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Apollo 11 at 50: Space program transfixed Americans, changed pop culture

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June 19 (UPI) — On the summer night of July 20, 1969, some 53 million American families sat in living rooms, transfixed to something on TV that never happened before.

Two men, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, became the first humans to walk on the moon.

This technological feat put an exclamation point on manned space missions that since 1961 had influenced pop culture — entertainment, architecture, fashion, consumer goods and language.

The lunar module’s descent to the moon in the afternoon wasn’t televised, with the networks showing an animation. Viewers could only imagine what it was like when Armstrong proclaimed, “Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed” at 4:18 p.m. Eastern time.

Six and a half hours later, the 2-hour, 36-minute moonwalk was televised from a camera attached to the lander.

Robert Thompson, age 10, was among the 125 million people in the United States and 650 million worldwide who watched the moonwalks.

“It is safe to say it is one of the biggest globally and certainly national communal events — all watching the same thing live,” said Thompson, who teaches mass communications, including influences on pop culture, at Syracuse University in New York.

“It was a generational television event not only in United States but around the world,” Thompson said. “It was a moment where we all fed from the same cultural trough.”

‘Spaced out’

Words linked to space were everywhere, with American space explorers called astronauts and the Russian counterparts called cosmonauts. People found ways to use “liftoff,” “launch” and “rendezvous” for purposes other than space talk. And phrases “space cadet,” “it’s not rocket science” and “spaced out” became commonplace.

The 10-year-old Anesco Rocket Ride at Palisades Park was redesigned for a 3-minute, wild trip to the moon and renamed “The Apollo 11.” Photo courtesy of

There was a booming “moon cheese” business in Armstrong’s hometown in Ohio and “moonshot ice cream” appeared in stores. Businesses slapped the word “Astro” in their name. Houston, where the astronauts trained, became known as “Space City.”

Products tied themselves to space. The logo for Tang, the drink invented for astronauts, was prominent during ABC space broadcasts. And a car called the Plymouth Satellite was introduced in 1965.

Kids put together model kits of the Saturn V rocket, as well as the command capsule and lunar lander. Large posters adorned children’s bedrooms walls.

“The space race in the beginning, before the moon landing, very much had an influence on all kinds of style and pop culture to put the space age on a product,” Thompson said. “When I was a kid in the early 1960s, there was a gumball called Sputnik. Cars in general started to look like rockets with the tails. There were satellite sparkles on linoleum.”

TV sitcoms had a space theme. In I Dream of Jeannie, the master of the genie was an astronaut living in Cocoa Beach, Fla. Science fiction included Lost in Space, Star Trek and My Favorite Martian. 2001 — A Space Odyssey was the 1968 epic that depicted an ill-fated voyage to Jupiter. The first Star Wars was released in 1977.
And for the doubters, there was Capricorn One, released in 1977, in which the moon landing was fabricated.

“There were a few movies and TV shows that included story lines or characters” related to going to the moon, “but it was not to the extent that an achievement of that magnitude ought to be expected to,” Dom Caristi, a Ball State telecommunications professor, told UPI. “TV shows like I Dream of Jeannie and The Six Million Dollar Man had astronauts as central characters, but the shows weren’t really about their space program activity.”

Music, too, had a direct link to space. Fly Me to the Moon, the song made famous by Frank Sinatra in 1964, was played on the Apollo 10 mission to orbit the moon. And on the Apollo 11, it was the first song heard from the moon as Aldrin played a rendition on a portable cassette player.

David Bowie’s Space Oddity was released five days before the Apollo 11 launch and was broadcast during the BBC’s coverage. Inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it was about the launch of Major Tom, a fictional astronaut.

Fashion took on a space age theme.

Lines had futuristic silhouettes. André Courrèges, labeled the godfather of space age fashion, used geometric shapes in 1960s designs. Hairstyles took on a space age look, as well.

Buildings, though not like the homes of the Jetsons, had boomerang angles and amoeba-like shapes.
“Our buildings sort of looked like cars of the period,” architect Victor Newlove told NPR. “Everything had wings or fins.”

Some structures resembled flying saucers. The Assembly Hall at the University of Illinois, which opened in 1963, looked like an alien spacecraft.

The Astrodome fittingly was built in Houston — about 30 miles from the Johnson Space Center. Dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World” in 1962, it became “indoor” home of the Colt 45s. The club’s new name: the Astros. The artificial surface there called ChemGrass was rebranded as AstroTurf. And in 1971, the NBA’s San Diego franchise moved to Houston and became the Rockets.

Built later near the Astrodome were an exhibition building, called AstroHall, and across the street was the Astroland amusement park. Those two places are long gone, and the Astrodome has been vacant for decades.


Disney World in Florida, about 50 miles from the Kennedy Space Center launch site, opened in 1971 — 16 years after the Disneyland debuted in Southern California.
At both parks’ Tomorrowland, there’s a mission to Mars and Space Mountain, a space-themed roller-coaster. That ride was open even before man traveled into space.

“Our scientists today are opening the doors of the Space Age to achievements that will benefit our children and generations to come,” Walt Disney said at the time. “The Tomorrowland attractions have been designed to give you an opportunity to participate in adventures that are a living blueprint of our future.”

Tomorrowland has evolved over the years.
But interest in the space program had long since waned since the increasing of space launches — first Mercury from 1961 to 1963, then Gemini from 1965 to 1966 and Apollo from 1968-1975. Later missions, including Skylab and the space shuttle, often did not achieve the viewership of early flights.

“While Americans were very proud if the achievements of space, it was difficult to keep their attention,” said Caristi, who was 13 during the first moon landing. “Americans almost adopted a ‘been there, done that’ attitude.”

Despite the hoopla at the time — July 21 was declared a national day of celebration and a ticker tape parade in New York welcomed the Apollo 11 astronauts one month later — viewership fell off for the next five moon landings and the one aborted mission, Apollo 13.

“It truly was a demonstration of what the human species could achieve,” Thompson said. “I call it the last pure American moment. Go ahead the next five to six years and everything begins to fall apart.”

The feel-good moments were gone.

Real crises

“There was the 1-2 punch of Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War,” Watson said. “There were gas lines, the energy crisis. The complete collapse of the auto industry. Crummy cars.”

With it went the silly comedies, including I Dream of Jeannie.

“The influence of the space program in the middle of the 20th century was enormous and had spread all over,” Thompson said. “That influence had already peaked by the time we got to the moon. Tail fins were gone. All of those shows were off the air. Shows like M*A*S*H, All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore were not about NASA, astronauts and Mars. We were dealing with real political crises.”

The mystique was gone, too.

“One of the things that had made the moon landing so extraordinary was for a millennium, it was this otherworldly heavenly body. So close to see it, but so far away,” Thompson said. “What for 1,000 years had been unreachable, the moon gets changed on July 20, 1969.

“In the end, Fly Me to the Moon had more to sink your teeth into.”
Or George saying he could “lasso the moon” for Mary in It’s a Wonderful Life.

As part of his class, “History of American Television — Part 1” from 1939 to 1981, Thompson spends a whole period on the space program, including an 85-minute video with clips from TV broadcasts.

“I have some pretty informed students, but I’m surprised how little they know of what happened on that landing,” he said. “The ‘one small step’ line, that’s about it.”

Apollo 11: Big moments in historic mission to moon 50 years ago

NASA named these three astronauts as the prime crew of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission in May 1969 in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Posing from left to right, are Neil A. Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, command module pilot; and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot. File Photo courtesy of NASA | License Photo

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