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Airman to Airmen
Anti-Relatability Politics and the Modes of Achievement
In The Right Stuff Tom Wolfe reported:
For a test pilot the right stuff in the prayer department was not “Please, God, don’t let me blow up.” No, the supplication at such a moment was “Please, dear God, don’t let me fuck up.”
and this, I believe, is a fair summation of the biographies of most involved with space progam, but also test piloting as a whole; you’re a Platonic few doing what the many cannot because you’re missing whatever makes everyone else unable or else smart enough not to try. Ultimately, what makes these men well-suited to this pursuit is that they see nothing godly or otherwordly in, what the rest of us see as, the conquering of the natural world— it was their job, and they were honored to get to do it.
If you intend to do something, you typically make sure there’s a plan for how you do it if something goes wrong, you’re admitting the possibility of failure exists without admitting that it’s probable and even likely, before you commit to starting. That’s, in many ways, the story of the Apollo program, as much as it was the the individuals of the Mercury 7’s in Wolfe’s book; it’s a lens on why this shouldn’t warrant disappointment or underwhelm, but an opportunity for reflection on human achievement: It was supposed to be godly, yet we did it, and can explain how, so it is within human capability, so why worship otherwise, and allow other human constraints (in the case of NASA, media dynamics and capitalism) interfere with endeavor?
Between the media perception of our national hero astronauts from commentators like Wolfe, and then culture that developed after the period of his book subsequently of the public lives of Apollo astronauts (Neil Armstrong, for example, becoming heavily political; Buzz Aldrin punching a guy for doubting the moon landing; Apollo 13’s Jack Swigert running for Congress winning 64% of the vote in his district before his death) revealed to us they were just normal guys.
You read a book like Wolfe’s, where he discusses the antipathy towards Mercury Project astronaut John Glenn, for example, and the story of how Alan Shepherd went first, and you realized how the social dynamics between these men in the Mercury Program, from the very beginning, was not terribly sophisticated, it was just…normal. So, what made these people so different that they couldn’t relate interpersonally in some cases, trust each other with their lives explicitly in others, but also uniformly capable of a feat few else would’ve been, both, willing and capable of participating in?
The short answer is that NASA’s engineers have, long, been under-celebrated (quick: name any rank-and-file member of Mission Control, with whom you are not personally acquainted, during the Apollo program!) and did the work of planning and orchestration, while these men took on the risk of trusting the process and adjusting in simulations against the gradient of their experience in the field— it takes all of these parts to do a moon landing, but it’s also practically Fourierist in its division of labor, with some acknowledged to be organized to take credit and others relegated (amenably, but still engineered to be in the background) to support, and some cruelly (as any Fourierist example would have a component of) even to subjugated in support of the larger goal that did not require oppression by a society hellbent on upholding said oppression (and reframing it heroically as a bootstrap narrative to a certain extent) anyway.
The reality is that this was always within the capability of sufficiently motivated humanity, whatever social cost it might have had, positive or negative, considering the origins of, among other things, the American space program in its post-War scientific acquisitions (both, personnel and materiel). So, when these men are regarded as otherworldly, it’s not just a sidestepping of the achievement, but a willful setting back of expectations for a properly organized society to self-actualize, and perhaps it is become of this cost that it is way.
In Season 2 of The Crown, there’s an episode that centers on the Apollo 11 crew’s world tour arriving in London, where Prince Philip requests a private audience with the astronauts, something they are all too happy to grant. Philip, in the series, regards the practice of piloting an almost spiritual one; you’re defying the limitations of humanity, if your own labor to exceed it— to earn that ability- counts for nothing. He requests this on the basis of it being a conversation, “airman to airmen”— the Queen’s secretary couldn’t possibly understand, you’d have to have been there. His request, relateable, on the surface to the viewers, is granted.
There’s something casually grating about how the series depicts piloting— Philip flying Charles home from school in Scotland berating him in a “I’ll turn this car around”-manner, for example. The framing absolutely concedes what is, ultimately, the point of why Philip’s view is a relateable, but ultimately self-defeating one: it’s mundane, and it’s something that, once humanity does it, becomes a capability of humans, something by definition mundate by the people who did it first. We wind up back in the media haze of heroics and meritocracy and marketing spin in seeing Philip’s disappointment in meeting the men, who ask him vague questions about his post-RAF life in the palace, while he simply asks open-ended existential questions about being “up there”; they share the mentality required of a pilot, the drive to undertake such a mission, but not the vocabulary to articulate what has become a fundamentally different experience than the one Philip knows. There’s a scene before their audience with Philip where they wander the palace, mouths agape at the opulence; this is what impresses them about Earth, how places like this, of ancien regime, still stand, while where they come from is undergoing a transformation from mid-century, post-war robustness to the disposable— everything from housing to even the rockets themselves are driving to a state of disposability, even their experience on the Moon is something that, shared with someone who wasn’t there, is simply a commodity, and one that can’t truly ever belong to anyone.
We live in such materially disparate conditions as a society, with cultural elites distinct from political or economic ones, that in a (largely fictional) encounter like this one, we realize the divisions aren’t merely incidental, but a function of what reinforces or makes unstable ones experience with material reality. Wolfe writes of the difference between the astronauts of Mercury Program, “The world was used to enormous egos in artists, actors, entertainers of all sorts, in politicians, sports figures, and even journalists, because they had such familiar and convenient ways to show them off.”— society just had a new condition of humanity to contend with being taken off the table as something society could benefit from, but as a function of Cold War intentionality (which is why it’s telling that the moment that the Space Race ended, so did the urgency with which reflective and careful planning for space halted— things got riskier and more flimsy).
This is something I’ve discussed from the other side to some extent previously— and I think it proves the core argument of why this wasn’t a triumph of Western ideology, but of sheer endurance and force of motivation, a situation where they could have, but not should’ve, done a thing a certain way, and did. It felt fleeting because it was; competition didn’t produce better engineering, it produced a culture of winning where the powers that ended a world war fought over the, apparently, redeemable resources leftover (again, scientists and their work), and some (in this case, the Soviets) recognized the Space Race for what it was, a race to the bottom, while the Americans ran this race sincerely until it no longer mattered, and, themselves, adopted the approach (or at least Congress did) after the race was over, that competition no longer mattered, and NASA was to make do (achieve more) with reusable (completely disposable but inappropriately re-assembled so as to appear reusable, thus causing two separate fatal incidents) components in the form of the Shuttle Program.
The motivation for such public displays of, both, motivation and spite are, again, something I’ve written about to some extent, but the key thing to keep in mind is that, unlike future endeavours of global peace in the nuclear age, the origins of space-faring modernity are in warfare and mass survival because, eventually, we will experience doomsday whether it’s intentional or not, at the hands of our own creations as a state. The solution, I believe, comes from seeing actions of humans as they are, by humans, and understanding the opportunity for solidarity and of citizenship, even if we’re saying this in nationalist (as in patriotic) context, but overall, in the interent of recontextualizing human endeavour as undeifying the acts of thoroughly ungodlike people: As Murray Bookchin wrote, “Humanity has passed through a long history of one-sidedness and of a social condition that has always contained the potential of destruction, despite its creative achievements in technology. The great project of our time must be to open the other eye: to see all-sidedly and wholly, to heal and transcend the cleavage between humanity and nature that came with early wisdom.”
In the time since first seeing this episode of The Crown, beginning writing this piece, Philip actually died: I began writing this based on the underlying assumptions of that episode that speak to the contradictions between the increasingly unrelateable ways we communicate civility and the order of things and the humanist elements of modernity (weapons of mass destruction turned into tools of scientific expansion of the human spirit built by scientists whose findings are used to re-embolden weapons of mass destruction because they built the original weapons for that purpose) actually speaks to the perverse nature of imperialism and the moving goalposts of what is and is not acceptable imperialism to the western powers, something this show explores more in depth than other fictionalizations of the Royal Family. They’re depicted as divided over issues of modernity: a society that has outgrown a need for a god-king, but political undercurrents begging for a new feudalism clashing with burgeoning labor-socialism; the old ways have no more vocal advocate (both, in reality and in this depiction) than Prince Philip. His uncle was the last governor of India, he himself has been alive longer than most commonwealth nations that are independent have gained independence, his own experience as a Greek monarch informed his objective knowledge that this is all farce, but a class prerogative protecting one.
The comparison is one of who succeeds in the sphere of cultural celebrity, rather than for what reason, and too often notoriety in a surplus of control of the narrative can make two things seem very much alike and equally deserving of adulation— the monarchy has a constitutional reason for existing, but it’s not a particularly good one, whereas the godliness ascribed to achievement is for the benefit of the elites, who are perceived to enable this achievement, moreso than those whos feat it actually was.
My point here is that this is a metaphor for the acceptability of harm at global scale when draped in a layer of ersatz civility and long-held doctrines of use. We ask this question in American politics all the time, but rarely does it get asked consciously: do you trust the Office of the President with a given power, or do you just trust the person occupying the Office to wield it responsibly? Americans often laud the former without admitting it’s being granted on the basis of the latter, and this is true of what constitutional position monarchies play in the constitutional governments that maintain them; the modern monarchy influences modern-day evil using the advisory and socially influential role established for them in the age of Cromwell, where the ability to perpetuate global hegemony while ostensibly holding no real global influence as a government was simply not a possibility in 1660. It’s a very old way of wielding power, but one that takes on renewed and exaggerated stature in 2021— the series, for example, depicts Elizabeth II’s reign as ceding more and more to the commons as a way of protecting the monarchy at the cost of its influence, which speaks to the social forces at work politically in the rest of the country, where its approval of the monarchy is highly contextual, but its longevity due to, both, the influence it does exert, and the increasing awareness of the looming legitimacy of continuing under the current system of constitutional delegation of duties or not.
Society, as Wolfe notes, comes to see these normal men of the space program as godly, much in the way Americans view celebrity, Europeans view their monarchs, and ancien regimes throughout history view their nobility, but with a stark difference; one of objective merit, but in the worldly realm, not an implication of god-like ability, but of superhuman intentionality, actually. As we saw with the space program, this awe of this intentionality can be harnessed for good, or for evil (and as it turned out, this would be the lasting legacy of corporatists in the public sciences— defense contractors built our rockets, and went from vendors to being the client, dictating what gets developed and the federal government finding or manufacturing a use, and in this case, it’s global hegemonic military expeditionism). The existential threat of the nuclear age aside, we’re simply looking at the terminal stages of such an existential crisis brought on by capitalism, and as I said, the corporatist autocracy that influences what has become synonymous with superhuman intellects and abilities in the form of our space program to do material harm in our society is something I’ve also written about before. However, I’ll boil it back down to this one concept we’ve been discussing: Does an appeal to an apparently superhuman authority serve the same rhetorical misdirective effectiveness as doctrine from the supposedly super-worldly in centuries and societies past? It would seem, at least in the small, accelerated timescale of the last century, that this may be so.
Ultimately, Wolfe suggests, that rather than superhuman, the correct interpretion is that contrarianism made many of these men drawn to this work more willing or likely to undertake something bearing more risk with full (over) confidence:
“They would give a lecture about how a pilot should never fly without a good solid breakfast—eggs, bacon, toast, and so forth—because if he tried to fly with his blood-sugar level too low, it could impair his alertness. Naturally, the next day every hot dog in the unit would get up and have a breakfast consisting of one cup of black coffee and take off and go up into a vertical climb until the weight of the ship exactly canceled out the upward thrust of the engine and his air speed was zero, and he would hang there for one thick adrenal instant—and then fall like a rock, until one of three things happened: he keeled over nose first and regained his aerodynamics and all was well, he went into a spin and fought his way out of it, or he went into a spin and had to eject or crunch it, which was always supremely possible.”
This may, likewise, be the correct perception of other types of cultural elite analysis; what is the true reason they do what they do that sets them apart, in the public imagination, from someone like yourself— it doesn’t diminish accomplishment to understand what makes who becomes part of the iconosphere human, even singularly so, just like it’s not toleration to understand the human impulse behind demonstrable harmful expression of political and social power. In the case of the monarchy, and those like Philip who were taken by the astronauts like many were, but also insistent that those like him, personally, were facing a legitimacy crisis and rather than stave it off, electing to prolong the conditions that would, historically lead to crisis.
As I said, it’s not a comparison of the two sets of actors described here, but of the interplay of cultural import and public perception; even in so doing, the nuance of what makes a moon landing significant loses nothing by being overly understood multifariously, but the nature of believing an institution or its proxy superhuman suffers dramatically, and in understanding the latter, maybe we can come to appreciate the former in appropriate measure, and lead us back from the edge we find ourselves on today:
We’ve, for example, as a result of this dynamic, have lionized thoroughly unqualified tech capitalists as our society’s greatest scientific minds. The problem with this is that they control, both, the medium and the message— we’re told it’s good, actually, that our society is under their competent auspices. We’ve inverted how things “used to work” under capitalism; the state pays money, a vendor produces a product to that end, the public becomes the owner of a vast cultural and technological achievement, but in the case of space, companies like SpaceX (to say nothing of defense contractors producing weapons) not only get to dictate demand, they get to find themselves on both sides of the transaction by soliciting the working, producing the work, retaining the work with the help of public scientists, and pay themselves using the tax payer money that would have funded the work in the first place, in order to produce a private enterprise product for the wealthy elite class to consume. This is the goal of, historically, the monarchy in other countries, the oligarch class in our own, of retaining superhuman status, their feats compared to that of average citizens who actually do the work that derives that profit, those who actually perform the feat that derives its grandeur. As we’ve seen, it’s easy for a ruling class dilettante to brainworm themselves into buying the hype of their own manufactured narrative to see themselves as accomplished and brilliant as well, a singular linchpin in this entire endeavour; yet not every man is a king.
Some things I’m reading, watching, or listening to that I am now recommending: