When astronauts first set foot on the moon, I was on a small Mediterranean island with no electricity, so I was one of the few people in the Western world who did not see the event live on TV. When I later viewed the grainy black-and-white footage of the moon landing, the event seemed as remote to me as those old newsreels of Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic or the destruction of the Hindenburg. I can sort of understand why conspiracy theorists might think the whole thing was staged on a back lot in Hollywood. However, I doubt that Hollywood types could have resisted the temptation to inject a little drama into an event that unfolded with all the excitement of a visit to the hardware store. The NASA culture was dominated by engineers with crew cuts and pocket protectors, and the former test pilots who then populated the astronaut corps had all been scrubbed clean by NASA's PR department. Apart from Neil Armstrong's famous "giant leap for mankind" statement, which seemed as carefully rehearsed as the moon landing itself, the exchanges between the Apollo 11 crew and mission control rarely rose above the humdrum.
As it turned out, the mission was anything but humdrum. Although the U.S. space program had not yet lost an astronaut in flight, the likelihood of a catastrophic failure was so great that President Nixon's speechwriters had already prepared a statement for him to deliver in the event that the Apollo 11 crew didn't make it back alive. The landing craft came in about four miles wide of its target in the Sea of Tranquility. When the automatic targeting equipment aimed the lander toward a crater strewn with large boulders, Armstrong was forced to take manual control. With less than 30 seconds of fuel left, he searched frantically for a safe landing spot. At this juncture, the onboard computer failed, and an alarm sounded. Armstrong's heart rate shot up to 156 beats per minute, more than twice his normal rate. When asked about this later, Armstrong would admit only that if his heart rate hadn't betrayed a little excitement "I'd be worried that about whether I was really interested or not." Another explanation is that he was scared to death.
What is it that makes us afraid? There is, of course, the normal physiological response to danger that kicks in when you find yourself a quarter million miles from home having to steer around boulders to secure a parking place with almost no fuel left in your tank. Then there is the non-localized kind of fear that seems endemic to the human condition. The trouble with this kind of fear is that there is no specific danger you can point to and no action you can take to make it go away. There is only a vague sense of foreboding, of something lurking in the shadows, even if the shadows exist only in the dark recesses of the mind. Where do such fears come from?
Our first clue might be found in the biblical story of creation, when our hapless ancestors were conned into tasting the forbidden fruit. They were promised that their eyes would be opened, and so they were. Only the first thing they saw was themselves, and they now knew they were naked. They had become self aware, and they soon put a name to their self-awareness, just as they had named all God's creatures. They heard the Lord coming, and they uttered for the first time the name by which they would know themselves. God had called out to the man, asking, "Where are you?" And the man had answered in the first-person singular. "I heard the sound of thee in the garden," he began, adding, "and I was afraid." Thus, from the very beginning, the expression of fear was linked to the expression of self.
For their disobedience, the primordial couple were now strangers in paradise, but that was the least of it. In succumbing to the lure that they would become like the God in whose image they were made, they had cut themselves off from the source of their own being. They became alienated from God and, in due course, from one another and from everything in creation. They tried to lay claim to God's world, but in doing so they only reinforced their sense of isolation from it. Ownership is no substitute for being one with it. Trying to stake our claim to the world, or even some small piece of it, only makes us more fearful, because we must then guard our stake against all comers. The only antidote to such fear is "the awful daring of a moment’s surrender" that T.S. Eliot talks about. In forsaking every claim on the world, we are left with nothing, but we also have nothing left to defend -- and nothing left to fear. Once the fear is gone, what remains? Only God.
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land