JULY 16, 1969. MAY 24, 2002. Fuel days, both of them. No, I don’t mean a petroleum distillate used in diesel engines or any other substance – wood, gas, coal, oil – burned to supply heat or power . . . although, come to think of it, that sort of fuel is relevant to the above dates. I’m speaking of spiritual fuel – something devotees of Ayn Rand know a good deal about. As for the rest – people who’ve never heard of Rand, let alone read her fiction and nonfiction – they need fuel as much as the rest of us.
So what connects the dots here? What does an event roughly thirty-three years ago have to do with something I experienced only last month – and what’s the connection to Ayn Rand?
On July 16, 1969, Rand, as a guest of NASA and having concluded a tour of the Space Center at Cape Kennedy the day before, witnessed the launching of Apollo 11. On May 24, 2002, my husband and I, as guests at a joint reunion of NAM-POW (American prisoners of war in Vietnam) and RIVER RATS (an association of fighter pilots who got their name from flying combat missions over the Red River Valley in North Vietnam), were invited, along with the POWs, the pilots, and their families, to tour Lockheed Martin’s airplane manufacturing facility in Fort Worth, Texas.
In the September 1969 issue of Rand’s The Objectivist, she made it clear in a 15-page article titled "Apollo 11" (as well as to a rapt audience of her friends) that the highlight of her tour was those seven minutes from countdown to liftoff to the memorable sight of the first manned rocket headed for the moon.
I cannot begin to express how privileged I felt to meet, mingle with, and address, along with my husband, the NAM-POWS, RIVER RATS, and their families on the subject of our book "Aid and Comfort:" Jane Fonda in North Vietnam. But it is clear to me that the highlight of my three days in Fort Worth was a Friday afternoon tour of Lockheed’s sprawling plant – made all the more memorable because I was in the company of so many experienced pilots whose passion for flying was as palpable as a drumbeat, underscoring every step of that tour, every moment.
Rand obviously knew at the outset what the climax of the Space Center tour would be. Of my Lockheed adventure, I did not.
For her, the suspense built almost unbearably. For me, it was a gradual thing.
Rand was understandably impatient until the moment her tour guide, the day before the launch, showed the group "what you really want to see": a giant rocket a couple hundred yards away. As I entered Lockheed’s plant, I felt, not impatience, but a kind of restlessness. On the one hand, the novelist in me was intrigued by the no-camera-on-the-premises, no note-taking-of-any-kind rules, along with the precaution of mandatory security badges. Yet here I was being led down a perfectly innocuous-looking series of long halls where every bit of wall space was taken up by photographs and mockups of various types of aircraft – interesting, but hardly dramatic to a non-flyer. And where were we guests of Lockheed being led to? A huge cafeteria-like space where a picnic lunch had been arranged for us. Pleasant, but disappointing.
After Rand’s first sight of Apollo 11, she felt "a kind of awe" – purely theoretical, she added; this was, after all, the day before the big event. For me, the process, as I indicated, was gradual: from curiosity as we all looked around and mingled, to increasing interest as we were split up into manageable-sized groups, assigned our own guide, and – due to the vastness of the place – driven off in golf carts (if Lockheed’s employees aren’t traveling in carts, they’re using bicycles!). The awe, when I did experience it, was, like Rand’s, a bit theoretical. I had begun to sense the enormity of what I was seeing, but had not yet grasped the full implications.
Rand said of her guide that, while she did not know his actual job at the Space Center, he gave her the impression of "a man in love with his work." I got lucky. Only two other couples joined us on our golf cart, and when our guide’s mike malfunctioned, he was forced to hang back a bit from all the other, larger groups so we could hear what he was saying. As he began pointing out things to our intimate little group, I could see in his eyes, in his body language, all the indications of a man who was passionate about his work. Turns out our guide, Tom C., not only was an electrical engineer involved conceptually with helping to produce some of the most advanced aircraft in the world, but in another life, so to speak, he’d been a fighter pilot -- a River Rat. As he steered us slowly past the prototype of a fighter plane he’d personally worked on along with his teammates, I surprised myself by the eagerness, the intensity, of my questions, like some journalist writing a piece for the science section of a magazine.
Unlike Ayn Rand, I have absolutely no talent for science and math. So when our group caught up with the others, everyone congregating in a huge auditorium facing a blank movie screen, I sensed that the lecturer, armed with a pointer for the visuals to come, was about to lose me in a morass of techno-speak – especially with our obliging guide, Tom, who excelled at colloquial-style explanations, no longer at my elbow. As a lapsed lawyer, I know how easy it is to slip into legalese and, after all, this speaker’s audience consisted predominantly of men who’d spent a good part of their lives working with, testing, and flying airplanes, not only in wartime but commercially.
What happened next was as delightful as it was unexpected. The lights dimmed – but not so much that I was unable to see clearly the man who had just taken the first speaker’s place: a strikingly handsome dark-haired individual who stood militarily straight in his flight suit, looking for all the world like the mythical Steve Canyon. His stance, it turned out, was no accident. A former fighter pilot like so many others in the room, he was now one of Lockheed’s test pilots – and his passion for the subject at hand was electrifying. I still can’t quite figure out how he managed to talk to all the pilots out there in their own lingo while simultaneously making it crystal clear to the uninitiated precisely what he was talking about. The visuals helped, of course, but even one such as I had no trouble following him.
And where he took us was mesmerizing. Since Ft. Worth’s Lockheed had opened in 1942, thousands of aircraft have "rolled through the doors," as they’re fond of saying here, and when teams of the plant’s employees developed the world’s largest bomber (the B-36), this led to their developing, among other things, the superlatively designed world-class lethal war machines known as the F-111s, F-16s and F-22s (the "F" signifying fighter planes). But what our fighter pilot turned test pilot speaker was letting us in on now was the new guy in the works: the JSF, or Joint Strike Fighter. I wanted to cheer. I wanted to cry. So did everyone else in the room, I think. The new technology was mind-boggling, the possibilities limitless, the sheer achievement as awe-inspiring as anything I’ve seen in a long, long time. I did shed some tears when something the speaker said -- fraught with implications about 9/11 and defending America against terrorists -- brought everyone, applauding wildly, to their feet. I looked around at a young red-haired man who had remained intensely alert during the entire presentation, his pregnant wife holding tightly to his arm – and I knew instinctively that this conspicuously young pilot, a River Rat, could have seen action only in Afghanistan or the Gulf War. His expression said, loud and clear: Some day in the not too distant future, I’ll be flying the magnificent JSF! I looked around at scores of pilots who had navigated the most heavily defended airspace in history – the Red River Valley – with one hand metaphorically tied behind their backs, thanks to Lyndon Johnson – men who’d been shot down unnecessarily and who had lost a lot of their fellow pilots to fatal shoot-downs. I saw a roomful of genuine heroes who had put their lives on the line in defense of our great country, who had suffered and endured and lived with honor. And I knew that, at this moment, they were thinking of all the friends who had died for it.
Talk about spiritual fuel!
That’s when two people joined me, so to speak, in the auditorium, one of them fictional, the other real but long dead. The first was a character played to perfection by British actor Ralph Richardson -- a test pilot turned aircraft manufacturer in, for my money, the most inspiring film ever made: David Lean’s incomparable post-World War II classic: "Breaking the Sound Barrier." Having once rented the film for a whole week, I can still visualize every scene, every camera angle, recite every crucial piece of dialogue. I can hear the reverence, the touch of wonder, in Richardson’s voice as he speaks to his test pilot son-in-law about "the aircraft engine of the future." I well up at the memory of his daughter who, having exiled him from her life, finally "gets it": Her father is not some greedy tycoon with an evil vision and an urge to get to New York in three hours, but an adventurer in the truest sense of that word, eager to meet the challenges posed by our implacable universe.
The second person whose presence I felt acutely – and I wished with all my heart she were sitting in the next seat – was Ayn Rand, whose description of the Apollo 11 launch goes beyond eloquence. "[T]his spectacle was not the product of inanimate nature . . .nor or chance, nor of luck . . . it was unmistakably human – with ‘human,’ for once, meaning grandeur . . . . For once, if only for seven minutes, the worst among those who saw it had to feel – not ‘How small is man by the side of the Grand Canyon!’ – but ‘How great is man and how safe is nature when he conquers it!’ "
That Ayn Rand experienced emotional fuel by what she’d witnessed that day I have no doubt. But she devotes much of her article to analyzing the negative fallout from the sort of people who complained that a better use for our money would have been the war on poverty. This led her to the bleak hope that the flight of Apollo 11 would be "the first achievement of a new age" and not " . . . a glorious last . . . ." But, she concluded, if we continued down the familiar path of a mixed economy, if " . . . the United States is to commit suicide . . .[l]et some of its life-blood go to the support of achievement and the progress of science . . . ."
As I stood to leave Lockheed’s auditorium, fueled by what I had just experienced, I sent my old friend and mentor a silent message: Apollo 11 wasn’t a pinnacle from which we’ve been descending ever since. This is the new age you were hoping for, Ayn. Because of 9/11, because of the war against terrorism that has been thrust upon a free and determined people, Americans will rise to the challenge. And we will prevail.