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'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.


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