WHITTINGTON: What Did Ayn Rand Think Of Apollo 11?

Ayn Rand Fountainhead Getty Images/Manan Vatsyayana

Mark Whittington Contributor
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When Apollo 11 launched from what was then called Cape Kennedy and landed the first men on the moon, opinions about the voyage of discovery were varied.

Most people at the time were awestruck, amazed that human beings could accomplish such a feat. Few, though, regarded the moon landing as a waste of effort and money. Indeed, a number of African American activists, led by the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, protested the launch not far away from the pad where the Saturn V rocket propelled three men toward the moon.

Ayn Rand, the writer and philosopher, counted herself among the skeptics. Rand is best known for authoring books such as “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged.” She was also the purveyor of a philosophy she called “Objectivism.” Rand explained: “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”

Rand took a dim view of most government programs, including state-funded science. Indeed, the danger she saw in government science was a subplot in Atlas Shrugged.

Yet Rand was enthralled by the Apollo moon landing. She related the experience of witnessing the Apollo 11 launch as part of a group of invited celebrities in an essay entitled “Apollo 11.” She described the launch thus: “What we had seen, in naked essentials — but in reality, not in a work of art — was the concentrated abstraction of man’s greatness.”

That was high praise indeed for a government program. Rand had some interesting things to say about why the Apollo program was different, in her view:

“If the government deserves any credit for the space program, it is only to the extent that it did not act as a government, i.e., it did not use coercion in regard to its participants (which it used in regard to its backers, i.e. the taxpayers). And what is relevant in this context (but is not to be taken as a justification or an endorsement of a mixed economy) is the fact that of all of our government programs, the space program is the cleanest and best: it, at least, has brought the American citizens a return of their forced investment, it has worked for its money, it has earned its keep, which cannot be said of any other program of the government.”

Rand provided a few caveats. She was unimpressed with the idea of a space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, mainly because of her deep contempt of the latter, a country she had fled in her youth. Also, Rand, an atheist, was perhaps the only person, besides Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who was irate by the reading from Genesis during the Apollo 8 mission. She did not hear about how Buzz Aldrin took communion on the lunar surface.

Rand did seem to envision a time in which private entrepreneurs would explore the high frontier of space. “It is said that without the ‘unlimited’ resources of the government, such an enormous project would not have been undertaken. No, it would not have been — at this time. But it would have been, when the economy was ready for it.”

How Ayn Rand would have regarded the efforts of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and their fellow commercial space icons can only be imagined.

Sometime later, Rand returned to the subject of the Apollo program in an essay called “Apollo and Dionysus” in which she compared the moon landing to Woodstock. In a lengthy meditation in which she snarked at the media (which was not as enthusiastic about Apollo as Walter Cronkite was) and Charles Lindbergh, she directed her ire at what happened at Woodstock.

“The goal, the ideal, the salvation, and the ecstasy have been achieved — by 300,000 people wallowing in the mud on an excrement-strewn hillside near Woodstock,” Rand wrote.

So much for what was once considered the defining event of a generation. It should be noted that while the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 is being widely celebrated, no serious plans have been made to do the same for Woodstock. One must think that Ayn Rand would be pleased

Mark Whittington (@MarkWhittington) is the author of Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? and The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He also operates his own blog, Curmudgeons Corner.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.