The Geography of Space Exploration: Apollo in the Age of Aquarius (Book Review)
A revealing account of stories that have been largely washed aside in the retelling of Apollo over the last five decades. Maher’s impressive research reveals not only silenced voices in an era of social conflict comparable to our own, but also the inspiring potential for space exploration to respond to (and be driven by) social realities on Earth and therefore truly advance well-being for all (if we want it to). Above all, this book reiterates a critical lesson for other authors: any re-telling of the ‘space race’ that isn’t wholly embedded in social and political context is deeply flawed.
In 2019, the opportunity to write a book about the Apollo program came to me. While I was excited, I was also hesitant. I teach about the Apollo program every year in my space exploration course at Western University, and having sought interesting readings for nearly the past ten years, it felt as if the topic has been wrung dry of any interesting perspectives. Seemingly, hundreds of books, documentaries, and movies have covered the Moon landings about as well as it’s going to get.
But two things convinced me that there were still interesting stories to tell about Apollo. First was my co-author’s idea for the book, which would retell the global geography of the event from the perspective of everyday citizens around the world (a natural fit for me as a human geographer, and something I knew hadn’t been done before). The second was Neil Maher’s 2017 book Apollo in the Age of Aquarius, which I had picked up around the same time the writing opportunity came.
Now done with writing and having re-read Apollo in the Age of Aquarius during quarantine I figured the review I always intended was finally in order (plus hey, its the 51st anniversary of the first Moon landing by Apollo 11).
The Domestic Cold War Over Apollo
The format of Maher’s book is a tight compilation of the ways in which the ‘space race’ (mostly the Apollo program) intersected with American culture and politics. It picks up shortly before Apollo 11 (roughly Summer 1969) but does leap around the timeline as necessary to fill the reader in on the background of its human subjects and key events both in space and on Earth.
That is the strength of Maher’s account. All too often space exploration is written as devoid of social and political context. However, the realities of class, gender, race, sexuality, and ideology are not separate from space exploration, but central to it. Maher does his readers a service by respecting their intelligence and recognizing that Apollo cannot be retold without a discussion of its much more important context.
For educators like me, Maher’s book is particularly valuable as the neat chapter divisions provide ideal readings for a myriad of class sections in sociology, gender studies, geography, critical race studies, science and technology studies, or history (among others). The chapters essentially divide as so:
- Chapter 1 — Race: Covers the ‘space race’ and its intersections with the civil rights movements of the 1960s, focusing on critiques and protests of the Apollo program from figures such as Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, and John Lewis. The protests (some of which even took place at Cape Canneral) aimed to bring to the forefront of popular awareness the intolerance and injustices facing African Americans. A stinging dissection by Maher, the chapter shows how the space age, which relied on a premise of progress, was seen as detached from reality by civil rights leaders who also saw their underfunded neighborhoods and schools left behind. In response, said progress was turned on its head with a simple question: ‘progress for whom?’
- Chapter 2 — War: Explores the role of space technology in the Vietnam War and the generational and class divide in support for both the war and the space program. Resting on mounds of archived research of opinion polls and nationally syndicated op-eds, Maher reveals that for many campus kids in the 1960s, the space program was a short ideological hop-skip-and-jump away from corporate lobbied wars in Korea and Vietnam. The chapter has a happier ending than most though, as growing resentment of the military-industrial-space complex, popular op-eds emphasizing domestic needs over space needs, and a push for re-branding of space technology among politics and officials coalesced to force change. The result, the advancement of one the the space age’s greatest programs, Landsat, and the use of satellites to observe the Earth for environmental and scientific purposes.
- Chapter 3 — Environment: Picks up from Chapter 2 and explains how space technology development in the 1960s and 1970s evolved in response to critiques of the space program from the public and prominent environmentalists. Maher outlines how burgeoning environmental organizations played a critical role in the development of the United States Landsat program and the use of space technology (Earth observing satellites, solar panels, water filtration techniques) for environmental benefit on Earth. A key insight of the book emerges here, that social critiques of the space age in the 1960s did indeed have a positive, if not transformational, impact on the use of space technology for the betterment of humanity.
- Chapter 4-Gender: Delves into the machismo patriarchy of 20th century Cold War politics and how feminist voices condemned the lack of female astronauts and the boys club mentality of the space age. Eye opening sections reveal the prevalence of archaic gender stereotypes in the aerospace world and overall resistance to gender equality in all its 1960’s ignorance. Just when you can’t believe it was really that bad, Maher provides ample sexist quotes from many of the lead characters in the early space age. Noteworthy, one of these quotes gives yet another reason to remove any sense of revere you’d have left for Werner von Braun. The instance being a response the former Nazi SS member gave to a question about the idea of female astronauts. For von Braun, to bring a female on a space mission, the male astronauts would simply be “reserving 110 pounds of payload for recreational equipment” (Maher, 2017, 181).
- Chapter 5 — Ideology: Maher places the space age, and its push from mostly conservative politicians into the culture wars of the late 1960s . For Maher, the space race, and its perceived closeness to a new military-industrial-space-complex, was absorbed by many in the youth-led counter culture as wholly “square”. As opposed to this, Maher outlines pro-space age voices coming from William Buckley, Ayn Rand, and Richard Nixon, who saw space technology as a continuation of ‘man’s domination of nature’ and an extension of American manifest destiny. As Maher puts it
“The Apollo spacesuit, Nixon continued was the technological equivalent of the buckskin jacket, the spacecraft merely the latest pack-horse and NASA’s astronauts the most recent in a long line of American pioneers” (Maher, 2018, 190)
Good Writing, Impressive Research, and a Subtle Sense of Hope
Maher’s work is evident (he is a professor of history at Rutgers University) as roughly a quarter of the book is dedicated to references and meticulous archival research and end notes. Along with this abundance of rigor, the reading experience is bolstered by images (most of them newspaper cartoon editorials) and piercing quotes from major figures of the 20th century.
The quotes particularly place the reader in the time and are impressive pieces of research themselves, seemingly dug up form obscure interviews, newspaper articles, or government records. More than a few have you putting the book down, the words sticking with you, rightfully so, in their poignancy and historical weight.
“With the continuation of these strange values, in a few years we can be assured that we will set a man on the Moon and with an adequate telescope he will be able to see the slums on Earth with intensified congestion, decay, and turbulence” — Martin Luther King, Jr. (December 15, 1966, from Maher, 2017, 22).
Writing wise, its a wonderful reading experience that retells a valuable (second-hand) intersectional experience of Apollo for many of us who were not yet born to experience it first hand. The writing is clear, and only borders on academic. Indeed, I will give academic historians their props for mastering the accessible writing style that escapes so many of their social scientist kin (looking at you sociologists).
But Maher’s Book isn’t entirely context, for space-tech nerds there is some discussion of the Apollo program itself and its technology. Specifically, considerable time is spent discussing its applications in other areas such as wars abroad or saving energy domestically. The most intriguing might be Maher’s discussion of the development of space suits and waste facilities in light of the greatest generation/boomer-lensed views of gender and sex prevalent at the time.
Ultimately, it appears Maher intention is that he wants the readers to know the context of Apollo is not a surrounding plot to be mentioned for interest’s-sake. In fact, it is the opposite in this book, Apollo is the side story to the reality of the Cold War era and America’s more pressing issues of gender, class, race, ideology, and environment. Combined, Maher shows how these issues shaped the way the space age would evolve. Protests by civil rights leaders such as Ralph Abernathy and John Lewis, as well as harsh critiques from Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr., influenced how administrators considered, developed, and branded the benefits of space technology in following decades.
“As the space race transformed the grassroots political movements of the 1960s era, civil rights demonstrators, anti-war protesters, environmentalists, feminists, and hippies in turn altered the space race” (Maher, 2017, 234)
Maher outlines how double standards for women in the space age were not unnoticed by feminists of the time like Gloria Steinem who pointed out absurd situations. For instance, while it was still unclear what effects space travel would have on the human body, the uncertainty did not stop the selection and announcement of the seven male Mercury astronauts (America’s first astronaut corps). At the same time, women were automatically assumed to be unfit for space before any flights had even taken place, due to this uncertainty. Studies would need to be completed before the consideration of female astronauts. In response, mock ‘astronaut beauty pageants’ by feminists and dissection of many astronauts’ misogynist statements in the press ended up playing a role in NASA actively seeking to enhance the presence of women at the agency.
In the final chapter, Maher lays bare the hippie view of the space age as a sort of ‘party for squares’ representing post-war sub-urban sprawl and empire. In his conclusion he even quotes his own uncle as saying “I wanted to go to Woodstock, not the Moon” (Maher, 2017, 230). As the book wraps up, Maher outlines a somewhat amusing, if not surreal cast of characters who took sides in the debate about the Apollo program in American culture and its legacy.
“In one corner were [William] Buckley and fellow conservatives, including Ayn Rand, Cartoonist Charles Brooks, and even President Nixon himself, all of who praised space technology for both taming wild nature on Earth and in outer space, and demonstrating at home and abroad the superiority of America's free-market political democracy. In the opposite corner were counter cultural critics such as [Robert] Crumb, Jefferson Airplane, and hippie actors playing ‘Astronauts and Indians’, who warned instead that NASA’s rockets not only endangered the planet and polluted the Moon but also presented a more sinister political plot to extend the old Western frontier into space” (Maher, 2017, 202).
Indeed Maher, leaves out of this run down other “fight the man” luminaries who chimed in throughout the book on this sort of internal Cold War. Also on the left were ecologist and editor of the Whole Earth Catalog (a sort of anti-capitalist hippie zine focused on environmentalism in the 1970s) Steward Brand, and renowned acid-dropper Timothy Leary. In fact, in response to the idea of human space flight for everyday citizens, Leary argued that spaceflight for everyday Americans wasn’t necessary because internal space trips could be taken from the comfort of one’s very own home (…he was saying we should all try LSD).
Apollo’s Legacy? Stupid Question?
By the time Gerard O’Neil was pitching suburbia in space, Maher points out that the discursive battle for Apollo’ legacy had already begin. With Gene Cernan’s boot-prints still fresh in the Moon’s Taurus-Littrow valley, Richard Nixon was quick to label the U.S. space program as “having God’s hand in it” and “a kind of Manifest Destiny for the space age” (Maher, 2017, 192). As North America sprawled into freeways and box-store-serviced suburbs, the hippies that saw Apollo as a playground for New Right ideals of frontierism and capitalist domination checked out and moved on. The space race had not captured the counter cultural youth or instilled any sort of national pride as intended, it was instead perceived as right up the alley of “the man”.
So, what should we make of the contested nature of Apollo in its own time? While the past can’t be changed, it matters greatly how it is retold. Foremost, that voices of resistance, and alternative views on the purpose of technology, have been washed from most accounts of space race history is a gross distortion and needs to be undone more often, as Maher has done here. Nonetheless, despite its conflicted context, Apollo’s technical and scientific achievements cannot be undone, nor should they. Thus revealing the complex realities of understanding the development of space technology throughout history.
Reading Maher’s book, its hard not to come to the conclusion that some events, or long term processes (such as the space age), can (must?) exist equally as objects for critique as well as celebration. The successful Apollo missions are among the greatest technical accomplishments in the history of humankind. They revealed vital aspects about the make-up and origin of our Moon and Solar System (and thus ourselves), advanced ideas in engineering and helpful technologies in leaps and bounds, and inspired millions to consider the feasibility of accomplishing seemingly impossible things.
Interestingly though, Maher stays relatively light in his assessment on the legacy of Apollo, staying much closer to the past he is re-telling rather than offering much on current interpretations. This omission of direction from Maher on what to do with this information is a brilliant touch (a sort of Trojan horse of critical reassessment in a historical field largely dominated by “apolitical” mythology), as the book also provides ample expressions of space technologies numerous (real and potential) benefits. Nevertheless in his brief conclusion, Maher does offer a convincing interpretation of modern space affairs and the need for democratic accountability, which , above all, is the moral of his story.
As someone who loves space exploration and its potential to reveal humanity’s origins, contribute to global well-being and equality, and push the boundaries of human understanding and emotion (just like the greatest paintings, symphonies, or poems can), Maher’s book rests among my favorites. I believe we can all find virtue, and inspiration, equally in the words of Gil Scott-Heron’s Whitey on the Moon poem as we can the accounts of astronauts from the surface of the Moon and it’s alien beauty. We can be inspired by Martin Luther King’s call for a strong examination of our priorities as much as we are also inspired by the endless discoveries about our planet, ourselves, and our existence by scientists using data from robotic spacecraft exploring our solar system.
Perhaps it is idealistic, but Maher’s book reminds us that it is worth striving for a world where voices of the oppressed are never again silenced as exploration carries on. A future where our priorities are clear and examined openly for all involved, with everyone given the platform tostate their needs and the needs of our precious, and only (ever), home planet.
If our reasons for exploration come at the expense of those oppressed, those fighting for racial, social, gender, class, and environmental justice, then we will, and should, end up homebound, unknowing of our origins and the beauty of our cosmic neighborhood. We will live an existence with no ethical exploration, a world without science for the sake of knowledge, as bleak as any sci-fi dystopia where art, music, emotion, and other human necessities are too lost.
As Maher concludes:
“The space race, in other words, and grassroots opposition to it, invited more guests to the country’s dinner table…In our present age of bitter partisanship, government gridlock, and a host of new threats to both our planet and its diverse inhabitants, we would do well to remember Apollo in the Age of Aquarius” (Maher, 2017, 238).
Danny Bednar, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at Western University in Canada where he teaches about space exploration. He is also an analyst at the Canadian Space Agency and the co-author of For All Humankind: The Untold Stories of How the Moon Landing Inspired the World. All views are his own.