A New Chapter in Space Exploration

By László Munteán

This coming July will mark fifty years since the legendary landing on the Moon by the crew of the Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969. Although the upcoming anniversary may not yet be at the forefront of our minds, Damien Chazelle’s First Man, featuring Ryan Gosling as the astronaut Neil Armstrong, is without doubt an early tribute to the mission. Considering the difficulties Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin faced when trying to plant the American flag into the dusty soil of the Moon, an event yielding one of the most iconic photographs in history, the absence of this symbolic event in Chazelle’s film is rather conspicuous. This is not to blame the filmmaker, however. Quite the contrary, in a new era of America First, this lacuna in a Hollywood blockbuster is rather refreshing insofar as it allows Armstrong’s psychological voyage as a man traumatized by the loss of his daughter to take center stage.

As First Man is still playing in movie theaters around the world, images about the successful landing of NASA’s spacecraft InSight on the surface of Mars on November 26 have gone viral. Among a series of objectives, the spacecraft is tasked with gathering information about the material composition of Mars. Instead of drilling a hole for a flagpole, InSight sends a probe deep into Martian soil. After years of trial and error, such an
achievement is, both literally and metaphorically, groundbreaking. The
belligerent rhetoric of Cold War space race that underpinned the Apollo
expeditions and left six American flags on the surface of the Moon has long
been replaced by the legacy of international cooperation in the service of
science.

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In light of First Man’s silence on the flag raising ceremony and incoming footage of InSight’s activities on Mars, it is particularly intriguing to examine how NASA, a national agency of aerospace research, positions itself in its new promotional video entitled “We Are NASA.”
Less than three minutes long, the video opens with a montage of archival footage of emblematic launches accompanied by bombastic music and a fragment of Kennedy’s famous 1962 speech about sending a man to the Moon. A male voice reminiscent of the one used in Hollywood trailers declares that “we are building the next chapter of American exploration.” This chapter entails “returning to the Moon to stay so we can go beyond to Mars.”

While the rhetoric of “exploration” and the “pioneering spirit” is deeply rooted in the American notion of the frontier and coast-to-coast expansion, a notion which Kennedy upgraded by speaking of space as the final frontier, the voiceover also informs us, so as to underscore the aims for the new chapter, that “This is not hypothetical. This is not about flags and  footprints. This is about sustainable science.” At this point, we see
children looking at a photograph of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module with the American flag. The visual and textual rhetoric that unfolds in this sequence is laden with tension. On one hand, NASA takes pride in its achievements over the past sixty years and gladly embraces the vocabulary of the frontier and exploration. On the other hand, the new chapter of exploration on which it embarks seems to continue with a sentiment that absorbs us in Chazelle’s representation of the Moon landing in First Man: while acknowledging the legacy of American scientific ingenuity and the heroic act of the astronauts, the flag is withheld from anchoring this sentiment exclusively onto the fabric of the nation, as did the 1969 documentary Footprints on the Moon, featuring Wernher von Braun as narrator. If the gesture of refraining from using the national symbol in First Man brings to the fore Armstrong’s personality, “We Are NASA” re-inscribes the rhetoric of the all-American frontier into sustainable science as a means by which “to go farther than humanity has ever been.” At a time when scientific insights are often dismissed as fake at the presidential level, NASA’s new promotional video unmoors scientific goals from nationalism and inscribes science as a national interest.

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