Two months after Apollo 8 returned from the first manned orbit of the moon, Arthur C. Clarke in the pages of Look magazine predicted a blazing future for man in space: “Many of the children born on the day Apollo 8 splashed down,” he wrote, “may live to become citizens of the United Planets.” Born on December 22, 1968, I am one of those children. My father liked to tell me how he cried as he listened to the famous Christmas-eve broadcast on the radio while driving home from the hospital after my delivery. The Apollo 8 command module itself ultimately found a home in Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, where I visited it throughout my childhood. The connection of the moon shot and my December nativity filled my imagination in those years; I was just old enough to watch and remember the last Apollo missions, when astronauts tore up the lunar surface in the rover and Alan Shepard hit his golf shot out of the biggest bunker in the solar system.
The years that followed brought little but frustrating news from the space program; by the time we sat in the school library and watched Christa MacAuliffe and her fellow astronauts disappear in a spidery plume of smoke over the ocean in 1986, it seemed unlikely that I would ever have my passport stamped on the moon, much less Mars or the outer planets.
And yet the view from space now dominates the imaginings of us Earthbound astronauts. We download satellite imagery with the flick of a finger; our unmanned craft even now speed among the outer planets, sift their sediments for signs of life, and probe the edge of the solar system, millions of miles from Earth where the sun’s influence finally ebbs. We’ve embodied that self-regarding wonder in the tools of exploration themselves: the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, like their forbears Viking and the Voyagers, have captured the imagination of millions with their inexhaustible adaptability. The Voyager probes carry burnished plaques with human forms engraved upon them, an acknowledgment, however inchoate, that they are our interstellar avatars.
Like WALL-E, the plucky robot star of last summer’s popular movie, the probes are tricksters and explorers, adaptationists, machines of many ways. As conjectured in the first Star Trek film, in which Voyager 6 returns to our solar system as a demiurge called “V’ger” striving to merge with its creator, they are latent gods as well. As with Apollo, of course, we’re fooling ourselves a bit — the Mars rovers are not autonomous adventurers, but long-distance tools controlled by hosts of engineers and scientists here on Earth. But using their aid not only to probe and explore but to adventure and to dream, we may be taking another kind of giant leap.
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, anyway, 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.
The thirteenth of fourteen posts on the cultural legacy of the Apollo program and its era. The original essay can be found at HiLobrow.com, where it originally appeared on the 23rd of June, 2009.