13 Ways of Looking at Apollo

The anniversary of Apollo's historic landing on the moon is coming up next month, and everyone from science historians to poets are reminiscing. Writer Matthew Battles has a fascinating essay about how space travel prepares us to be cyborgs.

Battles recently published "13 Ways of Looking at Apollo" in the new online journal Hilobrow (edited by io9 contributor Joshua Glenn). The name is a tip of the hat to a Wallace Stevens poem called "13 Ways Of Looking At A Blackbird," and it is a poetic meditation on how humans use technology to change themselves. Battles begins by talking about the construction of the Apollo spacecraft, and its relationship to other amazing vessels that took people on adventures during classical antiquity.

He manages to tie this historical meditation into a fascinating discussion of how people in the 1960s talked about the spacecraft. And more a specially, how they talked about the astronauts. The spacecraft, both a high-tech marvel and a low tech bolted-together tin can, was in some sense the unsung hero of the Moon landing. But the astronauts became the true heroes. Still, Battles notes, over time technology is taking on its own heroic role in our lives. Especially when it comes to space travel, where robots are making all the important discoveries that people analyze back home on earth.

In a graceful conclusion, battles writes:

Once we sent humans into space to give a focus to our imagination; we needed heroes to embody our passions and our frailties. It's by virtue of machines, however, that we have reached beyond the moon. Machines can compute but cannot feel; they express our intentions but cannot share our passions. Such has been the understanding, and the dilemma, of modern times. But perhaps we've underestimated the machine - which is only another way of saying that we've underestimated ourselves. Dimly, we've begun to realize that as we extend ourselves with tools, we inhabit them with our dreams and desires as well. Perhaps as we probe the reaches of interstellar space, we'll feel more keenly the extension of our senses by even such abstract and remote tools as these. We're coming to the point where machines may become not only tools and extensions of our senses, but our heroes, too.

If you're interested in reading a cultural history of the moon landing, you must check out battles' excellent essay. I love the way he explores how the idea of space travel changes humans psychologically, as well as how it has changed our technologies.

Via Hilobrow