There are few moments of our modern cultural history that resonate so deeply they become touchstones. Where were you when? or Do you remember? people ask. How you answer reveals a lot about you: your age, your ideals, how capital “R” Romantic you are.
Many of these events are tragic. Think of the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., or John Lennon, or the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and July 7, 2005 attacks on the London Underground. But some are triumphant: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid, and the July 20, 1969 Moon landing.
That last one is especially rallying. The Moon landing represents so much about mid-century America, the hopeful leaders of the world, still poised as a land of opportunity and hope in spite of the massive unrest in its populace. It was the culmination of more than a decade of jockeying between two nuclear superpowers no longer satisfied with world domination but setting their sights on the cosmos now, instead. And it inspired a generation to dream big, and infiltrated the pop culture products that they would grow up to produce.
It was, perhaps, emblematic of the last gasps of optimism in our collective future. NASA no longer sends manned spacecraft to the Moon (though they are hoping to do so by 2024) and other nations are just not able to put the money into developing their own space programs to do the same, as much as they might want to. We also have some pretty pressing issues to deal with at home. It seems unlikely that we will ever live on the Moon, or Mars, like The Jetsons promised.
But, the International Space Station is operated by teams of scientists from around the world. That’s the closest thing we have to the United Federation of Planets, I guess.
Which is where our exploration of the Moon Landing begins and ends: in the world of pop culture.
Set Out For A Great Adventure
October 4, 1957 was the day the Russians sent Sputnik into orbit. Sputnik was the world’s first artificial satellite and the first man-made object sent into Earth’s orbit. It also kicked off the Space Race.
Our fascination with space is nothing new. Everyone, living ancient civilizations right on up to that moment, had looked to the sky with wonder at what it contained and what it might mean. Science fiction had dabbled with ideas throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries; art and social movements like Futurism pushed the boundaries through designs based on movement, speed, youthful innovation, and industry. But the idea that we could actually send things there was the first of many giant leaps for mankind that happened in the next 12 years.
When U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration into being in 1958, the race to colonize the heavens shifted into high gear. By 1961, President Kennedy made the promise to put a man on the Moon by the close of the decade. These were big dreams. Up until that point, Russian scientists had sent animals into space (most famous of these being poor Laika, the stray dog from Moscow doomed to a near-Earth orbit death on Sputnik 2, a little more than a month after Sputnik launched). It didn’t seem feasible to send humans to the Moon.
Here, too, the Russians beat the United States, sending cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space in March 1961. Two months later, NASA astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space.
The race was on.
“One word: Plastics“
Pop culture had caught on to the feverish pace of space exploration by this point. Instead of shlocky B-movies like Plan 9 from Outer Space, the world had been turned on by the cool gadgetry of shows like The Jetsons, which imagined a somewhat-idealized look at where our future might be headed. Flying cars, houses above the clouds…yes, you still had to commute to work, but you got to do it in so much style!
That style was called “Googie” in architecture and “Atomic Age” in industrial design and “Space Age” in the world of fashion and decor. It reached its heyday during the Space Race and is fairly universally recognized in connection to the 1960s today. Think starbursts, chrome detailing on everything, sweeping angles and lots of glass, brightly-coloured plastics, shiny fabrics for your clothes—that’s what we’re talking about.
Food products like Tang became immensely popular because of its association with the manned spaceflight program (following its inclusion in John Glenn’s Mercury mission in 1962); what followed it was a variety of “convenience foods” like Cool Whip and Jell-O, the precursors to the kitschy “astronaut food” you can buy at science museums today. But their history as products of the Space Race links them inextricably with this period in time.
And if all of the experimentation and wild design ideas could have a sound, it was in the Space Age music of bands like The Tornados, whose hit 1962 song “Telstar” celebrates—of all things—a communications satellite.
The early ’60s were tremendous fun in the world of pop culture, art, and design. But the Cold War was still a war, after all. Nothing reminded people of that quite like the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Space Race was a cutesy offshoot of a very real international crisis between the world’s two nuclear superpowers; our very existence hung in the balance like never before.
Pop culture responded to these and other tensions by the mid-60s. TV shows like Star Trek explored a world in which we had learned to live in peace and relative harmony not just with each other but with other species as well. By 1968, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey had taken the utopia of Star Trek and turned it dystopic, forcing us to examine the intersection of humanity and technology like never before. It was a time of introspection, a hint at what was coming for us as the nascent environmental and various social justice movements kicked into high gear following the lead of the Civil Rights movements earlier in the decade.
What was clear was this: the desire to explore beyond the reaches of our Earth had produced anxieties and exultations in us as a species. That’s what the pop-cultural record shows us.
One Giant Leap for Mankind
When Apollo 11 launched on July 16th, 1969, an estimated one million people watched from the area surrounding the launch site. Several dozen million more likely watched on televisions the world over. It was an American mission, with an American flag on the side of the shuttle and Americans in the cockpit, but this was something tremendously important for the whole of humanity. Astronauts had completed orbits around the Moon before but no one had attempted descent to the lunar surface. If successful, the implications were staggering. The sky, quite literally, was no longer the limit.
The technical details of Apollo 11’s flight are tedious to list off in great detail. The basics of it are as follows: it took the crew four days, six hours, and 45 minutes to reach the Moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the two astronauts chosen to pilot the Eagle lunar module from Columbia to the surface, while Michael Collins stayed inside to man the orbiting spacecraft. The Eagle didn’t land where it was supposed to and experienced some computer problems on the way down, but Armstrong and Aldrin landed successfully. After several hours of preparation, including the taking of communion, they made egress. Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on an extraterrestrial surface.
Armstrong and Aldrin collected rock and soil samples, documented what they could in photographs, took a call from U.S. President Richard Nixon, and planted a U.S. flag that toppled over in the exhaust blast when Eagle took off to rendezvous with Columbia after a total of 22 hours of separation.
An estimated 500 million people worldwide watched the transmissions beamed back to Earth from the surface of the Moon. For many of us, our parents and grandparents remember exactly where they were when they saw Neil Armstrong leap down from the lunar module. Children in the northern hemisphere on summer holidays stayed up late to watch the event on black and white televisions, many of them housed in plastic containers designed to look vaguely-Jestonian; maybe they ate Jell-O and drank Tang, while wearing polyester emblazoned with starbursts and planetary imagery.
It was what they’d all been waiting for since Sputnik.
End of the Great Society
U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson dreamed of creating a “Great Society” in the middle part of 1960s. His struggle to achieve this characterized much of his time in office. By the time mankind landed on the Moon, that dream of greatness quickly evaporated. We as a species realized we did that and then…never really did it again.
There are many varied and interconnected reasons why space exploration never quite reached the idealism of the 1960s, and why the July 20, 1969 Moon landing is the bittersweet pinnacle of our desire to reach the stars. Certainly the dangers of space flight became glaring after the disastrous April 1970 Apollo 13 mission. There was also no political need for it anymore; America had won the Space Race, so everyone can pack up and go home. Other issues took precedence; the 1970s saw recessions and controversies and scandals at home and continuing turmoil in southeast Asia and the Middle East and elsewhere. Landing on the Moon became a “been there, done that” check mark on a list of things to do.
Pop culture had largely moved on, too. Design and architecture returned to nature in a big way, with earthy wood replacing shiny plastic as a building material of choice. Googie, space-age knick-knacks hid away in Grandma’s curio cabinet. Films looked inward to talk; TV focused on different spectacles. The 1970s were gritty; the 1980s were flashy. By the 1990s, nobody seemed to care anymore.
It didn’t mean that NASA had finished, or that anyone else in space programs around the world had either. The last manned mission to the Moon was in 1972 but Voyager, launched in 1977, still soars beyond the reach of our solar system, still sending back the most magnificent data. In my opinion, its aptly titled “Family Portrait” of our entire solar system, including the famous “Pale Blue Dot”, is one of the most moving images ever captured.
Carl Sagan—who worked on the Voyager project, among many other things—was a vocal advocate for space exploration and was one of the greatest ambassadors for curiosity, above all else, which is something that many of us still feel when we look up at the night sky. His 1980 TV series Cosmos is credited with inspiring the generation after the Space Age with Space Age-like wonder as they set out to try and accomplish more with less: less interest, less funding, less will to boldly go where no one had gone before.
As with so much in pop culture, we have come to a point where we return to the things that make us nostalgic for the past. The explosion of popularity for All-Things-Sixties back in the late ’90s brought us the Ron Howard film Apollo 13. It frames the Space Race in terms typical for the time but nevertheless establishes a base of wonder from which we all became Tom Hanks’s Jim Lovell. As he stares up at the Moon in his backyard, while his friends Neil and Buzz were leaping about near the Sea of Tranquility, we see the world through his eyes again.
A similar thing happens in the Season 7 finale of Mad Men, “Waterloo”. The last part of the episode revolves around each character reacting to their TV screens. It’s just them and half a billion of their fellow Earthlings, watching history. Mad Men always had a singularly fascinating way of depicting the cultural moments of the 1960s in a way that made them resonant. But the way everyone gathered alone, together, to watch the Apollo 11 footage was a unique study in the warmth of nostalgia and, yet again, wonderment.
“It’s What’s Next”
Tangentially related is the Season 2 episode of The West Wing, “Galileo”. The episode foregrounds a storyline about a missing Martian probe against a fire in a Russian missile silo. It hearkens back to the days of the Cold War while also somehow pushing us forward. Because that’s what we do best, it seems to say. President Bartlet is less-than-impressed with Press Secretary CJ Cregg’s pronunciation of Galileo V, the name of the probe, in advance of a televised classroom with schoolkids eager to learn more about the Martian mission. After the probe goes missing and she convinces the President to do the televised classroom anyway, she gets it right. There’s wonder in her voice as she talks about discovery and taking chances and making mistakes. But the best speech goes to Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn, who sums it all up very nicely:
Our modern-day pop culture is less concerned with space travel than it is with memes and conspiracy theories—which are combining spectacularly in the weirdly iconic and nonsensical shitpost event “Storm Area 51: They Can’t Stop All of Us” raid planned for September. There are people who sincerely believe that Stanley Kubrick helped NASA fake the Moon landing entirely. That’s as much about our distrust of politicians and the government—which is more fallout from the 1960s, but that’s for another article—as it is a reflection of our inability, perhaps, to comprehend the achievement of landing on the Moon.
Either way, we’ve largely stopped thinking about space as a thing to go out and explore. And while that might not be the worst thing in the world—we do have kind of a lot going on down here—humanity thrives when it’s most curious. We’re at our best when we’re adventurous. And we do our best when we focus on a collective goal. It’s my humble opinion that we need more Curiosity rovers. We need to aim for a manned Mars visit. Or maybe we just need another Cold War between two countries with the side effect being that they try to outmaneuver each other to prevent climate change.
Point is, fifty years ago, and for one brief and shining moment at the end of a turbulent decade, two nations at war took to the skies and showed us who we are and made us wonder who we could be, and where else we could go.
We haven’t forgotten that, not entirely. What would it take to get us back there again? We just need to re-learn how to look at this world and our place within it with wonder again.