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Review: Marketing the Moon

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Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program
by David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek
MIT Press, 2014
hardcover, 144 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-262-02696-3

If only people knew what NASA was doing, people in the space community lament today. They worry that the public thinks NASA has shut down with the 2011 retirement of the Space Shuttle, and isn’t aware—and thus doesn’t support—ongoing and planned missions by the space agency. “I would like to point out that NASA is still in business,” Robert Crippen, the former astronaut who flew on the first shuttle mission, said in a talk this weekend in Florida. “There’s lots of stuff going on, and they have not shut down.”

“We are going to get the information out, and we are going to tell the truth,” said Julian Sheer, the Apollo-era director of NASA Public Affairs, shortly after taking the position.

That was certainly not the case fifty years ago, when NASA, racing the Soviets to the Moon, carried out an increasingly ambitious series of crewed missions. Those missions were front-page news when newspapers still dominated, and got top billing on television news programs in an era where there were just three networks. Surely, one might think looking back on that era, those missions—humanity’s first journeys into space and to the Moon—sold themselves. Instead, the authors of Marketing the Moon argue, that publicity resulted from a publicity effort that evolved into a very elaborate operation by NASA and industry by the time of the Apollo landings.

David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek are not space historians but instead marketing experts, albeit ones with a strong interest in space. (To establish their space history bona fides, their book jacket biographies note that Scott “is thought to be the only person in the world with a lunar module descent engine thrust chamber in his living room,” while Jurek has “the world’s largest collection of $2 bills that have flown in space.”) In Marketing the Moon, they offer a detailed look at the efforts by the young space agency to develop a public affairs office and public relations strategy, and the complementary efforts by industry to raise awareness of the Apollo program and their contributions.

Early on, some readers might fear that the authors will lapse into marketing lingo. “We show how NASA’s Public Affairs staff, operating with a limited budget, made the most of what they had by adopting a ‘brand journalism’ and ‘content marketing’ approach to educate the public through the press and broadcast media,” they write in the book’s introduction. “Brand journalism”? Fortunately, those phrases—which they later define as “taking a journalistic approach to tell a story by clearly reporting the facts” rather than through more traditional marketing—aren’t representative of the book in general. Instead, it’s a well-written look at how NASA, industry, and the media covered the Apollo missions.

For NASA, that “content marketing” approach centered on one of openness: “We are going to get the information out, and we are going to tell the truth,” said Julian Sheer, the Apollo-era director of NASA Public Affairs, shortly after taking the position. That contrasted with the secretive approach of the Soviets, but also clashed with some with NASA, who preferred the military’s tight reins on information. Sheer also had to bring in line public affairs staff at NASA’s field centers that had been operating relatively autonomously, an effort that included the removal of two well-known public affairs officials, John “Shorty” Powers and Paul Haney, the latter just a few months before the Apollo 11 landing.

While NASA wanted to tell the story of Apollo, there were limits to what it would do, part fiscal and part philosophical. “We are not buying refreshments, we are not supplying free trips,” Scheer wrote in a memo from that era; NASA was not performing “flackery.” However, the army of contractors supporting NASA were free to engage in such flackery, from lavishly illustrated press kits and other resources for the media covering the missions to advertisements celebrating their contributions to landing men on the Moon, many examples of which the authors include in this book.

Even during Apollo, the public’s interest in NASA’s lunar expeditions didn’t translate into support for NASA.

Other chapters examine a variety of other aspects of communicating the Apollo missions to the public, from the use of live television on the Apollo missions and how the television networks covered the missions, to publicity efforts before and immediately after Apollo, the latter including a fifty-state tour of the Apollo 11 command module and lunar rock in 1970 and 1971. While not a comprehensive history, it is still a detailed look at these various marketing efforts, more so than one would expect from the book’s page count alone: the book is a large format one that allows for plenty of text even with its extensive use of imagery.

Marketing the Moon makes it clear that the various publicity efforts by NASA and industry, often closely in cooperation with the media (“NASA and the press had a sweetheart relationship,” one former NASA public affairs official recalled) played a major role in communicating the Apollo missions to the public. But how important was that in the broader scheme of things?

Here, perhaps, the authors overplay their hand, suggesting NASA had won the support of the American public and then blew it in the missions after Apollo 11. The failure of a television camera during the first Apollo 12 moonwalk, they argue, convinced network executives they could dial back coverage of the missions, which had shifted from “epic adventure and exploration” to “a discussion of geology,” while NASA and the White House couldn’t agree on plans post-Apollo. “NASA’s failure to articulate a clear vision about what was coming after Apollo was a failure of marketing,” they wrote near the end of the book. And, in the introduction: “In our analysis, the reason humans have not been to Mars is, essentially, the result of a marketing failure.”

So, we’d be on Mars today if NASA was better at marketing? That seems like a bit of a stretch. Even during Apollo, the public’s interest in NASA’s lunar expeditions didn’t translate into support for NASA: as the authors acknowledge, public opinion polls throughout the 1960s indicated the majority of the public thought the nation was spending too much on space. Coupled with the upheaval of the era and a disinterest in bold space exploration plans by the Nixon Administration, had NASA been able to craft a clear and widely accepted vision for space exploration after Apollo, it would have been one of the greatest marketing feats of all time. The blame for not having humans on Mars today should not solely, or even primarily, be attributed to marketing.

That aside, Marketing the Moon provides a fascinating look at the marketing of humanity’s first missions to the Moon, as well as a reminder that space exploration, including first-of-their-kind missions to other worlds in our solar system, do not sell themselves.