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Messages on the Moon From a World Turned Upside Down


Messages of peace from exiled leaders of nations under Soviet occupation were poignant. Anatols Dinbergs of Latvia spoke of how the moon landing would contribute to the “restoration of freedom to all nations.”

But the words of dictators allied with the United States felt distinctly less principled. Chiang Kai-shek of the Republic of China and Park Chung-hee of South Korea, who both freely employed torture and murder to maintain control, presumed to speak for their captive populations in lofty platitudes, invoking “world utopia” and “justice, freedom, and unity” with little irony.

However, a totalitarian leader would occasionally betray his nature, as when Joseph-Désiré Mobutu of Congo (before he was known as Mobutu Sese Seko) claimed the mission of the Apollo 11 astronauts as his own, which he described as “the conquest of space in order to make man its master.” (The common use of the metaphor of conquest for a mission of peace seemed to strike few leaders at the time as discordant.)

President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz of Mexico looked to history for lessons applicable for the occasion. “In 1492, the discovery of the American Continent transformed geography and the course of human events,” he said, and then drew a parallel between that event and the “conquest of ultraterrestrial space.” It is chilling, to say the least, to see the tens of millions who inhabited pre-Columbian America and their ancient civilizations erased in order to justify a comparison to the lifeless moon. Not only would future images of Earth be skewed, so would history.

(Speaking of people on the moon, President William V. S. Tubman of Liberia had some speculations, asking the astronauts “to bear this message to the inhabitants of the Moon if they find any there.”)

Today, these messages, often eloquent and inspiring, but also self-serving, bombastic, shortsighted and outdated, remind us how difficult it is to disentangle the messy present from the aspirational future, to separate the realization of the potential of the human spirit from the need to appease less noble motivations.


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