'Apollo in the Age of Aquarius': Bringing the Space Race Back Down to Earth

Looking at NASA's interactions with the social movements of the '60s offers a new perspective on that landmark era in America.

Apollo in the Age of Aquarius

Publisher: Harvard University Press
Price: $29.95
Author: Neil M. Maher
Length: 368 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-03

The history of the US space program has been shaped through the public repetition of particular stories and singular moments: John F. Kennedy declaring his mission to have a man on the moon by the end of the decade, or Neil Armstrong’s famous utterance of “one small step for man”. Some stories are easily recalled and others fade into the distance.

When historians like Neal Maher bring those incidents back to the surface and place them within a broad historical frame, readers are given new perspectives on the past. In Apollo in the Age of Aquarius, Maher frames a meticulously researched story of NASA’s interaction with the social and political movements of the '60s. Although the stories he relates were covered in popular mainstream media, they are not broadly remembered or retold.

Bracketed with personal reflection in the introduction and conclusion, Maher looks at NASA’s conflicts with the civil rights movement, the New Left, the Whole Earth environmental movement, the women’s movement, and finally the counterculture. Although these subjects are contained within individual chapters, overlapping concerns tie them together.

Skepticism about technological progress during the '60s is a hallmark among the movements. On the one hand, Americans were broadly enthusiastic for NASA as means of “winning” the Cold War by beating the Soviets to a lunar landing was broadly considered an essential goal for the United States. Yet the extraordinary cost of the space program came under protest from various voices, as the quality of life in many urban communities deteriorated. Opposition to spending federal funds up in space when funding was desperately needed down on Earth was an evocative talking point and inspiration for poignant political cartoons. As primary sources, the cartoons succinctly sum up the attitudes present in both mainstream and minority newspapers.

Like African-American activists, the New Left argued that money spent in space was needed on Earth. Student activists protested not only NASA but also the government contracts that employed university resources and expertise to fund the technology for warfare. Aerospace engineering was broadly implemented in the conflict in Vietnam, creating opposition to NASA from those who also opposed the Vietnam War. Although NASA was a civilian agency, it worked closely with the Department of Defense to find solutions to vexing problems in the military’s efforts in Vietnam.

Primary among the problems solved was the use of early satellite technology to help soldiers on the ground find their way through dense foliage. That technology evolved into Landsat, the NASA-run program that provided views of Earth not previously available to help with natural resources management, especially in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America. For the New Left, Landsat was a step in the right direction.

The Johnson administration was interested in finding ways to transfer the technological advances of NASA to the needs of urban communities, especially environmental concerns. While there were pilot projects that applied NASA’s research to air pollution and to the inner city housing crisis, they remained only pilots. None of the projects were applied on a large enough scale to make a true, permanent difference. As Maher points out, NASA funded projects to study, confer, discuss and consider, but never to implement (50).

Maher also gives the reader a stark reminder of sexism during the '60s, along with the groundbreaking work done by feminists to raise awareness of gender inequities in the space program. While public discourse on the whole has been less sexist in the last few decades, some startling misogynist language persists. During the '60s, everyday sexist language was commonplace. Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was lauded as the first woman in space, orbiting the Earth for three days in 1963. Maher uses public reception to her accomplishments to compare the rhetoric of the Soviet Union and the United States.

Where the Soviets used Tereshkova’s flight to claim that socialism had achieved gender equality, Maher selects samples from the American media that turn her into a spectacle of femininity. He sums up the attitude of both the media and NASA for women aspiring to careers in space: the only roles for them would be as housekeepers or whores. It took twenty more years for NASA to finally send a woman, Sally Ride, into space.

In the end, Maher argues that having NASA as a shared adversary was a means for the political and social movements of the '60s to find common ground. As the disparate histories of these movements are reified -- particularly with the ongoing commemoration of fiftieth anniversaries of the events that mark Maher’s age of Aquarius -- coalition is seldom part of the story. Apollo in the Age of Aquarius effectively provides overlapping timelines with opposition to NASA as a common thread.

A reader with an interest in NASA history will find a new perspective in this book with a focus on the space program’s interactions with the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, environmentalists, and the counterculture. Those with an interest in the cultural history of the '60s will find an even more rewarding read, as Maher offers depth and breadth in his writing.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.