Although the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969 was one of the most remarkable events of the twentieth century, academic historians have done relatively little to situate it in its broader post–World War II context. Neil M. Maher, in Apollo in the Age of Aquarius, hopes to establish the landing’s centrality to what he calls the “mainstream American history” (6, 8) of the long 1960s by examining “the shared history of the space race and the social and political movements of the 1960s era” (2). What, Maher wonders, would “the Sixties” look like if we reconsidered common topics that have shaped our understanding of the period—specifically, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the New Left antiwar movement, environmentalism, feminism, the counterculture, and the New Right—via their relationships with a space program that as much as any of these issues dominated the headlines of the period? The result is a novel approach to the era that offers new and valuable insights into all of these topics. Maher organizes Apollo in the Age of Aquarius thematically, with each chapter examining the relationship between the space program and one or two major social movements. The chapters in some ways build on one another, but overall each can stand on its own as an examination of how the program as a whole dealt with criticism from a particular movement, how it adjusted in response, and how it influenced the movement in turn. Maher’s focus in each chapter is primarily social and political, but his background in environmental history also allows him to analyze environmental and technological aspects of these issues. This approach is often revealing. For example, Maher examines how NASA offered to share technologies with the military that might help it better “see” communist guerrillas hiding under the dense jungle canopies of South Vietnam. Those technologies included a giant mirror strategically stationed in outer space that would reflect sunlight onto the country during the dark hours of the night, and ultra-sensitive seismometers that could detect the movement of enemy forces (63–65). This cooperation was derailed in part by pressure from the antiwar movement, which made NASA uneasy about being affiliated with the war effort. Scholars of the Vietnam War and of the New Left alike will benefit from Maher’s analysis. In other cases, however, digressions into detailed technological and environmental examinations of space suits or space capsules bring to mind the kind of narrow space history that Maher wishes to avoid. Although he never fails to tie such digressions back into his social and political analysis, they may nonetheless risk alienating some mainstream United States historians. Most of the movements Maher examines, with their criticisms that the space program diverted money and attention from (or in some cases actively contributed to) more pressing earthly problems, furthered what Maher calls “NASA fatigue” among the public and forced NASA, in an attempt to remain relevant and popular, to respond to their concerns. In each case Maher shows how NASA was dragged (usually reluctantly) toward dealing with non-space issues such as urban renewal, environmentalism, or the movement for women’s equality. One cannot read Maher’s book without seeing NASA as an essentially conservative organization hopelessly trying to keep up with changing social mores and concerns. The agency’s responses to these criticisms—some sincere, some ham-fisted—affected to various degrees the movements Maher examines. For example, there was no stronger moral position from which to argue that the United States’ priorities were misplaced than that of the civil rights movement, which was increasingly focusing on the poverty of inner-city African American neighborhoods. As then–New York congressman Ed Koch remarked, “I cannot justify approving moneys to find out whether or not there is some microbe on Mars, when in fact I know there are rats in Harlem apartments” (34). NASA responded to this pressure by promising to contribute ambitious technologies to urban renewal. This response helped further legitimize such urban concerns, but ultimately offered little more than pie-in-the-sky techno-solutions that proved largely ineffectual. Feminists, who found a powerful example of sexism in NASA’s refusal to allow women into the astronaut corps, saw more tangible results. When they finally pressured the agency into putting women through astronaut-level medical testing in the 1970s, it came to the unexpected conclusion that women’s bodies were actually more fit for the rigors of space environments than men’s (175–176)! This finding in turn contributed to debates among feminists over whether, as they fought for equality, they should emphasize the similarities between the sexes or instead celebrate their differences. These are just some of the valuable “shared histories” that will enlighten readers interested in a more integrated view of the space program and the 1960s and ’70s. However, Maher also overstates his case on occasion. For example, although he insightfully points out how the suburbs that sprouted up around NASA facilities contributed to the conservatism of the Sunbelt by the late 1970s, they were hardly a major cause of the more widespread shift to conservatism across southern and western communities located far from any NASA facilities. More generally, it is one thing to examine moments when social movements collided with NASA and ponder the effects of these collisions; it is something else altogether to claim that “the Apollo program launched not only rockets but also the political and social struggles of the Age of Aquarius” (10). Nonetheless, in revealing the mutual influences between phenomena of the era that are rarely treated together, Maher forces us to reconsider both Apollo and the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. While it seems likely that the Vietnam War, its domestic opposition, the civil rights movement, feminism, and other movements would have developed more or less as they did had Americans never set foot on the moon, unearthing the connections between the space effort and these issues nonetheless exposes nuances and new angles on them that historians of the postwar United States will deeply appreciate. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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