conceptual knowledge."

    All of this to say that while the moon is a rock, it's also an idea.

    And, as an idea, it appeals to artists. The moon, however, remains beyond the reach of artists by virtue of what makes it interesting to them: namely, its moon-ness, a perfect storm of mystery, opacity, and unreachability.



    So just how do you implement the moon in your practice when it's 240,000 miles away? As an artist, how do you stake a claim somewhere inside of the patriotic military-industrial research bureaucracy that controls the purse strings, and thus access to our nearest celestial bodies? There doesn't seem to be a direct entry. If you're part of the original Moon Museum posse, you go in the back door, sneaking your work illicitly onto the heels of a lunar lander. If you're Belgian artist Paul Van Hoeydonck, you meet astronaut David Scott at a dinner party.

    Van Hoeydonck is responsible for the only piece of art on the moon, a tiny memorial sculpture called "Fallen Astronaut." The piece is interesting for several reasons. For one, it presents us with a clear understanding of the kinds of technical limitations that moon artists must work under. Limitations, of course, can be instrumental to an artist's practice — a broke Basquiat painted on window frames and cabinet doors — but space art's parameters border on the draconian. In the design of the piece, Van Hoeydonck was restricted to materials that were both lightweight and sturdy, as well capable of withstanding extreme temperatures. Since it was to be a memorial to deceased astronauts, it couldn't be identifiably male or female, nor of any ethnic group. The somewhat questionable result: what looks like a metal Lego lying face-down on Mons Hadley.

    Like the Moon Museum, Fallen Astronaut was an unofficial venture; the statuette was smuggled aboard the Apollo 15 lunar module by the astronauts themselves — Scott and Jim Irwin — without the knowledge of NASA officials. Its "installation" was unorthodox: in laying down the sculpture and its accompanying plaque, Irwin and Scott performed a private ceremony on the lunar surface. "We just thought we'd recognize the guys that made the ultimate contribution," Scott later said. Notable: "the guys" include eight American and six Soviet astronauts, a surprisingly apolitical act of solidarity in the midst of the Cold War.



    Scott and Irwin were committed to the sanctity of their memorial; when Scott plopped the piece onto the lunar dust, Irwin covered the act with inane radio chatter to Mission Control, and they didn't announce the memorial until after their return to Earth. Even then, the astronauts kept Van Hoeydonck's name private, hoping to avoid any commercial exploitation of the piece. Van Hoeydonck, undoubtedly hoping to further his career, later violated the unspoken sacredness of Fallen Astronaut by attempting, in 1972, to sell hundreds of signed replicas of the piece at $750 a pop. We'd all recoil in horror if Maya Lin tried the same thing with the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial, but I'm almost tempted to give Van Hoeydonck a pass. After all, the Fallen Astronaut itself is just a totem, and a toylike one at that.

    I see this story as something of an inversion of the usual artist-scientist dialectic. Van Hoeydonck, here, was essentially an engineer. All he did was design a tin man to technical specifications, but it was Scott and Irwin who made the visionary decision to perform an unnecessary act of beauty on the chunk of rock orbiting our own. It was the astronauts who snuck the statuette all the way to the moon and secretly installed it. They understood that beyond being a rock, the moon is an idea, and that actions performed on the moon by human beings are instantly imbued with meaning, historical significance, and some kind of indefinable holiness. Scott, Irwin and NASA balked at Van Hoeydonck's commercial enterprise, and the artist eventually retracted it, instead donating various replicas of Fallen Astronaut to museums and keeping the rest to himself, un-monetized.

    While it's ordinarily the artists who defend the formal importance of ideas for their own sake, on Apollo 15 it was, well, not the scientists — but the military-trained, engineer-pilot, non-artist astronauts who did. Which perhaps goes to show that the experience of space, the perspective-altering transcendence of the so-called "overview effect," ultimately turns us all into poets.
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