How the U.S. Shaped the Message of Apollo 11
Teasel Muir-Harmony’s Operation Moonglow: A Political History of Project Apollo is the story of the space race between the U.S. and Russia in the years leading up to Apollo 11’s successful mission to the moon. But it’s also the tale of how the United States — through NASA, the State Department, and the United States Information Agency, or USIA — worked assiduously to frame the tale of America’s pursuit and eventual passing of the Soviets in the world’s imagination. It is, in short, an anatomy of a massive, years-long, and carefully camouflaged advertising campaign, with the astronauts as pitch men and the product the American way of life.
The race itself is familiar to any space junkie. In the years after the Second World war, America’s armed forces developed separate and competing missile programs while the Soviets managed to put together the R-7 rocket and a beach ball-sized satellite, Sputnik, to ride atop it. The Russians beat us into space in October of 1957 and thereby persuaded a substantial portion of the world’s population that they were now the globe’s preeminent scientific and technological power. The United States got back in the game with its own satellite just a couple of months later, but the U.S.S.R. then rattled off an impressive series of “firsts” (first man in space, first woman in space, first spacewalk) that continued to indicate socialist superiority.
NASA caught up in the mid-sixties, as our Gemini astronauts manage to rendezvous and even dock with other spacecraft, while the Soviets labored mightily but failed to develop a “heavy lift” rocket like the Saturn V that could carry astronauts to the moon. Apollo 8 in 1968 may well have been the turning point, the moment when the U.S. replaced the Russians in public perception as the world’s space pioneers. And the stage was set for Neil, Buzz, and Mike to make history.
Muir-Harmony, curator of the Apollo collection at the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum, is a patient writer, curious and occasionally skeptical, focused and fond of quoting sources and trotting out numbers: pamphlets distributed, crowds gathered, cities visited. She does a nice job of providing a shorthand blow-by-blow of the space race, but what she’s really interested in is what was happening behind the scenes at the highest levels of government. Lyndon B. Johnson emerges as a driving force behind the establishment of NASA, a bit of a charlatan for hyping up the threat of Soviet space dominance for political purposes but prescient for his relentless championing of the American space program in response. Kennedy may have been our astronaut president, young, streamlined, and confident, but it was warty old LBJ, son of the New Deal, who made things happen. Richard Nixon haunts the narrative as he always does: yearning, conflicted, and desperately wanting to be more than he was. “Operation Moonglow” was the name for his post-Apollo tour of Europe, during which he tried — with some success — to capitalize on the “glow” of goodwill engendered by Apollo 11 to reset American relationships with a number of nations.
Kennedy does get points in the book for recognizing the Cold War importance of perceptions of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. among the developing nations of Africa, Asia, and South and Central America. Early in the game, American politicians and administrators made the decision not only that the space agency would be a civilian rather than a military operation, but also that its operations would be as public and open to scrutiny as possible. This was occasionally embarrassing. Nothing says frustration like yet another launch scrub. It could also be sad and humiliating, as it was when Apollo 1 was destroyed and three astronauts lost their lives. But in the end the openness paid off. People all over the world were able to identify with the American space program, good, bad, and indifferent, in a way they rarely were with the secrecy-obsessed Soviet effort.
The USIA also shaped and curated the notion that Apollo was not solely or even chiefly an American project but a global one — an achievement undertaken and accomplished “for all mankind,” as the carefully manicured phrase would have it. It was a potent message, and contributed to the excitement and communal feeling that led some 600 million people around the world to watch as Neil stepped onto the dusty surface of the moon. Muir-Harmony has a curator’s love for the telling detail. In Bangkok, she writes, prisoners who were supposed to be released from jail that day refused to leave until they had seen the moon walk on the prison’s TV. In Italy, where the moonwalk was televised late in the evening, it was reported that no robberies or muggings took place the entire night. A woman who gave birth in the capital of Somalia that day named her baby boy “Armstrong.”
In the end, the America of that era was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. While Neil, Buzz, and Mike’s exploits earned the nation untold political and social good will, it’s unclear if it was enough to undo the harmful consequences to the national image of horrific racism at home and the secret bombing of Cambodia. It’s an unanswerable question, of course. More important is a commitment to further the legacy of Apollo while moving beyond the behaviors that scarred us in the fifties and sixties. We’re still using the potent images of our first sojourn to the moon for propaganda purposes, even if it sometimes seems like the people we most have to convince of our own courage and generosity of spirit are ourselves. And we’re still fighting for the hearts and minds of young people everywhere. Surely the fact that NASA is trying to figure out how to defend Earth from asteroids at the same time that Russia is bombing Ukrainians and beating its own citizens who dare to protest counts for something in this regard.
Perhaps that’s the message of Muir-Harmony’s fascinating book. Nixon was right to try to capture some of the reflected glory of Apollo 11. In fact, maybe we should all be trying to do the same — basking in that moon glow for as long as we can, and reminding ourselves to keep looking up.