News this week that the discarded engines of the Apollo rockets from the moon missions of the 1960s have been found at the bottom of the ocean by Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos is perhaps further indication that the robber barons of the 21st-century will be spending at least some of their fortunes on complex, engineering-oriented, and slightly Nemo-like adventures, whether that means mining asteroids, flying civilians into space, building 10,000-year clocks in the mountains of west Texas, traveling down into the deepest trenches on Earth, or, yes, performing gonzo acts of space archaeology 400 miles off the east coast of Florida.
Bezos’s description of the rocket-age ruins now on their way back to dry land—and, eventually, into a museum—puts a fairly Ballardian spin on the discovery: “We’ve seen an underwater wonderland,” he quipped, “an incredible sculpture garden of twisted F-1 engines,” a garden of fallen offworld technologies appearing to grow coral at the bottom of the sea.
I’m reminded of a line from Robert Charles Wilson’s novel Axis, where Wilson writes that “the sky filled with the luminous debris of ancient, incomprehensible machines,” fragmentary gears and circuits drifting through the air like mechanical snow, only, here, it’s the equipment of our own recent history having washed down through the ocean, taking on the ringed appearance of coral.
Maintaining his Ballardian tone, Bezos suggested that the seafloor from which the rockets were pulled was not unlike the surface of the moon: “We on the team were often struck by poetic echoes of the lunar missions. The buoyancy of the ROVs looks every bit like microgravity. The blackness of the horizon. The gray and colourless ocean floor. Only the occasional deep sea fish broke the illusion.”
Explaining his interest in restoring the behemoth pieces of equipment being re-absorbed into the planetary ecosystem, Bezos adds that his team “photographed many beautiful objects in situ and have now recovered many prime pieces. Each piece we bring on deck conjures for me the thousands of engineers who worked together back then to do what for all time had been thought surely impossible.” Now, he says, “We want the hardware to tell its true story, including its 5,000 mph re-entry and subsequent impact with the ocean surface.” Sadly, doing this required interrupting what might someday have been a reef, possibly one of the most interesting points to take away from all of this—that even something as unearthly as rockets, given enough time and isolation, could become overgrown, a kind of Angkor Wat of the sea, indistinguishable from life in the oceans.