The American Space Program and the American television industry contributed mightily to each other's growth. Space missions have matched Hollywood productions for drama, suspense and excitement, and have consistently pulled in some of the medium's largest audiences. America's first astronauts were among television's first celebrity heroes. Some television journalists, such as Walter Cronkite and ABC's Jules Bergman (1930-1987), became famous for their chronicalling of the space program. The 69 year old Cronkite even applied to become an astronaut in 1986 (as part of NASA's short-lived "journalist in space" program).

The Soviet Union's Sputnik satellite launch in 1957 was one of the earliest big stories for television news, then growing rapidly in popularity and influence. With the framing of the Sputnik story as crisis, an affront to American superiority and a military threat, the U.S. government justified a strong response,a crash program to beat the Soviets to space. Unfortunately, several of the earliest uncrewed U.S. rocket tests did just that--crash-- further heightening the crisis atmosphere as each major attempt was anxiously reported on the 15 minute national evening newscasts.

Eventually American satellites were launched successfully, and in 1959 seven military pilots were chosen for the astronaut corps. Television, egged on by the print press, elevated the astronauts to hero status, as celebrated as Hollywood's leading stars. Publicist's from NASA, the new civilian space agency, worked to fuel that perception. They schooled the seven in on-camera behavior and prohibited military uniforms, to the astronaut's discomfort but to the benefit of the program's all-civilian image.

Immediately after the triumphant sub-orbital flight of Alan Shepard in May 1961 (following the orbital flight of Cosmonaut Gagarin), Vice President Johnson, with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and NASA Administrator Webb, sent a report to President John F. Kennedy justifying the eventual forty billion dollar investment in a moon landing program. "The orbiting of machines is not the same as orbiting or landing of man...," they wrote, "It is man in space that captures the imagination of the world." So from its inception, the crewed space program had at its core a propaganda objective--capturing the world's imagination. With Johnson's report as ammunition and the political goal of justifying massive government projects and fulfilling his vision of a "new frontier", Kennedy went before Congress to challenge the nation to land a man on the moon before 1970.

The remaining five Mercury space flights (1961-1963) and ten Gemini flights (1965-1966) were covered virtually from launch to splashdown by adoring TV networks. Each mission promised new accomplishments, such as Ed White's first American spacewalk. For television news it was a welcome reprieve from the 1960's morass of assassination, war, and inner-city unrest. A favorite theme of television-- the "horse-race"--here between the Soviet and American space programs, was prominent. However, by 1965 it was apparent that the Soviets had no hope of putting someone on the moon, a fact that rarely entered the "space race" discourse.

The ideal marriage of space and television was not merely the result of political and ideological agendas nor technical and logistical circumstance, but of more resonant connections between the program and American cultural mythology. The space program was a Puritan narrative, with its crew-cut NASA technocrats tirelessly striving toward the Moon, and a Western narrative, with lone heroes conquering a formidable new frontier (from mostly western facilities). And as the parallel narrative to the Vietnam war, it offered a reassuringly benign, yet powerful government, while simultaneously reinforcing cold war fear (and the need for military spending) in demonstrating the awesome power of rockets.

In 1967 three astronauts died in an early Apollo program test and the theme of astronaut as hero was tragically revived, and the public reminded of the risks of conquering space. But the first of the Apollo flights (1968-1972) were enormously successful, including the Christmas, 1968, first lunar orbits by Apollo 8. The astronaut's reading from the Book of Genesis while in lunar orbit made for stirring television, but firmly anchored the NASA TV spectacular as a believers-only enterprise. In July, 1969, the space TV narrative reached its climax, as the networks went on the air nearly full time to report the mission of Apollo 11, the first lunar landing. 528 million people around the world--but not in the Soviet Union--marvelled at Apollo 11 on TV.

As with other Apollo missions providing TV coverage from the spacecraft, informal visits with the astronauts were highly scripted, using cue cards. Second moon walker Edwin Aldrin suggested the United States Information Agency scripted Apollo Eight's Bible reading and Neil Armstrong's first words from the lunar surface. Whether Armstrong said "That's one small step for man," or "a man", as he intended (with the article "a" lost to static), has never been resolved. The blurry black and white images of Armstrong jumping onto the lunar surface and the short surface explorations by Armstrong and Aldrin are widely regarded as television's first, and perhaps greatest, example of unifying a massive worldwide audience in common wonder and hope.

After the Apollo 11 television spectacular, coverage of the following moon missions became increasingly brief and critical. Under considerable pressure to begin cutting back, NASA eliminated the last three planned Apollo missions, terminating the program with Apollo 17 in 1972. NASA actually paid the networks to cover the last Apollo mission (NASA oficial Chris Kraft, Jr., quoted in Hurt, 282). Coverage was spectacular nonetheless, from the nail-biting return of the explosion-crippled Apollo 13 spacecraft, to the lengthy moon walks and moon buggy rides of the last Apollos, covered live with color cameras. Such a part of American culture was NASA of the 1960s that it routinely provided technical assistance and advice to Hollywood, as with the many permutations of Star Trek, or provided entire series storylines, as with I Dream of Jeanie. Footage from NASA's massive film library appears in all manner of productions.

Television coverage of the long-duration Skylab missions (1973-1974) provided entertaining images of astronaut antics in weightlessness, but was overshadowed by the Watergate hearings. Watergate signalled an end of the trust of government and hero worship characterizing the 1960s space program. NASA could no longer sell its heroes and expensive programs to the public. The heroism of ex-astronauts was often dismantled by the same media which had constructed it, as astronauts were exposed in shady business deals or dysfunctional lives, criticized for making commercials, or doubted in new corporate and political roles. Television could not accept the astronaut as human.


Astronauts Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr. Apollo 11 mission
Photo courtesy of NASA

Interest in space was occasionally revived in the 1970s by spectacular NASA accomplishments. In 1976 America enjoyed the extraordinary experience of seeing live pictures of the Martian surface as they arrived from the Viking lander--a visual thrill rivalling coverage of Apollo 11. In subsequent years the Voyager and Pioneer spacecraft had close encounters with the outer planets of the solar system, sending back dazzling images. But television coverage outside of regular newscasts was minimal. As Johnson's report had predicted, television reported the accomplishments of NASA's incredible robot explorers, but reserved its greatest excitement for crewed missions.

Between the last Skylab mission and the first Space Shuttle orbital mission in 1981, the only crewed space flight was Apollo-Soyuz in 1975, an odd public relations stunt intended as a tangible demonstration of detente with the Soviet Union. The orbital link up of three astronauts with two cosmonauts was entertaining if unimpressive by lunar mission standards, but NASA public relations was heavy handed. The mission was highly scripted and choreographed for a potential international television audience of a half billion. As Walter Cronkite noted, "This is one mission when we can truly say the television picture is as important as the mission itself, because that is the picture of detente...". It was important in the Soviet Union, where it was the first space mission on live television.

The first Space Shuttle test landings over California were covered live, with NASA providing remarkable pictures from chase planes as Enterprise (named after pressure from Star Trek fans) separated from its 747 mother plane and glided to Earth. Coverage of the long delayed first Shuttle space flight in 1981 was as abundant as in 1960s missions, and occasionally reminiscent of 1960s coverage for its cold war rhetoric--including the breathless reporting of a Soviet spy ship lurking off the coast as the Shuttle Columbia returned from orbit.

Coverage of the space shuttle rapidly diminished, and live coverage of missions had ended long before the 25th shuttle mission on 28 January 1986. On that day the shuttle Challenger, with a crew of seven including school teacher and media darling Christine McAuliffe, exploded after lift off like a daytime fireworks display. As President Reagan would speculate and the media would faithfully repeat, TV became America's "electronic hearth," a common gathering place to seek understanding and solace. Television was unprepared for such a tragedy, with speechless anchors, an unfortunate tendency to repeat the videotape of the explosion constantly, and irresponsible speculation about the possibility of survivors. But as shared national tragedy, it was an event like none other.

Thanks in part to television, the history of the American space program and its role in American life (including the dramatic acceleration of technological development which resulted, to which the television industry itself owes much), has never been completely written. Television presented fleeting spectacles, devoid of analysis, perspective, and retrospective. Because America saw the Space Program as television program, there was little demand for deeper analysis in journalism and literature. Only since the 1970s have writers and scholars attempted to specify the place of the space program in American culture. While television may have obscured issues, it presented such unforgettable images that few people who witnessed Apollo 11, Viking, or Challenger on TV have forgotten where they watched. But with nearly seventy space shuttle missions to date, the space program has now become too ordinary for television.

-Chris Paterson


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Atwill, William. Fire and Power: The American Space Program as Postmodern Narrative. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1994.

Axthelm, Pete. "Where Have All the Heroes Gone?" Newsweek (New York), 6 August 1979.

Carpenter, M. Scott, with others. We Seven. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962.

Collins, Michael. Carrying the Fire. New York: Ballentine, 1974.

Hurt, Harry III. For All Mankind. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988.

Kauffman, James. Selling Outer Space. Tuscaloosa Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1994.

Life in Space. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life, 1983.

Martin, Ann Ray. "Getting the Picture." Newsweek (New York), 28 July 1975.

O'Toole, Thomas, and Jim Schefter. "The Bumpy Road that Led Man to the Moon." The Washington Post (Washington, D.C.), 15 July 1979.

Vladimirov, Leonid. The Russian Space Bluff. London: Tom Stacey Ltd., 1971.

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979.


See also Cronkite, Walter; Satellite