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Selling the Space Race
How NASA marketed the Moon landing to the American public
By Michael Jarema, contributing writer
“We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
– John F. Kennedy
Intended to rally citizen support for NASA’s then-fledgling space program, this passage is from President Kennedy’s memorable speech delivered to a crowd of 40,000 at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas on September 12, 1962. It was a follow-up to his proposal, made to Congress on May 25, 1961 – just four months after he took office – that the U.S. "should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth."
It was an unprecedented proposition. Following the Soviet Union’s launch of the first orbital satellite, Sputnik 1, in October of 1957, and their subsequent placing of the first man in space a month prior to Kennedy’s appeal to Congress, this proposal was calculated with the intention of decisively demonstrating America’s superiority in space.
Kennedy asked his Vice President, Lyndon B. Johnson, in his capacity as chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, to identify a goal that would overshadow the Soviet space program. The choices: put a laboratory in space, orbit a man around the Moon, or land a man on the Moon.
The Moon landing was chosen. But given the Soviets’ prior two landmark achievements, it seemed unlikely – ambitious and inspiring, but equally naïve – with scant consideration of the practical requirements of the momentous task, it seemed unlikely that the U.S. would be first to visit the Moon. How could it be done?
Why the U.S. lunar landing almost wasn’t
Charles Fishman, in a comprehensive article on the 1960s space program in the June 2019 issue of The Smithsonian1 enumerated some of the challenges: “When President John F. Kennedy declared in 1961 that the United States would go to the Moon, he was committing the nation to do something we simply couldn't do.”
Traveling to the Moon requires planning, not to mention special tools and equipment. Fishman explained:
NASA had no rockets to launch astronauts to the Moon, no computer portable enough to guide a spaceship to the Moon, no spacesuits to wear on the way, no spaceship to land astronauts on the surface (let alone a Moon car to let them drive around and explore), no network of tracking stations to talk to the astronauts en route...And it isn't just that we didn't have what we would need; we didn't even know what we would need. We didn't have a list; no one in the world had a list.
Chris Kraft was NASA’s first Flight Director, the eventual Director of the Johnson Space Center, and was responsible for developing the organization and culture of Mission Control. The Mission Control Center Building is, in fact, now named after him. Per Fishman, Kraft’s assessment (in retrospect) of Kennedy’s proposal was simple and direct: “It was impossible."
Just as challenging as the lack of proper tools and equipment was the lack of popular support for the proposed Moon landing. The majority of Americans just weren’t behind it.
Fishman pointed out, “One myth holds that Americans enthusiastically supported NASA and the space program, that Americans wanted to go to the Moon.”
But this was a chaotic time in U.S. history. Most people had other priorities. “The '60s were tumultuous, riven by the Vietnam War, urban riots, the assassinations,” Fishman explained. “Americans constantly questioned why we were going to the Moon when we couldn't handle our problems on Earth.”
If Americans weren’t engaged in the venture, then how would they get to the Moon?
The first positive viral event
Erika K. Carlson spoke to Richard Jurek for her Astronomy article, “Apollo in Pop Culture”2. Jurek is co-author of the book, Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program, and he credits NASA’s savvy public relations team for making the lunar landing not just a scientific achievement, but a “historic cultural moment.”
Jurek called the lunar landing “the first positive viral event that captured the world's attention” – an accomplishment Carlson attributed to “NASA's move to realtime, open communication.”
Before NASA was established in 1958, rockets were the military's purview; that secretiveness carried over into the agency's early days. At first, NASA followed a ‘fire in the tail’ rule, publicizing a rocket's launch only when it was already in the air, preventing it from being tampered with or prepared for. But as the agency evolved, it started announcing more details about the Apollo program. It championed its astronauts, talked openly about mission goals and challenges, and shared launch times so people could watch.
Jurek’s told her, "If [the Moon landing] had been run like it was under the military, we would not have had that sense of drama, that sense of involvement, that sense of wonder."
In other words, it was the story – and how it was told – that helped convince taxpayers to pour millions of dollars into this project.
David Meerman Scott, Jurek’s co-author of Marketing the Moon explained in The New York Times’ Retro Report3, “I believe the marketing aspect of Apollo was as important as the spacecraft…Communicating both the scientific significance and the glamour was absolutely essential for us to have been able to do that program.”
This meant that the astronauts and their wives were presented to the public like Hollywood movie stars, he explained, and “beating the Russians was touted as a national imperative.” Plus, it didn’t hurt that news anchor Walter Cronkite, then considered “the most trusted man in America,” according to Scott, was a regular cheerleader for the space mission.
“Taken together, these elements amounted to one giant leap for public relations,” he wrote.
Selling the lunar landing… everywhere
Live television broadcasts from inside the Apollo spacecraft, and from the surface of the Moon – something the NASA public relations team pushed for, despite the limited technology at the time were also necessary to generate excitement among the American public, Carlson wrote in her article for Astronomy.
But this meant new technologies needed to be developed, including cameras small enough to fit in an Apollo command and lunar modules, the bandwidth to carry video signals, video imaging tubes that would work in low light levels, and a signal transmission system that could carry video from the Moon to Mission Control.
“Not everyone thought it was a good idea,” she wrote. “Some engineers worried that developing that equipment would distract from efforts to achieve a lunar landing. But NASA's communications team argued that telling the story was just as important as the achievement itself. Live TV would bring the American people – and international viewers – straight to the Moon.”
NASA’s public relations people persevered. Apollo Astronaut Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the lunar surface was broadcast live worldwide on July 20, 1969. It was the first-ever global live broadcast and was viewed by more than half a billion people – one-seventh of the planet’s population at the time. In the U.S., an astonishing 94 percent of households were tuned in.
As a result, the Apollo missions became an immediate and pervasive fixture of worldwide popular culture – an inescapable prevalence that spanned media, clothing, merchandise, and entertainment. In an article for the Orlando Sentinel, “Moon Landing Influenced Toys, Jewelry – Later Films”4, Hal Boedeker enumerated an extensive and often amusing array of space race cultural influences.
He noted the Smithsonian's collection of toys includes plastic astronaut figures and a lunar module. The National Air and Space Museum displays feature Apollo-influenced clothing, jewelry, stamps, toys and commemorative dishes. These items include a shiny silver purse, shaped like a command and service module, a charm bracelet with space-related trinkets, and a photo of a woman from Iceland wearing a handmade dress decorated with a Saturn V rocket.
Exhibit curator Teasel Muir-Harmony told Boedeker, “You see this around the world, this enthusiasm...When you think about the way people dress up for sporting events, it's a demonstration of participation and investment in the missions."
This influence also extended into the media consumed by the American public. Boekeker pointed to ‘60s television programming including, “I Dream of Genie” (NBC, 1965-1970), in which a stranded astronaut discovers a magical genie; “Lost in Space” (CBS, 1965-1968), which follows the adventures of a pioneering family of space colonists; and of course “Star Trek” (NBC, 1966-1969), which chronicles the 23rd-century adventures of the crew aboard the interstellar space exploration vehicle the USS Enterprise.
Yet, doubts about space exploration persist
In the last 50 years, twelve astronauts have walked on the Moon. NASA sent a total of seven missions to the lunar surface between 1969 and 1972, with six of those successfully landing astronauts. Yet, the direct benefits of lunar exploration are debated today, even as China and India discuss possible manned Moon landings in the near future. Even as, for the first time in decades, the possibility of another U.S. manned Moon landing – whether by a government agency, via private enterprise, or through a combination of the two – has entered our national discussion.
What role in this future exploration will public relations and marketing play?
Meerman Scott told The New York Times:
If the past is prologue, the public may need to be sold on the idea, just as it was half a century ago. It’s always about storytelling. The best marketers on the planet are able to tell stories. And that’s what’s important for space travel going forward.
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Image from the NASA Image and Video Library. (20 July 1969) — Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot of the first lunar landing mission, poses for a photograph beside the deployed United States flag during Apollo 11 extravehicular activity (EVA) on the lunar surface.
- Fishman, C. (2019, Jun). Inside America’s Greatest Adventure. Smithsonian. Available from ProQuest One Academic.
- Carlson, E. (2019, Jul). Apollo in Pop Culture. Astronomy. Available from ProQuest One Academic.
- (2019, Jun 23). How NASA Sold the Science and Glamour of Space Travel: Retro Report. The New York Times. Available from ProQuest One Academic.
- Boedeker, H. (2019, Jun 22). Moon Landing Influenced Toys, Jewelry – Later Films. Orlando Sentinel. Available from ProQuest One Academic.
Michael Jarema is a writer and filmmaker living in Ypsilanti, MI. As a kid, one of his prized possessions was a collection of medallions, available with a fill-up at a local gas station, each commemorating a Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo mission. He still has a set of water glasses decorated with the insignias of the Apollo 11, 12, and 13 flights. They’re prominently displayed his dining room.