Leveraging Cultural Memory: Can NASA Use the Past to Shape Its Future?

Was it really one giant leap for mankind? Conspiracy theorists deny it. GenXers couch it in Cold War nostalgia. Millennials shrug their shoulders. The 40th anniversary of the lunar landing presents NASA with both an opportunity and a need to reframe the cultural past. As American exceptionalism fades, the moon landing can be repositioned as a scientific marvel, rather than a one-up victory over the Soviet Union, the Cold War foe of another era. NASA can focus on its long history of technological triumph to regain some of its lost cultural capital. Reframing the Mercury and Apollo programs can make these narratives relevant to a younger generation, and potentially make the space program meaningful in new ways. Doing so, however, will take some work.

The space program is largely mediated in the cultural imaginary, from news coverage of tickertape parades in celebration of successful space flights to Life magazine’s oversize, color portraits of the everyday lives of astronauts and their wives. With the exception of those who venture to the Kennedy Space Center for a shuttle launch or partake in the tourism offerings at Kennedy, Johnson, or the Space and Rocket Center, we know NASA primarily as a televisual spectacle. Anniversaries of historical events evince the relationship between media and cultural memory: how an event is framed by the media shapes the way audiences come to know history. Revisiting and reframing a particular historical event can change the way it is recalled in cultural memory.

The lunar landing was an extraordinary television event, witnessed live by millions around the world. Yet for those too young to recall the Apollo 11 mission, the image of the space program just as likely to come to mind is the explosion of Challenger shortly after takeoff in 1986. The image of the Challenger disaster is so vivid in cultural memory not just because of its horror, but because television viewers were subjected to replaying of the same sequence of events, as if caught in a catastrophic loop.

There are certainly space enthusiasts among Generation X, yet for most of those born between 1964 and 1980, men walking on the moon was taken for granted: most GenXers could not remember a time before, when it was not so. Nor did they have the lived experience of the Apollo program and the intense drama of the early years of the Space Race. In the cultural narrative GenXers grew up with, the lunar landing is tied not only to the Cold War but also to Kennedy’s call for a man on the moon. Like the Civil Rights Act, one giant leap is part of Kennedy’s legacy. GenXers have certainly had ample opportunities to see moon walk footage, but the blending of personal memory and cultural memory makes the Challenger footage more salient.

The cultural gap between Generation X and the Millennial generation plays out in perspectives on the space program. Millennials, after all, are a post-Cold War, post-Challenger generation. Not only is the space race a historical notion for them, they also have as much exposure to NASA’s tragedies as its triumphs. The dream of becoming an astronaut, while still somewhat common among GenX kids, is less likely to rank high for Millennials. In a media landscape deeply saturated by celebrity, young people are given cultural clues to bank their dreams on being professional athletes or pop stars before considering the space program as a site of unparalleled acclaim and financial success.

On the morning of February 1, 2003, residents in Deep East Texas were jarred by something similar to a sonic boom, as the shards of space shuttle Columbia fell to earth around them. For many, the event was a devastating national-and international-tragedy. Running alongside their sense of mourning was a feeling of privilege, or belonging, as their circumstantial participation in the shuttle disaster stitched them in to cultural history. As federal agencies and local volunteers began recovery efforts, a handful of East-Texas Millennials, seeing the event as more akin to a scavenger hunt than a tragedy for the space program, set out in search of souvenirs. This reaction can be read through different lenses. We can critique the souvenir hunters as lacking reverence for the space program and disregarding both the tragedy of Columbia and the federal laws that prohibit keeping any shuttle debris. Or, we can see the desire to have a piece of the shuttle as a desire to own a significant piece of the past, the same sensibility that inspires us to save baseball cards, wedding invitations, and commemorative issues of magazines focused on significant cultural events. The lunar landing is likely one of those events, as the hundreds of Apollo 11 collectibles up for sale on eBay suggest.

Across generations, we see a shift in the idea of astronauts having “the right stuff.” Tom Wolfe’s notion of the right stuff is the capacity to overcome death-defying odds without flinching, making it look easy. For Wolfe, courage in the face of death, on behalf of national honor, made the astronauts heroes. That sense of reverence for the astronauts diminished as space travel became routine. In the aftermath of September 11, we’ve experienced a sea change with regard to heroism, and it is difficult to think of astronauts as heroes. The astronauts of the 1960s were vested with ideological symbolism. The astronauts of today are scientists who, if they are lucky, get to go up into space. Space travel is still a risky endeavor, but with national pride detached from the undertaking, NASA’s symbolic power is minimal.

With federal funding always in flux, NASA strives to be popular, to win the hearts and minds of the public as well as the Congressional funding required for its costly programs. The shuttle program is winding to a close, and President Obama was slow in appointing a new NASA administrator, leading many to speculate that the space program may not be a priority for the White House.

Marking the 40th anniversary of the lunar landing grants NASA the opportunity to reframe, reconsider, and reconstitute the past for purposes in the present that aim toward the future. NASA can take advantage of cable programming devoted to science and technology, and they can offer documentary retrospectives on the space program. Such documentaries could act as a counter to those programs that argue the lunar landing is a hoax, staged by NASA on a Hollywood soundstage. Changing the minds of conspiracy theorists may be impossible, but changing the perspective of a tech savvy generation seems a worthy effort. The lunar landing is a momentous narrative, and one that is tainted by association with cultural contexts and tragedies. Reframing the moon landing can restore its place in cultural memory, reminding new generations of a valuable past that can have technological benefits for the future.

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