On an October Friday in 1957, Americans discovered that while they had been busy making weekend plans, their country had become the tortoise to the Soviet Union hare. Soviet scientists that day shot into orbit the first artificial Earth satellite, a beeping metallic ball not quite two feet in diameter that circled the globe every hour and a half at 18,000 miles per hour. It was called Sputnik, “traveling companion” in Russian.
Shock, dismay and fear were dominant emotions then for Americans. How, they asked, could they have fallen so appallingly behind their Cold War enemy in this new field of combat, the space race? Their political leaders felt a sense of urgency. Nine months after Sputnik, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration came into being, followed soon by the human spaceflight program known as Project Mercury. Four years later, in 1962, the young president, John F. Kennedy, boldly pledged that before the decade was out, the United States would send men to the moon.
And it did. The tortoise persevered and surpassed the hare, its dominance affirmed on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 astronauts set foot on the lunar surface. It was a moment of American exultation and global fascination, viewed on television by more than half a billion people — one-seventh of the planet’s population.
But it proved to be just that: a moment. There were some doubts among Americans, even before Apollo 11 but certainly after, about the wisdom of reaching for the stars while troubles swelled on Earth. By that July in 1969, American opposition to the Vietnam War was reaching a critical mass, riots scarred one United States city after another, and traditional values seemed under assault on multiple fronts.
For all its glory, the moon walk struck some people as an empty luxury. Popular interest in the space program faded fast; the astounding had become ho-hum. Three scheduled lunar flights were canceled. The last time a human walked on the moon was 1972, when “The Godfather” was the top-grossing movie and the Dow Jones industrial average closed above 1,000 for the first time.
“Apollo symbolized more than anything else in the 1960s what can be done with a very rational approach, putting faith in the experts, setting the goals, and having them achieve those goals,” said Matthew D. Tribbe, a history professor and author of “No Requiem for the Space Age: The Apollo Moon Landings and American Culture.” “But a growing number of Americans, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, are seeking something more out of life than just material progress or technological progress like Apollo represents.”
Retro Report’s mission is to examine how major news stories of the past continue to shape our understanding of the present. With the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing at hand, this installment, co-produced with “American Experience” on PBS, focuses on the marketing of America’s space exploration. Yes, slipping the bonds of Earth was, of itself, a beguiling goal. But NASA grasped early on that if taxpayers were to accept pouring billions of their dollars into the project, a measure of slick salesmanship would be required.
Thus, NASA press kits became almost as important as computer chips. The astronauts and their wives were thrust before the public with all the verve of a Hollywood agent. Beating the Russians was touted as a national imperative. It hardly hurt the effort to have a prominent cheerleader in Walter Cronkite, routinely described back then as the most trusted man in America. Taken together, these elements amounted to one giant leap for public relations.
“I believe the marketing aspect of Apollo was as important as the spacecraft, I absolutely do,” David Meerman Scott, the author of several books on marketing, told Retro Report. Communicating both the scientific significance and the glamour, he said, “was absolutely essential for us to have been able to do that program.”
Nonetheless, it was a fragile fascination, as reflected in some of that era’s movies. A year before Apollo 11, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” showed astronauts struggling with a computer that had gone homicidally haywire. Later, in 1977, space-probe skeptics could enjoy “Capricorn One,” a film about a faked mission to Mars. “If we look at the broader cultural context,” Prof. Tribbe said, “we start to see an era when Americans are starting to grow a little bit suspicious of the kind of technology that Apollo represents.”
After the first few moon landings, the program became a harder sell. Lethal explosions aboard the space shuttles Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 produced national mourning but not renewed chin-up determination to conquer space. The government space agency began to be nudged aside by start-up companies created by the likes of Elon Musk and Jeffrey P. Bezos looking to exploit whatever commercial potential the cosmos may hold. Perhaps not wanting to be fully eclipsed by business enterprises, NASA announced this month that it would let private citizens visit the International Space Station — for a hefty fee, to be sure.
And yet the spirit of sheer adventure, so widely felt in July of 1969, never disappeared. That, too, is shown in popular culture, be it in “The Right Stuff” book and movie, the novel and film “Contact” or the adventure movie “The Martian.” The Trump administration seems to have caught the mood. It has promised to send astronauts back to the moon as early as 2024, though many experts regard that target date as overly ambitious.
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,” Mr. Scott said to Retro Report. “The best marketers on the planet are able to tell stories. And that’s what’s important for space travel going forward.”
“You need to rekindle our imagination,” he said, adding, “We need to tell the story of why we should be investing in this. There’s still potential for that kind of story.”
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The video with this article is part of a documentary series presented by The New York Times. The video project was started with a grant from Christopher Buck. Retro Report, led by Kyra Darnton, is a nonprofit media organization examining the history and context behind today’s news. To watch more, subscribe to the Retro Report newsletter, and follow Retro Report on YouTube and Twitter.
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