Two Stops Down

A journal on photography by Thomas Riggs

Under Stars: Apollo 11 & modern aesthetics of cosmic horror

Under Stars (2)

I’ve heard Brian Eno’s name a few times lately, most notably for the simple yet mesmerising iPhone apps he has collaborated on. But it wasn’t until this month I had a chance to listen to his album Apollo, soundtrack to the eerie 1989 documentary For All Mankind.

The highs and lows of the US space program are particularly resonant for me: In 2005 I was treated to a series of dark, sublime dreams where I partook in space projects with dear friends, and was faced first-hand with the prospect of never coming home.

While some of these feelings were explored as part of my end-of-year project, it was Eno’s suspenseful soundtrack that sent my imagination soaring. There is a wonderful modern aesthetic to be explored on the theme of cosmic pessimism or cosmic horror, terms often associated with the epic work of H. P. Lovecraft.

Some of the best examples I have seen (so far) of this are the post-space-race documentaries of the Apollo 11 mission. The aforementioned 1989 production For All Mankind forms a narrative through simple choice excerpts of NASA stock video and imagery, with a sublime soundtrack composed by Brian Eno. There was even a special edition, released by the National Geographic Society, which featured no narration at all.

Another stellar example is MoonFire (recently re-published at a more reasonable price), a large hardcover book which recounts the strangeness of man’s first flight to the moon, as documented by Norman Mailer. The book features gorgeous photographs aggregated from NASA and various media outlets of the time. The images from NASA, most notably, beautifully portray the surreal nature of the training and preparation that went into such a daring mission. Astronauts and scientists alike are bound and caged by strange machines, simulating out-of-control spacecraft and other unlikely scenarios. It really is an amazing collection.

This modern aesthetic of space exploration seems to be an interesting theme to explore, and I’m sure there are many artists that feel the same way. Read past the break for an entry from my 2005 journal, which I think pinpoints some of my own thoughts and ideas.

From Apollo, Reprise Mission Wednesday 31st January

The day was here, real as ever. I was going into space. Excitement and hope seemed to vanish, replaced only with images of lonely spacecraft, spacesuits and the silent coordination of crew members in bright orange suits. I was scared. Who knew what would happen—anything could. A vision enters my mind, of the day I opened the paper to read about the Space Shuttle mission STS-107, the crew that never made re-entry.

I eventually arrive at the building, pushing away the branches of a few overgrown trees that poke out into the path. My hand is silhouetted against the soft tungsten glow emanating from within the building. Fear and anticipation make a brief appearance as I wrap my fingers around the cold metal door handle, pushing it open.

Just inside is a small atrium, with corridors leading left and right. The walls are a dull grey concrete colour, like most of the school. Against the wall opposite the door are the other crew members: C, R, H, and one other that I can’t remember. They’re sat each on a cheap blue plastic chair, typical of schools. A fifth chair lies nearby. That was mine. A mere split second has passed so far. As I enter the indoors I wave to the four, only bending my arm at the elbow, and spurt out a “Hello there!” with forced enthusiasm. I was excited, of course. I was also dead scared. These may be the people I am with in my last hour in this world. I felt a kind of shimmering melancholy; I knew the others felt the same, but we daren’t show it. They each smile back broadly and greet me. I have another image of bright orange spacesuits, juxtaposed with these faces. Such hope, such happiness, such fundamental understanding of life itself and it’s bounded timespan.

This article was published on 22 May 2010.