Astro Mad Men: NASA's 1960s Campaign to Win America's Heart

As soon as the agency was established, it set to work buying space in the public imagination.
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The Mercury Seven, fulfilling their contractual obligation (Life)

After successfully completing the flight that would make him the first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn gave a speech at his hometown high school. His old teachers, the astronaut joked, would be "very surprised" to learn, as news accounts had it, that he had "received straight A's all through school." His football teammates would be similarly shocked to learn that even while Glenn had sat on the bench, they had sought guidance from him about gaining "a few more yards." The people who knew John Glenn, The Guy before he became John Glenn, The Astronaut, the newly minted hero suggested, must be amazed to read all the gushing accounts of their classmate's various "prowesses."

Glenn was poking fun at the inevitable trajectories of heroism: the wide-eyed exaggerations, the casual polishings, the careful erosions of inconvenient facts. But he was poking fun, more specifically, at a legal document: a contract between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Life magazine. One that sold the Mercury astronauts' life stories to the media outlet, exclusively. In exchange for this, Life agreed to obtain NASA's approval before publishing images of and/or writings about the astronauts. And it agreed to pay for the privilege -- a sum that reportedly amounted to, in 1959 currency, some $25,000 per astronaut, per year. That's hundreds of thousands of dollars in today's money. 

Ordinary Supermen
Between 1959 and 1963, NASA-approved stories about American astronauts ran in 28 issues of Life. The coverage started with an 18-page spread in mid-September of 1959, which included color photographs of the astronauts in training by the famous Life photographer Ralph Morse. Later coverage would also include images of the astronauts with their families, in their living rooms, in their yards, and -- in the case of Scott Carpenter, in a 1962 piece -- camping in Colorado. The Life stories depicted America's designated star-sailors as they were on Earth. Or, at least, they claimed to.

President Kennedy, David Halberstam would note, saw Life in those early days of television as "the most influential instrument in the country." And the young executive, who had bet a hefty portion of his legacy on shooting the moon, exploited Life's power to portray the nation's newly appointed space travelers as heroic frontiersmen. "With NASA's cooperation," Mark Bynes puts it, "Life magazine lionized and sanitized the original Mercury astronauts," furthering "the process of turning the astronauts into bland good guys." Which was a process actively supported by Life's publisher, Henry Luce, a man who believed in the influential power of the photograph and whom Halberstam once called "the world's most powerful unacknowledged political propagandist." Luce's magazine, Tom Wolfe would remark, behaved toward the astronauts like the "Victorian gent": when it came to portraying the possessors of the right stuff, Wolfe noted, the magazine labored to set "the proper emotion, the seemly tone."

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From science fiction to Glenn models a Mercury-era spacesuit (NASA)

One way Life accomplished this was to do the politest thing possible: let the astronauts themselves set the tone for their coverage. Several of the Life's articles about the astronauts carried the bylines of the astronauts. Which wasn't to say, of course, that they were also written by the astronauts. The Mercury Seven were helped along in their contractually literary efforts by the Life writers Loudon Wainwright, Don Schanche, and Patsy Parkin. And each of their stories contained common elements. Harlen Makemson lists it like so: "an anecdote from test pilot days, followed by descriptions of astronaut training, an acknowledgement of danger, a sense of duty in accepting the mission, and a projection of what the first flight might be like," he writes, "were elements of virtually each story."

So while "there was no explicit editorial direction" for the stories, one of the Life ghost writers noted, "the deal Life made with NASA and the seven individuals created a strong bias toward the 'Boy Scout' image, because all pieces under the astronauts' bylines had to be approved by them as individuals, as a group, and by [NASA publicity head] Shorty Powers and whomever happened to be in charge at the moment in Washington."

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Gordon Cooper, Prime Pilot for the final Mercury flight, stands confidently upon his privately-owned Beechcraft Bonanza. (NASA)

That editing-by-committee approach led to stories that read, almost inevitably, as NASA press releases. In a 1973 article for the Columbia Journalism Review tellingly titled "The Selling of the Astronauts," Robert Sherrod described his visit with a team of Mercury members and the Life writers that followed in their wakes. The group passed the time rather pleasantly, Sherrod reported. One astronaut cooked steaks for the Life crew. Another made pancakes for his son's Cub Scout pack. Another told stories about his rise to astronaut-hood. The astronauts tried their hardest, in other words, to serve up a good story. "These three astronauts ... went sailing together," Sherrod noted, "though they didn't really like each other very much." 

Given all that effort, it would take some time, Sherrod recalled, "for the truth to sink in: these famous young men were doing handsprings for Life because they were being paid for it." Not that the effort much mattered in the end: in the Life story that resulted from all the glad-handing and flapjacking, Sherrod wrote, "the astronauts came out, as usual, deodorized, plasticized, and homogenized, without anybody quite intending it that way."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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