Friday, August 02, 2013

Umpired Umbathy, Pathic and Pathological, Part XII

            “ The U.S. manned space program of the 1960s provided a salient chapter in the evolution of consumer culture—not just through its technical accomplishments, but by the forms of display its designers and publicists adopted. The project’s social function and presentation techniques approximated those of the most highly developed communication medium in American culture: advertising. In a sense, the twelve-year effort to put Americans on the moon constituted the most elaborate advertising campaign ever devised. Its audience was truly global.  Eight hundred million people saw or heard the first men on the moon.

            The product of this spectacular ‘advertisement’ was not the hardware of space exploration. Missiles, astronauts, and lunar footprints simply provided a visually dramatic new iconography through which the real product could be conveyed: an image of national purpose that equated technological preeminence with military, ideological, and cultural supremacy.

            Conceived in the wake of the Sputnik scare, the project’s desired effect appeared to be straightforward enough—a Cold War assertion of superiority over the Soviet Union. The merchants of space emerged from two institutions familiar with that goal: the ‘military-industrial complex’ as President Eisenhower called it, and the news media. The first group included Pentagon strategists, scientists, and engineers involved with defense-related research and development, defense and aerospace contractors; and their allies in government—civilian and military agencies, congressmen, and even Presidents—who found support of an aggressive manned space program politically useful. The second group consisted of publishers, editors, and reporters for newspapers, magazines, and the newly developing national television newscasts. The needs and powers of these two groups differed, and dissension between andwithin them emerged repeatedly. Their shared interest in the manned space program centered on its capacity to generate publicity. The first group sought it, and the second made an industry of supplying it. Their roles seemed simple: The defense establishment would deliver the ‘payload’ for the public depiction of Americans in space, while the news media provided the vehicle.

            The enterprise, however, quickly expanded in scope as its designers recognized that the project’s success depended more on the impressions it created than on the engineering feats it accomplished. To differentiate U.S. efforst in space from those of the Soviets, Apollo had to convey more than an extraterrestrial show of force; it must portray American use of technology as benign, elegant, beyond the earthbound concerns of military and diplomatic strategy. To succeed fully, the manned space program had to project an image directly contradicting its origins.


            Mission Control, of course, was not merely a Sunbelt efflorescence of Madison Avenue To be sure, advertisers appropriated images, rituals, and eventually even astronauts from the manned space program. Conversely, NASA occasionally borrowed directly from the pantheon of names, iages, and associations stockpiled by advertising. ( As John Noble Wilford notes, the space agency named its first manned project Mercury ‘because a Greek god ahad a heroic ring and Mercury was considered to be the most familiar of the Olympians to Americans—thanks more to Deteroit than to the god or the planet.’)

            NASA and the news media, however, did not have to enlist the services of an ad agency in order to apply the techniques of advertising to space. By the 1960s any depiction of a man in a shiny new vehicle dealt with images and techniques already made familiar by advertisisng. It is in this capacity—as a principal source of public attitudes toward science and technology—that advertising influenced the state’s depiction of the space race. The underlying relationship of the manned space program to the advertising industry resembled that of a guest conductor to a resident orchestra. NASA waved an impressive baton, but it was primarily because of advertising’s ensemble of instruments and performers that the audeicne knew the score.

            Long before Apollo, merchants and generals had discovered the social impact of parading new and exotic products. But in post-World War II America the display value of technology had attained a new preeminence, often overshadowingthe technical specifications for a given product, the managerial decisions leading to its development, and even its actual performance. This elevation of technological display marked the emergence of commodity scientism as the prevailing idiom of science and technology.”

-- Selling The Moon: the U.S. Manned Space Program and the Triumph of Commodity Scientism, by Michael L. Smith, from The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History 1880-1980, edited by Richard Wightman Fox and T.J. Jackson Lears, (1983), Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc.