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Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride: Boldly Going Forward Into Myth

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In classical civilizations, when beloved heroes died, they were often said to be delivered over to the gods in a divine apotheosis--an act of exaltation that made the heroes themselves godlike in stature. For those who survived them on earth, the heroes lived on as myths. Some were so honored as to have stars and asteroids, even whole constellations, named after them. Imagine a star or constellation named Neal Armstrong or Sally Ride.

With the Age of Religions, the apotheosis to godhood was demoted to a lesser, yet no less honored sainthood, or in the Buddhist tradition, to the enlightenment of a buddha or bodhisattva. But with the rediscovery of classical traditions in the Renaissance, European artists as recently as the 19th century revived the convention of painting pictures of even secular heroes being received into heaven as gods, though now the apotheosis was no more than an allegory for the honor being bestowed on the departed hero back on earth. For Americans, perhaps the most famous pictorial allegory of apotheosis is that of George Washington painted beneath the dome of the Capital Building in Washington, DC. Yes, in that fresco, the father of our country is shown being made a god. Needless to say, in both the ancient and the modern renderings, the apotheosis had an ulterior political motive of buttressing the status quo of those inheriting the mantle of the newly conferred god.

Today, however much we venerate heroes such as Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, we don't even in our wildest dreams envision them becoming gods. But we do share with our ancestors the proclivity for seeing that our heroes live on as myths, whether through loving devotion or in pragmatic, socio-political pedagogy. I should point out that I'm not referring to myth in the colloquial sense of attaching their names to tall tales with no credence or basis in the real lives they lived. By 'myth' I mean the representation of a dynamic model of social values conveyed through a visual or written language having great currency to a large population. In other words, the lives of Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride become a type of compact language, or shorthand, expressing an amalgam of our desires and ideals as Armstrong and Ride appeared to have embodied if not fulfilled them in our eyes.

When speaking of people as myths, we don't diminish the achievements that rightly belong to them. We expand their capacity to represent for us the values that we wish to popularize. Although we can never possess people, we can forever possess the myths we make of them, and I say this of such figures as Armstrong and Ride in particular, because of what they have meant to successive generations of young people whose life decisions have been, and will continue to be, impacted by the myths Armstrong and Ride had projected in their public and private lives.

I disagree with Joseph Campbell when he disparages the brain for having the proclivity to dream endlessly if it didn't have the physical imperative of the body to focus it. Campbell misrepresents the brain-body relationship as a polarization of the tribal dream state (arguably the source for collective myth making) and the "hard and unremitting competition" of the secular, scientific state. In so doing, Campbell disregards the coordination between the dreaming brain and the material body. The dream state and the state based on competition are inextricable and cannot be polarized, for the emotional tension that impels and propels competition is the same as that generating and agitating dream and myth. Both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung admitted that their own science of psychoanalysis was grounded in mythology (a dreaming of sorts) and disseminated a mythology of its own. For the two collectors of myth were also observers of the body, and they knew well that the essence of the external world is equivalent to its perception in the consciousness of humans.

In many senses, myth conveys widely recognized meanings, either pro or con to human adaptability, sometimes both simultaneously--though more often myth is desired by a population to be without complexity. In this sense a myth is any entity, whether historical and factual, or fictitious and symbolic, that represents a cultural consensus of esteemed meanings throughout a population. What is important to myth is the intensity of the feeling impelling the myth's making. For without the intense desire for the meaning a myth is to represent, there can be no making of myths--no mythopoetics.

What is so very ironic in Armstrong and Ride having lifted off in their final departures from earth one month apart, is that it is hard not to see the contradictions implied in the two very different myths these heroes inspire. Despite both having achieved monumental "firsts" as astronauts -- Armstrong as the first to set foot on the Moon, Ride as the first American woman to orbit the earth --there is a fundamental difference to be found between them in that Armstrong represented the classical mythic hero upholding a time-honored social order, while Ride embodied the mythopoetic hero who heralds the transition to a new age and social order, a change signaling that a censorial social order that once defined a former age has now become obsolete.

The beguiling yet potent values that Neil Armstrong casts (for myths are not unlike shadows cast by real people) are those that identify the eternal hero-adventurer. Almost from the beginning of his entry into the mainstream consciousness, Armstrong assumed mythic status simply by virtue of his being an astronaut. Tom Wolfe's 1979 book,The Right Stuff , makes the importance of the astronaut's physical packaging perfectly clear and tangible for the rest of us, though schoolchildren make it clearer with their lack of irony and sheer awe of the astronaut. Unlike fiction and history, the myths often preferred by a population are those devoid of irony--the kind that mirror our desires back at us uncluttered by complex subtexts. Unfortunately, such myths don't often tell the entire story, just as the myth of Neil Armstrong, as literally stellar as it is, leaves out a good deal of the story to be told about NASA and its selection process.

Armstrong's mythos is especially uncomplicated by irony or complexity, in that his place in history was assured long before he took his first step on the Moon. This in no way diminishes his heroism or achievement. No one will ever be able to disparage the accomplishment of cooly navigating an orbiting mission (Gemini 8) that faced a near-devastating re-entry crisis. They especially cannot diminish Armstrong's command of the first manned lunar mission--as much as some curmudgeonly skeptics insist, quite seriously, that the moonwalk was filmed in a terrestrial desert. (This is decidedly not the kind of myth we wish to dwell on--that kind imagined by the disillusioned and socially estranged misanthrope--despite that it reflects what so many people mean when using the word 'myth' altogether too narrowly as to be void of truth.) When I announce in an article headline that Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride boldly go forward as myths, I mean that they live larger in their deaths than their humanity could have allowed. To use a more contemporary, but baser and less capacious vocabulary, each became a kind of brand, a model meant to perpetuate the dominant constructions of a culture as seen through the lens of the NASA and government officials who selected them to represent a prescribed American ideology.

Even this isn't disparagement, for they presumably were selected because they fulfilled the desires of Americans, or even of internationals, of their day, not because they were molded into myths they weren't. In this respect, Neil Armstrong was selected by NASA analysts who, beside considering the man's skills and fortitude, considered his image as an exemplary white heterosexual family man. A man good and just, and of an amiable disposition. The kind of man that American policy makers wanted to mythically represent America. One upholding the status quo of America; the husband desired by every heterosexual woman; the father craved and envied by every child. This is what Neil Armstrong presumably was, and in this regard, Armstrong is the honest, classic myth of the hero. The myth that authorities as much were impressed with as refined. Perhaps the myth is too good to be true. But insofar as no one has stepped forward to illuminate us otherwise, Armstrong had the right stuff. And what are myths, after all, but the most ideal model of the dominant role models of a culture. Myths are the means by which ideal identity, reality, aesthetics, and morality are defined and expressed clearly, unambiguously, and without complication--or as much as is possible.

Of course, myths, put in an historical context, represent the victors of social, political and economic struggles long since ended, yet whose histories (if famous) still remind us who--and with what ideology--the victor remains in power. In this sense, Neil Armstrong, as an alpha male achiever, as a model for youth, particularly boys and young men, generated the kind of mythos that can be considered the most invaluable as an active agent in the distribution of power, whether that be in the ratification of the status quo or its radical rearrangement. (In his case it was the former.)

And yet, Neil Armstrong, quite outside the directives of those who trained him in his career, also embodies the last generation of the classical male myth of the 20th century. He is the alpha American, privileged, white, heterosexual. By contrast, what does the year 1969 represent for Americans, if not the cusp of a great cultural transformation, in many senses a year culminating a decade of revolution, the likes of which demanded a new mythos in formation--a mythopoetics for a changing culture. The new mythos, as Americans know well, became increasingly diverse racially, ideologically, sexually, and politically. Although the conventional hero myth didn't die out in the popular culture of the 1950s and 1960s in quite the way that it did in 20th-century literature and art, the antihero did acquire renewed currency, even a luster that it retains today. And the anti-hero did so to keep apace with the shifting values issuing from the social-political developments of postindustrial Western democratic nations.

By the 1970s, the hero could no longer be gleaned exclusively from the dominant and traditional order, what in the West was the white heterosexual male. The only way to survive as a myth among the winds of change was to be remade as the antihero who questions domination. To side with the feminist, gay, ethnic, or some blend of all these in a myth that has been salvaged from its former disrepute. Neil Armstrong didn't have to change with the times because his moonwalk came just in time for him to bask in the splendor of being the last great hero of the old order, as well as of the contemporary mainstream. Three weeks after his moonwalk, Woodstock dominated the world news for three days that lasted decades in the minds of the maturing counterculture who went on to redraft and redesign so many aspects of American culture and politics in remembrance of the turmoil of the 1960s.

The "old order" and the "mainstream," of course, are themselves myths, as are such things as "the status quo," the "counterculture," and even such common and communal collectivizations as being "American." Myths are made up of myths, the more ubiquitously, the more permanently, but always with the components of our most intense desires.

Here is where Sally Ride becomes instrumental not as merely myth, but as a mythopoetic catalyst. Her legacy as an astronaut may not be as wildly romantic and glamorous as Armstrong's. Only one person can be the first to set foot on the moon. But she is a model for the most significant kind of mythopoetics today--that reclaiming representations of power for the peoples who were historically denied cultural representation.

The most significant mythopoetics in any society attempts, and often succeeds at, overturning conventional mainstream mythologies that implicitly perpetuate the dominance of one group and the subjugation of another. Of course, legitimizing domination has always been a prime function of mythology. Those myths of history we can identify with specific historical social orders are often the victors of social conflicts commemorated in postbellum myth. The identities of the losers of historic conflicts, on the other hand, have very often been symbolically displaced from myth. They've been wiped from the landscape (or at least dragged to the sidelines), and if they survive, it's at the cost of relinquishing the myths that they once represented and will be forced to witness being systematically erased from memory. In place of these vanquished myths, we are left with reductive, abstract narratives that in their reinforcement of polarized races, genders and classes purposely perpetuate the dualism between good and evil, fatality and immortality, knowledge and ignorance, survival and extinction of the species. And if these dualities strike us as overgeneralized, even uninteresting, it's because the myths which once were narrated as a pitched war between fierce opponents are now missing from the story. Hence we celebrate the victories and the victors of ancient wars without knowing who the losers are (especially if they are women) or why they came to be so reviled by the winners.

Three decades ago, Sally Ride (and to their credit, the NASA officials who recruited and mentored her) overturned the mainstream myth inherited from classical civilizations by becoming the first American woman astronaut to enter into orbit around the earth. With her death, we found out that Ride was also the first confirmed lesbian, and quite likely the first practicing gay, astronaut, female or male. Ride didn't make a political issue of her lifestyle, but her lifestyle is invaluable for its mythopoetic power as a model of heroism and progressive change that the name Sally Ride projects to women and gays. Like Armstrong, and because of her talents, courage, and ingenuity, Ride was the product of an effort to produce a myth, this time the myth of the new American woman. But the myth being constructed was recognized by all who looked on for its mythopoetic power as a challenger to the status quo. As collegial and understated as Ride by all reports was, she had to also be competitive enough to transform the many myths of women that would hinder her contributions to space exploration and industry.

Whatever else Ride was as a human being, the most important feature distinguishing her as a mythopoetic hero is her potential for being transformative of society's view of women, especially in the predominately male preserve of pilots and astronauts. As vanguard as this may have seemed in 1983, the year of Ride's celebrated flight, we have in the years since seen all the signs that the mythopoetics of Ride's accomplishments have contributed to the evolution of women's acceptance into the field of space exploration and industry.

With Sally Ride's example, a case can be made that art and entertainment often pave the way for the real-life men and women who come to command the attention of the world. In Ride's case, the artist of influence is none other than Nichelle Nichols, the actress who since 1966 played Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, the chief communications officer for the Starship Enterprise in the TV and film versions of Star Trek. With her African descent, along with Star Trek's modeling of the first truly multicultural space crew, NASA was prompted to employ Nichols as its recruiter for minorities. Besides Sally Ride, Nichols is credited with recruiting the astronauts Guion Bluford, Judith Resnik, and Ronald McNair for NASA. It's a case whereby the fictional yet visionary mythopoetics of TV shape the mythologies coursing through the minds and lives of so many of the young women and people of color who consider similar careers today. The inspiration Nichols provided Ride conveys that mythopoetics change lives in prompting the waking mind to reach for dreams that can be converted into reality.

For Armstrong and Ride, who so actively inspired so many to follow their leads, death only greets the body. Their efforts live on as active and inspiring myths in the lives of those who learn of their boldness.

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On 8/27/12 the author corrected the omission that Sally Ride was the first woman to orbit the earth. She was in fact the first American woman to do so. The author also added the photographs of the two astronauts, where previously there had been none.