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
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
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
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
Astronauts Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr. Apollo 11 mission
Photo courtesy of NASA
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Edwin, and Wayne Warga. Return to Earth. New York: Random
William. Fire and Power: The American Space Program as Postmodern
Narrative. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
Pete. "Where Have All the Heroes Gone?" Newsweek (New York),
6 August 1979.
M. Scott, with others. We Seven. New York: Simon and Schuster,
Collins, Michael. Carrying the Fire. New York: Ballentine,
Harry III. For All Mankind. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press,
James. Selling Outer Space. Tuscaloosa Alabama: University
of Alabama Press, 1994.
Life in Space. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life, 1983.
Ann Ray. "Getting the Picture." Newsweek (New York), 28 July
Thomas, and Jim Schefter. "The Bumpy Road that Led Man to the Moon."
The Washington Post (Washington, D.C.), 15 July 1979.
Leonid. The Russian Space Bluff. London: Tom Stacey Ltd.,
Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979.
also Cronkite, Walter;