There is a scene from the documentary “Apollo 11,” rich with footage from the moon landing that took place 50 years ago this weekend, that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. I wrote about it when I reviewed the movie, and here I am writing about it again.

In the scene, the landing has been accomplished, the crew is on their way back Earthward, and we see a cassette player spinning in zero gravity and playing a song, “Mother Country” by the folk singer John Stewart, that the film then adopts as a soundtrack for a few moments.

The song is about the oldest Americans of the Apollo era, people who grew up around 1900, when a century was born and a century had died. The singer offers a reverent nostalgia for their vanished youth, the vanished past — They were just a lot of people, doing the best they could … what ever happened to those faces in the old photographs … Oh mother country, I do love you.

In the astronauts’ context, the lyrics aren’t directly related to the moon landing. But in our context, in 2019, they carry an almost unbearable crush of meaning, resonating backward and forward in time, binding the “old photographs” of 1900 to the old video images of 1969, the heroism of the astronauts to the heroism of men who stood knee deep in the Johnstown mud / In the time of that terrible flood. And this binding happens not through a contemporary artist’s artful choice but through the literal soundtrack of the Apollo mission itself.

Of course there is artifice involved in the documentary’s use and amplification of the music. But it’s an artifice that seems to cooperate with providence itself — as though the notes of Stewart’s song are literally Abraham Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory.”

I can’t speak for any other American on this anniversary, but the weight of that compressed meaning doesn’t just move me; it makes me feel regretful, disappointed, a little bit ashamed.

There are ways in which the United States is a more just country than it was when we rocketed men onto the lunar surface in vessels that looked like something my kids would make with cardboard and tinfoil, and various Apollo-anniversary essays have emphasised the ways that astronaut culture failed to match today’s egalitarian ideals.

But as a commemoration of the moon landing, that kind of emphasis on our own era’s greater enlightenment falls flat — because what Apollo represents is not goodness but greatness, not moral progress but magnificence, a sublime example of human daring that our civilisation hasn’t matched since. So to mark the anniversary by passing moral judgment on the past is a way of burying the appropriate response — which should be awe at what past Americans achieved, and regret that we have not matched such greatness since.

You could argue that it’s not our fault, that failure to go further was foreordained by the inhospitability of space and that we never should have expected otherwise. In this spirit, The Week’s Matthew Walther depicts the Apollo project as the culmination of the romantic movement, “an artistic juxtaposition of man against a brutal environment upon which he could project his fears, his sympathies, his feelings of transcendence.”

We were never going to claim the stars for humankind, Walther suggests, and regarding Apollo in those terms is a category error: “The lunar landing was not a scientific announcement or a political press conference; it was a performance, a literal space opera, a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk that brought together the efforts of more than 400,000 people, performed before an audience of some 650 million.”

This is powerful, yet not quite persuasive, because the American past is rich with breakthroughs that were both sublime performances and world-changing scientific leaps. To borrow a phrase from the historians David Nye and Perry Miller, Apollo was a peak example of the “technological sublime” — a moment, characteristic of American history, when a feat of technical mastery inspires a feeling of near-religious awe. But the classic examples were not purely aesthetic: The steamship, the railroad, the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge, the skyscraper, the jet airplane … these were all transformative as well as awesome, more than operas to be appreciated for their artistry alone.

So the fact that Apollo promised something similar and then failed, at least for our time, in the face of space’s vastness, feels like a crucial inflection point in the American story — one manifested since in the decline of the technological sublime into the simulated sublime of the Marvel Universe, or the nostalgic sublime of the Space Shuttle’s retirement flight, or the pocket-sized sublime of the iPhone.

Whatever happened to those faces in the old photographs? They did something great, in keeping with the best spirit of this often great, sometimes wicked, always remarkable country, and in so doing they also reached a ceiling on human daring, a so-far closed frontier.

We honour them by acknowledging this peak without qualification or cavil. And we will be their heirs in full only when we leap beyond it.

© 2019 New York Times News Service

Ross Douthatis a New York Times Op-Ed columnist. He writes about politics, religion, moral values and higher education.

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