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Neil Armstrong on the Lunar Landing and the Dawning of the ‘Age of Aquarius’

Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong was not a man who was known for flowery language or flights of fancy. The great American writer Norman Mailer once noted that the first man to step foot on the Moon “surrendered words about as happily as a hound allowed meat to be pulled out of his teeth”, and that he answered questions about the astounding nature of the lunar mission with a “characteristic mixture of modesty and technical arrogance.”

Indeed, Armstrong nearly always presented as the epitome of a quiet, rational person who processed thoughts with an engineering mindset. So it was surprising when – in his speech as part of the Apollo 11 crew’s address to a joint session of Congress (video below) less than two months after the Moon landing, on September 16, 1969 – he invoked astrological terminology in discussing the post-lunar landing era.

Armstrong opened his speech with a reflection on how, at the moment of walking on the Moon, he was overcome by “a peculiar sensation of the duality of time: the swift rush of the events that characterized our daily life and the ponderous parade which marks the ageing of the universe.” Both kinds of time were evident in his mind simultaneously, “the first by the routine events of the flight whose planning and execution were marked by fractions of a second and the latter by the rocks around us, unchanged through all the history of man.”

It was perhaps the enormity of the situation – the first time in the billions of years of Earth’s history that a resident of the planet had set foot on another heavenly body – that led Armstrong to see the event as an epochal turning point, and thus mention the Moon landing in astrological terms that sounded more like a hippy of the late ’60s: as part of the dawning of ‘the Age of Aquarius’.

The plaque on the Eagle summarized our hopes, and bore the message ‘Here men from Planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969. We came in peace for all mankind.’

Those nineteen hundred and sixty nine years had constituted the majority of the age of Pisces – a twelfth of that great year that is measured by the thousand generations the precession of the Earth’s axis takes to scribe a giant circle in the sky.

In the next 20 centuries, the Age of Aquarius – the age for which our young people have such high hopes – humanity may begin to understand its most baffling mystery: where are we going?

The idea of the 20th century being a segue into the ‘Age of Aquarius’ at this time had become part of the cultural milieu, not least via the hit musical Hair, and it seems likely this is what influenced Armstrong’s remarks. But a softer, more mystical side to the usually dry and technically oriented astronaut remained evident as he continued: “Man must understand his universe in order to understand his destiny,” he noted. “Mystery, however, is a very necessary ingredient in our lives. Mystery creates wonder, and wonder is the basis for man’s desire to understand. Who knows what mysteries will be solved in our lifetime, and what new riddles will become the challenge of the new generations.”

Armstrong then grounded his remarks by stating that there was a need for science to be used not just for these sorts of great riddles and quests, but also to solve the very real problems besetting humanity on our own planet:

Science has not mastered prophecy – we predict too much for the forthcoming year, yet far too little for the next ten. Responding to challenge is one of democracies’ great strengths, and our successes in space lead us to hope that this strength can be used in the next decade in the solution of many of our planet’s problems.

Notably, both Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins also mentioned the need to solve social problems in their own speeches. The success of the Apollo program “should give all of us hope and inspiration to overcome some of the more difficult problems here on Earth,” Aldrin stated. “The Apollo lesson is that national goals can be met where there is a strong enough will to do so… what this country does with the lessons of Apollo, applied to domestic problems, and what we do in further space exploration programs, will determine just how giant a leap we have taken.”

Meanwhile, Collins prefaced his address by noting that he was very much speaking his own mind. “One of the many things I’ve very much enjoyed about working for the space agency…is that they’ve always given me free rein, even to the extent of addressing this most august assemblage without coaching, without putting any words into my mouth. Therefore my brief remarks are simply those of a free citizen living in a free country and expressing free thoughts which are purely my own.”

While some of the allusions in his speech to colonialist philosophies no doubt today might make some cringe, Collins’ comments concentrated on the need to balance great scientific projects with movement forward on issues of social justice:

During the flight of Apollo 11 in the constant sunlight between the Earth and the Moon, it was necessary for us to control the temperature of our spacecraft by a slow rotation, not unlike that of a chicken on a barbecue spit. As we turned the Earth and the Moon alternately appeared in our windows. We had a choice: we could look toward the Moon, toward Mars, toward our future in space, toward the new Indies, or we could look back toward the Earth, our home, with the problems spawned over more than a millennium of human occupancy.

We looked both ways, we saw both – and I think that’s what our nation must do. We can ignore neither the wealth of the Indies, nor the realities of the immediate needs of our cities, our citizens, or our civics. We cannot launch our planetary probes from a springboard of poverty, discrimination or unrest – but neither can we wait until each and every terrestrial problem has been solved.

The juxtaposition of Apollo astronauts – with their military origins, scientific/engineering thought, patriotic standing, and all-male crews – and the philosophies of hippy culture and social revolution seemed incredibly stark, like oil and water trying to mix. The difference between the two was perhaps made most publicly obvious the following year when members of the troubled Apollo 13 mission walked out of a performance of Hair, apparently due to what they saw as a desecration of the American flag during one scene (though there was plenty in the musical that they likely would not have enjoyed too much).

And yet during an address to Congress, of all places, the Apollo 11 astronauts made reference to the Age of Aquarius and the need to solve society’s problems. What might have inspired such thoughts?

It’s quite possible that – with not even two months having passed since they traveled to the Moon – they may have been feeling the ‘Overview Effect’, where astronauts who have been in space and viewed the Earth as a whole have their perspectives on humanity’s place and priorities transformed.

But it’s also worth noting the social environment of late 1969 was itself one that perhaps demanded that the Apollo astronauts address Earthly problems that needed solving, now that the Moon project had succeeded. The 1960s had been a time of huge social upheaval, with the assassination of JFK, RFK and MLK Jr, the pushing forward of the environmental, feminist and civil rights movements, protest against the Vietnam War, and a spreading of poverty. Between the Moon landing and the Apollo 11 astronauts’ address to Congress, Woodstock had taken place, kicking protest movements even further forward. And with these issues at the forefront, as the decade had progressed there had been increasing angst from the public about the huge amounts of public money being spent on the space program. Now that the Moon had been achieved, the focus was bound to turn inward.

And one particular event, related by Neil Maher in his book Apollo in the Age of Aquarius, may have inspired NASA and its astronauts to publicly acknowledge the need for science help solve problems at home:

In the early afternoon of July 15, 1969, the day before the Apollo 11 launch, NASA’s top administrator, Thomas O. Paine, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) president, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, faced one another across a wide field just outside the western entrance to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

It was hot, humid, and misting. Paine had arrived with several fellow space agency administrators, all dressed in gray suits, white button-down shirts, and thin black ties only to find Abernathy, who had organized the event, already waiting with twenty-five poor African American families from the Deep South; four scruffy mules pulling two rickety wagons; and, much to Paine’s dismay, dozens of newspaper reporters and several television news crews. When Abernathy’s group, all of whom were members of the SCLC’s Poor People’s Campaign, began slowly marching hand-in-hand singing “We Shall Overcome,” Paine and his entourage walked forward to meet them in the middle of the open field.

…With four mules as a backdrop and the Apollo 11 spaceship off in the distance, Abernathy raised a microphone and explained to the crowd of more than one hundred that the Poor People’s Campaign did not travel from across the South all the way to this field at the Cape to protest the space program. “On the eve of man’s noblest venture, I am profoundly moved by the nation’s achievements in space and the heroism of the three men embarking for the moon,” he explained. Rather, they were demonstrating against the country’s “distorted sense of national priorities.”

One-fifth of the nation was without adequate food, clothing, medical care, and shelter, Abernathy argued, yet little had been done to solve these social problems. “My people,” he continued with a nod toward the African American men, women, and children gathered around him, “are Americans too, with no homeland but America and we must improve their lot.” The reverend then turned directly to face Paine. “I want NASA scientists and engineers and technicians,” he stated emphatically, “to find ways to use their skills to tackle the problems we face in society.”

As Paine approached the microphone, reporters later noted that the NASA administrator seemed sincerely sympathetic. “If we could solve the problems of poverty in the United States by not pushing the button to launch men to the moon tomorrow,” he explained, referencing Apollo 11 over his shoulder in the distance, “then we would not push that button.” The sophisticated technological advances resulting in the Apollo spacecraft, he added, are “child’s play compared to the tremendously difficult human problems with which you and your people are concerned.”

…He then promised them VIP passes to the launch, which in the past few days had drawn one million tourists to Cape Canaveral. “I hope you will hitch your mule wagons to our rockets,” Paine concluded, and use “the space program as a spur to the nation to tackle problems boldly in other areas.”

Paine’s comments seem a precursor to the comments made by Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins during their speeches to Congress, in particular Aldrin’s statement that “what this country does with the lessons of Apollo, applied to domestic problems, and what we do in further space exploration programs, will determine just how giant a leap we have taken.” Unfortunately, looking back from the 2020s, the verdict on that might be somewhat depressing and the ‘dawning of the Age of Aquarius’ has well and truly stalled.

(Thanks to Ray Grasse for inspiring this article.)

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