Of a Fire on the Moon Critical Essays

Norman Mailer


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

One of the first things that strikes Mailer about the people in the space program is their use of jargon: Their words are usually devoid of personal expressions, and the astronauts feel uncomfortable when asked about their personal reactions. Being part of a team, part of NASA, means to suppress individuality. As Mailer puts it, “Yes, real Americans always spoke in code. They encapsulated themselves into technological clans.” The result, however, is to make the moon shot seem unreal. Surely Mike Collins, the astronaut who would stay in the spacecraft while his colleagues descended in a specially designed vehicle to the moon, must have felt some envy or regret over not going himself. Yet Collins will not allow himself to suggest he might be disappointed. Part of the problem is that the astronauts have to play several roles at once. The complexity of their situation is unprecedented, Mailer supposes, and this accounts for their unwillingness to risk anything like an original or a daring thought. Their press conferences are boring to most of the press, yet Mailer probes for a rather intriguing speculation on the astronauts’ dilemma:Now it was as if they did not know if they were athletes, test pilots, engineers, corporation executives, some new kind of priest, or sheepish American boys caught in a position of outlandish prominence—my God, how did they ever get into this?

Several of the astronauts have been test pilots. They are superb physical specimens ready for the rigors of space travel. Some of them have engineering degrees; some are already administrators. They are treated as heroes, and they are also somewhat embarrassed by their publicity. Mailer puts all these facts into a single sentence and a style that both sums up and expresses their awkward circumstances. Even on the subject of their own deaths they are silent, or they attempt to downplay the dangers of their mission: Rather than speaking of their “personal disasters,” they employ euphemisms such as “contingency.” This use of language to mask reality is profoundly disturbing to Mailer, who points out that Nazis and Communists have made a similar use of words, resorting to terms such as “liquidation” to refer to “mass murder.” As a writer, he fears the damage to the human psyche when “words, like pills, were there to suppress emotional symptoms.”

Mailer’s forte is to find the contradictions of the moon voyage. On the one hand, the astronauts have been picked for their prowess and virility. On the other hand, for most of their time in space they are “passive bodies.” In their preparations for space travel, they have submitted to every kind of hazardous experiment: He suggests, “They were done to, they were done to like no healthy man alive.” They eat out of plastic tubes filled with mushed edibles resembling baby food. They are as awkwardly confined in their bulky spacesuits as a trussed-up baby still in diapers. They are protected by every kind of technology, yet their voyage could well lead to their deaths. In this respect, they are simply intensified...

(The entire section is 1256 words.)