Of a Fire on the Moon
Author: Norman Mailer
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Genre: History, Non-Fiction, Journal, Editorial
Synopsis: Of a Fire on the Moon compiles the reportage Mailer published between 1969 and 1970 in Life magazine: gripping firsthand dispatches from inside NASA’s clandestine operations in Houston and Cape Kennedy; technical insights into the magnitude of their awe-inspiring feat; and prescient meditations that place the event in human context as only Mailer could.
Declassified by Agent Palmer: “Of a Fire on the Moon” by Norman Mailer is the Poetry and Prose of Apollo 11
Quotes and Lines
The nation, Kennedy decided, “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. . . . This is a new ocean, and I believe the United States must sail upon it.”
Presumably, the moon was not listening, but if, in fact, she were the receiving and transmitting station of all lunacy, then she had not been ignoring the nation since. Four assassinations later; a war in Vietnam later; a burning of Black ghettos later; hippies, drugs, and many student uprisings later; oine Democratic Convention in Chicago seven years later, one New York school strike later; yes, eight years of a dramatic, near-catastrophic, outright spooky decade later, we were ready to make the moon.
He was weary of his own voice, own face, person, persona, will, ideas, speeches, and general sense of importance.
There was a style at NASA he had begun to divine. Every question you asked was answered and the truth so far as he knew was always told. It was as if NASA, unlike other Government bureaus, had recognized why honesty is the best policy—it is simply because no intriguer will ever believe the truth which is presented to him, but will rather interpret it as a lie which only he can transform into the buried fact. The assumption is that honest men will come to recognize your truth can make them strong. So everybody at NASA was courteous, helpful, generous of information, saintly at repeating the same information hundreds of times, and subtly proud of their ability to serve interchangeably for one another, as if the real secret of their discipline and their strength and their sense of morale was that they had depersonalized themselves to the point where they were true Christians, gentle, helpful, replaceable, and serving on a messianic mission. The only flaw was that the conversation could only voyage through predetermined patterns.
Aquarius was obliged to recognize that if the machine seemed a functional object to the artist, an instrument whose significance was that it was there to be used—as a typewriter was used for typing a manuscript—so to the engineer it was the communication itself which was functional. The machine was the art.
He felt as if he had begun the study of a new world so mysterious to his detective’s heart (all imaginative novelists, by this logic, are detectives) that he could only repeat what he had said on the day the assignment was first offered to him: it was that he hardly knew whether the Space Program was the noblest expression of the Twentieth Century or the quintessential statement of our fundamental insanity.
Speculation was on nobody’s program at NASA.
(Coffee is the closest the press ever comes to satori.)
It all had that characteristically American air which suggests that men who are successful in their profession do best to take their honors lightly,
He was apparently in communion with some string in the universe others did not think to play. (on Armstrong)
From the back of the neck to the joints of the toes, from the pectorals to the hamstrings, the deltoids to the abdominals, he was a life given over to good physical condition, a form of grace, since the agony of the lungs when straining is not alien to the agony of the soul. (on Aldrin)
It was apparent that of the three, he was the only one you could drink with comfortably. (of Collins)
…why hadn’t NASA had the simple sense of press relations to put Collins in command? What a joy it could have been to cover this moon landing with a man who gave neat quotes, instead of having to content with Armstrong, who surrendered words about as happily as a hound allowed meat to be pulled out of his teeth. Collins would have been perfect.
The only real guide to aristocracy in American Life was to see who could keep his cool under the most searing conditions of unrest, envy, ambition, jealousy and heat.
Will you take personal mementos? Armstrong was asked.
“If I had a choice, I guess I’d take more fuel,” he said with a smile for the frustration this might cause the questioner.
“I think we’re going to the moon because it’s in the nature of the human being to face challenges.” He looked a little defiant, as if probably they might not know, some critical number of them might never know what he was talking about. “It’s by the nature of his deep inner soul.” The last three words came out as if they had seared his throat by their extortion. How his privacy had been invaded this day. “Yes,” he nodded, as if noting of what he had had to give up to the writers, “we’re required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream.” (Armstrong)
…he was standing at least in the first cathedral of the age of technology, and he might as well recognize that the world would change, that the world had changed, even as he had thought to be pushing and shoving on it with his mighty ego. (Mailer on standing in the VAB [Vehicle Assembly Building])
Yet all the signs leading to the Vehicle Assembly Building said VAB. VAB—it could be the name of a drink or a deodorant, or it could be suds for the washer. But it was not a name for this warehouse of the gods. The great chuches of a religious age had names: the Alhambra, Santa Sophia, Mont-Saint-Michel, Chartres, Westminster Abbey, Notre Dame. Now: BAV. Nothing fit anything any longer. The art of communication had become the mechanical function, and the machine was the work of art. What a fall for the ego of the artist.
Americans might yet run the world, they were certainly first on the way to the stars, and yet they had never filled the spaces between. Americans were still as raw as an unboiled potato.
Man was voyaging to the planets in order to look for God. Or was it to destroy Him?
One of the cess-filled horrors of the Twentieth Century slowly seeping in on the journalists was that they were becoming obsolete. Events were developing a style and structure which made them almost impossible to write about. If a reporter did his homework for space, which is to say went figuratively back to school and got himself up again on forgotten physics and learned near-unpronounceable engineering terms, he could still hardly use this language in stories for popular consumption. Yet if he tried to do features on the people in the Space Project, he encountered the familiar difficulty that engineers who worked for NASA seemed to pride themselves on presenting personalities which were subtly faceless and interchangeable. A process was taking place that was too complex to be reported for daily news stories by passing observers, and so the process itself began to produce the news for the reporters.Their work had come down to rewriting publicity handouts. When they interviewed a personality in the Space Program, the eminent figure gave them quotes which sounded exactly like the handouts, except the handouts, being freed of the vicissitudes of communication between brain and tongue, were more detailed and more quotable. Computers could have written their pieces.
…in NASA-land, the only thing open was technology—the participants were so overcome by the magnitude of their venture they seemed to consider personal motivation as somewhat obscene.
…few faces are more beautiful than the dedicated when their deepest hour is in…
The psychology of journalists is not easy to comprehend—they scurry around like peons, they have the confidence of God. Over the years they develop an extraordinary sense of where the next victory is located. If a man gives a press conference and is not surrounded by reporters when it is over, he need not wonder how his fortunes are moving—the reporters have already told him. It is for this reason journalists pick up confidence that they shape events—in fact they are only sensors in the currents of the churn, Venturi tubes to five you the speed of the history which passes. Nonetheless, there is no psychological reality like a man’s idea of himself. Even if a writer has lost the best reaches of his talent by putting out facts for years which have been stripped of their nuance—writing newspaper stories in short—still he retains an idea of himself: it is that his eye on an event may be critical correct reportage of it.
A reductive society was witnessing the irreducible. But the irreducible was being presented with faulty technique.
Nothing in the future might ever be the same—that was cause for unrest—nor could the future even be seen until one could answer the obsessive question: was our venture into space noble or insane, was it part of a search for the good, or the agent of diabolisms yet unglimpsed? It was as if we had begun to turn the pocket of the universe inside out.
He was looking to the day when all of mankind would yet be part of one machine, with mechanical circuits, social flesh circuits, and combined electromagnetica and thought-transponder circuits, an instrument of divine endeavor put together by a Father to whom one might no longer be able to pray since his ardors of His embattled voyage could have driven Him mad.
Sweet thoughts for Aquarius to have as a sequel to the ascent but the questions were grand at least, they could occupy the consciousness of the century. It was somehow superior to see the astronauts and the flight of Apollo 11 as the instrument of such celestial or satanic endeavors, than as a species of sublimation for the profoundly unmanageable violence of man, 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 but ultimately pointless activity because they had not 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, a devilish entertainment, a spend-spree of resources, a sublimation, yes, the very word, a sublimation of aggressive and intolerably inhuman desires, as if like a beast enraged with the passion of gorging nature, we looked now to make incisions into the platinum satellite of our lunacy, our love, and our dreams.
…the century is so full of dread at the godlike proportions man has assumed, that the only cure for dread is to extirpate every taboo and see which explosions fail to come.
Indeed the early history of rocket design could be read as the simple desire to get the rocket to function long enough to give an opportunity to discover where the failure occurred.
As FBI men used to be able to detect Communists anywhere (by a gift of the nose, by a gift of the nose!) so Aquarius always thought he had a sense of anyone who had ever taken too much LSD. Some salt of the libido was washed out; the aura was gone.
Now he felt that same absence, that same bemusement, same lunar air in all so many of the NASA technicians. It was not that they took LSD—he was confident most of them had not even gone near marijuana—it was rather a reflection of the same intoxication which thinned the blood and sucked the life from the complexion of hippies: it was that rush of thoughts extorted by the iron will, that liege paid by the body to provide the brain with intellectual ecstasies.
So he designs new machines before the old are tested and vitiates the intestinal fortitude of the old mechanical insides by using inferior materials which break down too early. The money which used to be spent for good materials is now spent for advertising the product. He speaks of a society of reason and tells lies every time he opens his mouth. The more simple and ubiquitous is his commodity, the greater are his lies.
Small wonder there was a communion of feeling around the nation for these generals of the forces of a new church which offered a new communion in replacement for the loneliness of meaningless effort: here at last was American capitalism attached to a corporate activity which was momentous, dangerous, awesome, and a palliative to dread, for if the venture succeeded, could the heavens despise the nation? Supported by the memory of tragedy, the three burned and asphyxiated corpses in the hideously charred cockpit, that very recollected sense of pain gave sentiments of mobility of corporation executives looking to find a line of connection between their work and the vault of this endeavor.
Apollo 11 was in fact on the pad before Apollo 10 had made the first of its thirty-one orbits about the moon.
There was a list of tests to be made by each astronaut: if rocket safety was designed on any principle, it was built on the idea of precautions founded on other precautions. If there were six hundred and thirteen laws to the Talmud which could not be broken, restraints or fences had been built into the traditional customs to avoid getting near a situation where one might be able to break on of those six hundred and thirteen laws. If you were not supposed to engage in adultery with your neighbor’s wife, the safest precaution, the fence was never to look at her. Wherever else this construction of safeguards to inhibit even the approach to taboos had entered the Judeo-Christian heritage, certainly it had entered engineering practice. There safety factors abounded. You calculated the greatest stresses a bridge could ever receive, and then built it five times stronger than it needed to be. So now the Emergency Detection System of Apollo-Saturn heaped attention on the whisper of a clue that a slight deviation from the norm could, if it continued to be unbalanced to the tenth of a hundredth of an acceptable degree . . . the launch was not about to be called off because things were wrong to the tenth of a hundredth, but the dials were there to measure such deviation.
If men could move out of infancy at half a mile an hour and get up to eighteen thousand miles an hour in one lifetime, well, who was to assume that the walls of the universe were safe from future men?
Physics is the church, and engineering the most devout sinner. Physics is the domain of beauty, law, order, awe, and mystery of the purest sort; engineering is partial observance of the laws, and puttering with machines which never work quite as they should work: engineering, like acts of sin, is the process of proceeding boldly into complex and often forbidden matters about which one does not know enough—the laws remain to be elucidated—but the experience of the past and hunger for the taste of the new experience attract one forward.So bridges were built long before men could perform the mathematics of the bending moment.
Now the crew presents crew status report. “CDR 3, CMP 7, LMP 5.5.” If this is correct in transmission, it means Collins slept seven hours, Aldrin five and a half, and Armstrong only three. The figure passes without comment. What may be said about insomnia in a monitored capsule? One cannot even lie and pretend the sleep was good.
Vice President Spiro T. Agnew has called for putting a man on Mars by the year 2000, but Democratic leaders replied that priorities must go to the needs on earth . . .
Back to the M-line, where more maneuverings were commenced to offer positions for the telescope and sextant so that they might sight on stars which could fix their position. Let us follow that dialogue for the next quarter of an hour. It is impossible to comprehend altogether—one would need to work for a year in the Mission Control Room at Houston—nonetheless it has all the authority of discussion at vast distances about small measurements.
Night two sleep: Armstrong 8, Collins 9, Aldrin 8
Well, Aquarius was in no Command Module preparing to go around the limb of the moon, burn his rocket motors and brake into orbit, no, Aquarius was installed in the act of writing about the efforts of other men, his attempts to decipher some first clues to the unvoiced messages of the moon obtained from no more than photographs in color of craters, chains of craters, fields of craters and the moon soil given him through the courtesy of the Manned Spacecraft Center, photographic division of public relations, NASA, uet in the months he worked, the pictures were pored over by him as if he were a medieval alchemist rubbing at a magic stone whose unfelt vibration might yet speak a sweet song to his nerve.
…and on the illuminated wall maps, a little figure of green light shaped like the silhouette of the Lem with Command and Service Module attached, that flying-bug-with-a-bullet-up-its-bung goes crawling across the screen.
CAPCOM: We got some beautiful data here, Eagle. All those guys are looking at it—systems guys.
Beautiful data was clear and thorough data. An engineer’s idea of beauty was system perfection. Beauty was obviously the absence of magic.
Those who wish to live within their own minds ask for nothing more perfect than a companion whose presence is not felt.
A well-known geologist spoke of Aldrin as “the best scientific mind we have sent into space.” Ted Guillory, an engineer engaged in designing the detailed trajectories and orbits of a flight plan, said, “He carried a slide rule for his Gemini flight on the rendezvous, and I sometimes think he could correct a computer. I can remember hearing him say things like, ‘If the computer says I’m twenty feet out of plan, I’ll believe ten of that, but not all twenty.’ He’s one of the few people who can figure out all those rendezvous things in his head.”
Collins is the man who said, “It’s been one of the failings of the Space Program . . . that we have been unable to delineate clearly all the reasons why we should go to the moon. I think the key to it is that man loses something if he has the option to go and does not take it.”
It cose an expenditure of sixty pounds of fuel on the launch pad for every pound of spacecraft to go into moon orbit, and five hundred pounds of ground fuel for each pound the Lem would bring to the moon. It suggests that a saving of one hundred pounds (perhaps the weight of two couches) is, by the most conservative measure, a net gain of six thousand pounds of fuel. It used to be that for every dollar spent on a Hollywood movie, eight dollars had to come back at the box office to pay for prints, distribution, publicity, overhead and theater exhibition before a profit was shown. These fuel figures were more impressive by far.
The high society of NASA was a group as closed to superficial penetration as a guild of Dutch burghers in the Seventeenth Century—no one but the men in that room would ever begin to know the novels and dramas of conflict, the games of loyalty, and what captures the frustrations of power had played back and forth among these men in the last ten years—it was another of the great novels of the world which would never be written. And was the world a little more polluted for that?
If drama had to be sacrificed, rid the situation of drama. If scientific investigation would hamper a smooth flight, restrict scientific investigation. A narrowness of vision, constricted by the panic which followed the Apollo fire, lost all register of the true complexity of the event.
Armstrong was to repeat over and over that the moon was friendly, the moon was hospitable. They were to say it again and again. It was presumably to the advantage of NASA that the moon be friendly to justify the outlay of those billions of bucks; never spend money on an ingrate!
“I was sure,” said Armstrong, “it would be a hospitable host. It had been awaiting its first visitors for a long time.” The logic impeccable. “Come into my house, Joey Namath,” said the eighty-year-old spinster, “We got a welcome for you, my sister and I.”
If the moon was not sinister, then NASA was heir to a chilling disease, for they had succeeded in making the moon dull, the moon, that planet of lunacy and harvest lovers, satellite unlike any other moon in the solar system, the plane of its orbit even canted at an angle to the plane of the earth and the sun—no other moon could make such a claim—and besides the moon had properties of light so mysterious as to suggest that a shift of direction might be its equivalent for a passage of time, since a turn of the head could alter the mood of its colors from the look of a morning on earth to the mood of a late afternoon. A step into shadow was a visit to night.
CAPCOM: We observe your equipment jettison on TV and the passive seismic experiment reported chocks when each PLSS hit the surface. Over.
ARMSTRONG: You can’t get away with anything anymore, can you?
The danger is always greatest just beyond victory—in some men that is a deeper belief than any other, for not yet at climax they can see themselves deserving; once triumphant their balance has shifted, they know guilt, they are now not deserving.
Primeval fears inspire primeval thoughts.
There was a melancholy to the end of a century. The French, who were the first to specify a state for every emotion, would speak of the fin de siecle. It was the only name to give his own mood, for Aquarius was in a depression which would not lift for the rest of the summer, a curious depression full of fevers, forebodings, and a general sense that the century was done—it had ended in the summer of 1969.
Yet on the way down, the spacecraft would gleam like a comet, a pale violet flame would flare behind it for hundreds of yards in a galaxy of molecules, a nebula of heat and light.
ARMSTRONG: The rain. Well, we haven’t been able to control the weather yet, but that’s something we can look forward to as tomorrow’s challenge.
God or Devil at the helm—that was the question behind the trip, and any vulgarities or fine shows of spirit on the good carrier Hornet, any verdict decided by the detritus in the pool on the morning after, would hardly reveal the core of the event.
Prose was never so much prose as when constructed with obligation.
He finished in fact on a day when Apollo 13 was limping back to earth in wounded orbit with two fuel cells gone, its Lunar Module Aquarius never to reach the moon, yes, he finished in an hour when he did not know if the astronauts would return in safety or be lost…