Tuesday, 29 July 2008

The 50th Anniversary of NASA

It was fifty years ago today that President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act which established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA. NASA would be responsible for the space programme, as well as civilian and military aerospace research.

The creation of NASA was the result of the Soviet Union's own space programme, which had successfully launched Sputnik on October 4, 1957. The United States Congress felt that this presented a threat to the U.S.'s status as the world leader in both defence technology and aerospace technology. For that reason President Eisenhower and his advisors decided that the creation of a new agency dedicated to space travel and aerospace research was needed. NASA would begin operations on October 1, 1958. The Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union was on.

In its early days NASA had its share of failures and successes. An example is NASA's Pioneer unmanned spacecraft meant to make flybys of the moon, collecting data and taking pictures. Pioneer 1, Pioneer 2, Pioneer 3, and Pioneer 4 never reached their intended destinations, although at least . Pioneer 4 provided NASA with important information on tracking objects through space. Of course, eventually NASA would have more than its share of successes.

Indeed, it would not be long before an absolute space craze would sweep the United States. On May 25, 1961 President John F. Kennedy gave his historic speech before a joint session of Congress in which he not only urged Congress to provide the space programme with more funds, but set the goal of landing a man on the moon. It was a little less than a year later, on February 20, 1962, that John Glenn would orbit Earth three times in Friendship 7. Between President Kennedy's speech and John Glenn successfully orbiting Earth, the United States was overcome by a mania for anything that had to do with space. In fact, the space craze of the Sixties could be NASA's biggest contribution to pop culture.

This is reflected in American broadcast television in the Sixties. The number of sitcoms which aired space oriented episodes is incredibly huge. Gilligan's Island was visited by a robot built by NASA for space exploration and Russian cosmonauts. The Monkees thwarted an alien invasion. Herman Munster thought he was talking to Martians on a ham radio (actually, it was a couple of kids). On Bewitched Aunt Clara inadvertently summoned aliens to Earth. And there there were sitcoms that either had space as a theme or touched upon space in some way: My Favourite Martian (on which a Martian became stranded on Earth), I Dream of Jeannie (on which Jeannie's master, Major Tony Nelson, was an astronaut), and It's About Time (in which two astronauts travel back in time to the Stone Age). The spy dramas would also touch upon space occasionally, as in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode "The Love Affair (in which Solo and Kuryakin must thwart a THRUSH plot to build a spaceship)." There were also the science fiction series Star Trek and Lost in Space, which featured individuals travelling through space in the future.

Space would even play a role in commercials. The most obvious example of this is perhaps Tang. Around since 1957, the drink did not really become a success until it was used on the Gemini flights in 1962. Quite naturally, commercials for Tang mentioned that it was the drink of astronauts, using space oriented themes in their adverts well into the Seventies. Pillsbury developed "Space Food Sticks" for NASA, which it then sold to the general public. In 1965 Quaker Mills introduced the breakfast cereal called Quisp, whose spokesman was an alien with a propeller atop his head, named, appropriately, Quisp. The cereal itself was shaped like little saucers. Even products not associated with NASA or space used space themes in their commercials. In the late Sixties there was a commercial for Fritos in which the Frito Bandito attempted to con astronauts on the moon out of their Frito Corn Chips!

Quite naturally, space oriented toys were very popular throughout the Sixties. Perhaps the best known were Mattel's line of Major Matt Mason action figures. Introduced in 1966 to capitalise on the space craze, Major Matt Mason was phenomenally popular. The line of toys were produced until the early Seventies, ended by Mattel not because they had declined in popularity, but because Mattel felt that the space programme had. Marx produced their own line of astronaut action figures under the name "Johnny Apollo," from 1968 to the early Seventies. Colorforms manufactured a line of Outer Space Men, figures of aliens from outer space. Eldon produced an astronaut figure for younger kids called Billy Blastoff which only lasted a couple of years. There were also many toy robots. In 1968 Ideal produced a line of four battery powered robots called Zeroids. Topps produced a line of humorous toy robots called Ding A Lings, which also sold only for a couple of years. There were also many, many battery operated, tin robots on the market, such as the Horikawa Astronaut battery operated toy robot.

Motion pictures had gone through a cycle of science fiction films in the Fifties that even included such space oriented entries as Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide, and Forbidden Planet. Perhaps for that reason the movie industry did not embrace the space craze as other media had. Still there were a few films that either touched upon space or centred upon space, one of which was very influential. The 1963 sequel to The Mouse That Roared, The Mouse on the Moon featured the tiny country of Grand Fenwick attempting to beat both the Americans and the Soviets to the moon. In The Glass Bottom Boat Doris Day's character worked at NASA. Planet of the Apes used space travel as a means of throwing its hero into the far future. Perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most influential, space movie of the Sixties was 2001: A Space Odyssey. Released in 1968, it became a smash hit which would have a lasting influence on all science fiction films to come. Marooned, released in 1969, centred on three astronauts stranded in space. Doppelganger (AKA Journey to the Far Side of the Sun) was a live action film made by Supermarionation master Gerry Anderson and centred on a mission to a planet in Earth's orbit, but on the exact opposite side of the sun.

Of course, the space craze of the Sixties was perhaps when NASA was most popular. The broadcast networks covered both the rocket launches and splashdowns live in those days. And both always did very well in the ratings. During the Sixties the astronauts were household names. Indeed, Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, and Alan Shepard are still well known. There was enormous support for NASA in these days and the agency had little difficulty receiving funding.

Sadly, in the early Seventies, after Apollo 11, interest in the space programme died down. NASA would make even more achievements in the coming decades: Skylab, the Viking unmanned spacecraft to Mars, the space shuttle, the Mars Exploration Rovers, and others. Despite this, the average American probably rarely thinks of NASA or the space programme, and pays little attention to the agency's missions except in case of disasters such as Challenger and Columbia. Astronauts are no longer household names. Even Tang no longer mentions the space programme in its advertising. NASA has achieved much in its fifty years, but sadly it is not as popular as it was in its heyday of the Sixties.

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