Celebrated as an American triumph and immortalized as “one giant leap for mankind,” the Apollo 11 moon landing has always had a certain buzzcut cast. But July 1969 was of course a shaggy time in America—the moon landing took place just three weeks before Woodstock—and the space program had a surprisingly intimate relationship with the social and political movements of the 1960s and 1970s. As historian Neil Maher documents in Apollo in the Age of Aquarius, the space race both provoked and responded to the struggles for civil rights and for peace in Vietnam, the environmental and feminist movements, and even the counterculture.
Here’s Maher in the book’s Introduction:
Apollo in the Age of Aquarius tells the story of the shared history of the space race and the social and political movements of the 1960s era. It argues not only that these two historical phenomena were mutually dependent on one another for popular and political support, but also that they represented two factions in a national debate regarding the present and future course of the United States. Was America the sort of nation that would spend $24 billion to land men on the lunar surface, or a country more interested in using such resources to solve political problems such as racism, war, pollution, and sexism right in its own backyard? This controversy over national purpose, moreover, ultimately transformed, albeit unevenly, both the space race and these grassroots movements. While shared opposition to space exploration nurtured these movements during the 1960s, making NASA a somewhat reluctant driver of broader social change, in the 1970s civil rights leaders, peace activists, environmentalists, feminists, and those in the counterculture successfully pressured the space agency to reorient some of its technology away from outer space toward our bright blue planet. As a result, Apollo, in partnership with what the cast of Hair was calling the “Age of Aquarius,” brought both the space race and American politics back down to Earth.
President Lyndon Johnson himself remarked on that interplay, writing in his memoirs that “If we could send a man to the moon, we knew we should be able to send a poor boy to school and provide decent medical care for the aged.”
As Maher shows, though, it took a lot of agitation and activism to make such things plain. Civil rights organizers and the black press, for example, worked hard to popularize the notion that the space race was diverting federal funds and national attention from a decaying city environment and unhealthy urban housing. Mainstream African American magazines and newspapers ran pieces with such titles as “Moon Probe Laudable—But Blacks Need Help,” “Moonshot Missed Most Blacks,” and “‘Only Way I Could Get on the Moon Is to Be the First Janitor There.’” Artists followed suit, as in Gil Scott-Heron’s indelible “Whitey on the Moon,” recorded in a Harlem nightclub in 1970:
In a surprising but ultimately ineffectual show of institutional accountability, NASA responded to such uproar by establishing an Urban Systems Project Office that “spun off” space technologies to track city sprawl, monitor urban air pollution, and, in a cooperative venture with HUD, to lower urban energy consumption by retooling the Apollo space capsule’s extremely efficient heating and cooling systems for use in low-income housing projects.
Maher offers similar histories of interaction with respect to anti-war activism, the women’s movement—NASA’s initial contention that the spacesuit “would be damaging to the soft structures of the feminine body” is a classic bit of patriarchy dissembling—environmentalism, the Rand/Buckley New Right, and the hippie counterculture. The point of these stories isn’t necessarily one of public pressure yielding directly to gain for the populace, as NASA’s various efforts to placate the nation didn’t always have significant impact. Instead, Apollo in the Age of Aquarius gives us a better sense of how the interaction of social movements and government forces can help to shape a nation’s sense of itself.
In some instances, as with the civil rights movement and the counterculture, the space agency’s engagement with grassroots politics was shallow, inadequately funded, highly publicized, and, in the end, ineffective. While the space agency ignored hippies, it did little more than provide civil rights activists with a global platform from which to voice their concerns. For other movements, however, the space race was more consequential. Administrators, scientists, and engineers at NASA produced cultural icons and scientific data that unified and strengthened environmentalism; provided second-wave feminism, albeit reluctantly, with new leaders, idols, and discourses that promoted gender equality through biological difference; and fostered the spread of the New Right’s political ideology, quite unintentionally, across the Sunbelt South. The space agency’s impact on the anti-war movement was different, yet again. Although NASA merely provided the New Left with yet another anti-war target, the space agency’s deployment of Landsat technology across the developing world helped the U.S. government project its soft power abroad in more subtle, and ultimately more intrusive, ways. Thus while NASA was rarely, if ever, proactive when it came to these grassroots movements, its unintentional, belated, and often superficial efforts nevertheless became unexpected drivers of broader social change during the 1960s era.
For Maher, the space race and its grassroots opposition ultimately both reflected the robust civic culture of the 1960s era and strengthened it by sparking a national debate about American purpose. “In our present age of bitter partisanship, government gridlock, and a host of new threats to both our planet and its diverse inhabitants,” he writes, “we would do well to remember Apollo in the Age of Aquarius.”