Listen to this story
My grandfather Abe Gussowski was born in a shtetl near what is now the Poland-Lithuania border, a couple of years after the Wright brothers flew their first powered aircraft. He survived more than a decade after the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. Struggling from immigrant child, to the Merchant Marines, and then to mechanic at the aeronautics division of the Curtiss-Wright Corporation — a direct descendent of Orville and Wilbur’s original company — Abe might have had some gear-and-grease sense of what it took to get men to the moon and back again. It left him awestruck, if not actually disbelieving.
Abe’s version of the moon landing is a story of the American Dream fulfilled. Like the Manhattan Project, one of the ushers of the American Century, it was a dream of the technological sublime hitched to an arch political cause. The American Dream had more or less worked for Abe. He and my grandmother Sylvia rose out of poverty in the New World while my grandmother’s relatives were turned to ashes in the Old World. Neither were educated beyond the 8th grade. Abe and Sylvia raised a son — my father Herb — who became part of an educational elite at Union College and then Yale Law School, a meteoric rise from Paterson, New Jersey.
I was born just a few years before the moon landing, and it is one of my earliest memories. I watched the two, fuzzy, black-and-white bobbing moon men on the cathode-ray TV screen. Witnessing this event — happening at some unimaginable distance, and occurring only through the use of some unimaginable technologies, and with the purpose of some unimaginable genius and commitment — was important to us. I would only later learn the names of the intrepid Armstrong and Aldrin, and the forsaken Collins (and still later the story of the “hidden figures”), but I diligently followed the rise of the Space Shuttle program, even building a model of the Enterprise atop its Boeing 747 for a school science fair. Together with the environmental movement, the energy crisis, and biotechnology, the tumultuous advance of the space program in the mid-1970s set me on my intellectual pathway to studying science and technology policy.
There are shadows of this story, however. My father, Herb, remembers going to the movies with his parents in 1948, to see the film All My Sons. Abe groused about going because he knew that playwright Arthur Miller drew his story of greed, disregard, and dereliction from Curtiss-Wright. Abe had been proud to help keep the machines turning, machines that supplied the Allies in World War II with huge numbers of storied aircraft, including the P-40 fighter of Flying Tigers fame, and the C-46 cargo plane that flew “over the hump” of the Himalayas. But the Curtiss Aeronautics Plant also delivered defective engines to the U.S. military. The episode led to investigations, convictions, and court martial, as well as to Miller’s first commercially successful play and its film version.
Damaging to public perception, and to the morale of workers like Abe, Curtiss-Wright’s malfeasance was not the reason for its steep, post-war decline, which happened for a more prosaic reason: Curtiss-Wright did not keep up technologically. It failed to invest in R&D sufficiently to win the federal contracts that moved their competition into the Jet Age, and then into the Space Age. The company whose engines powered the DC-3 and the B-17 Flying Fortress closed plants and laid off workers. Abe was lucky enough to make it beyond 10 years of service to a voluntary retirement. The Curtiss-Wright Corporation survives — firms are near-immortal persons after all — but it never recovered its wartime scale or prowess.
Meanwhile, my father’s trajectory had leveled off a bit. He found that the white-shoe law firms who would typically hire Yale alumni were not willing to hire Jews. Some of the interested firms thought that with blue eyes and an Anglicized name like Guston, he could pass. (It had been the same in pledging fraternities in college. When he was tapped into a traditional fraternity, he asked if he could bring other Jewish and Black friends with him. He was denied.) Early in his career, he had an opportunity to follow a Yale professor into the Kennedy administration. He turned down this chance to homestead the New Frontier — the broad label for Kennedy’s ambitious policy agenda — for family reasons. He went on to a family law practice and the relative stability and comfort of the professional class, with a tinge of bitterness and regret at doors that were closed to him or those that he chose not to open.
The Apollo program didn’t push beyond its success either. I can’t say that I watched any of the other five moon landings. My only memory of the drama of Apollo 13 is via Ron Howard. I do, however, have explicit memories of Watergate headlines, coloring a depressingly monochromatic map of the 1972 election, and questions about why anyone would vote for that crook. I have memories of other black and white images from the nightly news. For me, the images might have been from as far away as the moon, but for others they were mortally close. I seem to remember there were names of people scrolling down the TV screen — boosted now with a clothes hanger rather than its rabbit ear antenna — names that were not the credits but the casualties.
While going to the moon (and safely returning) had been an inspiring challenge, when it finally happened many took it as a distraction, not just from Vietnam, but also from the riots ravaging American cities. The recent film First Man (2018), about Neil Armstrong’s experience and emotions preparing to rocket to the moon, portrayed some of the protests at the periphery of his vision. The questions encroached: How could we spend billions on Apollo while our cities burned? How could we marshal the commitment and the expertise for the moon when we were failing in the ghetto?
50 years after Apollo 11, the United States has decided to revisit the moon with a program eloquently named Artemis. The moon is only her first target, however, and Mars is the true quarry. (This may have been what President Trump meant when he tweeted that the moon is part of Mars.) Beyond the moon, NASA has a spectacular agenda of exploration: the Mars 2020 rover; the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission; the mission to Psyche, the metal asteroid; and the recently announced Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon, Titan.
While going to the Moon (and safely returning) had been an inspiring challenge, when it finally happened many took it as a distraction, not just from Vietnam, but also from the riots ravaging American cities.
Unlike 50 years ago, the United States will not be alone out there. While the Soviets led the United States in most of the important technical achievements in space through the 1960s — human flight, for example, and space walks — they abdicated the moon. At the moment, however, the United States remains captive to the Soviet Soyuz system to put astronauts into space. Even the 50th anniversary launch on July 20 will be aboard a Soyuz MS-13, from Kazakhstan to the International Space Station.
This situation, extant since the end of the shuttle program in 2011, should change soon, courtesy of private space ventures in collaboration with NASA. But whenever we return to the moon, we will find a Chinese lander on the far side, along with debris from a privately funded Israeli mission and other lunar explorations by countries including India, Germany, Russia and others.
The problems from which Artemis and these other missions might distract us are numerous and grave. We rarely talk about “the ghetto” as a place any more, even as racism and its human and economic legacy persist. We are now confronted with camps detaining refugees and immigrants under horrendous conditions on U.S. soil. The global environmental movement that was born along with the Space Age has receded from its own apogee in the Paris accords. Indeed, the surpassing of “planetary boundaries” of sustainability and the intractability of collective action has only fueled the rhetoric to “get off this rock.”
My son Sam was born in 2006. It wasn’t a particularly auspicious year in space, save for the launch of NASA’s New Horizons mission. It was the fastest spacecraft ever launched from Earth and rendezvoused with Pluto in 2015. Sam had, by then, passed through his Mars rover stage and, although he thrilled to the images of Pluto, he is more taken by earthbound concerns like climate change. He expressed his sense of the retrograde election news the next year, after presidential electoral counting was completed on November 9, with “worst birthday ever!”
If NASA and the rest of the world’s space agencies are to capture the imaginations and talents of my son’s generation, they will have to succeed in ways that they have not yet. In this sense, the challenge is preventing Artemis from becoming the unfortunate twin of Apollo.
NASA puts significant effort into education and engagement, but more needs to be done. We should wonder about how to make Artemis more tangible and experiential to a vast number of people across our country and around the globe. This is not to say that space exploration must always return concrete benefits, although that would be a good thing. But it is to say that the program has the potential to alienate people for whom the technological endeavor has not panned out. We must work hard to make Artemis not just awe-inspiring, but knowable, relevant, inclusive, and legitimate. I believe this is crucial to any hope we might have of it contributing to the endurance of my grandfather Abe’s American dream.
We should remember that Kennedy’s charge to go to the moon was one among several priorities: “We choose to go to the moon… and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Returning to the moon will be hard. Returning to the promise of technology and the American dream will be harder.
David Guston is the Founding Director of the Arizona State University School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes