“Sir, That’s Not A Footprint…”

July 16-24 marks the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon mission. This reminded me of a conversation I had a few years ago with my colleague Roger Malina. It led to this jointly authored post.

What do you see here? Look closely…

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This image was made 20 July 1969 by Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin via a 60mm lens and a Hasselblad camera. NASA’s official records identify this as Image ID number AS11-40-5878 and its caption reads: “Astronaut footprint on the Moon.” Here are some more prints

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But NASA’s label isn’t telling the whole story. We can also see this iconic image as something else. And this gestalt switch in perspective helps us better understand the history of Apollo, the history of space exploration, and its future.

A word first about Roger: “My culture is space culture. My father, Frank Malina, was a rocket and astronautics pioneer. In the 1940s, he helped start the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as well as a rocket company.”

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Frank J. Malina built rockets. Here’s one of them, a WAC Corporal, c. 1945.

“Yuri Gagarin visited our house as did Werner von Braun. I have worked as an astrophysicist and led a team that built a space telescope for NASA. But I have also worked for decades as the editor of the arts journal Leonardo, which my father started in 1968. I deeply believe that space exploration is a cultural activity and is desirable as part of the future of our species.”

Back to the Apollo photograph and the big switch that occurred…

Roger recalls: “In 2007, I went to Bangalore where we had organized a “Space and Culture” workshop. I was one of the keynote speakers and I gave an enthusiastic talk advocating the work of artists involved in space exploration. At some point, I showed the famous Apollo “footprint” photo. I began to wax eloquent about this iconic photograph and compared it to the drawings in prehistoric caves, Galileo’s drawings of mountains on the moon, or the paintings by Leonardo during the Renaissance.”

As I paused for breath, a student in the back of the room raised their hand. I asked for the question. She said quietly: “But sir, that’s not a foot print it’s a boot print.” The whole room held their breath in sudden agreement and, just like that, the whole foundation of my talk shifted.

She was right. No one could deny that this was a boot print not a foot print. But does it matter? Footprint, boot print. Isn’t that just a matter of semantics? No. But why have we almost always described it as a foot print when it’s so obviously NOT?

A profound shift in thinking comes when we decide how we choose to see this. And the difference is more than symbolic. Apollo 11 occurred in the shadow of the Vietnam War. The idea of boots – boots on the ground – meant a good deal at the time, especially to citizens of Southeast Asia.

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Boots on the ground, 1969.

One need not deploy much post-colonial analysis to uncover the US’s desire to open up the space “frontier” as part of its manifest destiny. Boots led the way westward in the 19th century…similar boots made prints on the Moon.

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Boots on the ground, 1872. William Gast’s American Progress.

Probing more deeply makes us ask whether humans are meant for outer space. We will never be able to walk barefoot on the moon, because the process of human evolution made us fundamentally ill adapted to the conditions beyond the earth. The moon is not just further than the frontier of the earth, it is someplace elsewhere entirely. It is a foreign, hostile place. To go there, you need boots, literally and figuratively. And the deep debates about the future exploration of outer space – people or robots? – are enmeshed in the dialectic of the footprint versus the boot print. There will never be footprints elsewhere in the solar system except on Earth.

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No boot prints here…yet.

The trip to Bangalore was a trigger moment for Roger. As he notes, “that simple observation has de-stabilized me ever since, and made me more self-critical and self-aware about the space culture I am helping to build and am part of, and its heritage from the space faring nations that have started the space age, and the new ones now participating.”

As we think about the history of Apollo as well as the future of space exploration, we should remember that student in Bangalore who saw something quite different in one of the 20th century’s most famous pictures. What space culture will we build for the future? And what will we do to make more footprints here on earth and fewer bootprints?

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