One giant leap for mankind?
It’s a metaphor, of course. Nobody literally leapt from the Earth to the moon, 50 years ago. But the “space race” metaphor had already encouraged us to think of rocket launches as a competitive athletic event. So it made sense to think of landing on the moon as the equivalent of breaking the Olympic record for the highest of all high jumps.
What difference does a metaphor make? For the entire history of our species, the moon has been our nightly companion. It has generated countless stories and metaphors. Apollo 11 gave us new ones. What the moon landing meant half a century ago, what it means now, will determine how and why we do it again. Those meanings depend on metaphors.
We remember Neil Armstrong’s jock metaphor because it forced together two clashing scales. Take a small and ordinary act: stepping off something on to the ground. Equate it with an action almost incomprehensibly vast: landing on an astronomically distant, astronomically alien sphere.
Very few of the 500 million people back on Earth, watching the original broadcasts of the Apollo 11 landing, understood the science, technology, engineering or mathematics that made the moon landing possible. But we all understand metaphors. In fact, you could argue that metaphors are the only thing we really understand. Metaphors are the pole we use to pole-vault, mentally, from something we know to something unfamiliar, over our heads, that we want to grasp.
Like Armstrong’s metaphor, heightened language yokes the minimal (trivial word-tools) to the maximal (world-scale, world-changing). Which is why studying literature matters as much to our collective future as studying math and biology.
Studying literature teaches us, among other things, how to distinguish good metaphors from bad ones. Sharp metaphors make us smarter. Sloppy metaphors make us dumb and dumber. The very worst metaphors are effective but pernicious. The metaphor that Donald Trump promised to build on the border got him elected president. But Trump’s mean metaphor equates refugees with rapists and immigrants with invaders. It separates children from their parents.
Armstrong’s metaphor worked the other way round: It verbally reached out to unify us all. He made the print of one man’s boot in the lunar dust the achievement of our entire species. It’s as though, at the end of a movie, the credits listed the name of every human being who had ever lived, from mitochondrial Eve in African Eden to a teenager watching TV in a Topeka living room on July 20, 1969.
And Armstrong’s ambiguous little preposition, “for,” made the metaphor work two ways. Mankind had leapt; but the leap was also for the benefit of all mankind.
You might accuse me, at this point, of a romanticized socialist reading of Armstrong’s sound bite. There’s no denying that, from one perspective, the moon mission was a colossally expensive global marketing campaign for male military America.
But Armstrong’s aspirational metaphor captured and encapsulated a once-in-a-planetary-lifetime moment. Visually, that moment is most famously represented by the photograph of “Earthrise,” taken a few months earlier by astronaut William Anders during the Apollo 8 mission. The Earthrise effect was immeasurably magnified by the photos and films of Earth taken from the lunar surface in July 1969. We could, for the first time, see people from Earth working and playing on the moon.
In 1969, “mankind” was the right word for Armstrong’s metaphor. But the study of literature also teaches us that the meanings of words change. Armstrong’s “mankind,” once intentionally inclusive, now seems less so. The first syllable has become a little irritating, a verbal splinter, reminding us of the privileged testosterone of an entirely male astronaut corps: white men romping around in their white suits.
If Kurt Vonnegut had been allowed to ghost-write Armstrong’s speech, “mankind” would have been replaced by “earthlings.” In Slaughterhouse Five, published a few months before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on the moon, the word “mankind” never appears. But “earthling” shows up thirty-eight times. It had been part of the staple vocabulary of science fiction for decades — almost invariably used by superior aliens, mocking our unimportant planet and bemoaning “the primitive notions of earthlings.” For Vonnegut in 1969, the signature characteristic of earthlings was not leaping to the moon. It was “massacre machinery” turning fire-bombed Dresden into “a moonscape.”
But just as the meanings of “mankind” have changed over the last half century, so have the resonances of “Earth” and “earthling.” Seen from the moon, our planet does not seem trivial. It’s sublime: a variegated, unique aesthetic whole. This new perspective on our home planet is what Frank White christened “The Overview Effect.” Unfortunately, that sounds like the diagnosis of an optical illusion or a mental illness.
Let me put it another way. What happened for the first time on July 20, 1969, was not Earthrise, but Earthlingrise. When we are the ones peering at our planet from the surface of another world — as the Apollo astronauts did — we are standing in the position occupied by those superior aliens in early science fiction. We are the spacefaring species, surveying Earth from above, seeing it whole, admiring an amazing, complex, fragile ecosystem, and contrasting it with what Aldrin called the “magnificent desolation” of the lunar surface. By going to the moon, we connected one astronomical super-object to another. We also connected all of our tribes to each other. From the moon’s perspective, we are all indigenous, and all endangered species.
But we are not the only inhabitants of the gleaming world seen from the moon. “Mankind” exaggerates our uniqueness. “Earthling” is humbler. The suffix “-ling” is diminutive (as in “duckling”). We are tiny bits of Earth-stuff. And humans are not the only primates here, not the only intelligent, emotional species, not the only toolmakers, song-singers or circumnavigators, not the only organisms who transform their environment. Only Earth can create earthlings, and it has made us all dependent on each other. It takes a planet to raise an astronaut.
Gary Taylor is chair of the English Department at Florida State University, and General Editor of The New Oxford Shakespeare.