Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot for Apollo 11, poses for a photograph beside the deployed United States flag during an extravehicular activity (EVA) on the moon, July 20, 1969. The lunar module (LM) is on the left, and the footprints of the astronauts are visible in the soil. Photo: Neil Armstrong/NASA/Handout via Reuters
Most idealistic American kids watching the Apollo missions on TV back in the 1960s were quite content to believe that they were witnessing the opening of a grand new age of peaceful scientific exploration. Soon we’d be living on the moon, then going to Mars and beyond. After all, hadn’t we just gone from sending men up in dinky capsules for 15-minute suborbital joyrides to landing on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility in less than a decade?
Of course, that’s not how things worked out. After the triumph of Apollo 11, three Apollo missions were canceled, and NASA’s budget continued to fall. President John F. Kennedy’s goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth” had been achieved. The point had been proven, and there were other things, such as the Vietnam War, that needed the money.
But as Smithsonian Apollo historian Teasel Muir-Harmony explains in her new book, Operation Moonglow: A Political History of Project Apollo, science and exploration were never the point of NASA’s manned space program. “It was not science, the innate human thirst for exploration, or economic incentive that drove the human spaceflight program; instead, it was politics, or more precisely, the particular geopolitical moment, where global superpowers competed for global leadership through demonstrations of technological superiority,” she writes.
It started with Sputnik in October 1957. The beeping basketball orbiting over the United States every hour and a half may have alarmed political leaders and the public, but most scientists were nonplussed. Both the US and the USSR had already publicly announced their plans to launch an Earth satellite as part of the then-ongoing International Geophysical Year programme, and the fact that the Soviet Union had managed to do it first made no difference to science.
Yet even if both sides publicly hailed it as a scientific breakthrough, the most profound repercussions were political and military. Sputnik 1, and the much heavier Sputnik 2 craft that followed it a month later, were clear demonstrations of Soviet technological strength — especially in the existentially vital area of missile technology. America was behind, its assumed global dominance had been challenged in the eyes of the world, and something had to be done. The perception that Soviets were stronger and more advanced than Americans had to be countered somehow.
Not everyone agreed. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, for one, wasn’t panicking, and his successor, Kennedy, had other priorities. “At the end of 1960, neither the outgoing president nor the one assuming the post saw human spaceflight as a national priority,” notes Muir-Harmony.
When Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space on April 12, 1961 — just before the new US administration launched the Bay of Pigs fiasco — Kennedy began to change his mind about the importance of space, imploring his advisers to find something “which promises dramatic results in which we could win.”
Space had clearly become a crucial new arena for superpower competition. “It was the one-two punch of Gagarin’s flight boosting Soviet prestige followed in quick succession by the loss of US prestige because of the Bay of Pigs invasion that laid the groundwork for Project Apollo,” says Muir-Harmony.
She points out that although Kennedy’s subsequent address to Congress is most famous for setting the goal of the moon landing, such an interpretation overlooks the full context of that goal and the president’s motivations for setting it forth. The May 25, 1961 speech, she writes, was considered an unofficial “second State of the Union,” laying out “urgent national needs,” mostly focusing on America reaffirming its international standing as the “leader in freedom’s cause.” Putting an American on the moon offered a clear objective that was peaceful in essence yet clearly demonstrated US strength. “The president recognised that lunar exploration had the potential to restore America’s geopolitical standing,” she observes.
Muir-Harmony’s book traces just how the US set out to do that, using the achievements of the space programme as the basis of an ambitious campaign to promote American values and virtues around the world through the “soft power” of cultural and political persuasion. For the US Information Agency (USIA), a State Department body formed under Eisenhower to counter Soviet propaganda through its own brand of propaganda and psychological warfare, space spectaculars served as a new form of diplomacy.
Overwhelming international enthusiasm for John Glenn’s orbital Friendship 7 mission in February 1962 gave the USIA its first chance at “space diplomacy.” The agency sent Glenn’s Mercury capsule on an international tour of more than 20 cities as the centre of a carefully crafted exhibit tailored to each nation’s culture. Alluding to the three Earth orbits the capsule had flown with Glenn at the controls, Friendship 7’s tour was dubbed the “Fourth Orbit,” and proved a smashing success, with millions of people waiting in long lines for hours to see and touch the craft.
Muir-Harmony shows how the USIA carefully honed and evolved its strategies with subsequent NASA successes, such as the Gemini flights and especially the landmark mission of Apollo 8 in December 1968, which for both the US and the world provided a hopeful and inspiring coda to a year wracked by war, assassinations, and political upheavals.
All the experience went into the meticulous planning for managing the reception of Apollo 11, the first lunar landing. NASA and the State Department wanted to ensure that the mission wouldn’t be represented parochially as another demonstration of American supremacy but as an achievement truly to be shared “for all mankind,” as the plaque mounted on the lunar lander declared. “When public opinion polls and feedback from foreign posts revealed that international audiences did not respond well to the heralding of American greatness and technological strength,” she writes, “this message was dampened and subsequently replaced with one emphasising global unity and international participation.”
While Kennedy never lived to see his goal ultimately achieved, his successors didn’t hesitate to reap the political capital of the space programme. For Lyndon B. Johnson, Muir-Harmony writes, “space became an even more multifaceted political instrument,” providing a model for his liberal social programmes. If we could send a man to the moon, he claimed, we should be able to feed the poor and care for our citizens.
For Richard M. Nixon, Apollo was a perfectly timed, conveniently exploitable opportunity. “Although it had been proposed by one of his fiercest rivals — John F. Kennedy — Nixon shrewdly co-opted Project Apollo in support of his foreign relations agenda,” Muir-Harmony writes. Nixon timed his first international trip as president to follow immediately after a European tour by Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman, soaking up the residual good will, and set off on another important trip to Asia and Europe right after welcoming home the Apollo 11 astronauts in late summer 1969. As if to drive home the message that Nixon was touring the world as the president of the nation that had just achieved the first human moon landing, the trip was dubbed Operation Moonglow.
As the most visible part of the US space programme, the astronauts were indispensable to media efforts, something that NASA and the USIA realised from the beginning. Some of the astronauts chafed at their public relations duties, but others, such as Glenn, Frank Borman, and Neil Armstrong, turned out to excel as public figures and diplomatic envoys, and some went on to later careers as senators or ambassadors. A certain degree of charisma, political savvy, and articulate stage presence may even have boosted some astronauts’ professional status while they were with NASA. Muir-Harmony observes that according to Armstrong’s biographer James Hansen, Armstrong’s performance on a 1966 tour of South America “may have been influential in 1969 when Armstrong was selected to be the first man on the moon.”
Muir-Harmony’s book is not the first work to focus on the political dimensions of Apollo; Walter A. McDougall’s 1985 …The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age is generally considered the most comprehensive treatment, although much further work using new sources has appeared since then. Operation Moonglow is a significant addition to that literature, not just from the perspective of space history but also as a detailed examination of the carefully crafted use of soft power — or, as some might prefer to call it, propaganda — in the service of effective diplomacy and international relations. Muir-Harmony, the curator of the Apollo collection at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, draws on State Department, NASA, and USIA archives along with personal interviews with Apollo astronauts to portray how their courageous exploits in space were spun into political bounty on Earth.
Operation Moonglow ends after Apollo 11 in 1969, but the last flight of an Apollo spacecraft was in 1975 with the joint US-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz project, perhaps the most blatantly politically-motivated mission of all as an elaborate exercise in geopolitical detente. Yet it also served as a legitimate test of orbital rendezvous and rescue techniques and laid the foundations for the US-Russian cooperation in space that would come much later. Now, Apollo’s achievements are paving the way for a return to the moon. Perhaps Apollo was born out of politics, but it’s continuing to pay political, scientific, and even cultural dividends well into the 21st century. Sometimes, it seems, even propaganda can be a positive thing.