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Newspaper Depictions of Soviet Space History

When we learn about contemporary events second-hand, we call that ‘the news.’ We see, read and hear the news about important events constantly in the twenty-fist century via television and internet transmission. In fact, there is much consternation in our culture about the impact that social media platforms have on our consumption of the news. The methods of transmission, the validity of mainstream media, and the social and political impact of the news are areas of contention in our lives. However, news has long been a vital feature of society. For example, newspapers were the most prevalent medium of information transmission to the greatest number of people during the mid-twentieth century.[1] Newspapers have been integral to the daily fabric of public and private life, and regularly provided readers with information and commentary on the impact of a newsworthy topic: the space race between the Unites States and the Soviet Union. This project compares and contrasts national space mythologies found in Soviet and American newspapers to explore national and personal identity and to show how state-centered institutions used newspapers to influence their readers’ understanding of world events. Indeed, both nations produced news infused with space mythology, but the level of state involvement in the distribution of space mythology in the Soviet Union was much stronger than in the United States.

Why Look at Newspapers?

A comparison of 1960s U.S. and Soviet newspaper articles about their respective space programs will illuminate the discourse consumed by the general population of both nations. In “Toward a Global History of Space Exploration” historian Asif Siddiqi suggests that historians of technology should start researching the social history of space technology. He writes that “[l]ittle work has been done on public enthusiasm for the space program, mass campaigns in support of space exploration, and popular participation in programs usually identified with state-centered institutions.”[2] One way to approach public enthusiasm for their national space program is to look at the public’s consumption of space news, since this is one way that the public and “producers of the space program interact.”[3]

Using Siddiqi’s framework this project will show that newspapers readers interacted with state-centered institutions by reading space-related news. In the Soviet Union, the press functioned as the state-centered institution by which the space program’s news was disseminated.  In the U.S., the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was the state-centered institution that disseminated its news through various media outlets, including national newspapers. The relationship between the press and state-centered institutions was fundamentally different in each country; a difference that is reflected in the tone, style and content of space news that media consumers read in their respective newspapers. In both cases, the press is the medium where producers of the space program interact with the public.[4]  The lived experience of consuming the news influenced public opinion; therefore, space news was critical to the state-centered institutions that desired public support for space programs.

Mythological Political Discourse In The News

The Space Age began in earnest with the launch of Sputnik I in the fall of 1957. The momentous event was reported in Soviet and American newspapers. Within a few years, the American response to Soviet technological advancement was cemented by President Kennedy’s call to put a man on the moon by 1969. Both Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy used national mythological themes in their public discourse, which was regularly consumed by the public in newspaper articles.

On October 8, 1957, a brief statement was made in Pravda about the launch of Sputnik I, the world’s first artificial satellite.The announcement described technical details about the spacecraft’s size, speed, and orbital route. The achievement was accomplished by Soviet scientists who participated in the International Geophysical Year, 1957-1958. The announcement ended with a reference to the Russian mythology and Communist ideology that underlay the achievement: “Artificial earth satellites will pave the way to interplanetary travel and, apparently, our contemporaries will witness how the freed and conscientious labor of the people of the new socialist society makes the most daring dreams of mankind a reality.”[5]  Khrushchev’s familiar reference to the ideology of socialism is rooted in traditions of Russian mythology about interplanetary space travel. The Khrushchev administration would soon reformulate and reinforce this traditional theme to claim that the dream of interplanetary travel was being achieved in modern life. The connection of the Soviet space program to the mythological themes of interplanetary travel will be explored in detail in Chapter 2.

The American media and political establishment initially panicked over the Sputnik launch. In a radio and television address, Eisenhower promised that Americans were safe; the nation had the best Strategic Air Defense, and that what the world really needed was “a giant leap into peace, not a leap into space.”[6] This was not an answer to calm nervous politicians and pundits; nor did it reconstitute the comforting mythology of American superiority for the public. In fact, a year later, when the members of the Sprague committee completed their research on the national response to Sputnik, Eisenhower was told, “Our present reaching into outer space may pose for us the problem of finding a new identity to match the new dimensions of our world.”[7] Eisenhower didn’t see the need to respond to the Soviets in-kind, and consequently did not provide a satisfying resolution to the perceived national identity crisis. However, the next President did.

The official connection of America’s space program to a mythological national identity was accomplished during John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. In his 1960 Democratic nominee acceptance speech Kennedy rallied Americans to the cause of the New Frontier, which included “a set of challenges” that appealed “to their pride” with “the promise of more sacrifice” in the frontier of “uncharted areas of science and space.”[8] During a speech at Rice University in 1962, Kennedy discussed the new Manned Space Flight Center in Houston, Texas. He said, “What was once the furthest outpost on the old frontier of the West will be the furthest outpost on the new frontier of science and space.” He said, “We choose to go to the moon…and do these other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept…and one which we intend to win.”[9] Kennedy’s political rhetoric about the American spirit of adventure, freedom and competition was, in fact, situated in the mythological themes of the expansion of the American Frontier and will be examined in detail in Chapter 3.

In both the Soviet and American space programs, mythological themes provide citizens with inspirational context. Political leaders hoped their citizens would support enormous expenditures of capital, time, and effort their space programs required. It was not a far-fetched idea that the public would respond positively to space mythology, since it was regularly consumed by the public in the twentieth century. Frontier space mythology and interplanetary travel mythology was expressed in films and television shows; science fiction; popular books and magazines; and in consumer goods.[10] It was also present in newspaper discourse. So, this project compares and contrasts national space mythology in newspaper discourse that originates from the space programs themselves. In the Soviet Union, the discourse contained references to interplanetary travel, and in the United States it references frontier expansion.

Mythology as Interpretive Tool

In the article “Marxism-Leninism as Myth,” sociologists Barner-Barry and Hody identify five characteristics of myths, four general functions of myths, and three types of master myths. The authors use these definitions to show connections between the emotional function of mythology and the rational function of ideology in the political trajectory of the Soviet Union,[11] In this project, their terms and definitions provide a framework to identify the mythological themes present in newspaper discourse about the Soviet and American space programs. In other words, Barner-Barry and Hody examine how people think and feel about and react to national mythology. This essay cannot show how newspaper readers reacted to expressions of national mythology, but it can show the existence of national mythology that newspaper readers potentially consumed, which may have influenced how they reacted to the space program in their country.

The word ‘mythology’ is not used to describe fantastical beliefs or ideas of the past that are untrue. Rather, ‘mythology’ signifies a collection of beliefs, ideas, and viewpoints that represent a shared historical past. Mythology, in this sense, gives an interpretation of past events that helps humans understand their place in the world. The mythology is psychologically persuasive enough that people internalize the myth’s values, and thus find an accessible common identity for social or political organization.[12]  The authors recognize that, in the modern world most people would rather think of themselves as rational beings who do not need mythology, and prefer to interpret the world through the scientific method. However, we are still heavily influenced by myths because “we believe the values in myths are right and proper” even if they are based on a mixture of fact and fiction.[13] This may explain how and why twentieth century Americans could relate to the phrase “a new frontier” in much the way a Soviet person could relate to the phrase “a path to the stars.” These phrases already had meaning and represented specific values and a shared national identity which were subsequently associated with each space program.

According to Barner-Barry and Hody, the three kinds of master myths are: 1) the foundation myth, 2) the sustaining myth, and 3) the eschatological myth.[14] This study will focus mostly on the foundation myth in each space program to highlight its expression in newspaper discourse. Identifying a society’s connection to space mythology may help us understand how it promotes a renewed national identity; acts as a factor of social cohesion (or dissonance), and as a vehicle to work out their reactions to social burdens of the space race. It has not been unusual for historians of either space program to mention different representations of space mythology in American culture and Soviet culture. They have discussed mythology in terms of cultural and social issues of national identity, material production and consumption, and the ideological and rhetorical use of space mythology in Soviet and American life.

Primary Sources

The primary sources selected for this project are newspaper articles. In addition, since NASA had its own media capabilities, NASA news releases are also included in this study. All primary sources selected are digitized copies of printed publications. Digitized sources were easily accessed and illuminate the great value of research in digital format alone. For the Soviet portion, the project uses primary sources found in the database for the Current Digest of the Russian Press (1949-1991).[15] This source is a compilation of English-translated selections from several Russian language newspapers of the Soviet era such as Pravda, Izvestia and Literaturnaya Gazeta. Since these newspapers were viewed as mouthpieces of the Soviet government, they represent official positions and views of the people responsible for the Soviet space program. These news articles would have been consumed by a public that was eager to learn about the space program.

This author recognizes that the selected newspaper article sources do not represent the entirety of space-related newspaper articles ever published in either the U.S. or the Soviet Union. While the New York Times has digitized all of its issues, there were obviously other local and regional newspapers that published articles about the space program which are not included in this study. Similarly, the American editors of the Current Digest made decisions about what should be translated for American consumption, which may have led to the omission of some space news articles published in the Russian language.

The primary sources selected for the American space program are more complex. They include two types of primary sources: NASA news releases and New York Times (NYT) news articles from the 1960s.[16] The New York Times was selected because it was a nationally respected newspaper with an average daily circulation of 757,294 in 1965, and provided extensive distributed coverage of the national space program.[17] While the U.S. does not have a state-sponsored newspaper, the NYT is widely considered to be a newspaper of record in the country, and contains broadly distributed public discourse about the space program.

The American side of the project is complicated by NASA’s practice of sending news releases to media outlets; which, in turn, did not always print their stories. That does not mean that space news was rare. In fact, the amount of New York Times newspaper articles published about any space-related topic in the 1960s is voluminous. Therefore, for the purpose of finding a manageable sample size, the NYT’s database was queried with the terms “National Aeronautics and Space Administration” and “spaceflight” and later “National Aeronautics and Space Administration and “Frontier.” The first exercise investigated whether spaceflight-oriented stories existed in the NYT, and the second exercise investigated how often news articles referenced the national space mythology of frontier expansion.

NASA’s main mission in the 1960s was to land astronauts on the moon and return them home safely. Americans generally associated spaceflight with the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), the national space port. News from KSC may have resonated with the public more than news from other NASA facilities, as it was an extremely popular tourist destination. Thus, KSC’s digitized news releases fit well into a project focused on space news consumption.

Historiography – Comparative Space History

In the study of twentieth century space programs, historians have viewed them through the lens of politics, space policy, and the role of the space science and technology competition of the Cold War. Historian Walter A. McDougall has written a seminal work about the relationship between policy creation and technology with his comparison of the Soviet Union and American space programs.[18] He argues that politics benefitted from the “institutionalization of technological change for state purposes” and he labels both countries technocracies.[19] This book is important because it explains how the space programs were internally and internationally politicized, and how they symbolized the technological advancements that governments believed each society should pursue.

McDougall also describes how people enmeshed in ascending tiers of power in each country managed space technology to broaden and achieve their goals. The tiers of power ranged from academics to politicians and from civilian to military experts. However, the book only deals with the upper echelons of Soviet and American power and its promotion or resistance towards developing a technocracy in the twentieth century. It does not address the role of the media in supporting either of the space-centered technocracies, and does not address how the general public interacted with the space programs in their technocratic roles.

Red Moon Rising author and journalist Matthew Brzezinski provides a comparative micro-history of the competitive nature of the U.S. and Soviet space agencies as they struggled to launch the first satellite.[20] Brzezinski’s premise is that the U.S.-Soviet satellite competition consisted of various unknown rivalries. For instance, outside of the Soviet space program, no one knew who the chief rocket designer was, and yet the Americans were trying to beat him to a satellite launch for the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958).  Brzezinski also describes the competition that was going on behind the scenes between the U.S. military and nascent civilian space industry. US scientists wanted to study meteorology, but the military wanted to test spying capabilities. Also, the rivalry between Vice President Nixon and Lyndon Johnson heated up, as did the inter-service rivalry between the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and the Navy. Various national U.S. space agencies were proposed, but NASA eventually won out, so there was also competition in the civilian space arena.

According to Brzezinski, Sergei Korolev, the Soviet Union’s preeminent rocket engineer, was the ultimate catalyst for the successful construction and launch of Sputnik and the whole Soviet space program.[21] As Brzezinski tells it, Korolev used the potential benefits of beating the Americans to space via a successful satellite launch to distract Khrushchev from the difficulties he was having with the V-7 rocket. Korolev’s plan ultimately won him approval to spend more time working on his pet project.[22]

Brzezinski’s book cites several New York Times and Pravda articles and many other news publications throughout his narrative to show how the press influenced each country’s response to new developments in space travel. While not his main primary source, Brzezinski’s newspaper citations show that the public consumed news about the space race as it played out in the public sphere, even as much more complex issues took place out of public view. Brzezinski’s journalistic sources provide examples of the drama and tension that the Sputnik launch caused in American life, the political maneuvering of different government agencies and space advocates in the U.S., and the rhetorical sparring that occurred between the Soviet Union and the U.S. as the space race proceeded. Brzezinski’s book also illustrates that historians often treat newspapers as mere anecdotal evidence.

Historiography – American Space History

American space policy and public affairs professor Howard E. McCurdy discusses the role of imagination in the space race but focuses on the process of policy creation for the American space program.[23] His book, Space and the American Imagination looks at “the process of reconciliation by government of imagination, popular culture and real events”[24] which was integral to building public acceptance of U.S. space policies. McCurdy writes, “Imagination matters when societies contemplate new ventures. People must be able to visualize a solution” and “believe the goal is attainable.” McCurdy agrees with historian Walter A. McDougall that the combination of imagination, economy and technology got the space program off the ground.[25]

The public was primed to accept space travel by means of the early science fiction books, pulp comics and films of the 1920s and 1930s. Hence McCurdy explains that to the public, it seemed as if “human spaceflight was just around the corner.”[26] The public appetite for space travel was strong when science and imagination gelled during the 1950s. This was due in part to rocket scientist Werner von Braun’s collaboration with Walt Disney, von Braun’s space travel PR tour, the publication of Colliers magazine’s 8-part series about the Hayden Planetarium space lectures and movies, and the impact of Chesley Bonestell’s realist space art that depicted humans in space as a thing of beauty and spiritual importance.[27] According to McCurdy, all of these factors were vital because of the way they prepared Americans to accept a robust public space policy. He said, “To become public policy, the vision must seem feasible, desirable. The validity of the vision is determined by its compatibility with cultural beliefs and the ability to attract a large audience by exciting and entertaining them.”[28] Imagination was the first step on the path to a real space program.

However, imagination wasn’t the only requirement. McCurdy says that “culture shifts prepare the public for changes in government policy that some precipitating event triggers. The cultural equilibrium is broken by punctuating events that allow officials to initiate policy change.”[29] In this case, the punctuating event was the Soviet Sputnik launch. The culture shifted away from the imaginary spacefaring nation to the immediacy of becoming a space-faring nation. As McCurdy argues, the “works of imagination” altered public perceptions of space travel and the skeptical began to think it could happen.[30]  Sputnik proved space travel was really possible. A major policy change happened soon after with the creation of NASA and the subsequent launch of the space race, thanks to President Kennedy’s moon-shot speech.

Historiography – Soviet Space History

Historian of Soviet science Paul Josephson has conceptualized the Soviet space program as one stream of the build-up of large-scale technologies during the twentieth century push to modernize the U.S.S.R.[31]  Josephson echoes MacDougall’s view of technocracy when he says, “The Soviet fascination with technology as a panacea for social and economic problems mirrors that in the West” because it “embraced large-scale technologies with the support of government, scientists, engineers, and often the public.”[32] There was nothing more modern or more visible than sending a satellite to outer space in 1957.

Josephson also emphasizes the ideological value of large-scale technology in the Soviet Union. He says that a “technicist” Marxism reinforced an “almost unbounded faith in science and technology.” Thus, the “display value” or “social, cultural and ideological significance, of large-scale technologies” in the Soviet Union were “symbols of national achievement.”[33] These achievements were especially important to the Soviet government, for they reflected “the omniscient power of scientists and engineers” and gave “legitimacy to political systems.” During the Cold War, large scale technology was “central to national security strategies” and could even “entrance a public” that was “intoxicated with symbolism.”[34] Indeed, the space program held immense ideological value for the Soviet Union.

While the Soviet space program may not have been physically similar to the other large-scale projects of gigantism that Josephson described, it did have great display value, both nationally and internationally. He noted that Khrushchev maximized the display value of the space program’s “series of firsts” which included “the first satellite, man in space, two-manned shot, woman in space, space-walk, soft landing.” These firsts “convinced the Soviets” and much of the world that Soviet science was superior.[35] Their achievements were much greater than the Western world expected and the shock value of the space accomplishments was immense. The early success of the space program had an impact on how Soviet people viewed their lives.

Josephson describes how the Soviet people responded to the space program in his book chapter “Rockets, Reactors and Soviet Culture” which is included in Loren Graham’s Science and the Soviet Social Order.[36]Josephson’s research shows that the Soviet public responded favorably, and had a palpable interest in what the space program was accomplishing for their nation.[37]Also, it meant that space culture was alive and well; their utopian vision was confirmed by results in real life. Thus, the space program was more than a technological program, it had social, cultural and personal significance. Josephson explains that the Soviet people actually believed that conquering the cosmos would give them a path to the stars.[38] They believed that cosmic research would lead to interplanetary travel, and that space was the key to the Soviet future. Soon they would be climbing into the cosmos to reach other planets and solar systems.[39]

Josephson came to this conclusion because of the way people interacted with space news in journals and popular magazines. He saw that highly educated Soviet people asked questions and raised concerns about cosmonaut safety and the cost of running a space program. However, they approved of the technical and social consequences because of their belief that technology was the highest form of culture.[40] It was a positive feedback loop. The best culture produced the best technology; and the best technology produced the highest culture. While Josephson writes about the public commentary in journals and popular magazines, he does not address what the public consumed in newspapers, which represented the official state policies regarding the space program.

One of the most important current Soviet space historians, Asif Siddiqi, wrote The Red Rockets’ Glare: Spaceflight and the Soviet Imagination, 1857-1957. It is groundbreaking work on cultural and social space history in Russian and Soviet history because it challenges twentieth century hagiographical trends, and places the development of the Sputnik into a deep historical context, reaching back into the nineteenth century. Siddiqi frames the history of the Soviet space program as the “popular mobilization for science and technology, rather than a story of state directives and elite communities.”[41] In other words, he tells the story of Russian and Soviet working-class people who were also space enthusiasts.

While the Soviet space program has been an engaging historical topic, Siddiqi noted that much of the literature has been hagiographic, focused on the effects of the terror on institutional rocket research and development, and was mainly a study of great men like engineers and scientists Korolev, Glushko, and Keldysh.[42] Poor archival access was a major research impediment for previous historians, but Siddiqi fared well because his research occurred after the dissolution of the USSR. Siddiqi’s book is groundbreaking and effective because he extensively cites primary source material from eight different Russian archives, and published Russian language primary sources, journals and newspapers.

The role of imagination in space popularization was a common theme of Siddiqi’s review of cosmos-oriented amateur groups and societies, journals and popular science publications, lectures and exhibitions, art, film and literature.[43]  The ideas of early advocacy groups were grounded in mystical beliefs about interplanetary travel which influenced their conception of the purpose of rocketry. It would help humans explore, populate and conquer the cosmos. Many early interplanetary travel advocates were Cosmists and Biocosmists, and included well-known Russians such as philosopher Nikolai Fedorov, early rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovskii and bio-chemist V.I. Vernadskii.[44] Interestingly, Siddiqi does not address how the public may have consumed space news that was published in state sponsored newspapers.[45] Siddiqi’s approach of  interpreting Soviet space culture from the bottom up leaves room for an investigation of the intersection of Soviet space culture and news consumption.

Even though launch-capable rockets did not yet exist, regular citizens had many opportunities to participate in space culture in the 1920s.[46] Average citizens could pursue their own space interests; even build personal networks to promote ideas and concepts that kept their space travel dreams alive. One of the more interesting and convincing elements of Siddiqi’s argument is that rocket and space engineers like Korolev and Glushko owed their accomplishments to their work with earlier amateur rocketry groups, which flourished only because of the way they used their imagination to pursue the possibilities of space travel. Siddiqi explained how these men worked out their passions in the ICBM program and eventually produced the Sputnik satellite.[47]

 

A Brief Comparison of Twentieth Century Soviet and American Journalism

The news was not made in an ideological or rhetorical vacuum. In The World’s Great Dailies: Profiles of Fifty Newspapers, American journalism professors John C. Merrill and Harold A. Fisher comment on the ideological differences between newspapers in authoritarian regimes and the free world.[48] Their evaluation was made in 1980, before the fall of the Soviet Union. Their academic and professional opinions represent the state of elite newspaper publishing during the Cold War. Merrill and Fisher believe that newspaper greatness is a matter of context. They do not discount newspapers from Communist countries because of ideological differences with Western countries. They write, “There is no cause for rejecting the premise that within the serious influential press of any political system there is a certain respect and concern with seriousness, humanity, and social progress.”[49] This is a helpful reminder as we compare Soviet and American journalism.

The twenty-first century American scholar might have an innate prejudice against the Soviet press and assume that all of its space journalism was simply propagandistic. However, Merrill and Fisher are “not interested in dismissing the entire government-controlled press of the world as propaganda and unreasonable journalism.”[50] Merrill and Fisher believe that authoritarian countries use their press for very specific purposes. Chapter 2 will explain the specific purpose of the Soviet press with respect to their national space program. Suffice it to say, the Soviet press was instrumental in directing daily life.

In a closed society like the Soviet Union, the press was responsible for disseminating news, but the newspapers, more importantly, directed the citizen on the best way to function in their society. In Merrill and Fisher’s estimation, the newspapers of an authoritarian “elite press” disseminate “the necessary social and political guidance of the closed society” and it is the reader’s responsibility to “read it pragmatically.” The purpose of the newspaper is to make the reader “a well-integrated member of his society” who is “indoctrinated for concerned activity.” Yes, such an elite press is “an instrument with which to control the social system.[51] However, Merrill and Fisher also recognize “the importance, leadership, seriousness, and considerable reasonableness of the authoritarian elite.”[52] Clearly, in their opinion, the best authoritarian newspapers served the vital function of managing a closed society successfully.

Merrill and Fisher devise a classification scheme of Quality and Prestige, which indicates characteristics of the world’s best daily newspapers. They suggest that a quality daily newspaper is “a courageous, independent, news-views oriented journal, published in an open society.” A prestige daily newspaper is “a serious journal of some power elite, concerned with dogma or policy dissemination, spokesman or propagandist for some person or group, and published in a closed society.”  Naturally, a prestige paper “wields influence among the audience submissive to that institution.” Merrill and Fisher believe that the elite press of authoritarian regimes like the Soviet Union are “part of the world’s serious and influential press” and are to be “counted among the ‘great’ daily newspapers of the world.”[53] More specifically, they recognize that “Marxist or Communist press considers itself socially responsible, and certainly is responsible to its own social system.”[54] They select Pravda as the Soviet Union’s ‘Greatest Daily’ or best prestige newspaper. Pravda’s influence on Soviet society will be discussed more in Chapter 2.

In Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers journalism and sociology professor Michael Schudson lays out how American journalism in the 1960s was permeated by a tension between “objective” and straight news.[55] Schudson describes how the critical culture of the 1960s spurred younger journalists to call “for a more active journalism” and to be “skeptical of official accounts of public affairs.”[56] This was part of “the emergence of…an adversary culture…that provided an audience for a more aggressive and more skeptical journalism.”[57] So, within the profession, some journalists practiced straight reporting and others took a more critical, interpretive stance.

Traditional journalists struggled with the wider cultural rejection of objectivity, because they believed it was the hallmark of the journalism profession. The general criticism was that objective journalism contained “the most insidious bias of all” which made reporters reproduce “a vision of social reality which refused to examine the basic structures of power and privilege.” If journalists reported objectively, cultural critics accused them of “collusion with institutions whose legitimacy was in dispute.”[58] In general, the government was a prime target of this criticism. Since NASA was one of the most prominent government institutions in the 1960s, journalists who reported less than critically on NASA may have been recipients of this cultural criticism.

Schudson calls the two sides of the 1960s journalism-debate a “frozen pattern” that distinguished “between straight reporting and interpretive reporting” because of how differently journalists produced their work. He says that an interpretive reporter finds the “background,” “uncovers motives for actions” and “tracks down the side issues” while “the straight reporter passively accepts the public record.” Additionally, he said the “straight news was the stock in trade of the wire services and most reporters” while “interpretive reporting was the work of a privileged few.”[59] The visible tension between these two patterns of reporting is discussed in greater detail in Chapter 3.

Finally, Schudson also describes the resentment that U.S. journalists felt against the emergence of government publicity offices that controlled stories published in the newspapers. The critical culture had recognized “an increasing government management of the news” over the previous sixty years.[60] By the 1950s and 1960s there was a “growing concern” that management of the news had been centralized in the executive branch.[61] Government control increased, but not because of censorship; it flooded journalists with information via its own publicity officials.[62] The information did not reflect real events, but rather covered “pseudo-events” or happenings planned “for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced.”[63] For a while, Schudson says “journalists complained, but did not challenge the routines of government news management and creation of pseudo-events” until “something changed” in the 1960s.[64] The aversion to publicity and pseudo-news also influenced the way NASA organized its public affairs and publicity arrangements with external media and news agencies.

A View of NASA as News Media

The comparison of Soviet and American space-related newspaper content is complicated by the fact that America’s press was independent of government oversight. NASA’s self-generated news was filtered by the decisions of external editors and journalists who followed their own journalistic standards. Therefore, the space news that the American public consumed may not have been exactly what NASA public affairs wanted them to know. A recent book, Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Space Program interprets NASA’s space-race media in a marketing context, and it also explains how NASA’s early Public Affairs office deployed the style of news reporting that its officials preferred.[65]

In the early days of the U.S. space program, the small public affairs office functioned like a newsroom. It was staffed by professional journalists who disseminated information rapidly, without spinning or selling the latest space program events.[66] They did this in real time; when there was news to share, it went out to the press and broadcast media. The public affairs office focused on educating reporters and publishers so that the space program could be explained correctly to widen the taxpayer’s knowledge base.[67] Schudson’s argument about the tension between objective and interpretive reporting highlights the possibility that external journalists and reporters may have been suspicious of NASA’s penchant for disseminating straight news and so they may have declined to use NASA’s news releases. Alternatively, journalists and reporters may have produced more critical space news articles for public consumption.

NASA’s Public Affairs and Publicity issues were managed separately, which complicated the American consumption of space news even more. For example, the task of providing publicity about the astronauts and their families was given to the publishers of LIFE magazine. Thus, NASA’s journalists did not have to deal with the public’s appetite for human-interest stories about the Mercury 7 astronauts or most of the astronaut teams that came after them. Instead, NASA journalists and reporters gathered and furnished “unvarnished facts” about the space program to the media, and more importantly, to Congress.[68] The public affairs journalists provided news releases, films, and interviews that were all “ready-made” and intended to be used “word-for-word” by the recipients for distribution to the public.[69] Much of the news from NASA was highly technical, but the “news reporters within the agency” tried to convert it into “useful information for the press.”[70] NASA hoped that the general press would replicate the news for public consumption in newspaper articles and other media outlets.

Furthermore, Julian Scheer, appointed the head of Public Affairs at the Washington headquarters in 1963, clearly stated that NASA news was an information program, not a publicity and marketing service. He said, “We don’t put out publicity releases. We put out news releases. When we have news, we disseminate it.”[71]  While Scott and Jurek have thoroughly explained the marketing aspect of the Apollo program and Scheer’s view of the news function at NASA, they do not discuss NASA’s use of news releases, or explain if the general press accessed the news releases. Scott and Jurek explore NASA’s use of television broadcasts, the astronaut contract with the popular journal, LIFE, the press kits for NASA partners and contractors, and the 50-state Apollo publicity tour after the mission was completed, and much more.

In any case, NASA’s Public Affairs activities offer a case-study of an American, state-centered institution’s influence on twentieth century news cycles. By reviewing the content of newspaper articles about the space program we learn that news media discourse does not often correspond to the space agency’s own message. Unlike the Soviet press and their references to interplanetary travel, we learn that NASA’s news function rarely included references to the national mythology of frontier expansion. This is significant because national space mythology was present elsewhere in official U.S. discourse at the start of the space race.

Among the momentous events covered by the twentieth century press was the launch of the first Sputnik satellite by the U.S.S.R.’s space program in October, 1957. Newspapers around the world were splashed with headlines and images about the shocking and amazing news. The Soviet and American newspapers published many articles about the space race from them on, making space news a regular topic during the late 1950s and 1960s. However, was there any significance to all of this news beyond a recounting of world events? This thesis argues that there was, and that space-related news was important to U.S. and Soviet readers because it represented a reformulation of national identity that reinforced certain cultural and personal values.

Expressions of national mythology in both space programs anchored people’s lives in traditional mythological themes that had the potential to bring meaning to their experience of the space age. The role of newspaper media in this process should not be underestimated because newspapers were a vital conduit of public discourse, enabling the distribution and consumption of national mythologies. This project will show that during the first decade of the space race, the Soviet press dispersed a purpose-driven and cohesive message about their space program that reinforced its national mythology. In comparison, the American press distributed a less cohesive, but still effective version of America’s national mythology. In Soviet space news, the dominant mythological theme was that of interplanetary travel, while in the U.S. it was a mythology of the frontier


[1] In the twentieth century, U.S. newspaper circulation rose from 48.4 million per weekday and 39.9 million per Sunday in 1945 to 60.4 million per weekday and 48.6 million per Sunday by 1965. By 1985 newspaper circulation per weekday peaked at 62.8 million and per Sunday circulation peaked at 62.6 million. By 2005, total weekday circulation dropped to 53.3 million and Sunday circulation dropped to 55.3 million.  U.S. Daily Newspaper Circulation, 5-year Increments, (Pew Research Center, 2007), http://www.journalism.org/numbers/u-s-daily-newspaper-circulation-5-year-increments/.

[2] Asif A. Siddiqi, “Competing Technologies, National(ist) Narratives, and Universal Claims: Toward a Global History of Space Exploration,” Technology and Culture 51, no. 2 (2010): doi:10.1353/tech.0.0459. 439.

[3] Siddiqi, “Competing Technologies,”440.

[4] Ibid.

[5] NASA Historical Reference Collection, “Announcement of the First Satellite,” Pravda, October 5, 1957, accessed January 2016, https://history.nasa.gov/sputnik/14.html.

[6] Dwight Eisenhower, “Radio and Television Address to the American People on Science in National Security.,” in The American Presidency Project (1957), http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=10946&st=&st1=.

[7] Donald Michael and Raymond Bauer, American Reactions to Crisis: Examples of Pre-Sputnik and Post-Sputnik Attitudes and of the Reaction to Other Events Perceived as Threats, (Washington, D.C, 1958), http://history.nasa.gov/sputnik/oct58.html.

[8] John F. Kennedy, The New Frontier, John F. Kennedy Pre-Presidential Papers, 1958 – 1960 (1960), National Archives Catalog, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/193148.

[9] John F. Kennedy, Address at Rice University on the Space Effort, Public Papers of the Presidents, ed. Gerard Peters and John T. Woolley (1962), The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=8862&st=Rice+University&st1=.

[10] For a discussion of popular culture and space in America see Howard E. McCurdy, Space and the American Imagination (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011). For a discussion of space-related material and public culture in the Soviet Union see Cathleen Susan Lewis, The red stuff: a history of the public and material culture of early human spaceflight in the U.S.S.R., PhD thesis, Washington, 2008 (ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2008). For a discussion of the space-focused mentality of U.S. media, literature and advertising see David Lavery, Late for the Sky: The Mentality of the Space Age (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992).

[11] Carol Barner-Barry and Cynthia Hody, “Soviet Marxism-Leninism as Mythology,” Political Psychology 15, no. 4 (December 1994), doi:10.2307/3791623. 618.

[12] Barner-Barry and Hody, “Soviet Marxism-Leninism as Mythology.” 610.

[13] Barner-Barry and Hody, 609-610.

[14] Ibid. 624-626.

[15] The Current Digest of the Russian Press, East View Information Services, dlib-eastview-com.unr.idm.oclc.org. The author is constricted to English language sources and the Current Digest is the best translation of original source material from the time period under discussion.

[16] “ProQuest Historical Newspapers™” ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times, proquest-com.unr.idm.oclc.org.

[17] Sulzberger, Arthur Hayes. Statement of Ownership, Management and Circulation. New York: The New York Times, 1965.

[18] Walter A. McDougall, The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

[19] McDougall. The Heavens and the Earth. 5.

[20] Matthew Brzezinski, Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries That Ignited the Space Age (New York: Times Books, 2007).

[21] Brzezinski, Red Moon Rising.274.

[22] Ibid. 42-45. This is different from Asif Siddiqi’s claim that Korolev intentionally and masterfully manipulated his superiors with reports of American advancement in rocketry so that he could finally carry out his space dream. Asif Siddiqi, The Red Rockets’ Glare: Spaceflight and the Soviet Imagination, 1857-1957 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010). 331.

[23] Howard E. McCurdy, Space and the American Imagination (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).

[24] McCurdy, Space and the American Imagination. 2-3.

[25] Ibid. 57.

[26] Ibid. 32-33.

[27] Ibid. 34-48.

[28] McCurdy, Space and the American Imagination. 6.

[29] Ibid. 236.

[30] Ibid. 235.

[31] Josephson, Paul R. “Projects of the Century” in Soviet History: Large-Scale Technologies from Lenin to Gorbachev. 1995 Technology and Culture Vol. 36 No 3 pp. 519-559. Johns Hopkins University Press and SHOT.

[32] Josephson, “Projects of the Century,” 519.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid. 520-521.

[35] Ibid. 539.

[36] Paul R. Josephson, “Rockets, Reactors and Soviet Culture,” in Science and the Soviet Social Order, ed. Loren Graham (Cambridge: Harvard Univ Press, 1990), 168–192.

[37] Josephson. “Rockets, Reactors and Soviet Culture.” 169, 170, 172.

[38] Ibid. 176-179.

[39] Ibid. 188-189.

[40] Ibid. 191.

[41] Asif A. Siddiqi, The Red Rockets’ Glare: Spaceflight and the Soviet Imagination, 1857–1957 (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2010). 8.

[42]Siddiqi, The Red Rockets’ Glare. 4. A highly respected, popular and thorough biography about Korolev was written by James Harford: Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon (New York: Wiley, 1999).

[43] Siddiqi. The Red Rockets’ Glare. See chapter 3, “Imagining the Cosmos”.

[44] Also suggested by James T. Andrews in Red Cosmos: K.E. Tsiolkovskii, Grandfather of Rocketry. (2009) Texas A&M University Press. 17-19.

[45] Like most scholars, Siddiqi treats newspaper references anecdotally. He focuses on popular science journals as a source to show how the public interacted with the Soviet space program. See Chapter 3, pg. 87-92, subheading Technological Utopianism: The Media.

[46] Siddiqi, The Red Rockets’ Glare. 82.

[47] Ibid. See chapter 4, “Local Action, State Imperatives”.

[48] John C. Merrill and Harold A. Fisher, The World’s Great Dailies: Profiles of Fifty Newspapers (New York: Hastings House, 1980).

[49] Merrill and Fisher, The World’s Great Dailies. 15.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid., 9.

[52] Ibid., 16.

[53] Ibid., 13-14.

[54] Ibid., 25.

[55] Michael Schudson, Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers (New York: Basic Books, 2011). For a recent discussion of the debate among newspaper publishers, editors and journalists regarding objective and interpretive reporting see the essay by Matthew Pressman, “Objectivity and its Discontents: The Struggle for the Soul of American Journalism in the 1960s and 1970s,” in Media Nation: The Political History of News in America, ed. Bruce J. Schulman and Julian E. Zelizer (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).

[56] Schudson, Discovering the News, 162.

[57] Ibid., 163

[58] Ibid., 162.

[59] Ibid., 168.

[60] Ibid., 163.

[61] Ibid., 168.

[62] Ibid., 167.

[63] Ibid., 170.

[64] Ibid., 171.

[65] David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek, Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2014).

[66] Scott and Jurek, Marketing the Moon, 17.

[67] Ibid., “Introduction,” x.

[68] Ibid., 16-17.

[69] Ibid., 21.

[70] Ibid., 17.

[71] Ibid., 32.



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