Lindbergh and the Space Race

One reason my blogging here has been rather hit-or-miss lately is that I’ve been busy researching my “spiritual, but not religious” biography of Charles A. Lindbergh. I didn’t repeat last summer’s productive East Coast swing through Lindbergh papers at Yale University and the Library of Congress, but I have been reading a wide variety of published sources.

So I thought I’d spend this week sharing a few nuggets and reflections from this summer’s burst of Lindbergh research. Soon I’ll write more about Lindbergh’s wife Anne, whose diaries and letters I’ve been reading the last few weeks. But I want to start with something very different: Lindbergh and the space race.

Charles Lindbergh (standing, far left) with Pres. Lyndon Johnson and the astronauts of Apollo 7 and 8 in December 1968 — NASA

I’m enough of a NASA buff to not be surprised that Lindbergh is a kind of forefather of that program. In the 1930s Lindbergh had used his influence to help support the research of pioneering rocket scientist Robert Goddard. But it was his historic flight to Paris in May 1927 that forged the most prominent connection.

As children, several astronauts idolized the first pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean — none more so than Alan Shepard, whose biographer reports that he “read and reread Lindbergh’s autobiography, We” — to the point that young Shepard, assigned to write his own memoir, titled it Me. During World War II, Shepard narrowly missed meeting Lindbergh during his naval service on the island of Biak. (I think John Glenn did encounter Lindbergh at this point, but I haven’t yet had a chance to read Glenn’s memoir.) Before Shepard’s historic mission as the first American in space, a committee of scientists advising the president likened the Mercury program to Lindbergh’s Paris flight.

It was a common analogy during the years of the Space Race. Life magazine’s coverage of the astronauts’ lives evoked the New York Times‘ 1927 deal with Lindbergh — save that, as Susan Faludi later complained, Shepard, Glenn, et al. “were heroes not, like Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly across the Atlantic, because they had done something, but because they were confident they would.” And NASA flight operations director Chris Kraft (who died last month) told Neil Armstrong’s biographer that “we just knew damn well that the first guy on the Moon was going to be a Lindbergh… And who do we want that to be? The first man on the Moon would be a legend, an American hero beyond Lucky Lindbergh, beyond any soldier or politician or inventor… Neil was Neil. Calm, quiet, and absolute confidence. We all knew that he was the Lindbergh type.”

In December 1968 Neil Armstrong (who has his own “spiritual, but not religious” story) took the Lindberghs on a tour of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Writing for Life the following summer, Charles Lindbergh remembered being “hypnotized” to watch firsthand as a Saturn V rocket put Goddard’s principles into such powerful effect, carrying Apollo 8 from Cape Canaveral on the way to lunar orbit:

Here, after epoch-measured trials of evolution, earth’s life was voyaging to another celestial body. Here one saw our civilization flowering toward the stars. Here modern man had been rewarded for his confidence in science and technology. Soon he would be orbiting the moon.

Lindbergh was also present in July 1969 when Armstrong and his Apollo 11 crewmates lifted off for their historic mission. The aging pilot introduced himself to a starstruck Alan Shepard; the two men walked and talked on the beach for half an hour as the countdown continued.

So what does any of this have to do my particular angle on Lindbergh’s life story?

In a post last summer at The Anxious Bench, I closed by noting a striking difference between the spiritual biography of Lindbergh and the religious history of NASA, whose employees often depended on the community they experienced in churches like Houston’s Webster Presbyterian. (Here’s a profile from earlier this year of the so-called “church of the astronauts.”) “[F]or all his spiritual questing,” I concluded, “Lindbergh never felt the need for ‘an attachment to any church.’ It’s not just that he shared many moderns’ distrust of organized religion. It’s that he doesn’t seem to have felt any great need to be committed to any voluntary community. He maintained many friendships and participated in many organizations, but he’s neither like Buzz Aldrin, whose ‘involvement [writes historian Kendrick Oliver] with Webster Presbyterian presented him, perhaps with a rare chance for social integration,’ nor the NASA families who were kept grounded and supported by their religious communities.”

Collins, Carrying the FireIt’s perhaps telling that when Lindbergh wrote a foreword for an Apollo 11 astronaut’s autobiography, it was not Armstrong or Aldrin, but Michael Collins — the man who orbited the moon alone while the other two took their giant leaps for mankind. “Relatively inactive and unwatched,” Lindbergh wrote of Collins, “he had time for contemplation, time to study both the nearby surface of the moon and the distant moon-like world. Here was human awareness floating through universal reaches, attached to our earth by such tenuous bonds as radio waves and star sights.” It reminded Lindbergh of his lonely, sleepless flight to Paris, when “my awareness seemed to be abandoning my body to expand on stellar scales.”

Such philosophical language may seem misplaced for a story of what’s often considered a triumph of engineering, but the space program was often associated with the same kinds of metaphysical aspirations as the earlier wave of aviation history. “After all,” I wrote at Anxious Bench, “if the invention of airplanes could produce a ‘winged gospel,’ isn’t it easy to imagine that having the potential to escape Earth and enter the heavens might inspire its own ‘techno-religion’?”

Lindbergh’s encounters with the space program happened to coincide with his late-in-life questioning of technological progress. Far removed from the young pilot who trusted in airplanes to usher in a better world, the Lindbergh of the late 1960s and early 1970s worried that such technology had become part of a larger problem. Two months after Apollo 11, he addressed Neil Armstrong and other members of the Society for Experimental Test Pilots:

We cannot escape the fact that while science, industry, and commerce are progressing, the environment of life is breaking down. We pilots have had an unique opportunity to watch this breakdown — the stripping of forests, the erosion of land, the pollution of water and air; the destruction of cities at one time and place, and their megalopolizing at another…. We now find that the expanding frontiers of aviation have overtaken the evolving frontiers of life, and that failure to integrate the two would almost certainly be catastrophic.

Lindbergh with Armstrong at a SETP dinner in September 1969 – photo used by permission of Reeve Lindbergh, from the Charles Augustus Lindbergh papers (MS 325). Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library

Committed as he was to environmental protection by that point in his life, Lindbergh’s concerns ran still deeper and wider. Here’s more of his preface to Michael Collins’ memoir:

…the assistance we receive from technological devices is countered by restrictions that they place upon us, and the same scientific knowledge that constructs our spacecraft informs us of apparently insurmountable physical limits. We find the speed of light and the vastness of space to be incompatible with biological time. We begin to realize that a point arrives after which the distraction and destruction caused by technological enterprise reduce man’s awareness. We become apprehensive of the direction in which our twentieth-century heading leads. Is it toward an affluent and spiritual utopia or a bleak dead end?

Lindbergh wasn’t averse to further exploration of the moon or Mars. But writing in the last months of his losing battle with lymphoma, the most famous pilot of the 20th century dreamed of a different kind of journey:

Is it remotely possible that we are approaching a stage in evolution when we can discover how to separate ourselves entirely from earthly life, to abandon our physical frameworks in order to extend both inwardly and outwardly through limitless dimensions of awareness? In future universal explorations, may we have no need for vehicles or matter? Is this the adventure opening to man beyond travel through solar-system space?

Our future remains as potent as it was in Goddard’s time. Past accomplishments found thoughts of greater conquests. As Goddard’s dreams resulted in the spacecraft that today’s astronauts are crewing, advancing man may discover that thought and reality transpose like energy and matter.