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

By Megan Garber
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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."

'Henry Luce's Walking Apple Pies'
There was, of course, some intention for myth-making. "Although Life reporters followed the astronauts at home and on the road and witnessed occasional indiscretions," Howard McCurdy writes, "such tidbits did not find their way into the mainstream press." Those tidbits included pretty much any detail that would frame the astronauts as men rather than myths. As one Life writer admitted, "I knew, of course, about some very shaky marriages, some womanizing, some drinking, and never reported it. The guys wouldn't have let me, and neither would NASA. It was common knowledge that several marriages hung together only because the men were afraid NASA would disapprove of divorce and take them off flights." As another summed it up: "Life treated the men and their families with kid gloves. So did most of the rest of the press. These guys were heroes, most of them were very smooth, canny operators with all of the press. They felt that they had to live up to a public image of good clean all-American guys, and NASA knocked itself out to preserve the image."

What resulted was a kind of feedback loop of homogenized heroism. "NASA," McCurdy notes, "used its astronauts to promote the space program, parading them though the White House and across Capitol Hill. Reporters cooperated because it made great copy and permitted them to tag along like technology groupies on an American tour."

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The Mercury Seven, ready to do their thing (NASA)

Life's exclusive arrangement with NASA and its astronauts, unsurprisingly, met criticism from fellow news outlets and journalists. Pauline Kael drily referred to the Mercury astronauts as "Henry Luce's walking apple pies." Newsweek declared Life's portrayal of the seven guys and those in their orbit to be a "Barnumesque extravaganza," with the astronauts themselves acting as "cardboard characters of soap operas." The New York Times focused its complaints on the general unsavoriness of astronauts reaping "enormous private profits" from participating in "a great national effort," arguing that Mercury's taxpayer-funded feats belonged in the "public domain." Newsweek adopted the same posture about what it called an "embarrassing" financial arrangement. "How much a hero can expect to gain financially and still remain a hero," the magazine mused, "is uncertain."

Their concerns may have been valid. NASA, for the most part, simply ignored them. In the earliest days of the space program, public support was a matter of existential urgency -- and the Kennedy administration, Vernon van Dyke notes, hoped to influence attitudes "not simply through space shots but also through publicity concerning them." It used news agencies as, literally, outlets. NASA worked with the Cleveland Plain Dealer to stage a Space Science Fair to encourage public enthusiasm for space. It dispatched Wernher von Braun, the director of the Marshall Space Center, to write a column about space for Popular Science. It offered a grant of several thousands of dollars in 1960s currency to Columbia's journalism school "to study how to disseminate news about the space program and how to train science writers" (a grant that Columbia, feeling a compunction that NASA did not, ultimately declined to accept). And in 1962, the space agency renewed its contract with Life.

That Selfie From Space
It's hard to imagine, today, NASA entering into an exclusive agreement with any news outlet -- and equally hard to imagine any reputable news outlet agreeing to act, as the scholar James Kauffman puts it, as "little more than an extension of NASA's public relations program." Times, in that sense, have changed. For all that, though, there's a clear line between the short-lived Life contract and the varied publicity efforts we see from NASA today -- all of which redound to a basic insight: that pictures and the stories that accompany them are the best public currency NASA has. (And, further, that public currency is ultimately the only currency the taxpayer-funded agency has.) Images -- an American flag, planted in the soil of the moon; a rocket, streaking fire; the selfie-from-Saturn that went viral last week -- offer NASA an elegant way to transcend its own necessary trivialities, its bureaucratic agenda-setting, its budget battles with Congress. Those pictures are effective, as far as NASA is concerned, because they take NASA out of the picture. They remind us instead of space, and of the earliest stories we've told ourselves about it: that it is, in a very broad but very urgent sense, humanity's destiny. Which was a narrative carefully developed, of course, by NASA itself.

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Buzz Aldrin's bootprint in the lunar soil, 1969 (NASA)

Today's NASA, enabled by social media, is a direct continuation of that early, urgent contract with Life, minus an actual contract with Life. Rather than double down on a monogamous arrangement with a single news outlet, though, NASA has instead invested in promiscuity. It seeks to concentrate public attention not through one platform, but through several (and, in fact, as many as possible) -- with its content licensed not to a single outlet, but rather to the Creative Commons. NASA's Twitter feed offers a firehose of images, as well as news and historical tidbits (and, recently, birthday greetings to Wil Wheaton) on its 4.5-million-follower Twitter feed. NASA works with its astronauts to produce viral-friendly YouTube videos about life in space. It makes those astronauts available to the public through regular Google hangouts. It encourages those astronauts to take pictures and write poetry and record music videos. And it's not just astronauts who do the work of publicizing space: Yesterday afternoon, a group of the scientists and technicians overseeing the travels of the Mars Science Laboratory -- née Curiosity, the little rover that could -- did a reddit AMA. Which led to the consummately contemporary situation that was Sarah Marcotte, a member of NASA's Mars Public Engagement team, answering a question about the expected length of Curiosity's mission from a person named jizzed_in_my_pants.

In some ways, NASA's tentacular publicity efforts are unique to the NASA -- and to the world -- of 2013. All the truisms that the Internet has brought to the worlds of advertising and publicity -- direct user engagement! authenticity! -- have found their way, inevitably, to the space agency. NASA's contract with Life ended in 1970, 11 years after it had begun. It lives on, though, in some sense, in every story we tell ourselves about space and humans' place in it. It lives on in every tweet and Tumblr post and Facebook update and email blast, in every attempt to capture and then maintain our attention and our love. It lives on in the fact that, when we talk, still, with wonder about humans' success in putting a man on the moon, we're less inspired by the moon itself, and much more inspired by the man.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/07/astro-mad-men-nasas-1960s-campaign-to-win-americas-heart/278233/