Saturday, December 3, 2011

Big Mother Moon -- Michael Collins' Carrying the Fire

I have yet to get through Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff. Although I feel that the book is full of interesting poetic and philosophical comments, I have a hard time with some of the bravado.

Wolfe makes it seem that the bravado of the book is based completely on the bravado of the people in the book, the test pilots and the crew of the Mercury program, the first United States spaceflight program.

Something about the bravado of the book isn't very appealing to me, though. And the overall feeling I keep getting from the book is that it's so exaggerated that what Wolfe is talking about either couldn't possibly happen at all, or must be something that just about anybody could do.

On the other hand, I got through Michael Collins' book Carrying the Fire quite handily. The retired United States Air Force Brigadier General's book tells of his experience with the United States space program, culminating in his mission as Command Module Pilot on the Apollo 11 flight, the first flight during which man walked on the moon.

Collins' book is written in a plain style. Collins portrays himself almost as an average man -- he's funny, friendly, sometimes grumpy, sometimes clumsy. The way he portrays himself is so real, that I couldn't help but believe in the reality of the world he describes in his book.

And yet, as Collins describes his reality in such an honest, straightforward, even humorous way, there are times when I absolutely could not have gone through some of the stuff Collins went through.

Most of the things I felt I couldn't have gone through are the medical tests and stress tests and stuff like that. But there are other parts of being in the space program that I'm not sure I could have done, as well. Being so dead-on exact regarding just about every single thing you are assigned to do, for instance.

It's daunting. But it's not daunting because Collins uses severely poetic language, like Wolfe does. It's daunting because it requires a lot of skill and practice.

I suppose we're getting more and more to the day and age where more and more people are going to be space pilots and space passengers. So the environment of space will open up more and more to the average person. In this case, Wolfe's book isn't so relevant to the future space traveller as, perhaps, Michael Collins' book might end up being.

What's interesting, though, about Collins' book -- and people who have watched Ron Howard's film In the Shadow of the Moon might remember this about Collins -- is that he seems flabbergasted when people ask him, "How'd it really feel up there."

Collins says that the NASA astronauts weren't trained to talk about how things "felt" while they were up in space. They weren't trained to emote. They were trained to work according to very rigid schemes and processes. And emoting, or thinking all the time about how things "felt," would likely have caused inaccurate actions that could have ruined a mission.

This is very interesting, because, in my opinion, anyway, Collins' book is actually full of vivid feeling. Nevertheless, the book, especially as it develops, works more and more on protocol and series of checklists.

NASA three space programs leading up to the moon landing missions: Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Mercury was basically finished by the time Collins got to NASA. But Collins was around for Gemini and most of Apollo. Collins went into space twice: on the Gemini 10 flight, and on the Apollo 11 flight.

Collins' descriptions of the training for and completion of these flights takes up most of the book. The book is rather big, too -- 488 pages. But, despite the fact that Collins doesn't think he's any good at "emoting," his description of these two flights is captivating and vivid.

But his description of these flights seems strongly based on outlines, manuals, and books of protocol. Collins, describing how he got started with the training specific to his Gemini 10 flight, gives, at the top of one page, a quick outline of the mission plan for the four-day flight, and, at the bottom of the page, a description of how he has divided up a big notebook he has dedicated expressly to the Gemini 10 flight.

It seems to me that Collins had drummed the protocol and procedures of flight into his head to such a degree that the flight was a part of his memory, a part of his instinct, his body, before he'd even flown it. The flight was so natural to Collins that it was natural he wouldn't be able to see that he was "emoting" while he was flying. His mind was full of thoughts -- Michael Collins' thoughts. It was just that a lot of who Michael Collins was had become, through training, integrated with the reflexes and reactions required by the flight.

There's a new artist who does a lot of video work, maybe some other work. Her name is Mariam Ghani. She gave a talk at New York's Museum of Modern Art (a place I don't go to anymore, because the security guards are mean as hell) one night.

Ghani said something really interesting, which was that she is rigidly structured when it comes to her art works. She likes to have a piece as outlined and planned out as she can possibly get it. Rather than believing, like some other artists, in needing, for the sake of expression, complete spontaneity and freedom in her work, Ghani believes that her ability to express herself is enhanced by the rigid structure she requires for her work. The same seems to be the case with Michael Collins' rigorous and exact training efforts.

But the novelist Joyce Carol Oates also deals with structure, procedures, and protocol in some of her books. I feel like I'm missing a really great example right now. But the example that's springing out most for me right now is her book The Rise of Life on Earth, which is about an emotionally disturbed woman who becomes a nurse.

The woman lives for her practices and procedures as a nurse. The checklists she goes through when she's taking care of various tasks become almost as mystical to her as the Egyptian Book of the Dead. And they express a desire that's in her to become clean, to become efficient, and, interestingly, to remove the bad emotions from her life. But the emotions of the woman's life are the most powerful factor of her life, despite how much she's drummed the procedures and protocol into her head.

I feel like in Oates' book, the dependence on procedures and protocol to mask or replace emotion is definitely described as a symptom of modern society. Modern society, Oates seems to argue, is so mechanized that a person can get lost in these protocol. A person could possibly become virtually mechanized.

Maybe this is true. But I feel more sympathy with Mariam Ghani's idea, that firmly adhering to certain structures in one's life can actually give one a greater freedom of expression.

I believe that, as our age becomes more mechanized, there will be a greater adherence to procedures and protocol. But there will also be a greater freedom of expression among people. In the past, human beings did, in fact, have structure, procedures, and protocol to adhere to. It was the ritual of the church.

But the ritual of the church, I think, was largely built up based on the schemes of imperial or feudalistic power. The ritual of the church supported that type of power structure, just like history only described past events in the structure of, or as they were relevant to, that scheme of power.

As the world becomes more mechanized, as capitalism and socialism develop, and as, I hope, the distribution of wealth and power becomes more evenly spread through the world, the rituals of the church will become less relevant, while rituals which drive things like artist's conceptions, nursing tasks, and astronaut's flights, will become the more dominant rituals.

Towards the end of his book, Collins' mentions some of the "reactions" people had to the moon flight. Most of these reactions were really positive. Many of them were based on what Neil Armstrong had said when he made the first human step on the moon: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Many people were saying that man landing on the moon was a symbol for how man could be united and peaceful.

But one response was markedly different from that general sentiment. Harvard University biochemist Dr. George Wald had interviewed his students for a reaction, to find that most of the students believed the flight to the moon was nothing more than another brash American display of military might. The students felt overwhelmed, even "trapped," by this display of military power.

I would say that, in general, if you ask a college student what they think about anything that the military is doing -- and especially if you were to ask them in 1969! -- you'd definitely get an answer like Dr. Wald got from his students. But, keeping the events of 1969 at a distance, I would generally expect a college student to have a negative reaction to anything the government did, especially if it were on as large a scale as a trip to the moon.

College students are trying to individuate, find their individual powers of expression. The military and the government symbolize national parents, in a lot of ways, as much as we idealize the government as not doing something like that. So it's only natural for college students to rebel against the government and military by saying they disagree with whatever they're doing. Some adults never actually grow out of that phase.

But what Collins' mention of the reaction of this Harvard biochemistry class shows is that the Apollo 11 moon missions, the whole space program overall, was an integrated part of society, an integrated part of American enterprise.

I'd argue that the success of the space program was a prime example of the success of the military-industrial complex, of a corporate or industrial world, which is what our world is developing into. And, so, Collins, working from his program outlines, procedures, and protocol, and finding his sense of expression through those things, is a pretty good spokesperson for that new kind of world.

At the same time, the Apollo 11 trip to the moon was a trip to the moon. And -- well... I know that anybody who reads my blog on a normal basis probably knows how hooked I am on linking things to the unconscious. But I don't think anybody would think that my idea that the moon is the greatest symbol of the unconscious (except, perhaps, the sea) that humanity has.

A trip to the moon is a trip to the unconscious. The Apollo 11 flight was important in that respect, as well as the thousands of other respects in which it was important. Man reached the moon. Collins was alone -- all by himself -- on the dark side of the moon. That's a pretty darn important psychological achievement for mankind!

Now... don't let Michael Collins hear me saying that. He'll think I'm a real nut.

I am a nut, though. So I wouldn't be too upset to hear Collins say that.

But there were people -- crazy people, nuts like me -- who did understand that aspect of importance regarding the trip. Collins at one point mentions a letter, worthy almost of Charles Fort, in which the correspondent offers to sell Collins a map that points out all the locations of giant anthills on the moon.

Later, Collins is on the Apollo 11 with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, on their way toward the moon. NASA gives a news report. One article tells how the Chinese people give the astronauts a friendly warning to watch out for the giant rabbit that lives in the moon. Once Collins is back on earth, he also finds that some people's reaction to the moon landing is quite negative. The moon is a sacred place in some people's cultures -- and it has just been violated.

Collins himself calls the moon a "big mother." He even, to illustrate the power of seeing the moon as a three-dimensional object, as opposed to just a disk in the sky, describes its belly bulging outward. This would seem to imply either a pregnant woman (a mother) or a large bellied woman, like the primeval woman of the unconscious (think Venus of Willendorf).

Later on, the three astronauts are taking their first trip around the moon. Some of the moon's peaks are enormous. Collins calls them "big mothers" again. Buzz Aldrin joins in, and pretty soon, Collins and Aldrin are making jokes about big mothers. Some of the really big mothers are slumping over, which, Aldrin says, can be expected when a mother gets really big and old.

As soon as the spacecraft gets back around to the light side of the moon, where it is back in radio contact with NASA, Collins and Aldrin stop their joking around and talk seriously, getting back to protocol, and so forth.

This little episode is, I think, illustrative of what a trip to the moon means. On the dark side of the moon, one can make jokes of the moon being a big mother. One can think to oneself about how the moon's belly is bulging. But when one is dealing directly with the physicality of the moon, one must do so in a very conscious and structured way.

If there's one thing I mention as much as the unconscious in these blogs, it would probably be Abraham Cowley. And I think, in this instance, I'm going to connect Abraham Cowley. Because there are a lot of moments in Cowley's poetry where he talks about not quite being consciously ready to face the unconscious. There is always a period of waiting needed, and a period of training reason in order to face the unreason, the illogic, of the unconscious.

A mission like a journey to the moon is a long trip requiring precision just because you are trying to get somewhere very far away. You need minute precision and complete attention to detail in order to achieve your target. Collins compares the trip to the moon to trying to throw a razor and split a hair from, roughly, a quarter the length of a football field.

But, the moon being what it has been for humans since the dawn of consciousness, a symbol of the unconscious, the moon must be approached like Cowley warns his readers to approach the unconscious, with plenty of preparation, consciousness, and reason. And this is why the training of the trips to the moon, while being important in and of itself, for the mission, is also important as a kind of psychological task.

Now I think Collins, even though he doesn't think he's too superb at "emoting," has done a really good job of describing his space missions because he is a pretty level-headed guy, and he has a good sense of humor. He doesn't really seem to be at too great risk of being overwhelmed by the unconscious.

At a couple differnt points, I believe, Collins says that he never had the religious or emotional epiphanies that some people have had by travelling into outer space, or by travelling to the moon. Nevertheless, toward the end of the book he shares a few of his own poems regarding space travel. He also shares a poem by his wife Pat. Collins took this poem with him on his journey to the moon.

Collins gives us a poem by the poet and pilot John Gillespie Magee, Jr., called "High Flight." Magee, who died during the Battle of Britain at the age of nineteen, based this poem on his experiences with piloting a Spitfire. Collins is so touched by the cosmic beauty of Magee's poem that he yearns to know what Magee could have written after only one orbit around the earth in a Gemini spacecraft.

So Collins obviously shows himself to appreciate poetic feeling, and to have plenty of sentiment himself. He's comfortable with that. He says that NASA has all these missions collecting data and cramming the astronauts' time so full that, for instance, Collins and Young were assigned, on their Gemini 10 mission, to do four days of work in three days.

But Collins wonders how NASA might benefit by just having a mission where a man has the extravehicular activity (EVA) of simply floating outside the command module for an orbit or two, just to watch the earth go by. Collins wonders this, yes -- but then it's right back to the schedule. Right back to the reason, the logic, the mission, option by alternative, that has been driven into his mind, body, and personality.

Again, Collins, going to sleep alone in the command module while Armstrong and Aldrin are down on the moon, looks through the interior of the craft and is reminded, somehow, of the floorplan of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., where Collins used to light candles as an altar boy. So the ritual of the church and the ritual of industry meet in the spacecraft -- as Collins is about to go to sleep. A lovely point for that to happen.

But Collins, as well as having sensitivity, has a great sense of humor. Collins is comfortable with his own psychological state, which, anyway, is pretty darn pristine.

Collins gives another story revolving around NASA giving the Apollo 11 crew their daily headlines. One of the headlines, Collins tells us, is that Scotland's House of Lords has assured people that a new mini-submarine being tested in the Loch Ness will not do any harm to the Loch Ness monster.

So here Collins is, travelling to the moon, the grand symbol of the unconscious, and laughing at a story of another grand symbol of the unconscious, the Loch Ness monster, not being harmed by a vehicle exploring its space.

Another series of events illustrating Collins' comfort with his own psychological state have to do with the famous Rorschach tests, the ink-blot tests of the psychiatrists. These tests were administered to Collins in his first and second tries (the second was successful) at becoming an astronaut. Collins wonders at one point how many crotches you can see in the ink-blot tests before you're finally called crazy.

Later, the Rorschach tests show just blank, white pieces of paper. In one instance, Collins thinks about telling the psychiatrists that he sees nineteen bears having sex on an iceberg. In another instance he thinks about giving a story about an Air Force test pilot who wanted to be an astronaut really, really bad, so he made friends with a psychiatrist, and so forth.

Collins seems to be comfortable enough with his sexuality to make jokes about it as well. He's a happily married man, and masculine, although I would not say overly so. He's not a raging bull filled with testosterone or anything. But he's constantly making references to himself as being feminine or motherly.

Collins mentions his relation to some NASA projects as if he were a mother bear and the projects were his cubs. During the Apollo flight, fretting over Armstrong and Aldrin, who are down on the moon, he refers to himself as a Jewish mother. When Armstrong and Aldrin arrive back at the command module from the moon, Collins is tempted to kiss them on the forehead, like a mother welcoming her boys back home -- but he thinks otherwise, and only gives them hearty handshakes instead.

Now, interestingly, Collins mentions diaper pins, which would be more in line with my fetish, I being a paraphilic infantilist on some occasions, a sissy on others -- although most of the time I'm just a celibate guy with no interest in sexuality at all. My biggest fetish is being a bookworm. Anyway, Collins talks about the people who request for him to bring stuff up to and back from the moon. These items include medallions, coins, flags, envelopes, clothing pins, and the diaper pin. So, one diaper pin went to the moon and back. And that made me kind of happy.

I wonder, anyway, who that moon baby grew up to be? Probably not an adult baby.

Collins' sexuality is normal, though. He has a couple fun episodes with pin-up girls. In the month before the Apollo 11 flight, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Collins all went to the crew quarters at Merritt Island. This allowed them complete seclusion, and ability to focus on nothing at all except for all the procedures and protocol they'd need to know for the moon flight.

Collins' wife didn't come along, obviously. There were no people allowed except the astronauts and the people who were related to the astronauts' assignment. But Collins had in his room, to keep him company, a pin-up girl with pale skin and cinnamon-brown hair.

And on the Gemini 10 flight, Collins and John Young had pin-up girls they would put up as shields to block out the light from the windows when they would go to sleep at night. What's interesting about this, I guess, is that Collins mentions, in the Apollo, going to sleep after seeing the Apollo as the National Cathedral, and going to sleep after seeing the pin-up girls blocking light from the windows on the Gemini 10.

Collins and Young, after their Gemini 10 flight, almost met the pin-up girls who had been on their windows at night. Someone at Mission Control found out that Collins and Young had these girls' pictures aboard. This person knew that these girls served as Playboy Bunnies somewhere in the United States. And he managed almost to get the girls to come to the post-flight press conference Collins and Young were giving.

Collins mentions that he was afraid to meet these girls. It almost seemed, as I read this part of the book, that the prospect of meeting the girls was actually terrifying to Collins. It didn't make sense to me how this could be so scary. I knew Collins was married. But he seems to have an unbelievably wonderful relationship with his wife. And I think he takes his mentioning of cute girls with a grain of salt and a sense of humor.

Collins also spoke of the scandal that NASA wanted to avoid. NASA actually stopped these girls from coming to the press conference because they thought it would be too scandalous. And so maybe that was what Collins was afraid of as well. But the level of fear -- here's a guy who was, a day before, about to slip off into outer space because he'd miscalculated his momentum during an EVA -- but he seemed less afraid of that than he was of meeting the pin-up girls!

I don't want to read too much into this. It's the unfortunate condition of psychology that if you read statements deeply, it always looks like you're saying something bad about somebody. Generally you're just saying something about an unconscious characteristic that people have in common with everybody. It's a dark characteristic, though, so everybody thinks it's something bad. But it's not bad.

It seems to me that it's fine for Collins to see the pin-up girls before sleep. The girl with cinnamon hair in the room at Merritt Island, for instance. Or the two pin-up girls Collins and Young use as shades so they can go to sleep.

These girls are harbingers of the unconscious, harbingers of sleep. It's fine to see them as psychopomps for the world of dreams. But it would be way too uncanny to see them -- them -- in the waking world. It would be especially harrying to have to see them while you were trying to give an extremely conscious account of a cosmic experience to the press, the distributors of the word, the reification of consciousness, to the collective conscious of humanity.

Read too much into it.

But Collins also tries to give justification for not having women in the space program. Collins was part of the third group of astronauts chosen for NASA. The first group consisted of seven astronauts; the second, of nine; and the third, of fourteen. The fourth group was chosen -- I think -- while Collins was serving as backup crew for the Gemini 7 mission. Nineteen people got chosen for this group.

Also, each astronaut had his own special projects. For instance, Buzz Aldrin focused on mission planning; Al Bean worked on recovery systems; Gene Cernan worked on spacecraft propulsion. Collins worked on the pressure suits and extra-vehicular activity (EVA). The pressure suits were a huge deal. A lot goes into protecting the human body from the vast vacuum of outer space.

But one of the big considerations in the pressure suits was how to allow for the astronauts to urinate in them. This was kind of a surprise to me, since, due to my fetish, one of my own personal reasons for liking the space program was, I thought, that astronauts wore diapers. But the pressure suit Collins created had a rather complex mechanism for evacuation. It was really clever, actually. The suit had all kinds of liquid-cooling mechanisms. The urine was actually added to the liquid used in the liquid-cooling mechanisms -- as I understand it.

No women were included among the people NASA had Collins interview to be part of the fourth group of astronauts. Collins tries to explain why he doesn't feel so bad about this. As far as I can tell, his biggest reason seems to be that the pressure suit was made for male anatomy -- only a male could urinate practically in the pressure suit. And, at this stage in the game, it was too late to design a whole new suit.

Along these lines, quickly, I'd like to mention that there's a pretty good book out there, called Space for Women, by a woman named Pamela Freni. It's about women's attempts to get into the space program in the early years of the program.

Now the pressure suit is the protector of the human body in space. It protects the individual human against the dark vacuum of the universe. It's pretty obvious that it's like an extra shell of consciousness against the unconscious. It's like the protective garment, a female garment, that Ulysses receives.

Plenty of men in mythology have dressed as women in order to protect themselves in danger. And plenty of men on various missions have found themselves in trouble because they dressed as women. The fact is, that when men go on psychological missions, they often find themselves confronted with the necessity, for good or bad, to dress as women. The function of this is often to protect themselves against the unconscious (which, for men, is generally feminine) by assuming the guise of the unsconscious.

The pressure suit would, then, be a male protection against the unconscious. But the NASA program was, at that point in time, so male-oriented that even the pressure suit had to be a male suit. There was so much male spirit in the program that the aspect of woman was relegated to pin-up pictures that would help the men get to sleep.

This reminds me of another quote Collins made in Ron Howard's documentary In the Shadow of the Moon. Collins -- who, by the way, is easily the most entertaining person in the documentary -- says of the NASA crew that there wasn't a "weak sister" in the whole bunch.

It's a strange comment to make. Out of all the men in NASA, there wasn't one weak woman. Women equate to weakness in the one-sided, male world of NASA.

But eventually Collins himself took on the aspect of a woman, metaphorically, in his own thoughts about how he was acting. This helped to counterbalance the almost completely male-oriented environment.

But the feminine reasserted itself once the Apollo 11 crew got to the moon. The moon was a mother with a big belly. Even the peaks of the moon were mothers.

What were the effects of this male-oriented environment? Well... I suppose Camille Paglia would say that it got us to the moon, and that nothing else would have gotten us there. In all the years we've had women astronauts, we have not gotten back to the moon. We have a terrific space program, and we have an International Space Station. But we don't have people on the moon.

I think Camille Paglia would argue that the male-oriented NASA of the Apollo 11 program acted as a focus, an arrow, as straight as the shaft of Apollo, directing men from earth to the moon. The constellation Urion came from what Paglia calls the "arc of transcendence." And the arc of transcendence comes from another shaft of Apollo. Without the focusing of energy that shaft and arc imply, Paglia might possibly argue (as I understand her), there would have been no steps on the moon.

I don't know if I would agree with this hypothetical argument. But I would say that the male-oriented NASA led to a NASA of protocol and procedure, of checklists, of memorization, hours and hours in simulators, and what-not.

It also led to crews of men who were as distant from each other as two men standing across a gorge with no bridge. Collins uses the phrase "eagles don't flock" when he mentions the astronauts. Even the crews thrown together in the various Gemini and Apollo missions don't necessarily get along like chummy, old pals, according to Collins. They talk to each other when they need to, and they don't talk otherwise.

This isn't always the case -- and I think Collins exaggerates the laconicism of both himself and his crewmates a lot of the time. But you can often feel the atmosphere of lone-ness (not loneliness) when Collins describes NASA. Even when Collins is living in near-seclusion with Armstrong and Aldrin at Merritt Island, there are very few times that the three men actually talk to each other, other than when they're studying or practising together.

Collins criticizes this attitude in his thoughts as the Apollo 11 is returning to earth. He hopes that it can change. He hopes that the astronauts can find a healthier way to communicate with each other. And I think that that would probably be something that would be aided by allowing the feminine more of a consciously integrated role in psychic functioning, rather than having it relegated to the unconscious, while a stringently male consciousness almost reduces men to a machine-like state.

But... then again.. the fact remains -- we haven't been to the moon in a long, long time. So one gets the feeling that NASA was doing something right. Maybe the only thing they were doing right didn't have to do with the psychological attitude they were taking. Maybe they were just spending a lot of money. But the space program in Collins' day, even though it did use a lot of money, was not, by far, the most expensive program America was running.

And, besides, I'd argue that maybe NASA's ideology during the Apollo program was correct. Not from a strictly sexual viewpoint. But, rather, there needed to be a very one-sided attitude overall to keep people polarized toward the moon flights. Everybody in the program just needed to be directed as completely as possible toward that goal. And one-sidedness, maybe in a whole lot of things, was very important. One-sidedness is often very unjust, though it gets results.

But once one-sidedness has gotten results, it no longer needs to be one-sided. And then, hopefully, the path can be opened up to a lot more people. The one-sidedness can balance itself out.