The 60s and 70s are remembered for many things: Vietnam, Woodstock, Watergate, the Cold War. When I pull out far enough, however, and see this period in the wide sweep of history, what jump out at me as the most consequential events along with the civil rights struggle are the space missions: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo. In terms of humanity’s future, Armstrong is, for me, a more evocative name than Kennedy.
Leaving Earth for the first time and looking back at it from another world is undoubtedly an epochal event. But as an avid student of philosophy one of the most fascinating things about these missions for me is the emotional impact they had on the astronauts. Time and again, in interviews, I’ve heard men who otherwise probably don’t have a philosophical bone in their body describe the experience of being on the moon in philosophical terms. Somehow, no other kind of language captures what they experienced. Here’s how the last man to walk on the moon, Gene Cernan, described it:
I looked down at my footprints, and I knew I wasn’t coming this way again. Why were we here? What did it mean? I looked over my shoulder, and there’s the Earth—there’s reality. I wanted to stop time…This is what it feels like.
People tend to think of philosophy as a matter of mere logic and reason. But it is actually here, in Cernan’s response to finding himself on the moon, that we encounter what philosophy really is. But just reading the questions—Why were we here? What did it mean?—doesn’t convey what’s crucial. The importance rests in what provoked the questions, in the uncanniness of being that came over him. The familiarity of life fell away, and he became truly astonished. Plato called it thaumázein—wonder. And Heidegger described it this way: “To be amazed to the point of not understanding.” That is what gives rise to philosophy. That is what provokes genuinely philosophical questioning.