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The Mid-Century Male Energy of Apollo 11

Just guys being dudes, on the moon

A mere 50 years after we put men on the moon, we’ve gotten around to talking about the women who shaped NASA and the Apollo program. A few even got their own movie! But for the better part of a century, the achievement of spaceflight and the Apollo 11 mission to the lunar surface had lingered, in the popular imagination, as feats of manliness. Heck, the Neil Armstrong biopic was called First Man, and as MEL film critic Tim Grierson noted in his review, its take on the famed astronaut was hindered by a “rugged, macho individualism that’s not nearly as fashionable as it once was.” It couldn’t help but imply that Armstrong’s mid-century emotional reserve was a semi-superpower.

And yet the sexism of the age did make a sausage fest of astronautics. Among the dozen people who’ve walked on the moon, zero are women; just one, JoAnn Morgan, sat in the Launch Control Center as Apollo 11 left Earth’s atmosphere. As such, it’s hard to reflect on these incredible moments in human history without noticing a faintly ridiculous “bro” vibe — you know, just guys being dudes in outer space. Check out photos of Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins eating a breakfast of steak and eggs before suiting up to strap themselves onto a rocket. Could there be any meal more oddly conventional for healthy men in the prime of their lives in late-1960s America? Do you see that part in Armstrong’s hair? Was he using wet cement as pomade? And a polo shirt for the occasion? I mean, really.

The testicular energy extends to a famous memo by Nixon speechwriter William Safire (who later assumed the role of elder statesman in the field of patriarchal grammar) regarding a potential disaster for the Apollo 11 crew. Had Armstrong and Aldrin died on the moon, it’s likely Nixon would have delivered a statement on these “brave men” who made the ultimate sacrifice for “mankind’s most noble goal” — “sons” of “Mother Earth” who ventured into the unknown.

The concluding sentences, in striving to connote the grandeur of what NASA was attempting, feel downright corny at this point, largely thanks to their masculine slant: “In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.” Of course, old Bill had no idea how something called the internet would eventually puncture the gravitas of the word “epic,” but lol at the implication that a woman had never glanced skyward to be inspired by the cosmos. By the way, a man these days is more likely to hate the moon than admire it.

Then you have Armstrong’s first words upon climbing down from the lander, which likewise hinged on “man” and “mankind” for a dudely bit of pioneer poetry. That’s the contested phrase we remember, even though his next comment was more informative (“The surface is fine and powdery, I can pick it up loosely with my toe”), while Aldrin’s pithy summation was the more arresting: “Magnificent desolation,” he said. The fact that some people believe Armstrong’s “one giant leap” was a riff on a line from The Hobbit only adds to its tone of “yeah, we’re male.”

I swear it sounds like Don Draper coming up with a beer slogan. That’s the mid-century guy for you — he’ll go to the moon and get back in time to crack open a cold one before cheating on his wife.

I kid, I kid. Because I know that if I say the wrong thing here, I might take a punch to the face from Aldrin, who did actually sock a dude in the face for claiming the lunar landing was a hoax — itself a prime manifestation of the virility that defined the NASA programs of his era! Man oh man, the men were men back then: They got things done and took no shit.

I guess that swagger came in handy for testing experimental, high-velocity vehicles, but all the same, I’m glad the heavens are less dick-oriented these days. In space, no one can hear your gender.