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The Naming of Things-a Deep Mythology Analysis of the Apollo Program Archtypes

The Naming of Things

a Deep Mythology Analysis of the Apollo Program Archtypes

Glimpses of Gaia: Apollo’s Accidental Epiphanies:   On December 24th, 1968 three men gazed at the Earth from their Apollo spacecraft to the Earth as it orbited the Moon. This first “moon’s eye view” of the Earth was relayed back to Earth and shared with millions of TV viewers. These images led to a radical shift in Earth mythology. Prior to this spectacular moment, there seemed to be a lack of awareness of the preciousness and fragility of the Earth. Western culture, sanctified by Christianity and Marxism, encouraged symbolic, psychological, and ethical patterns of destructive relations of humans with nature. From Descartes to Newton and scientific materialism, westerners developed a model of the universe as a Giant Clock, a soulless machine. For the modern Westerner, Earth is generally considered an abundant source of dead matter or raw material bequeathed by God for mankind’s use and exploitation.

The space flights during the 1960’s allowed humans to look at our planet from outer space and perceive it as an integrated whole. The perception of Earth in all its beauty deeply moved both astronauts and TV viewers alike; in fact, several astronauts declared after their flights that they had undergone a profound spiritual experience that forever changed their relationship to the Earth. The first “Earthrise” photographs taken by the Apollo astronauts in December of 1968, along with other views of the small blue and white gem contrasted against the vast velvety black background of space, have become powerful and persuasive symbols for the global ecology movement. These extraordinary images have allowed us as a species to see Gaia, to achieve emotional and intuitive insight into the nature of the Earth.

These glimpses of Gaia were an unexpected result of the Apollo program. At the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, (NASA), it was an engineer and deputy administrator named Abraham Silverstein who came up with the name “Apollo.” He was inspired by the heroic image of Apollo he found in a book on Greek mythology. Silverstein said of his choice, “ I thought the image of the god Apollo riding his chariot across the sun gave the best representation of the grand scale of the proposed program.” (Burrows 267). The Apollo program followed two U.S. space projects: the earlier Project Mercury solo flights were aptly named after the messenger god, the god of travelers, and Project Gemini two-man missions. Interestingly, NASA’s great minds were not inspired to name the program for Artemis, or Diana as she was known to the Romans, although she is the goddess of the moon they so desperately wished to reach. Instead they chose her brother, Apollo, the god of the sun with his dramatic and masculine horse drawn-chariot. Not surprisingly the space program is by its very nature, quite Apollonian. It is Apollo, the god of reason, mathematics, and logic who rules the professions of science and engineering.

It was Apollonian consciousness, the mathematical, engineering and competitive warrior spirit, that got us to the Moon and that very Apollonian consciousness that was transformed by the stunning view of the Earth from the Moon. The deeper mystical and ontological ramifications of the journey to the Moon were not revealed until after the flight of Apollo 8. To Apollo 8 astronaut Jim Lovell, the Earth seemed like a small jewel, a sapphire against the black velvet of outer space. Lovell perceived the Earth in its finitude, as singular and precious as it really is. The scientists, engineers and pilots of NASA saw the epiphany of Gaia. The image acted as a deep symbol, a kind of intuitive shorthand revealing what the Earth is to us on a fundamental level: our salvation, preservation, and spiritual ground or matrix.

NASA unintentionally gave birth to another epiphany of Gaia by hiring scientist and theorist James Lovelock. It was at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs in California that Lovelock worked to develop experiments to detect life on Mars. Lovelock wondered: if life on Mars is of a different order than life on Earth, how can an earthling conceive of the right tests to detect it?  This train of thought led him to think more deeply about the essential characteristics of what we call life. Lovelock concluded that all living organisms must take in energy and matter and discard waste products causing chemical changes. These chemical reactions, Lovelock speculated, could be detected life on other planets through analysis of the chemical composition of their atmospheres.

Before NASA ever launched the Viking spacecraft to Mars in the 1970’s, Lovelock determined that Mars had no living organisms at this time since all possible reactions among the gases in the atmosphere had all been completed in the distant past. Lovelock informed NASA that a spectral analysis of the Martian atmosphere (which could be performed by a telescope on Earth) was all that was required, and that there was no need to send the Viking spacecraft all the way to Mars. NASA was not thrilled with Lovelock’s insights and continued developing the Viking project to search for life on Mars. During his time at NASA, Lovelock had an intuitive insight into the mysterious yet obvious nature of the earth as an integrated whole, a living being, a complex and self-regulating organism. Lovelock confessed that the “start of the Gaia Hypothesis was the view of the Earth from space, revealing the planet as a whole.” Ironically, the telos of the space program led to the formulation of the Gaia hypothesis. Science reached to the ends of the known world and beyond it into its mystery.

NASA gained much more than it bargained for with the Apollo program and James Lovelock. The journeys to the Moon didn’t just present the Earth from a new perspective, they also gathered information about the Earth’s atmosphere and surface that allowed us to discover more about the interactions between the living and inorganic parts of the planet. This information helped Lovelock formulate the Gaia hypothesis. With the Gaia hypothesis, Lovelock proposes that the Earth’s living matter, air, oceans, and the land surface form a complex system which can be seen as a single organism with the “capacity to keep our planet a fit place for life” (Lovelock, Gaia ix-x).

The controversial name for the hypothesis was chosen by William Golding, the novelist friend of James Lovelock. Little did Lovelock know that he had tapped into a deep archetypal power. Gaia is the ancient Greek name for the Earth personified as a Goddess known by the same name. Lovelock’s serendipitous choice encourages us to honor and respect the Earth as befits the supreme deity of early pre-Hellenic Greece. Lovelock has personified the Earth as Mother Nature, the source and sustainer of all life, the womb to which all life returns, the mother and matrix, “the sustaining force of all things.” The Gaia hypothesis comes along with a very powerful mythological history. According to Greek mythology, the universe began when Gaia emerged out of the chaos. Gaia then parthenogenically conceived and gave birth to Uranus, the sky god, as she slept. He was both her son and lover. Together they populated the earth with the Titans and Olympians. Two generations later her great-grandson, Apollo, slew the great python (one of Gaia’s offspring) at Delphi, usurping Gaia’s shrine.

After thirty years of scientific debate, the Gaia hypothesis has become much more accepted and is considered to be an accurate, if colorful, description of the Earth’s self-regulatory nature. However, the scientific community, unlike the general public, hasn’t enthusiastically embraced the theory. Capra ponders if some of his colleague’s highly irrational reactions were “triggered by the evocation of Gaia, the powerful archetypal myth” (106). The representatives of mechanistic biology attacked Gaia hypothesis as teleological, because they could not imagine how life on Earth could create and regulate the conditions for its own existence without being conscious and purposeful” (Capra 107). By strenuously opposing any argument that seems teleological, “the mechanists still struggle with the Newtonian metaphor of God as a clockmaker” (Capra 107). The scientific establishment initially acted as catholic orthodoxy defending against Lovelock’s revolutionary, creative and persuasive model of the Earth.

The mythic baggage of the idea of Gaia has made scientists leery and resistant for several decades now. Lovelock’s colleague, biologist Lynne Margulis defends the serious and scientific nature of the Gaia hypothesis, insisting that it “is science” and “not some vague, quaint notion of a mother earth” (Margulis 123). However, those aspects of the term “Gaia” that repelled scientists attracted ecologists, spiritualists and feminists. Gaia caught on with those who sought an “ecological spirituality” (Ruether 4). A substantial segment of the general public has begun to accept that “the surface of the Earth, which we’ve always considered to be the environment of life, is really part of life” (Margulis qtd. in Capra 106). Unfortunately, this knowledge hasn’t translated into action. Americans still consume a disproportionate amount of the world’s resources.

The Biblical and mechanistic models of the Universe still influence our behavior. The Gaia hypothesis represents a sharp break in the myth structure that sustained the Western mind for thousands of years. Prior to this, the Christian teachings led to an underlying assumption that man was something quite apart from the world in which he functioned, something special and unique from nature, and destined to rule forever” (Morowitz 40). In addition, the historical identification of nature with the female, an inferior being, became dramatically emphasized with the development of modern science in the 16th and 17th centuries. It isn’t surprising that man has exploited the Earth. In a natural progression from the extreme undervaluing of the Earth, a corrective self-regulation brought the Gaia back into modern Western consciousness and placed her at the forefront of scientific inquiry.

Awareness of the concept of the Earth as an oasis with limited resources will hopefully usher us into a millenium of responsible stewardship. The Earth is our refuge and safe haven; it is a lifeboat in a vast, dark sea. To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful is to see a new vision of the world. We must understand that not only is the Earth rare, but the “living part of Gaia is but a thin film on its surface” (Capra 214). The current ecological crises we face are due, to a great extent, to our failure to realize that we exist within nature and only by its grace.

The marriage of science and myth is a potent combination that can motivate powerful change. The space program harnessed the power of Apollo for the journey to the Moon. The ecology movement can unite the strength of scientific data with the power of myth to alert people to the need to change our habits for self-preservation. At the time of the moon landings and the release of the Gaia Hypothesis there was a concurrent swell of support for comprehensive environmental legislation, which still regulates our environment today. We can use the image of “the Earth as mother; nourisher, provider of water, food, shelter and clothing, the sustainer of life, and the source of fertility… a life support system” to promote changes in awareness and wasteful lifestyles (McCagney “Towards” 3). Our survival as a species in the next millenium depends on the “realization and recognition of our kinship with all other beings and our Mother Earth” coupled with life-preserving actions that reflect this awareness.

Works Consulted
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Burrows, William. The New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age. New York:
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Capra, Fritjof. The Web of Life. New York: Anchor, 1996.
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McCagney, Nancy. “Ecopsychology Lectures.” Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpinteria. Summer 1999.
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Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing. San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1989.
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Sheldrake, Rupert. The Rebirth of Nature: The Greening of Science of God. New York:Bantam, 1991.

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