Why Did I Write a Rocket Opera?

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What was it about the moon that appealed to the “Mad Men” era technocrats in both blocs? Why was the moon the big target?

David Cox

My main motivation in writing a rocket opera was a fascination with the Moon missions and the fact that at the height of the race to the Moon, both superpowers were faced with similar problems but went about resolving them in very different ways. Communication, navigation, rocket propulsion, ways of keeping humans alive in space, shared many similarities and both sides suffered terrible tragedies as well. Both sides lost astronauts and cosmonauts to terrible oxygen-fueled fires, both experienced massive, fatal explosions and both sides faced the terror of the unknown beyond the Earth's atmosphere. The USA and USSR were, through their enmity, unable to share fully anything that might genuinely assist what might be called a truly global [international] scientific space project. Space Programs were framed as singular, national, geopolitical events with heavy military overtones. 

What has always interested me most about the Cold War and the Space Race was this intense pressure of competition from both the Soviet Union and America to place the first man in space, and then eventually, a man on the Moon. Why these goals exactly? What was it about the Moon that appealed to the “Mad Men” era technocrats in both blocs? Why was the Moon the big target?

Today, this whole set of goals, which at the time were considered utterly normal and within reason, seems to us commensurate with the myriad, utopian style and ‘logic’ perspectives of the 1960s and the ‘goal-oriented’ and ‘target-driven’ efficient technocratic modernity of the post-WWII imagination. When Big Governments did Big Things, they did them in terms of Planetary Scale.

In the US at least, they did them with a sense of modularity. Everything in stages, compartments, boxes within boxes. From Lego, to Eames' office furniture to Tupperware to Apollo, there was a module for everything, and everything had its module. Command Module, Lunar Module, modular synthesizers, and abstract art riffing on Kandinsky, Klee, and Mondrian. NASA was awash in minimal Bauhaus minimalism, from the pocket protector all the way up to the escape hatch. NASA might have been a civilian government agency, but it was spending to the tune of 25 billion dollars in private and public contracts for Apollo alone. The USSR, for its part, spent a mere 3 billion by contrast.

The period I'm talking about is a rather tight time frame between about 1962 in 1970 and in that concentration of time a lot of people were involved directly in the global space project. Just how much money and scientific effort was placed into this endeavor was done so for essentially the same reasons, no matter which side one was on: to prove to the other how important they were from the scientific, involuntary point of view.

At first, in the late 1950s, Russia was more advanced than the United States in space technology. Both countries had captured top Nazi rocket engineers at the end of WWII. The USA caught up by 1965 with its Gemini program to the USSR’s equivalent Vostok and Soyuz programs but there was a period from 1958 to 1965 where Russia clearly had the lead. Yuri Gagarin in his tiny Vostok capsule was the first man in space. Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space in 1963. Andrei Leonov performed the first spacewalk. For both nations to perform in space at all, however, they each needed top scientists and in both cases, their Nazi experts. The V2 guided missile at the end of WWII, with its oxygen, liquid nitrogen and kerosene rocket engines, had proven the starting point for every subsequent space rocket. Even today, the basic workings of a standard rocket are the same.

Thus, the huge moral compromise that both countries were willing to make, by drafting the work of top Nazi scientists, united them in playing the international rocket game. Without the Nazi weapons research, there would have been no Space Programs at that time.

And, simultaneously, there was a massive build up of intercontinental missiles in both countries. This build up set the whole world on tender hooks in terms of who would first press "the button". The Cuban missile crisis, after all, had occurred in the same geographic region as Cape Canaveral, a part of the world made popular in the TV show “I Dream of Jeannie”, where put-upon astronauts had to deal with the unwanted, and mysterious, presence of a magic "genie" and her bottle found on a Florida beach. That show was about the USA’s best astronauts narrowly avoiding being caught out with "Jeannie" by their military bosses.  The extensive television coverage of the Moon shots also popularized and nationalized to a great degree, the theater of the endeavor and its Cold War sensibilities.

The Utopian Impulse of the Space Race, against the backdrop of the threat of constant global nuclear annihilation, is something anyone over the age of 45 will clearly remember. For all these reasons, I wanted to say something --using music and drama-- about this historical period which had affected my childhood--and that of many others'-- so profoundly. The musical form I chose was progressive rock: over-the-top in treatment like early Yes, Genesis, and Peter Thomas's amazing music to the film, Chariots of the Gods.

Of most interest to me about three years ago, when I started the opera, was the case of the Russian moon rocket known as the N1 which took Russian scientists almost 10 years of development and was made at a fraction of the cost of the Apollo rockets. The mistake of the N1 engineers was not really of their own making but was imposed on them to a degree through limited budgets and a Kremlin impatient to launch. The decision to use small but very efficient engines, thirty in all, at the base of the vehicle rather than five custom-built engines as was the US approach, created a greater margin of error. This decision, along with the Soviet strategy of launching as many rockets as necessary until they stopped blowing up and could safely carry humans, caused delays that eventually resulted in the US winning the Moon race.

The USSR also planned on sending only two men to the Moon instead of three like the USA. Even with their highly efficient but overstretched thirty NK-33 rocket engines, the fact that they were using so many of the rockets meant the risks were much higher for launching the N1 than the US equivalent, the Saturn V whose F-1 rocket technology had a five year start.

Apart from it failing to perform its main task the N1, like the Saturn V was a very impressive rocket indeed. Some footage of N1s rolling on giant trains to the LC-110 launch platform at the Baikonur Cosmodrome have survived, as has some footage of the rockets actually launching, and exploding.  I wrote a song called “The Rocket” about the N1, as I feel this amazing object deserves some place in popular culture. Its failure is to me on a very profound and tragic, operatic level.

Song about the N1: http://davidalbertcox.com/coxcodex/?p=95

I also have a song in part II about the DSKY computer, which was programmed by woman-computer scientist, Margaret Hamilton. Her code was woven into copper fibers comprising the 72 kilobytes of memory that was essential to the safe landing of Armstrong and Aldrin in their Lunar Module on the surface of the Moon.

Hamilton’s great gift to the firat Moon landing was to code the software to be intelligent enough to register how best to allocate resources to those areas that needed the most computing power. On a machine about as powerful as an original Nintendo game machine and about the size of a small typewriter, this was crucial.The "DSKY" was the result.

From Wikipedia entry on Margaret Hamilton:

At NASA, Hamilton's team was responsible for implementing the Apollo on-board guidance software required to navigate and land on the Moon, and its multiple variations used on numerous missions...

Thus, everything about the Space Race and the Cold War has an operatic feel about it to me. I remember the stupidity of it - those endless, grandiose rituals of power --- US motorcades and Red Square military parades--- and the monumentality of it all. It was all so big, bold and melodramatic [in the popular consciousness]. When you add these massively powerful rockets, it became even more operatic, so that's why I wanted to compose this big, open, over-the-top staging and performance.

John Smalley and Rachel Levin, our two vocalists, bring everything they have to it. We also put together a multiple-screen audiovisual experience which we hope to extend in the future to include even more experimental stage illusions.

Part III of our opera, to be performed at Other Cinema on December 3rd this year is about the first women in space: Valentina Tereshkova in the USSR and Sally Ride in the USA. The fact that these women were the first to enter space was a remarkable achievement. For Valentina, the period is 1963, and for Ride, her flight on the shuttle was 1984,  so we are celebrating that, but also looking to the future and what space platforms might be like in the coming years with so-called “space tourism”. We are posing the question: Is space simply a vast resource for profit or is it going to be an infinite National Park, [from the American perspective] like Yosemite or Yellowstone, preserved as a commons and in need of protection?

If the US is going to see it as a "National Park" then how can we balance desires to visit and use space against the need to protect it as a park would be protected? Space is, really, an extension of the natural environment that we have on Earth. It may be vast but it is also a natural place and I think we should preserve it from exploitation. Wherever humans go, so should our humility and respect for our surroundings.

For more on the Rocket Opera, please visit davidalbertcox.com/coxcodex

David Cox is a filmmaker, artist, writer and teacher based in San Francisco. He is the author of Sign Wars (2010).

David Cox in front of Apollo 10 capsule, British Science Museum. Photo by David Cox.
David Cox with brother Paul, as children in front of Apollo Second Stage Saturn V booster, San Diego Miramar Naval Air Base. Photos by Albert Cox, 1969.
David Cox in front of Russian Lunar Lander, COSMONAUTS exhibit, British Science Museum. Photo by David Cox.

Copyright © David Cox. All rights reserved.

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