NASA and the Explosive 1960s: A Conversation with Neil Maher

President Lyndon Johnson (left) and Vice President Spiro Agnew (right) watch the Apollo 11 Liftoff at Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969. Photo by NASA/Apollo 11.

“If we can put a man on the moon…” This expression usually precedes a question about why American ingenuity and perseverance have not yielded solutions to a goal less complicated than traveling to another celestial body. In the decades since the heyday of American space exploration it has become a common way to proclaim measures of national pride and exasperation. Yet, this saying took root well before the first astronauts set foot on the lunar surface. Neil Maher, an associate professor of history at the Federated History Department at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University, Newark, has written a book that takes a fresh, synthetic look at the moon program alongside American social movements of the 1960s. Apollo in the Age of Aquarius not only examines how the work of engineers, administrators, astronauts, and bureaucrats at NASA influenced American culture; it also foregrounds how a broad array of countercultural groups, from civil rights activists and environmentalists to hippies and second-wave feminists, altered the arc of spaceflight history.

I sat down with Neil Maher to talk about the extraordinary stories he uncovered for this book, how he came to conclusions that upend accepted narratives about space technology and postwar environmentalism, and the task of reviving voices long overlooked in the history of the American moon effort. We also discussed the project’s genesis, how it evolved over time, and the importance of gaining perspective even from unexpected places when writing environmental and political history.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.

Lisa Ruth Rand: What motivated you to write Apollo in the Age of Aquarius?

The cover of "Apollo in the Age of Aquarius" by Neil MaherNeil Maher: The book began as an environmental history of the Space Race. I identified what I thought were five or six themes that I thought might appeal to environmental historians, and then I realized that there were some problems with that approach. I realized that I really want to write a history of the 1960s that had an environmental history component, a history of technology component, and a political history component to it.

Environmental historians have tended to write books about very obvious connections to nature. We don’t write books about history writ large; we write a lot of books about parks, pollution, and environmental legislation, but not enough books about the Civil War, the women’s movement, or the Great Depression. So I thought, how do I push this book? Not in a way that would do away with those connections to environmental history, but to engage more with mainstream history. And political history kept inserting itself in my research. I kept seeing the women’s movement, civil rights, or the anti-Vietnam War movement. So I thought, how can I bring those in? This entailed going to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference archives and looking for their vision of what Apollo was about. (It turns out that they weren’t too pleased with it at all.) And going to the Students for a Democratic Society and seeing how they felt about NASA and its role in Vietnam. And even going to the National Organization for Women (NOW) records up at Radcliff and seeing how NOW was against NASA in the beginning.

LRR: When you first told me about this project, I thought you were going to be looking at the space environment itself and what could be considered an “environment.”

NM: We often think of the environment as stopping with the Earth or perhaps the Earth’s atmosphere. What you’re suggesting is that it extends on into space. In the book, I talk about bodies in space, bodies in space suits, environmental simulators, and I try to connect that environment with the environment back on Earth. The whole book is about trying to connect space, and the technology that allows us to explore space, with nature back on Earth.

LRR: The first chapter looks at the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the mutual influence between civil rights and Apollo. You open with a great story. Would you mind sharing it?

NM: The day before the Apollo 11 launch, Ralph Abernathy and 25 poor African American families marched to Cape Canaveral with four mules and two old wagons. They demand a meeting with Thomas Paine, who was the head administrator of NASA at the time. They meet early in the morning out in a field outside the gates of the Kennedy Space Center. Abernathy and his crew are at one end of the field and Thomas Paine and other NASA administrators, dressed in their thin white ties and their thick-rimmed glasses, were at the other end. And in the middle of the field is a giant group of reporters and television cameras. Abernathy begins by walking hand in hand with his families to the middle of the field singing “We Shall Overcome.” And Paine then goes to join them in the middle of the field. It’s an incredible moment because in the background is the Saturn V rocket, and you can see it over their shoulders.


Then Abernathy gets the microphone first and he says, basically: Look, we’re not here to protest the launch tomorrow. We think it’s wonderful. We’re proud that it’s happening. We’re here to protest the distorted sense of national priorities.

What he means is that there’s all this money going to explore outer space and none of it is going to help these poor families. Paine takes the microphone next, and reporters said he was incredibly moved. He responds by saying something like: If I could not push that button tomorrow and stop the launch I would. I would do it if we knew that all that money would go to stopping all your problems back home. But those problems are way more difficult than sending a man to the moon. So he says, “We’d like to see you hitch your wagons to our rockets, and we hope the space program will encourage this country to tackle other problems.”

This illustrates the tension that existed in a moment when the whole country is supposed to come together and feel very positive about beating the Russians to the moon. We forget that the summer of 1969 was the summer of Apollo but also the summer of Woodstock and civil rights activism. The tension is at the heart of this era.

LRR: This book reminds us that claiming that America as a whole reacted in a certain way to an iconic moment erases the experiences of many different American citizens and people around the world who are experiencing it very differently. In that sense I see this book, and especially this chapter, as being in line with Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, Hidden Figures, which is now an Oscar-nominated movie. This is about bringing the black experience back into American space history. It was incredibly important to the American moon effort and has largely been forgotten.

NM: Not only are people experiencing Apollo in a variety of ways, but the politics behind the Space Race are also quite diverse. You have grassroots politics—people like Abernathy and civil rights activists, anti-war activists, environmentalists, feminists, or even the hippies. And then you have national political leaders expressing their politics in another way. The same thing could be said for even the people within NASA.

The screening of the film "Hidden Figures" (20th Century Fox, 2016) at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Photo by Joel Kowsky/NASA, December 2016.

The screening of the film “Hidden Figures” (20th Century Fox, 2016) at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Photo by Joel Kowsky/NASA, December 2016.

LRR: Let’s talk more about NASA’s response to pressure from these social movements. 

NM: In the 1960s, as we’re racing to beat the Russians to the moon, the purse strings are let loose. Money is flowing into NASA. Criticisms—whether they’re from feminists, environmentalists, civil rights activists, or anti-war activists—can be ignored. NASA does not have to deal with them in the 1960s. Once it’s known that we’re going to be first to the moon, which actually occurred with Apollo 8, when we orbited it, the popular support for NASA plummeted. And it’s at that moment that NASA has to figure out how to maintain or rebuild that public support. In the 1970s, NASA begins to react to grassroots criticism by spinning off its technology to low-income housing projects, accepting women into the Astronaut Corps, using some of their satellites (like Landsat) to assess environmental problems back on earth, and halting military technology during the war and using that technology for something else.

LRR: The fact that you bring ecologists into the picture in the chapter on civil rights is an unexpected nexus between space technology, ecology, and urban and environmental inequality.

NM: The critiques by civil rights activists centered around housing. The question was: Why are we spending so much to house astronauts in space, when we can’t even house our poor in America’s cities? Then I came across Operation Breakthrough, which was a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program to figure out how to build pre-fabricated low-income housing in a way that would cut costs and be more energy efficient for the people living in these buildings. It turned out to be unsuccessful.

We forget that the summer of 1969 was the summer of Apollo but also the summer of Woodstock and civil rights activism.

LRR: You also found that NASA even had an Urban Systems Project Office?

NM: NASA does this in the early 1970s when congressional money and public support for NASA is dwindling. They realize that have to be relevant back on Earth. So they took satellites and they assessed snowmelt runoff to understand whether cities would have enough water. They created air pollution detectors that they put in inner cities to assess the air quality. They had water treatment systems that they put in apartment buildings. And they had a heating and cooling system that they were trying to implement through HUD.

In the civil rights chapter, much of this spin-off technology doesn’t really help African Americans. It was more performative than material. But in other chapters, like the one on environmentalism, their science proves incredibly beneficial.

LRR: What got you thinking about women’s bodies in the space program?  How did that inform your chapter on gender politics?

NM: The chapter on second-wave feminism began with the idea of bodies in nature (because of Richard White’s essay). The easy part for me was to illustrate how women were excluded from what was then called “manned” spaceflight. NASA promotes astronauts as very, very manly. Then NASA falls back on the argument that to test women’s bodies for spaceflight would require changing the simulators and redesigning the spacesuits, which would cost a lot of money and put us further behind the Russians. NASA had a number of rules that excluded women. Astronauts had to be jet pilots, even though NASA planned on flying the spaceships remotely and astronauts didn’t do anything resembling flying a plane. NASA also insisted that women’s bodies were too frail and that the menstrual cycle would make them unfit for space. There’s great work by Margaret Weitekamp debunking these claims and detailing early test results that suggested women would be better adapted to spaceflight.

Before Sally Ride became the first American woman in space, the debate over opening the astronaut corps to women reinvigorated debates among feminists about women's equality with (vs. differences from) men. Photo by NASA, 1983.

Before Sally Ride became the first American woman in space, the debate over opening the Astronaut Corps to women reinvigorated debates among feminists about women’s equality with (versus differences from) men. Photo by NASA, 1983.

The hard part to figure out was how the Space Race changed second-wave feminism. Women’s groups like NOW begin to protest the all-male Astronaut Corps. They picket outside NASA headquarters. They sneak into the Johnson Space Center and hold mock beauty pageants where they put up astronauts as the contestants. They organize letter-writing campaigns. That ultimately forces NASA to admit women, beginning with Sally Ride. What I realized is that this debate over women astronauts actually sparked a debate within second-wave feminism about this notion of equality versus difference.

Twenty years before Sally Ride, the Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova went up in space. Russia celebrated her as a symbol of the equality of the sexes under communism. But some feminists in the United States were saying that while women might be equal to men, women are also different than men and we should fight for equality through difference. The debate over women astronauts nourished this debate between equality feminists and difference feminists.

LRR: Your chapter about hippies and the counterculture is surprising in that it ends up with a lot to say about the Right.  

NM: There is dramatic tension between the hippies, who are opposed to NASA as part of the Establishment, and conservatives (like William F. Buckley, Ayn Rand, and Barry Goldwater) who are incredibly supportive of NASA as a symbol of free-market enterprise with its thousands and thousands of contractors all across the country competing to make the products that go into this new technology. Ayn Rand has a great essay comparing Apollo—rational, the god of light—with Dionysius, the god of wine—and that’s the hippies up in Woodstock frolicking in the mud. Hippies oppose space exploration as a waste and promote “inner space” exploration of their own minds instead. NASA sides with the conservatives. NASA also ends up funding the sprawl of aerospace suburbs, and the built environment of those places fosters the conservative politics that lay the groundwork for the Reagan Revolution.

Maher argues that despite the effort of <em>Whole Earth Catalog</em> editor Stewart Brand to get NASA to take a photo of the Earth in 1969, such images did not become environmental icons and "culturally green" until NASA began depicting global ecological data on images that resembled the Earth from space. Source: <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Wikimedia Commons</a>.

Maher argues that despite the effort of Whole Earth Catalog editor Stewart Brand to get NASA to take a photo of the Earth in 1969, such images did not become environmental icons and “culturally green” until NASA began depicting global ecological data on images that resembled the Earth from space. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

LRR: What do you consider to be the main takeaway of this book?  

NM: I think the takeaways are two-fold. First is that the grassroots movements of the 1960s successfully put pressure on NASA to turn its technology back around toward Earth. NASA was always looking at Earth as well, but its primary purpose was to explore space. I think the 1960s really forced NASA to reorient some of that technology. Conversely, how did NASA affect these movements? I make the argument that the debates about NASA begun by these movements helped to foster the identity politics of the 1960s and 1970s. There was this fracturing during the 1970s, and people were becoming more concerned with their narrower political identity than the national identity. And it’s interesting that this occurs right when we get that image of the Whole Earth. So we have people who are embracing that Whole Earth image as a moment of global unity, and civil rights activists and feminists say: Wait, that global vision is erasing these differences that are quite important here.

Featured image: President Lyndon Johnson (left) and Vice President Spiro Agnew (right) watch the Apollo 11 liftoff at Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969. Photo by NASA/Apollo 11.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission. 

Neil Maher is Associate Professor of History in the Federated History Department at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University, Newark. He is the author of two books, Apollo in the Age of Aquarius (Harvard University Press, 2017) and Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement (Oxford University Press, 2008), the winner of the 2009 Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Book Award. He is at work on a guidebook for incorporating visual culture into environmental humanities scholarship and an eco-biography of a 19th-century Hudson River home. WebsiteContact

Lisa Ruth Rand is an A. W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She earned her Ph.D. in the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania in 2016, and she is completing a book manuscript, entitled “Orbital Decay: The History of Space Junk and the Expanding Boundaries of the Natural World.” Her writing has appeared in the Appendix, the Atlantic, Isis, and Popular Mechanics, and she has a chapter in the upcoming volume Living in the Anthropocene: Earth in the Age of Humans. Her most recent contribution to Edge Effects was as guest editor and contributor for the forum “Biosphere 2: Why an Eccentric Ecological Experiment Still Matters 25 Years Later.” Website. TwitterContact.

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