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.