Space Is the Place: Nostalgia for the Future

Screenshot 2019-07-21 at 17.21.13.png

'Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.' 

I know exactly where I was just before 4-00AM on the morning of July 21, 1969. I was in the sitting room of 125 Heath Park Road watching TV. My parents had got Martin and me out of bed to see Neil Armstrong become the first person to set foot on the moon. I was 5 years old.

To be honest I’m not sure I recall the experience. Perhaps I just remember being told that I was there. But certainly rockets, space exploration and moon landings played an important part in my childhood. Back then we dreamed of astronauts, aliens and asteroids. We watched Star Trek, the Clangers and Thunderbirds on TV. We created space suits out of boxes and Bacofoil. And one summer Sister Mary Stephen helped me make a lunar landscape out of papier mache.

Armstrong: 'The surface is fine and powdery. I can kick it up loosely with my toe. It does adhere in fine layers, like powdered charcoal, to the sole and sides of my boots.’

Over the last few weeks there have been numerous documentaries and dramas commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the first lunar landing. I was particularly struck by the film ‘Apollo 11’, which edited together original footage from NASA and the National Archives. 

The crowd at Cape Canaveral wait expectantly in sun visors and straw trilbies. The women sport cat-eye shades. Families in striped summer shirts camp out on the parking lot at JC Penney’s. Wide-angled lenses are trained and at the ready. At Mission Control Center in Houston banks of clean-cut men in headsets attend to their monitors. They wear white short-sleeved shirts, thin ties and have pens in pocket protectors. Their desks are cluttered with coffee cups and ashtrays. After a steak-and-egg breakfast, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins complete their final checks and wave goodbye. Then the unbearable tension of the countdown...

‘12, 11, 10, 9, ignition sequence start.’ 

Time slows to a crawl…

‘6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, zero, all engines running.’ 

The thunderous roar, the fearsome commotion, as the Saturn V rocket escapes its umbilical tower, and takes off… 

‘Liftoff! We have a liftoff, 32 minutes past the hour. Liftoff on Apollo 11.'

It’s a familiar drama now, but it still sends a chill down my spine.

Collins: 'Well, I promise to let you know if I stop breathing.’

As the adventure continues, I can’t help being struck by the dry, understated humour of these brave, intelligent men. I fell in love with the United States in 1969, with this casual heroism, this easygoing informality.

Aldrin: 'Now I want to back up and partially close the hatch... Making sure not to lock it on my way out.’

For me as a child the space program was entirely optimistic, inspiring, euphoric. It was a compelling tale of vision, ambition, ingenuity and courage. The stainless steel plaque attached to the ladders of the lunar module stated: ‘We came in peace for all mankind.' And President Nixon, speaking on the phone to Armstrong and Aldrin while they were on the moon surface, intoned in his rich, gravelly voice:

'For one priceless moment in the whole history of man all the people on this Earth are truly one.'

There seemed something noble and uplifting about the whole endeavour.

Of course, looking at the flickering footage now, one can’t help noticing the shadow that the Eagle module cast over the moon’s surface. And there was a shadow over the space program too. 

There were protests about the US Government’s priorities at a time when the country was facing incredible poverty and inequality. At its peak in 1966, NASA accounted for roughly 4.4% of the federal budget. The resonance of Nixon’s words now seems tarnished by Vietnam and Watergate, and there’s a suspicion that we were simply witnessing another chapter of the Cold War. We also feel uncomfortable about the low representation of female and black faces at Mission Control; and the debris left on the lunar surface.

Armstrong: 'Isn’t that something! Magnificent sight out here.'
Aldrin: 'Magnificent desolation.’ 

Nowadays the future has lost some of its lustre. Although we’ve witnessed the most dramatic transformation since the Industrial Revolution, we have become concerned that the same technology that spreads knowledge and understanding can also intensify hate and bigotry; that a new corporate oligarchy threatens our privacy and security; that the freedoms of empowerment also carry the responsibilities of self-control. Inevitably we’re suffering change fatigue. 

Aldrin: 'We feel that this stands as a symbol of the insatiable curiosity of all mankind to explore the unknown.'

Despite the reservations, the Apollo 11 story prompts nostalgia for the future. It suggests that hope and optimism are the first steps to progress. It reminds us of the power of wide-eyed anticipation. We should not deny ourselves the chance to dream.

'I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.'
President Kennedy, May 25, 1961

The US space program remains the definitive example of the motivational power of a clear and ambitious goal. It indicates that we can achieve great things if we channel talent and resource towards a unitary mission, if we commit to the principles of focus and weight.

Imagine reconvening those dudes in their thin ties and short-sleeved shirts. What if we could create the contemporary equivalent of Mission Control? What if we summoned a more diverse cross-section of the finest minds in the world, allocated proper investment, and set them a singular task? What if we asked them to save this planet rather than to visit some other celestial body?

Aldrin: 'There it is, it’s coming up!'
Collins: ‘What?'
Aldrin: 'The earth. See it?'
Collins: 'Yes. Beautiful.’

'Space is the place where I will go when I'm all alone 
Space is the place, 
Space is the place.’

Sun Ra, ’Space is the Place' 

No. 240


What Price Genius?

Steve Wozniak: ‘What do you do? You’re not an engineer. You’re not a designer. You can’t put a hammer to a nail...’
Steve Jobs: ‘Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.’

Steve Jobs

The film Steve Jobs is more than a conventional biopic. It boasts the taut dialogue of Aaron Sorkin, the assured direction of Danny Boyle and an acting tour de force from Michael Fassbender. It also has a distinctive theatrical three-act structure, concentrating the action on three pivotal product launches.

The movie uses the behind-the-scenes drama before these launches to explore the psychology of the man at their centre: his relationships with his colleagues, his ex-girlfriend and his daughter; and his own sense of self. Jobs was clearly a genius, but he was also troubled and had flawed relationships. In the film he says of himself, rather poignantly: ‘I’m poorly made.’

For anyone in the corporate world it’s hard to watch the Jobs movie without asking questions about the nature of leadership and commercial success. So many of Apple’s phenomenal accomplishments were directly attributable to Jobs’ extraordinary vision; but clearly they were also precipitated by his drive, his obsession for detail and his exacting standards.

What is an acceptable price to pay for success? What level of collateral damage, to colleagues and culture, should we accommodate in the quest for greatness? When does the end not justify the means?

Steve Wozniak: ‘It’s not binary. You can be decent and gifted at the same time.’

Steve Jobs


How Do We Accommodate Corporate Autism?

The same weekend that I saw Steve Jobs, I also read about an award-winning book concerning autism, Neurotribes by Steve Silberman. (Reviewed by James McConnachie, The Sunday Times, 22/11/15)

Autism is a condition characterised by inability to relate, self-isolation and obsession with sameness. In the 1930s the Viennese paediatrician Hans Asperger thought that autism was a relatively common trait, ‘an extreme variant of male intelligence.’ He also observed a link between autism and genius: ‘For success in science and art a dash of autism is essential.’

In the 1940s the view became established that autism was a rare and extreme condition. The book relates how it was only in the 1980s that the psychiatrist Lorna Wing identified autism as a broad continuum. Nowadays we expect 1 in 68 children to be ‘on the spectrum’, whereas in the past only 1 in 2000 was thought to have the condition.

Given that so much of a company’s personality and values is tied up in the personality and values of its leadership, we should perhaps give more thought to the psychology of our leaders. Should we be surprised if entrepreneurs and industry visionaries are often somewhat isolated, obsessed and have a reduced ability to relate to others? To some extent these have been the characteristics that qualified them for a leadership role. Or, ‘passionate, goal oriented and independent,’ as the leader’s job spec would have it.

We need to better understand the science behind this corporate autism and to give our leaders more support. It’s no longer appropriate to shrug and say that genius has its price.

Silberman’s own conviction is that autism should be accommodated within a broad conception of ‘neurodiversity’; that we should think not of disorders, but of different ‘human operating systems.’ We can start, he suggests, by embracing different perspectives on ‘normality’.

‘By autistic standards the normal brain is easily distractible, is obsessively social and suffers from a deficit of attention to detail and routine.’

Ultimately we need to broaden our expectations of leaders, embracing more psychological types and more neurodiversity. We need a new class of 'leadership operating system' fit for an age of partnership, empowerment and change. Because you can't change your behaviour if you don't change your mind.

Are You Nostalgic for the Future?

I confess the Steve Jobs film prompted a certain amount of nostalgia in me: nostalgia for a time when advertising played a central role in the grand corporate narrative (there are quite a few references to Lee Clow and Chiat Day); and also nostalgia for the future.

The movie begins with a compelling piece of archive film. We see the science and science-fiction writer Arthur C Clarke interviewed in 1974 by an Australian journalist. Asked what kind of future he envisages for the journalist’s son, Clarke sketches a world of in-home computing, global connectivity, online shopping and flexible working. In short he predicts the internet age.

One is reminded how exciting the future used to be. I grew up with the space race, NASA, Apollo landings and The Clangers. We dreamed of astronauts, aliens, asteroids and tin foil. I made a lunar landscape out of papier mache.

More recently we’ve witnessed the most dramatic technological transformation since the Industrial Revolution. We’ve seen extraordinary levels of personal, political and commercial upheaval. It’s been a thrilling, inspiring, challenging ride.

But has the future lost some of its lustre? We have become aware that the same technology that spreads knowledge and understanding can also intensify hate and bigotry; that progress brings new challenges in the areas of privacy, security, inequality and corporate oligarchy; that the freedoms of empowerment also carry the responsibilities of self control.

Whereas we used to look forward with wide-eyed anticipation, we are now engaged with the practical challenges of realising tomorrow today. Inevitably we can suffer change fatigue. A certain amount of circumspection is natural.

Nonetheless I’m a firm believer that hope and optimism are the first steps to progress. We should perhaps rededicate ourselves to imagining a future beyond our present, however complex and challenging that present may be. We should not deny ourselves the chance to dream.

‘Space is the place.
Space is the place.
There is no limit to the things that you can do.’

Sun Ra/Space Is The Place

No. 58