The rocket and the tarot : the Apollo moon landings and American culture at the dawn of the seventies



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Although the Apollo 11 moon landing was one of the most remarkable events of the twentieth century, it was also among the most abstruse—what did it mean, after all? With implications ranging from the everyday benefits of “spinoff” to the cosmic questions of existence, it seemed like it had to signify something important. But the United States was undergoing a profound cultural shift as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, a transformative moment when the rationalist, technological optimism of the high Space Age began losing traction to the more intuitive, relativistic, neo-romantic cultural aura of the 1970s. This turn left many Americans who reckoned that Apollo should be important—somehow, in some way—unable to adequately integrate the event into their worldviews, their American mythologies.

This study examines how Americans attempted to make sense of Apollo in the 1960s and 1970s. This period saw a noticeable retreat from the faith in science and rationalism that had driven American thought and culture in the decades following World War II, and which formed the foundation of the successful space program. In its stead emerged a new understanding of “progress” that was divorced from its previous equation with technological advancement for its own sake and reconsidered in terms of its impact on sustainability and personal fulfillment. In this environment, Apollo—an endeavor that that ultimately seemed to offer no deeper meaning that itself—provided bold evidence that the crucial answers to life’s quandaries would not be discovered through technological journeys to the near planets; indeed, that the prolonged emphasis on these sorts of materialist endeavors had only obscured humanity’s quest for true meaning and its continued sustenance on what Apollo made abundantly clear was the only planet it would inhabit for a long time to come. This cultural turn spelled doom for a space program that for all its futuristic trappings was actually firmly rooted in the past, in a mindset that had flourished throughout the middle of the twentieth century but was now falling under wide suspicion.