The Greatest Day

The Greatest Day

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“Buzz” Aldrin, pilot of the Lunar module for the Apollo 11 space flight to the moon, coincided in his priest shortly before the launch of Apollo 11. Aldrin was scared that neither the Apollo 11 mission commander Neil Armstrong, nor the public would understand the social and philosophical ramifications of landing on the moon. Shortly after the Lunar Module landed at Tranquility base, on the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969, Aldrin asked NASA officials and everyone else who might be listening to take a minute of personal prayer and contemplate what man had just accomplished. Aldrin then preformed he ritual of communion in the Lunar Module.
Of a Fire on the Moon, a book surrounding the events of the Apollo 11 journey to the moon, was written by Norman mailer during the historic Apollo 11 mission in 1969. Mailer was approached to write a book about the Space program shortly after he lost a highly publicized race for the Mayor of New York City. Mailer had little or no money, and was given one million-dollars to write the book.
For Mailer the third week of July 1969 pointed toward an end”…a curious depression full of fevers, forebodings, and a general sense that the century was done-it had ended in the summer of 1969. “ 1.
Mailer’s apocalyptic view of 1969 and the end of a century is a reoccurring theme behind Mailer’s look at the United States Space Program and the flight of Apollo 11. Mailer can only see the political goals of going to the moon, not the romanticism and spirituality that surrounded it. Mailer saw the flight of Apollo 11 as a gigantic, technological achievement, but Mailer believes the technology was developed for all the wrong reasons. 2
Throughout the first few chapter Of a Fire on the Moon, the reader becomes aware of Mailer’s stance on the United States Space Program, and Mailer’s own political and personal beliefs. Mailer was torn in his understanding of why man was attempting to travel to the moon:
“Intended by divine will to travel across the heavens, we were now at the least on our way to the moon, and who could know if we were ahead or behind of some schedule the lord had presented us, a schedule which presumably each man and woman alive would keep in the depths of their unconscious along with everything else most vital for the preservation of life.

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” 3
Mailer wanted to believe that by some divine intervention man was touched by the hand of God, and with that touch, humanity would begin a journey to the ends of the solar system, to the ends of the universe in search of the divine spirit which created him. However, Mailer he had faith in another:
“A meaningless journey to a dead arena in order that men could engage in the irrational activity of designing machines which would give birth to other machines which would travel to meaningless places as if they were engaged in these collective acts of hugely organized wit, goodness, or charity to solve their real problems, and so would certainly destroy themselves if they did not have a game of gargantuan dimensions for diversion….” 4
Mailer believed that the technology and the machines being developed to land on the moon are being developed for reason, to land a man on the moon. The act of building and developing these new machines has no purpose, no reason for being. Early in the text, Mailer notes the psychology of machines. That is a hard statement to understand, but Mailer’s contention is that the machines man builds, no matter what the size, or intention, have a soul. The machines can be tamed, but never controlled. Mailer was aware that the rapid advance in the technology of machines is not only destructive, but dangerous. Mailer knew that technology was developing so rapidly, that those who weren’t adept at mastering it were lost with in the culture:
“…Ideas were what Americans cared about, and the biggest ideas were doubtless the best, but what a price had been paid.” 5
Mailer is talking about the Faustian deal the United States government made in order to accomplish President John F. Kennedy’s decree in 1961 to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth by the end of the decade. This decree was at its purist a political goal.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s Space was dominated the communist, Soviet Union. President Kennedy and other high-ranking politicians saw the space program, (especially the race to the moon), as a way to promote democracy to the world, and become the leader in the world’s Space Race.
The Kennedy administration needed an objective to focus the American people toward. Kennedy needed a goal the Russians could not achieve before the United States. President Kennedy stated his objective of sending a man to the moon, and having him safely return to earth, without ever explaining the social and political ramifications that a very large, very expensive Space Program would cause. Mailer believes that the United States was able to achieve its goal of a moon landing, because it spent billions of dollars creating new technology with only one purpose and one direct outcome: a staggering amount of technology with no apparent use or need.
The rocketry developed during the Apollo missions originated in Nazi Germany during World War II. On July 15, 1969, the night before Apollo 11 was to launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Werner Von Braun was the guest of honor at a reception at a country club near Cocoa Beach, Florida. Von Braun was the German scientist that developed the V-2 rocket during World War II. Von Braun was instrumental in designing and testing the rocketry the United States Space Program was founded upon. Norman Mailer attended the reception for Von Braun the night before Apollo 11 was to launch. Mailer describes the people at the reception as being open and warm to Von Braun as he talked about the Apollo 11 mission, and what he thought was the future of the United States Space Program. Mailer then makes a stunning observation, that the people attending the reception conveniently forgot, or didn’t care to remember, that Von Braun was once a Nazi. The technology that was going to put the United States and the American people at the forefront of the world had been conceived during a time of war, only to kill. 6
Again Mailer’s observations raise a valid point about technology. The rockets developed by the Nazi’s were the predecessors to the rockets developed for the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo Space missions. Large, multistage rockets were developed to carry large weapon payloads for the military in times of war. The rockets used to send Alan Shepard into space in 1960 were intercontinental ballistic missiles, or nuclear missile with out a nuclear warhead. The entire premise of Space flight and launching items into space derived from the idea of nuclear warfare.
This is not to say that all technology involved in the United States Space program is bad. The Technology for the Space Program of the 1960s was unlike anything the American people had ever seen. Advances in computer circuitry, engineering design, and new materials were developed during this period solely to put a man on the moon have affected today’s society greatly.
It is my belief that the technology NASA has created through the space program has lead to the betterment of our daily life. A simple computer that is available today, in any store dwarfs the capabilities of those developed by NASA in the 1960s. It is astonishing that in 1960 a simple computer, with a small amount of data carried men to the moon. On the other hand, Mailer once again finds fault with an item as simple as the computers developed for the Apollo missions.
“The digital computer was a diabolical machine, or the greatest instrument ever handed to man, but it could hardly be both for it was constructed on the implicit premise that all phenomena might yet be capable of capture by statistics.” 7
The technological advancements developed during the 1960s are in every American home today. Items such as Velcro, which was developed to hold the astronauts and there items in place in a zero gravity atmosphere; Teflon which we use to cook chicken and not have it stick to a pan, both came from the space program. The possibility of what the United States can accomplish in Space still hasn’t been realized.
Dr. George Mueller, head of the NASA Manned Space Program, spoke to Norman Mailer during the Apollo 11 flight about the importance of Space. Mueller talked about a manned moon base, melting the perma-frost layer of the moon in order to find water to fuel large rockets to explore deeper into space. Mueller talked about having a space station in orbit around earth, and manufacturing goods in Space. He talked of revolutionizing machines by producing flawless ball bearings in a zero gravity environment. 8
The night before Apollo 11, Werner Von Braun spoke about building giant nuclear rockets in space that would be able to explore our solar system. Von Braun spoke of a moon base. 9 These men had a quality that Mailer lacked: vision. Mailer is cynical, because he can only see what is happening today. Mailer lacks the imagination to see what can be accomplished tomorrow. Mailer can only criticize the politics goal of going to the moon, not the romanticism that captured a generation.
The third week in July of 1969 was great, because NASA accomplished and full-filled one of man’s dreams, setting foot upon the moon.
Norman Mailer was blind to the history that he was witness too. Mailer saw the Apollo 11 mission as the culmination of everything that is bad in America. Mailer never realizes that he is merely witness to something he has no control over. The genius behind Mailers book is the detail and the amount of description something of little importance or interest is given. Mailer does not merely write about the launch of Apollo 11, or its significance, he makes the reader feel as if he is present and able to witness history as it happens. The book begins slowly. Every line is layered with Mailers philosophical beliefs, but Mailer does accomplish something extraordinary when he begins to take an in depth look at the Apollo 11 mission itself. Mailer, in talking about the launch of Apollo 11 from an engineering aspect gives the reader an in depth and accurate knowledge of the Saturn V Missile its functions during flight, the fuels used to power it, and the preflight assembly and preparation of NASA. Every engineering question that I had thought of while studying the Apollo program was answered by Mailers descriptions of the Apollo 11 flight.
Mailer gave me the intimate accounts of what the astronauts did post launch. Mailer told me of all the little nuances that NASA engineers had thought of in order to make the Apollo missions work.
“ At a rate between two and three times an hour, the spacecraft rotated slowly about its axis, the better to keep itself toasted equally on all sides by solar rays rather than suffer the heat to port and freezing to starboard which would ensue from voyaging with one side always in the sun, and the other in darkened space.” 10
Mailer is referring to Passive Thermal Control [PTC], the act of rotating the Apollo spacecraft in flight in deep space, so as to equally heat all sides. Mailer can describe this little detail, and others such as the radio used to contact NASA from two-hundred fifty-thousand miles, but he never becomes aware the beauty surrounding their creation.
Throughout Of a Fire on the Moon, Mailer never witnesses the beauty and potential of the Space program, or the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, rather he is preoccupied with answering the question of why man created this technology, and for what use. Mailer never gives the reader an answer, only an opinionated this is what ruins Of a Fire on the Moon. Within the four hundred pages Miler wrote lays two books. The first is an opinionated account of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, and the events surrounding it. The second book is an excellent description of the Apollo 11 mission from preflight countdown to lunar landing, and the journey back to Earth. That’s the purpose of this book, to teach something. Mailer doesn’t inform the public by his social opinions, he alienates the, but he draws them back with a subtle knowledge and detail of the Apollo 11 mission and NASA that is perfect.

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