Under the Influence

Selling The Moon - Part I

This week, we present Part One of our “Selling The Moon” episode. The journey to the moon will be one of the most expensive endeavours in history, and NASA needed to constantly market the program to keep Americans interested, and Congress signing the cheques.

The journey to the moon was one of the most expensive endeavours in history, and NASA needed to constantly market the program to keep Americans interested and Congress signing the cheques.

On the night of July 18, 1969, Ted Kennedy hosted a party in a rented house on Chappaquiddick Island, not far from the larger island of Martha's Vineyard.

The get-together was a reunion for a group of women who had worked on his late brother Bobby's Presidential campaign.

At around 11:15pm, Ted Kennedy left the party with 28-year old Mary Jo Kopechne, who had been one of RFK's secretaries.

Mary Jo Kopechne. (wikimedia.org)

According to Kennedy's later testimony, he had offered Kopechne a ride back to her hotel. About 75 minutes later, Kennedy missed a slight left turn on an unlit road, and drove off a bridge, plunging his car into 10 feet of water.

Kennedy said that he was able to escape the overturned car, and made seven or eight dives to try and save Mary Jo Kopechne.

Unsuccessful, he ran back to the party and returned with two male friends, who also dove in but failed to save Kopechne. A distraught Kennedy told the men to go back to the party and take care of the guests, and he would contact the police.

Kennedy didn't report the accident for another eight hours.

Experts later said Mary Jo Kopechne probably lived for 2 or 3 hours in the car, due to the presence of an air pocket. But because of Kennedy's delayed response in reporting the accident, she eventually suffocated.

Chappaquiddick makes headlines along with the moon landing. (nydailynews.com)

That decision would hang over Ted Kennedy's head for the rest of his life, and no doubt derailed his hopes of one day becoming President.

Just two days after Chappaquiddick, another historic event occurred. Apollo 11 landed on the moon.

When astronaut Neil Armstrong uttered those immortal words from the surface of the moon, he was fulfilling a promise John F. Kennedy had made just eight years before.

Two historic events – on the same weekend in July of 1969.

One Kennedy dream realized.

One Kennedy dream dashed.

When John F. Kennedy made that speech to Congress in May of 1961, he set a clear goal: To land a man on the moon before the end of 1969.

President Kennedy points America to the moon. (i.space.com)

It was a Herculean task, and it gave the United States less than a decade to achieve it.

While much has been said about the Moon landing, it would not have happened without the ongoing support of the taxpaying public, and members of Congress.

And neither would have been possible without one critical thing:


The moon shot had to be consistently sold to the public in order for Americans to continue supporting the project.

The moon shot would end up being one of the most expensive projects in U.S. history. (htc.com)

And members of Congress had to be persuaded to continue allocating budgets on what was to become one of the most expensive endeavours in U.S. history.

It would take creativity, strategy, fear, patriotism and persuasion.

But there was no getting around it:

It was time to market the Moon.

On October 4th, 1957, the Soviet Union launched a satellite into space, called Sputnik.

Sputnik shocks the world. (wikimedia.org)

While the U.S. government had some knowledge of its existence, the Sputnik launch shocked Americans, shattering their perception of American scientific superiority.

In response, President Dwight Eisenhower ordered the launch of an American satellite two months later. It exploded on the launch pad, prompting the press to call it "Kaputnik."

Trying to catch up to the Russians, some early American launches fail. (bbc.co.uk)

At the end of July, 1958, Eisenhower ordered the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, as it became known.

Not long after, NASA announced its first major undertaking – called Project Mercury. The goal was to send a manned spacecraft to orbit the Earth, observe the astronauts' performance under those conditions, and return them safely.

Six months later, NASA called a press conference to name their first astronauts – hailed as the Mercury Seven:

They were Donald Slayton, Alan Shepard, Wally Shirra, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Gordon Cooper and Scott Carpenter.

The famed Mercury 7. (davidreneke.com)

As the astronauts began training for their journey, the minds at NASA were busy inventing the technology that would take those men into outer space.

But NASA was not only technologically savvy, it also had an acute understanding of marketing.

It knew that it had to both educate and excite the general public to get them to buy into the adventure of manned space travel. So it created a Public Affairs Office that pushed out ready-made stories and interviews the press could call their own, including background materials, television newsreels, fully-produced radio broadcasts and documentary films.

NASA distributed the films to churches, libraries, non-profit clubs and organizations. It also sent them to schools, prompting classrooms to buy their first film projectors.

But NASA's most brilliant marketing idea came in the form of a magazine.

NASA had limited ways to speak directly to the American public, so it sought out a partnership with a major media outlet. It chose Life Magazine.

Life Magazine was a powerful PR vehicle for NASA. (achievement.org)

The deal with Life gave the magazine exclusive rights to the astronaut's personal stories - their wives, their children and their home lives. In return, it gave NASA  a glossy, weekly vehicle to project a very carefully constructed image.

The astronauts hired Henry Batten as their agent. He was the head of the N.W. Ayer Advertising Agency. Batten negotiated a 3-year contract with Life Magazine that was worth $500,000. It was a mind-boggling number for the Mercury Seven. Distributed equally, it meant $70K per man. For astronauts earning around $7K a year, it was 10 times their annual salary.

Batten also negotiated one other stipulation – each astronaut was given a $100,000 life insurance policy. That was critically important to their families, as no insurance company would underwrite an astronaut.

It was a big coup for Life to land exclusive rights to the Mercury Seven, and competitors complained loudly. But for Life, it was a survival strategy, as the magazine was battling fiercely with television for advertising dollars. And its sales were falling.

But the magazine's power was pictures. Its pages were bigger than all other periodicals, and it presented the astronauts to the nation in stunning, full colour multi-page pictorials.

Life Magazine's power was in its photography - full colour and in a larger format than other magazines. (yimg.com)

Even though Life had the appearance of an objective weekly magazine, in reality, NASA maintained strict approval power over all articles and photographs.

Life Magazine essentially became an arm of NASA's PR department. Staff writers – lorded over by NASA – produced a uniform image of the Mercury Seven as unblemished heroes. It ghost-wrote articles on behalf of the wives to appeal to female readers. And Life photographers captured endless moments of colourful family bliss.

NASA wanted perfect astronauts, perfect astrowives, perfect children, and perfect homes.

Life Magazine didn't disappoint.

Between 1959 and 1963, the magazine would run over 70 NASA-approved stories in 28 issues, with astronauts and their wives gracing 12 covers.

The deal with Life Magazine was to allow access to the astronaut's family lives. (dailymail.co.uk)

With predecessor Dwight Eisenhower to his right, and defeated opponent Richard Nixon to his left, newly elected President John F. Kennedy made his inaugural address on January 20th, 1961.

JFK said, in no uncertain terms, that the torch had been passed to a new generation. His good looks, youth and optimism was a breath of fresh air in the Oval Office.

JFK's inauguration was a dramatic shift from Eisenhower's elder statesman image to one of youth and vitality. (slate.com)

That optimism was severely tested just four months later with the Bay Of Pigs fiasco.

But the event that truly rattled America happened one week prior.

The Soviets shocked the United States once again by sending the first man into space, on April 12th, 1961. He was cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, and his Vostok spacecraft not only ventured into outer space, it orbited the Earth.

Just as Sputnik had triggered the formation of NASA, Gagarin's flight propelled Kennedy into action.

The President was in desperate need of a reset. He had to show the nation vision and resolve.

So Kennedy called a meeting with Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who was also the Chairman of the National Aeronautics Space Council. He asked Johnson if the U.S. was in any position to beat the Soviets at anything in the space race.

Johnson conferred with NASA, and came back to say a moon shot… was possible.

Three weeks after Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space, Kennedy made a historic speech that committed the U.S. to putting a man on the moon.

JFK congratulates Alan Shepard for being the first American in space. (topics.time.com)

The speech also launched another project in motion:

An 8-year marketing campaign to sell Project Apollo to not only to Congress, but to the entire nation.

Kennedy employed two main tactics in his marketing plan to sell the Moon.

The first was the use of his "New Frontier" theme.

Kennedy's campaign platform– suggested his youth and vitality would lead America into a new era – an era that seemed light years away from the grandfatherly President Eisenhower.

Kennedy's "New Frontier" theme was a platform that put even more distance between his administration and that of President Eisenhower. (psu.edu)

The space program became the centrepiece of his "New Frontier" vision, because it encompassed optimism, it advanced science and technology, it defined the future, it called upon the American values of courage, sacrifice and independence - and above all - it was a crisp demarcation point between old & new.

As author James L. Kauffman points out in his superbly researched book, entitled, "Selling Outer Space," human beings are storytelling animals. We find purpose and guidance through the understanding stories provide.

James L. Kauffman's superb book on the early days of the space program. (whitingbooks.com)

Among the most important stories in the U.S. is the "myth of the Old Frontier."

America has relied heavily on the frontier for its "mythic identity." The conquest of the western wilderness is a story that celebrates the rugged, independent hero, who ultimately tamed the land and improved his way of life.

That heroic storyline holds much resonance for Americans. So when Kennedy pointed to space as the "Newest Frontier", it gave Americans a way to attach meaning to space exploration.

The moon shot, JFK said, also had beneficial by-products. It would deliver across-the-board scientific advances - that would be felt by every American in their schools, in their businesses and right in their own homes.

There was also another aspect of the Frontier narrative that would give the goal its urgency:

It placed a premium on being first.

The second strategy Kennedy used to market the importance of sending a man to the Moon… was fear.

In order to persuade Congress to approve massive expenditures, Kennedy framed the argument by saying dramatic results in space meant nothing less than world leadership.

Acutely aware of image, he explained that supremacy in space would influence the other nations of the world who were deciding whether to align themselves with the U.S. or the U.S.S.R.

Furthermore, America could not permit the Soviets to dominate space with hostile intentions.

Vice President Johnson put an even finer point on it, saying that America couldn't afford to let the Soviets drop bombs on them from space, like kids dropping rocks on cars from a freeway overpass.

Congress actually didn't need much convincing, because no other event had a greater influence on them – or caused more panic - than the Soviet's surprise orbit of the Earth.

President Kennedy asked Congress to commit to a 5-year plan, beginning with the approval a $1.7 billion NASA budget in 1961 - which Congress happily did.

NASA was savvy when it came to wooing Congress. It cleverly scheduled John Glenn's historic 1962 orbit of the Earth one week before Congressional hearings for NASA's 1963 budget began.

When ground control told Glenn his heat shield was malfunctioning and that he might burn up during re-entry, Glenn accepted the news with stoic calmness.

When he managed to land safely, he became an instant national hero. A fact not lost on Congress.

Just a few hours before that same budget bill was ready for a vote, NASA scheduled Scott Carpenter's launch. After watching Carpenter rocket toward the heavens, the House approved a $3.7 billion budget with a vote of 343-0.

Reporters compared the flights to Columbus and Magellan. It was clear the press was embracing Kennedy's "New Frontier" adventure theme wholeheartedly, because it offered them two irresistible elements: Conflict – in the form of the Soviets. And the astronauts as rugged heroes.

But when it came time to renew the Life Magazine contract, the New York Times slammed the deal, saying the astronauts should not be reaping personal benefits at the taxpayers expense.

Kennedy was aware of the criticism, so John Glenn asked to see the President personally. He told JFK that the exclusive Life contract was important because it kept their families safe from an onslaught of press invasions. And most importantly, the contract gave the astronauts and their families the security of life insurance.

The Life Magazine contract was almost cancelled until John Glenn convinced JFK to retain it. (coverbrowser.com)

Kennedy agreed. The contract was renewed.

And the NASA marketing machine breathed a sigh of relief.

In 1963, the first real opposition to the space program was voiced. Critics pushed for cheaper unmanned flights. Others asked if the fantastical cost would take away from Department of Defence budgets. Scientists questioned the technological benefits of a moon landing.

Hearing the pushback, NASA jumped into marketing mode.

It began sending NASA officials and astronauts out on speaking tours to promote the remarkable technology being developed, and why it demanded manned space travel. It created Space Mobile, a museum-on-wheels that criss-crossed the nation. It sent out films to television networks.

The press also supported the call for manned space flights. Not just because they bought into Kennedy's frontier theme - they knew astronauts sold more magazines, newspapers and rating points.

NASA could also recruit the President to help when the critics got too loud. In mid-1963, JFK went on a tour of space facilities to call attention to the program, and made this speech at one of the stops:

It was one of Kennedy's most forceful speeches.

Yet privately, Kennedy was fretting about the mounting costs.

While the bravado of the moon shot solved his immediate public relations problem, the fiscal reality was beginning to sink in. The ballooning NASA costs were, in his words, "wrecking" his budgets.

So, in September of 1963, Kennedy shocked Washington with a speech to the United Nations by proposing a joint U.S./Soviet moon expedition.

Congress was stunned. In one fell swoop, Kennedy seemed to completely reverse his administration's reason for beating the Soviets to the moon.

Without the appeal to national security, Congress would have cut the budget in half. As James Kauffman points out, that deep-seated fear of Soviet space domination even explained the lack of partisanship in the committee. Both parties had voted enthusiastically for space budgets. It was the primary reason Congress was urging NASA to not just go to the moon, but hurry to the moon.

The Soviets never replied to Kennedy's invitation.

The Congress sub-committee cut $600 million from the 1963 budget, which many believe was its way of punishing Kennedy for suggesting the Soviet partnership. But in spite of that admonishment, Congress still approved a whopping $5.1 billion dollar budget.

With the mounting press criticism, the sudden lack of faith from Congress, and NASA looking to him to right the ship, Kennedy went back out on the road to re-sell the moon shot.

With one eye on the upcoming 1964 election, Kennedy went to Cape Canaveral and other southern space facilities to promote, and call renewed attention, to the goal of being the first nation to land a man on the moon.

That trip would eventually take him to Dallas…

One of the reasons JFK went to Dallas that fateful day was to re-sell the moon shot. (santacruzlive.com)

The story of the selling the moon is one of vision, courage, ingenuity and groundbreaking technology.

But it's also a story of marketing.

Without the tremendous public relations campaigns and the massive marketing, without the overwhelming buy-in of the press, NASA and its achievements would have been unthinkable.

When President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, the idea of a joint Soviet partnership died with him. From that point on, Congress never again questioned the wisdom of sending a man to the moon.

Even in spite of its eventual $23 billion price tag. Which translates to $172 billion in today's dollars. It was, appropriately, an astronomical sum.

From the shock of Sputnik in 1957, to the public's acceptance of national security mixed with the notion of space as the next frontier, the trajectory for the "big trip" was firmly in place by 1963.

In part two next week, we pick up our story with the Apollo astronauts, the great tragedy that would result in a total rethink of the Apollo program, and the culmination of the space race when Neil Armstrong climbs down the ladder.

We'll also explore the astounding level of advertising that orbited around Apollo – selling everything from frozen foods, to toys, to Tang.

And why it was easy for marketers to promise the moon…

…when you're under the influence.

Research for this episode included:

"Selling The Moon" by James L. Kauffman.

"Marketing the Moon" by David Meerman Scott & Richard Jurek

"The Astronaut Wives Club" by Lily Koppell