Communicating About Space: Apollo Plus 50

Apollo LEM

As a regular space enthusiast, writing professional, and soon-to-be-50-year-old, I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on the anniversary Apollo 11, which happened 50 years ago Saturday. It’s a good time to reflect on that remarkable accomplishment, but also to note how much the world has changed–inside and outside the space community since 1969, especially in the field of technical advocacy.

The Marketing of an Idea

You could make the case that one of the first, best advocates and “marketers” of going to the Moon was Robert A. Heinlein, a science fiction writer. His “Future History” stories, especially the ones written in Astounding Science Fiction and Fact before World War Two, employed a technically informed, socially conscious (for the times) literary sensibility, and he inspired many people who later worked on Apollo.

After Heinlein came the German missile-maker-turned-American-rocket-engineer Wernher von Braun, who collaborated first with Colliers Magazine and then Walt Disney to “sell” the idea of humans going to the Moon and Mars, in print and on television.

Arguably the best “marketer” of selling the American public on a government-funded mission to the Moon was President John F. Kennedy, who had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to pitch a large idea and have the intellectual and social ground fertile enough for it to spread. Kennedy had a lot of things going for him: his youth and glamor, his high-sounding rhetoric (crafted by some excellent speech writers), and his willingness to put government to work in competition with the Soviet Union during the height of a worldwide conflict, the Cold War.

The Apollo Program was not a hit with everyone, even in the U.S. Congress (Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin made NASA a regular target of his “Golden Fleece” award). However, it was sufficiently exciting and lucrative to stay funded even after JFK’s assassination, as it provided a peaceful way to demonstrate the political, economic, and technological superiority of the West over Soviet communism.

The themes that “sold” Apollo included:

  • Technological superiority and progress.
  • The ability of government to do good for the country.
  • Competition with the Soviets.
  • The “frontier narrative,” which was seen as part of the white American mythos and self-image.
  • The good of all mankind (more on that word soon).

It was assumed that this combination of rhetorical strategies would be sufficient to sell the program and keep it sold long enough for America to win the “space race.” And for the most part, it was. Eight years and 25 billion dollars later, the race was won. Along the way, the task required the efforts of some 400,000 people, resulted in a host of new technologies, and created the infrastructure necessary to launch human spacecraft and human beings into space. All marvelous things, to be certain; and yet, the Apollo program ended, the infrastructure was reined in to focus on Earth orbit, and the effort to send people to the Moon 50 years later still struggles for funding and mass support.

What happened?

American since 1969

While the Apollo program was going on, so too were the cultural upheavals of the 1960s: the Civil Rights movement, the feminist movement, decolonization of the developing world, and the environmental movement, just to name some of the major changes. Those changes shifted the way Americans and their politicians spoke to one another. Marketing could no longer be done with a “general” audience in mind–with that “general” audience measured against the preferences and tastes of middle-class white males.

The cultural changes also came with political changes. “Why spend all that money on space when there are so many more important problems here on Earth?” became the common refrain, and I still hear it today. NASA dropped from a Cold War high of 5 percent of the U.S. federal budget to 0.5% of the budget today. Presidential challenges to do great things again have often failed or fallen on apathetic ears:

  • The International Space Station, originally an American-only “Space Station Freedom,” was not built within a decade, as President Reagan requested.
  • On the 20th anniversary of Apollo 11, President Bush called for a massive, renewed effort to return to the Moon and go on to Mars. Congress balked at the price tag.
  • Subsequent follow-up proposals–Bush 2’s Constellation Program and Obama’s Asteroid Redirect mission–were killed by politics, though pieces of them remain.
  • President Trump has called for renewed efforts to return to the Moon and Mars, but the jury is still out on its eventual success.

How Do We Sell Space Today?

One thing that’s changed dramatically in just the last ten years has been the creation of rockets and spacecraft funded by independent billionaires with a passion for space and a decided impatience with government-funded space projects. We still have a NASA-led human spaceflight program, but it is also being supplemented (and in some ways superseded) by the reusable rockets of SpaceX.

SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk, and Blue Origin’s CEO (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos) do not need to worry about winning votes or public support for their projects. The most marketing they have to do is to their customers for their launch services; talented engineers and other experts to make their rockets work; and perhaps Capitol Hill to make certain that the contracts keep flowing. However, they are also seeking bigger targets: widespread point-to-point rocket travel around Earth; space tourism in orbit; private space stations; and cities on the Moon or Mars. They might get government funding for all these efforts, or they might not.

If anything, the space entrepreneurs are aiming for the hearts and minds of the next generations–Millennials and beyond–by pitching the awesome coolness of technology. This is how SpaceX ended up sending Elon Musk’s Tesla sports car out toward Mars with a dummy astronaut onboard. Space has become “cool” again, just more privatized than before.

Meanwhile, NASA now has to reach a more diverse, media-savvy, and sometimes-skeptical public and Congress, who are funding their programs. The messages remain consistent with the 1960s: technological progress, the ability of government to do good, and the overall benefits of science and technology for all of humankind. The “frontier narrative” has been dispensed with, along with the all-male astronaut corps. It’s not just America first (despite rhetoric heard elsewhere); missions are pursued with allied nations, including our former adversaries, the sometimes-partnering Russians.

So the job of “selling space” will continue to be a challenge, even with billionaires funding the efforts out of their own deep pockets. If they want to build cities on the Moon or Mars, they’ll still have to contend with arguments against “ruining” some of the harshest environments to be faced in human history. If the government wants to keep launching robotic and human explorers throughout the solar system, they’re going to need to make the case that they can do a better job than the privateers.

The dreams and efforts of enthusiasts like me are far from guaranteed (and there are now a lot more non-white, non-male players in the space business with dreams of their own). We have different societal priorities and sensitivities than we did 50 years ago, but the magic of Apollo is still alive, and the vision of human beings on another world–going where no one has gone before–can still excite the imagination today.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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2 Responses to Communicating About Space: Apollo Plus 50

  1. Larry Kunz says:

    Really nice piece, Bart. And best wishes to you on the 50th anniversary.

    The loss of the “frontier narrative” is actually a pretty big deal, IMO. In the ’60s ,the space program gave the whole nation a sense of adventure. People gathered around their TVs to watch the Mercury launches. Gemini missions were front-page news. And of course, everyone remembered where they were when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon.

    Something changed, though. And by the time of the space shuttle, many people didn’t give a thought to the space program. We’ve lost that sense of boldly going where no one has gone before, so — as you say — “selling space” will remain a difficult challenge for the foreseeable future.

    • Bart Leahy says:

      Space won’t become a taxpayer/government priority until it’s perceived to be a necessity, unfortunately.

      The frontier narrative died from multiple modern sensitivities:
      —It didn’t work out well for Native Americans.
      —It’s perceived as colonialist or outright racist in some quarters.
      —The common argument I hear (which I disagree with, obviously) is, “Why should we explore other worlds when we’ve screwed up this world so badly?” Mind you, pollution was a lot worse in this country when the first Earth Day was founded in 1970, and the environmental movement took the Apollo 8 “Earthrise” photo as its symbol.

      Space has resources we could use to address some of these issues—metals for mining (instead of strip-mining and poisoning Earth), solar energy, and helium-3 for fusion power—but again, those have to be seen as necessities first.

      And unlike the American West, there is no life on asteroids or the Moon (if there’s life on Mars, it’s likely bacterial at most). If the U. S. doesn’t consider space a priority, someone else will: China, India, Russia, and Japan are just three possibilities.

      Thanks for reading!


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