Tuesday 30 September 2014

Mis-Marketing the Moon? (2014)

From The Philosopher, Volume 102 No. 2 Autumn 2014 

Mis-Marketing the Moon?

The Philosopher's verdict: the billion-dollar photo-story

Review article by Martin Cohen

 Putting 'Man on the Moon' is surely some sort of an achievement. Yet how should we measure its importance? By TV audiences, of course. As David Meerman Scott  and Richard Jurek say in their glossy new book, Marketing the Moon, 'The Apollo 11 lunar landing was a television story. More than 53 million homes with television - 94% of all American homes - witnessed some portion of the … Apollo 11 mission… hundreds of millions more watched around the world.'

Yet only 3 years later, CBS News President Richard Salent would write in a memo:

Let me put it quite bluntly: I do not think that Apollos are any longer prime news and nobody has told me anything about this flight [Apollo17] - except that it is the last one and since it is at night, it will be pretty visible and spectacular… Further.. I would like someone to explain to me why a live splashdown is worth the couple of hundred thousand dollars it would cost.

The TV anchorman, Walter Cronkite's daughter put it even more bluntly. She complained of the sheer boringness of NASA's diet of golf balls and moon buggies. It seemed that having won the race to the moon, NASA lost the more important war for the world's imagination.

Not, as David Scott and Richard Jurek say, that they did not take home some important consolation prizes. A chance sighting of the crescent Earth as it was seen 'rising' in the dark sky by the  Apollo 8 astronauts as they came from behind the Moon after the first ever lunar orbit, changed the way a whole generation felt about their planet.

The poet Archibald MacLeish was moved to write:

To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together…

Scott and Jurek link this particular image, along with one of the 'whole Earth', to adding emotional force to the new environmental movement - epitomised by Stuart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog. This featured  the original 'whole Earth' image on its cover,  and demanded a new kind of thinking of its many readers based precisely on that new perspective: 'We are as gods and might as well get good at it'.

And technologically speaking, the Apollo program without any doubt incubated a vast range of scientific marvels, in the realms of  computers, and communications. In 1969, colour TV cameras weighed fifty pounds and the latest model was nicknamed 'the backbreaker'. It was in the teeth of scepticism from both the scientists and the astronauts, NASA committed vast sums to its US contractors to develop the kind of portable technologies that have become so unremarkable today.

Marketing the Moo
n records elegantly and precisely such details, but it tells an important and generally understated sociological story of how the Apollo program changed the way we see the world in a different sense too: it introduced new expectations of 'live television', of unedited audio transcripts, or direct access to experts and officials. All this openness was remarkable in the context of a space program launched in the  shadow of the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs invasion and driven by the military's need to 'beat the Russians'.

Yet I think that somehow, the criticism of Cronkite's daughter is nearer the mark. There is a smallness of imagination behind the Apollo program. The technical was superlative - the philosophies commonplace. The Americans savoured the sight of 'their flag' on the Moon - but it was, in a none-too-subtle way, also sticking two fingers up at the rest of the world. Since the astronauts 'came in peace' on behalf of all the peoples, couldn't the Stars and Stripes, at least, have been accompanied by a more internationalist symbol?.

When President Nixon telephoned the astronauts on the Moon, it represented a remarkable technical achievement but the dialogue also represented a rather shallow and partisan agenda, as did Nixon's signature on  the Apollo 11 lunar plaque. Indeed, as Scott and Jurek do note, there is something rather self-serving in Nixon's remark to the astronauts standing there on the Moon that 'this certainly has to be the most historical telephone call ever made from the White House'.

Of course, Nixon was not the only one whose words failed to rise to the occasion with regard to the Moon. The most famous malapropism of all time is Neil Armstrong's missing indefinite article:

That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

How unfortunate that the word 'man' is ambiguous in this context - it can also stand for 'mankind'. Thus the defining moment of the modern age is spoilt by a kind of non-sequitur. 'I think that was Neil's quote. I didn't quite understand it', said one of Armstrong's fellow astronauts, Wally Shirra, explaining things to the TV audience, back on Earth.

Other duff notes were struck during wrangles over advertising and sponsorship. There was even a rather unseemly battle of sorts between NASA and its Moon walkers over the 'souvenirs' the latter were entitled to keep for their retirement mantelpieces. However  the tacky 'death plaque' (along with  Bible and figurine) left on the moon by the Apollo 15 astronauts (with the names of both American and Soviet comrades who perished during the program), was smuggled aboard the lunar module without NASA's agreement or even knowledge. This piece of improvisation showed all the sensitivity and style of numerous other 'memorials' left along roadsides marking car crashes.

As Scott and Jurek say, the TV coverage of such a momentous occasion seems strangely banal in retrospect. Walter Cronkite, whose program for CBS was the one most Americans watched, was enthusiastic but strangely (and atypically) amateurish. The presenters of NBC's Huntley and Brinkley cover Apollo Show were worse still -  'throughly bored' by the whole business. That's  according to the television historian Barbara Mattusow, but they were certainly unashamed to have publicly complained that astronauts were 'dull as hell, nice guys, mechanics'. If only a TV anchor could have been sent to the Moon! 'Here I am, standing in the Bay of Tranquility...'  Wouldn't that have increased viewer interest? Well, maybe on Day 1. Because from the perspective of history, the Apollo 11 transcript (one of the many fascinating details in the book) seems nonetheless, to have the astronauts delivering the best lines, whilst the pros flounder for words . . .

EAGLE: Lights on. Down 2 and a half. Forward. Forward. Good. 40 feet. Down 2 and a half. Picking up some dust. 30 feet, 2 and a half down. Faint shadow: 4 forward, 4 forward, drifting to the right a little, 6 down a half.

CRONKITE (anchor-man for CBS's coverage): Boy, what a day.

CAPCOM (Capsule Commander): 30 seconds.

EAGLE: Contact light. Okay, engine stop. ACA out of detent. Modes control both auto, descent engine command override, off . .

SCHIRRA (Wally Schirra, former astronaut co-hosting program): We’re home!

CRONKITE: Man on the moon!

CAPCOM: We copy you down, Eagle.

EAGLE (Neil Armstrong): Houston.

SCHIRRA: Oh Jeeze!

EAGLE: Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.

CAPCOM: Roger, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.


EAGLE: Thank you.

CAPCOM: You’re looking good here.

CRONKITE: Whew! Boy!

EAGLE: We’re going to be busy here for a minute.

CRONKITE: Wally, say something, I'm speechless.

[A little bit later]

ALDRIN (Buzz Alrdin, second man on the moon): Roger, TV circuit breakers in. Receive loud and clear..

CAPCOM: Man, we’re getting a picture on the TV.

CRONKITE: There it is.

ALDRIN: Oh, you got a good picture, huh? [...]

SCHIRRA: There’s that foot coming down  now.

CRONKITE: There he is. There’s a foot coming down the steps.

CAPCOM: Okay, Neil, we can see you coming down the ladder now [...]

ARMSTRONG: I’m at the foot of the ladder. The LM [Lunar Module] foot pads are only depressed  on the surface about one or two inches. Although the surface appears to be very, very fine grained, as you get close to it. It’s almost like a powder. Now and then it’s very fine.

CRONKITE: Boy! Look at those pictures. Wow! It’s a little shadowy, but he said he expected that in the shadow of the lunar module.Armstrong is on the Moon!

ARMSTRONG: I’m going to step off the LM now.

CRONKITE: Neil Armstrong, a 38 year old American standing on the surface of the Moon! On this July 20th, nineteen hundred and sixty nine.

ARMSTRONG: That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.

SCHIRRA: I think that was Neil's quote. I didn't quite understand it.

CRONKITE: Yes, 'One small step for man', but I didn't quite get the second phrase. If someone of our monitors here at Space Headquarters was able to hear that we would like to know what it was.

Never mind what The Philosopher says -

Take me to the bookshop!  

Marketing the Moon : The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program
By David Meerman Scott  and Richard Jurek
MIT Press, 2014, Hardback,, 130 full colour pages, ISBN 978-0-262-02696-3

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