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Operation Moonglow: A Political History of Project Apollo by Teasel Muir-Harmony
Quest Volume: 28 #3 (2021)
An early Soviet lead in the Cold War-era Space Race cast a long shadow over successive US governments that were keen to show the world how a capitalist society model was far superior to the competing Communist system. The Soviets had beaten the Americans into space in 1957, and then repeatedly beat them when it came to launching heavier payloads, animals, and eventually the first human travelers. To the many new postwar nations that rose from the ashes of the old crumbling colonial empires in the postwar-era, and whose political allegiance in the emerging Cold War could sway the balance of power, it seemed at first as if the Soviet way led to the more advanced society. American presidents knew they had to change this perception globally, and that the very survival of the United States and its allies during the Cold War may depend upon their government’s ability to effectively do so.
The Apollo Program undoubtedly ranks among the most studied historical events of the 20th century, making it ever more challenging for more recent authors to offer new perspectives. Nevertheless, Teasel Muir-Harmony, curator of the Apollo collection at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, has interestingly done just that. In Operation Moonglow: A Political History of Project Apollo, she re-examines the intersection between spaceflight, geopolitics, propaganda, and diplomacy during that era through the lens of America’s strategy to shape foreign public opinion. Following in detail the workings of the United States Information Agency (USIA) and its efforts to bring the developments of civilian spaceflight—as well as the Western democratic political model that achieved it—to a global audience, Muir-Harmony reveals a rich new vein in the story of America’s Moon landing program that often receives little mention in other politically focused studies of the period.
While Soviet achievements in space were widely announced, the details of how they were accomplished were largely buried in secrecy. Unlike their American counterparts, the lead architects of the Soviet space program were never made public, nor did they appear on international TV. When it came to showcasing early Soviet space technology, even the most basic details of Russian spacecraft designs were often obscured when presented to public audiences. Yuri Gagarin’s likeness adorned on the cover of Time magazine on 21 April 1961, but the artist having no other reference resorted to depicting his spacecraft in the shape of a US Mercury Program capsule. This veil of Soviet secrecy betrayed a larger sense of political openness and trust, and it was just the psychological wedge the Americans and the West needed to steer international public opinion toward their favor.
Through excellent use of largely untapped archival USIA documentary sources as well as many firsthand accounts, Muir-Harmony offers numerous examples how the underlying tones of the American space program projected its larger psychological strategy of promoting capitalism over communism. Whereas Soviet space achievements were routinely touted as national victories, American successes in space were instead promoted as a victory “for all mankind.” Where the Soviets sent a cosmonaut and a state representative to answer questions, the US sent flown spacecraft and a mountain of free giveaways. Further supported by free radio, accessible information libraries, and film documentaries, the American government enabled access to its space program in a way that the Soviet program never did. As a result, the people of the world lined up for hours to see firsthand John Glenn’s Friendship 7 Mercury capsule as it made its “fourth orbit” around the globe, while minimalist and controlled Soviet presentations were often bypassed.
Over time, bringing America’s space program to the people of the world paid handsome dividends. First and foremost, it greatly facilitated negotiations for access to foreign territory for the deployment of critical satellite and spacecraft telemetry/communications ground stations, emergency landing sites, and other related crewed spacecraft recovery operations. Beyond that, it simplified the promotion of democratic life where unlike Soviet rule it encouraged freedom and free choice through unbounded opportunity. When the US space program finally reached its zenith with the Apollo 11 mission, every nation the USIA had influenced took pride in stating that it too had some role in the “one giant leap” for all humankind. It was a remarkable strategy that fate and fortune had brought to fruition.
Still, as much as it was an amazing success for NASA, Muir-Harmony reminds us that it was no less of an amazing success for America’s foreign policy. Nixon’s government was quick to seize upon the moment and leverage the achievement of Apollo 11 to the fullest. It was a convenient public relations distraction from the ongoing plight of the Vietnam War, and it offered hope where the war in Southeast Asia offered nothing but futility. The book’s chapter on the post-mission diplomatic tour is both interesting and revealing in that it seemed to have taxed the astronauts as much as their training for the Moon mission itself. The trio of lunar explorers undertook a whirlwind trip around the globe shortly after returning to Earth itself, covering yet another 44,650 miles in just 38 days.
Muir-Harmony’s book is a welcome addition to the codex of popular literature on the history of Project Apollo. It reminds us that while the landing took place on a celestial body far away, the impact of that moment was mostly felt at home. Its focus on the USIA and America’s foreign public policy initiatives is a welcome change from the more traditional political histories of the era. Most notably, it captures specific NASA events such as the post-mission world touring, something that has not received adequate treatment in previous studies. A great history overall, while most of the extant work on the period compels the reader to either look up or look down, in this book Muir-Harmony very appropriately makes us look out.
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Title: Operation Moonglow: A Political History of Project Apollo
Author: Teasel Muir-Harmony
Publisher: Basic Books
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