By Emily Gadek
There are few moments more iconic in 20th-century history than July 20, 1969 — the day Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon. It took a giant leap in technology and science to reach that moment. But it took more than technology to get the astronauts off the ground. Early proponents of America’s space program had to convince both a skeptical government — and a skeptical public — that the enormous costs of exploring space were worth the effort. As late as 1949, a Gallup poll found that only 15 percent of Americans thought it possible that humans would set foot on the moon by the end of the century.
The concept of manned space travel had long been a subject of science fiction. But it made its debut in the nonfiction media in 1952. That’s when Collier’s Magazine launched a major series of graphically illustrated articles by scientists making the case that space travel was just around the corner.
The first article in the Colliers series was written by an accomplished rocket scientist named Wernher von Braun, who was at that time in the employ of the U.S. military. He quickly became something of a media darling, appearing on national television and radio to promote his vision of space travel. After the Collier’s story came out, the proportion of Americans who believed what was promised on the cover — that “Man Will Conquer Space Soon” — more than doubled, to 38 percent.
But BackStory guest Richard Jurek, author of Marketing the Moon, says things didn’t really take off until von Braun partnered with a guy — maybe you’ve heard of him — named Walt Disney, who was launching the new Disneyland TV show. The very first episode? “Man in Space.” Like the Collier’s articles, it made the case that space travel was well within our grasp.
“Eisenhower saw this, and the next day asked for a copy and showed everyone in the Pentagon. And two months later Eisenhower announces we launch our first satellite in ’57, then… in ’58, NASA was formed. And senators even thanked Disney on the floor of the Senate at that time for what he helped to do to convince the politicians, the military and the American public to start an ambitious space program which eventually lead to us going to the moon.”
If public relations was key to launching NASA in the late 1950s, it remained central to the agency’s operations once it was airborne. Today, Jurek says, it’s easy to take iconic images of astronauts, rocket launches and space travel for granted. But considering the military backgrounds of many in the program, it could just as easily have been that the Apollo program took shape in secret. Under the military rocket program, a project wouldn’t be discussed publicly until there was what space officials called “fire in the tail” — meaning, at launch time.
But NASA was meant to be an open program, where civilians could see where the considerable money being spent on the space program was going. Officials in the public affairs office, starting from Walter T. Bonney, the first head of public affairs, up through Julien Scheer, who ran it during the Apollo program, were ex-journalists, who pushed for as much real-time public access to the program as possible. The pinnacle of NASA’s public relations efforts was without a doubt the live, televised broadcasts from the Apollo missions. But had it not been for the insistence of the public affairs office, Jurek says, all of those historic moments could very easily have gone unrecorded.
It wasn’t a forgone conclusion that we’d have television on the Apollo missions. In fact, the engineers in the program didn’t even think about it — because every ounce was critical, and cameras in the 1960s were huge, they were heavy. And the astronauts themselves, many didn’t want cameras aboard… When you had three-person crews going aboard, the commander didn’t want his crew performing for the camera, but focused on the mission. And so there was this huge internal debate going on between public affairs, Washington, astronauts and others. And it was in many ways a decades long fight. And thankfully, television won out.
Ninety-four percent of Americans with a TV set watched at least part of the Apollo 11 broadcast in July of 1969. And never was public support for the space program higher. For the first and only time in the 1960s, a majority of Americans polled believed the lunar program was worth its enormous cost. But even as Armstrong and Aldrin were taking their first steps on the moon’s surface, NASA was already facing budget cuts and layoffs. And it didn’t take long before public support for the the program started to wane as well. Many Americans felt the country had fulfilled President Kennedy’s mandate to reach the moon before the end of the decade. The idea of a return trip to this dead rock became a tougher and tougher sell.
Half a century on from the first lunar landing, three in four Americans have a favorable view of NASA. Nearly two-thirds believe astronauts will have landed on Mars by 2050 — although most still don’t want to pay what it would cost to get them there, and funding for space exploration continues to be cut. But the vision championed by NASA’s early public affairs department, of an open, very visible space program, has flourished in the social-media age. Astronauts on the International space station point cameras at themselves, at their food and occasionally even serenade the rest of us back here on earth. Of course, all of this takes place on YouTube, not the nightly news. But these days, doesn’t everything?
This story comes from our episode on the history of advertising. You can listen to the whole show here. And, if you want to see some of the ads that capitalized on the space program, and learn more about NASA’s public affairs department, check out Rich Jurek’s book Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program.