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‘The Dead Astronaut’: RIP Neil Armstrong, 1930-2012

Author: • Aug 27th, 2012 •

Category: America, Brian Eno, conspiracy theory, death of affect, deep time, features, inner space, Lead Story, space relics, temporality

Neil Armstrong aboard Apollo 11.

Goodbye Neil Armstrong, dead at 82 – first man on the moon and a true pioneer. It was said in the obituaries that Armstrong never dreamt of the moon. Luckily, he had Ballard to do his dreaming for him.*

In ‘Neil Armstrong Remembers His Journey to the Moon’, a 1991 story for Interzone magazine (well, vignette, actually – it’s tiny, just three paragraphs), Ballard attempted, seemingly, to do just that. According to former Interzone editor David Pringle, who published the piece, ‘it seems to be narrated by Neil Armstrong, the 50,000-year man. Ballard never explained it, but I took it to be a transcription of a dream that he’d had. After all, he and Armstrong were of the same age cohort, born within about three months of each other in 1930. Both could remember their boyhoods during World War II. Both probably saw the same Hitchcock movies as they grew up.’

Here’s the vignette in full, complete with reference to Hitchcock’s Spellbound:

by J.G. Ballard (Interzone #53, November 1991)

I remember the white nightclub where we were asked to wait, for reasons that I never understood, and the ceiling that seemed to be carved from ice, but this was long after we came back from the Moon. Everyone sat around the white tables, the frost shining on their tuxedos, and clearly expected me to make a speech. But no-one from NASA was there, and I felt that I had nothing to tell them that they would want to hear. Luckily, the band struck up, and an old man in top hat and tails began a mime act. He went through a series of make-believe conjuring tricks that had the audience smiling, but I knew that these were really in-flight emergency drills and that there was nothing very funny about them.

A girl in a sequinned wedding-dress came onto the stage and began to read out long strings of numbers like a bingo caller. She seemed bored with the numbers, impatient to get back to her wedding ceremony, but we wrote them down on our menus, hoping that one of us would win a prize. Then I realized that the numbers were radio frequencies, and that I could call Grissom, White and Chaffee and warn them to get out of the ship before the fire started. But there were too many numbers, then as before. When I left the nightclub the girl was reading out the numbers in a sing-song voice and had started to do a strip-tease, taking off the sleeves and skirt of her wedding-dress.

Outside the nightclub the ground was covered with fine snow. A white mist hung over everything, but there were patches of clearer sunlight where people were standing. The ice stretched towards the east in endless sheets, and we could see the domes of Moscow on the horizon. I followed a set of deep ruts in the snow that reminded me of the ski-tracks that obsessed Gregory Peck in Spellbound. People stamped their feet in the icy mist, some dressed in laboratory coats and others in German Army field grey. I approached a group of generals who were standing behind Hitler as he explained to Eva Braun how hard the ice had been. He matter-of-factly described the transportation problems he had found in trying to cross this white wilderness. One of the generals announced that a unit of ski-troops would soon arrive to rescue us. For a while I listened to Hitler talking about his difficulties with the ice, but I knew the ski-troops would never arrive.

Artwork by Jeffrey K. Potter for ‘Myths of the Near Future’ (commissioned for Ballard’s 1988 short story collection Memories of the Space Age).

Elsewhere, in his non-fiction, Ballard pointed to the non-functional role that the Apollo missions (and Armstrong) now play in the popular consciousness. For Vogue magazine in 1977, he wrote:

Public interest in the space flights of the 1960s was rarely more than lukewarm (think, by contrast, of our powerful emotional involvement with the death of President Kennedy and the Vietnam war), and the effects on everyday life have been virtually nil. How many of us could name, apart from Armstrong himself, a single one of the men who have walked on the Moon, an extraordinary achievement that should have left a profound trace upon the collective psyche? Yet most of us could rattle off without a moment’s thought the names of lone transatlantic sailors — Chichester, Chay Blyth, Tabarly, Clare Francis…

Looking back, we can see that far from extending for ever into the future, the space age lasted for scarcely fifteen years: from Sputnik  and Gagarin’s first flight in 1961 to the last Skylab mission in 1974 — and the first splashdown, significantly, not to be shown on television. After a casual glance at the sky, people turned around and went indoors. Even the test flights taking place at present of the space shuttle Enterprise — named, sadly, after the spaceship in Star Trek — seem little more than a limp by-product of a television fantasy. More and more, the space programmes have become the last great period piece of the twentieth century, as magnificent but as out of date as the tea-clipper and the steam locomotive.

In 1979, in a review of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, he declared:

… in spite of the unprecedented publicity that surrounded the American astronauts remarkably little is known about them. Compared with the gauche and determined Charles Lindbergh, Neil Armstrong remains as shadowy and mysterious a figure as Captain Scott, steering the Apollo moon-craft down to its safe landing with all the swagger of a corporation president negotiating a loan from a merchant bank. How far was the NASA publicity machine to blame?

Perhaps it deliberately created the rock-jawed, taciturn image of those heroic but somehow rather dull men, living examples, incidentally, of that wooden characterization for which science fiction writers have always been criticized. What really went on in their minds? The astronauts’ subsequent careers — Aldrin’s breakdown (he is now working as a Cadillac salesman in Beverly Hills), Armstrong’s silence, excursions by the others into mysticism and ESP — suggest that more may have been taking place than we realized.

Then in 1993, two years after his Neil Armstrong vignette, Ballard returned again to the Space Age, in a review of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction:

Did the future arrive too soon, some time around the mid-century, the greatest era of modern science fiction? It has always struck me as remarkable that one of the twentieth century’s greatest achievements, Neil Armstrong’s landing on the Moon, a triumph of courage and technology, should have had virtually no influence on the world at large. The great record-breaking attempts of the 1920s and 1930s generated an endless spin-off in architecture, fashion and design. I can remember my own childhood, when even static objects like teapots were streamlined, and much of the furniture and kitchen equipment around me seemed to be forever moving past at 100 m.p.h.

Neil Armstrong may well be the only human being of our time to be remembered 50,000 years from now, but to us his achievement means almost nothing. There are no teapots shaped like an Apollo spacecraft. Chromium, the most futuristic of all materials, is disapproved of by the conservationist lobby, and everything is dominated by matt black and the Mercedes look, at once aggressive and paranoid, like German medieval armour. One reason why the Apollo moon-landings failed to touch our imaginations is that science fiction got there first, just as it has anticipated so much of our lives, effectively taking all the fun and surprise out of existence. Fifty years ago the Hollywood film convincingly brought to life the s-f writer’s visions of the future.

Neil Armstrong in 1966, during the Gemini program.

Of course, Ballard’s short stories are renowned for predicting the Death of the Space Age. His metaphor of the ‘dead astronaut’ caught in a time fugue stands in for America’s vainglorious attempts to assert dominance on the world stage. Whether the passing of Armstrong can help to reignite that spark remains to be seen.

For more on Ballard’s relationship to the Space Age, we recommend three excellent articles.

1) Mike Holliday’s ‘Ballard and the Vicissitudes of Time’. Holliday investigates a strange interregnum in Ballard’s career that produced three short stories: ‘News from the Sun’ (1981), ‘Memories of the Space Age’ (1982) and ‘Myths of the Near Future’ (1982). These marked a return to earlier concerns in Ballard’s careers, namely psychological dislocations and disturbances in our perception of the flow of time, this time somehow caused by human space-flight.

2) Melanie Rosen Brown’s ‘Dead Astronauts, Cyborgs, and the Cape Canaveral Fiction of J.G. Ballard: A Posthuman Analysis’, in which Rosen Brown ‘explores the ways in which the so-called “Cape Canaveral” short stories of J.G. Ballard exemplify the promises of posthumanity as articulated by posthuman theorists such as Donna Haraway and N. Katherine Hayles. Although Ballard’s fiction is viewed by many as a needlessly pessimistic and derogatory portrayal of NASA’s space program, viewed through a posthuman lens, Ballard’s fiction instead reveals him to be optimistic about the future of space exploration — cautiously optimistic, but optimistic nonetheless. Ballard’s fiction portrays a culture clearly not ready to do away with the human in favor of some new mechanized being; however, in Ballard’s worlds, the human is no longer enough either. Only through the merging of technology and humanity — a hybrid of posthuman and human — does the world continue to spin for either Ballard’s posthuman astronauts or his Earth-bound humans who are capable of escaping the planet only through fugues of space and time.’

3) Umberto Rossi’s ‘A Little Something About Dead Astronauts’. Here, Rossi ‘analyses five stories published between 1962 and 1982 — “The Cage of Sand,” “A Question of Re-Entry,” “The Dead Astronaut,” “Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown,” and “Memories of the Space Age” — in which dead spacemen have a pivotal role connected to a place that looms large in Ballard’s imagination: Cape Kennedy/Canaveral. The essay focuses on the recurring religious symbols and metaphors Ballard uses in the stories, examining their social, cultural, and political implications against the background of the US space program, from the Gemini capsules to the space shuttle.’

Finally, for your listening pleasure, enjoy the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s radio dramatisation of ‘The Dead Astronaut’.

Plus, there’s always Brian Eno (himself sporting a Ballardian connection) with his monumental ambient drift-piece ‘An Ending (Ascent)’, a fitting tribute to the classic era of US space exploration.

Goodbye, Neil…

* Thank you to Andrew Frost for the ‘Ballard did Armstrong’s dreaming for him’ observation.

..:: Elsewhere on Ballardian…

+ ‘Walking on the Moon?’
+ ‘Apollo Roulette’ by Brian Baker
+ ‘The ‘DNA of the Present’ in the Fossil Record of the Cold War Through the Imagery of JG Ballard, Related Sources and Documents in Various Media’ by Pippa Tandy
+ ‘Do the Russians love their children, too?’
+ ‘Strangle her before she strangles you’
+ ‘Bottle to throttle’
+ ‘Thirteen to Centaurus’
+ ‘Martian Burn Out’
+ ‘Ballardian World News: Memories of the Space Age’
+ ‘JG Ballard in Space’
+ ‘Dead Astronaut’
+ ‘Lie down with the beast’
 JGB neets the Prophet Yahweh 

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9 Responses »

  1. Cool, Simon… Here’s another one: “The Impact Zone. Little information has been released about the psychological effects of space travel, both on the astronaut and the public at large. Over the years, NASA spokesmen have even denied that the astronauts dream at al during their space flights. But it is clear from the subsequent troubled careers of many of the astronauts (Armstrong, probably the only man for whom the 20th century will be remembered 50,000 years from now, refuses to discus the moon-landing) that they suffered severe psychological damage. What did they dream about, how were their imaginations affected, their emotions and need for privacy, their perceptions of time and death? The Space Age lated barely fifteen years, from Gagarin’s first flight in 1961 to the first Apollo splashdown not shown live on TV in 1975, a consequence of the public’s lack of interest — the brute-force ballistic technology is basically 19th century, as people realize, while advanced late-20th-century technologies are invisible and electronic — computers, microwave data links, faxes and VDUs are the stuff of which our dreams are made. Perhaps space travel is forever doomed because it inevitably recapitulates primitive stages in the growth of our nervous systems, before the development of our sense of balance and upright posture — a forced return to infantile dependency. Only intelligent machines may one day grasp the joys of space travel, seeing the motion sculpture of the space flights as immense geometric symphonies.” Annotation to “Notes Towards A Mental Breakdown”, Chapter 5, The Atrocity Exhibition.

  2. Thanks Rick – that’s a good one. He’s briefly namechecked in Kindness of Women, too. I’ll hunt it down.

  3. Looking at Eno’s “Apollo” album again, I just realized that one of the tracks is titled “Matta”, of whom Ballard wrote: “Why must we await, and fear, a disaster in space in order to understand our own time? The Chilean painter, Roberto Matta, one of the last of the surrealists, asked this as yet unanswerable question. All disasters — earthquakes, plane or car crashes — seem to reveal for a brief moment the secret formulas of the world around us, but a disaster in space re-writes the rules of the continuum itself.”

  4. […] Read the rest at Ballardian. […]

  5. Mike Holliday — interesting Eno connection on Matta… I have the original gallery brochure for Matta’s DIS-ASTRONAUTE surreal painting that JGB refers to… what’s unusual is the way JGB rewrote Matta’s question… in the 1966 brochure Matta asks: “Why must we await, and fear, a disaster in space, in order to become aware of our world?”

    In AtrocityX, in the paragraph entitled “A Watching Trinity” (Chapter five, Notes Towards A Mental Breakdown), Ballard has Kline ask: “Why must we await, and fear, a disaster in space in order to understand our own time?”

    Matta seems to be thinking of the earth and the space as separate, while JGB links space and time in Einsteinian space-time… will a disaster in space also be a disaster in time?

  6. It is quite likely that the space age wasn’t and still isn’t fit for the creation of a manufactured normalcy field. The moon landing wasn’t a tiny gap between a future that is going to happen and that is just happening. A leap to great for the mankind.

    Maybe the concept of “future nauseous” can shed some light on the idea of “inner spaces”. A future that is not happening but expected to happen grows in the mind as a fantastic spectacle and this is what the space age was dedicated to become. But what about a future that is happening and not going to happen and grows in the mind nevertheless as a weird alternative to the manufactured normalcy field? Isn’t that the life of the man you meet in a coffee bar and who walks on the moon?

  7. I’ve never read the review, but according to the short bibliography included in the special RESEARCH Publications issue on Ballard, in 1970 JGB wrote a review of Norman Mailer’s account of the Apollo 11 mission for the Guardian titled “Lost in Space.” I’m sure it must have some great material re: Armstrong and the other astronauts.


  9. Heart surgeons kill first man on the moon.

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