Did America lose the right stuff?

The American spirit of optimism has largely disappeared. But could it be making a comeback in the shape of a new space race?

Vice President Spiro Agnew and Former President Lyndon Johnson
Vice President Spiro Agnew and Former President Lyndon Johnson view the liftoff of Apollo 11. Credit: Nasa/Getty Images

In the opening scenes of First ManNeil Armstrong is piloting the X-15 in the early 1960s. He temporarily loses control of NASA’s hypersonic rocket plane and manages to bring it back to earth only with some difficulty.

The dramatic conceit of the 2018 biopic is that in the aftermath of that incident Armstrong’s career hangs, suspended, in the balance while NASA bosses work out what to do with a pilot whose judgment looks to have been impaired by the trauma of his daughter’s terminal illness. In truth, such close scrapes and crashes were frequent events in the NASA test pilot programme. Being a test pilot was a glamorous line of work, and extremely dangerous. The pilot pioneers tested endurance and technical possibilities at and beyond the boundaries of the earth’s atmosphere. Deaths were not unknown from the late 1940s onwards. To this day the US space agency commemorates the lives of those lost in an annual day of remembrance.

Armstrong regained his confidence and his preeminence and in 1969 became the first man, the First Man of the film directed by Damien Chazelle, to walk on the moon.

In the early days of the current crisis, at a weak moment, feeling depressed by the scenes of late imperial decline and D.C. decadence in the US, I watched Apollo 11 again. This was, I think, my tenth viewing – the first time I was transfixed in the cinema and the rest I have viewed at home via the services of an American tech giant. The 2018 4K documentary utilises hitherto unreleased 70mm film and if you haven’t seen it, do find it.

The most engrossing scenes in Apollo 11 were filmed not in space but on the ground, among the public gathered to watch, and in the VIP stands with former President Lyndon Johnson and a technicolour cast of late 1960s great and not so good. America in 1969 was in a hell of a mess. The riots and strife of 1968 had happened. Violence was the dominant motif in popular culture. Vietnam was Vietnam and the illusion of the 1960s ‘peace and love’ revolution would end bloodily in December 1969 at Altamont Speedway, California, when the Rolling Stones thought it would be groovy to invite the local chapter of the Hells Angels to handle the stewarding duties. Bad idea, man.

‘If those cats don’t stop it, we’re not gonna play,’ guitarist Keith Richards shouts on the stage at Altamont as some light rioting spirals into a murder. Incidentally, the use of the word ‘cats’ by musicians needs to be revived, not in an Andrew Lloyd-Webber shameful Cats the musical sense. No, we need to revive the original use of the word, mined from cool jazz and picked up by the premier exponents of rock’n’roll like Richards. But you can only use the term ‘cats’ if you promise to say it in a mid-Atlantic drawl while lighting a cigarette.

In the Apollo 11 documentary, Altamont is a world away. In that version of 1969 no-one involved looks remotely depressed or angry. The spirit of optimism and wonderment at the scale of the technological prowess and cultural confidence of the US is there in frame after frame. Damn, America in Apollo 11 looks so good, although it probably depends on where you were standing.

The contrast with now is so obvious that I won’t even make it, other than to note that it continues to be a source of bafflement that a country as wealthy and interesting as the US should still tolerate airports as bad as American airports and internal flights so stupendously substandard.

Everything involved in contemporary American air travel looks like it was designed in the mid-1980s, and most of it was. Look at the airport scene in Home Alone, when the family are rushing, minus Kevin, through the terminal of an airport in a major city. It’s filmed in 1990. The terminal looks dated even then. This feels familiar, I thought, landing last year at an American airport, in design terms it looked like the terminal in the airport scene in Home Alone. In the worst of public space America it is forever 1985. Somehow the US combines this with being the same country that has the Frick Gallery in New York, the best small gallery on the planet only a short walk from some of the best art institutions anywhere.

Anyway, after watching Apollo 11 for the tenth time I carried on being downhearted about American decline and by extension the sad fate of the West and humankind more generally, until I spoke to Professor Brian Cox this week about the universe and the next stage of space travel. Cox’s excellent documentary on the new race for space in 2017 probed the new wave of exploration and private funding.

Primarily on aesthetic grounds, I’ve been a sceptic about the new group of mega entrepreneurs from the US funding next generation space travel. NASA looked, in the 1960s, sharp. It had – to borrow the title of Tom Wolfe’s history of that period – the right stuff. From the control panels to the suits worn, the lines were clean and uncluttered. The design aesthetic of 1960s NASA was one of the summits in American style. In comparison, the current crop of space entrepreneurs look brash, boastful and ridiculous.

Brian Cox is optimistic, though. Today, private investment is unleashing rapid technological advances. Imagine, he says. Heavy industry could be moved out into space. Earth could even be zoned residential. The private space industry, boosted by publicly-funded research, is a positive force. It is giving America, and other countries smart enough to realise the scale of the potential, more ‘bang’ for the ‘buck’ than old-era, giant, state-run programmes. It was uplifting to hear and made me want to read and write more on this topic. Perhaps America hasn’t lost the right stuff after all.


Iain Martin