The Public Relations Race to Space

Public Relations Posted Aug 22, 2014 by chenpr

In an address to Congress in 1961, President  John F. Kennedy challenged the nation with the now famous declaration that, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space.”

In uttering those words the United States threw down the gauntlet in the space race with the Soviet Union. At this point everybody knows about the success of NASA and the Apollo missions, but what gets talked about less is the public relations strategies and hurdles involved, and how differently the United States and the Soviet Union handled the press.

To begin with it is arguable that the space race itself was just a giant publicity stunt fueled by the Cold War. A narcissist might go as far as to say that the whole thing was just a multibillion dollar pissing contest, but with national pride and international credibility on the line it was crucial to try and figure out how to handle the press.

In the United States dealing with the press was considerably more complicated, with that pesky 1st amendment letting just about anyone with a typewriter give their two cents. It also does not get talked about enough that the space program did not have the overwhelming support of the entire country. Many thought it was simply a waste of money. Even after Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong became the first men to walk on the moon only 53 percent of Americans believed that it had been worth the cost. That made the perception of success for every mission critical to the continuation of the U.S. space program. If the focus stayed on NASA’s failures it could lose funding from Congress, ending the race to the moon before the Apollo missions even began.

Luckily NASA was smart enough to publicize their brand and story instead of getting caught up in an argument over the cost. They used television, radio, magazines and sponsorships to promote their image. And they put a human face to the enterprise by using the Astronauts as symbols of American ingenuity, pride, and bravery. To this day children still dream of becoming astronauts and it’s in no small part because of NASA’s PR and marketing strategies.

As one might imagine the Soviet Union’s space program was shrouded mystery. More than a half-century later, and twenty years since the USSR’s demise, classified documents are still being released that tell stories quite a bit different from the ones that were circulated at the time. For instance in 1957 they launched Sputnik II into orbit carrying with it Laika, a dog, and the first living creature in space. At the time it was reported that Laika survived in orbit around the earth for about a week and then was euthanized when it ate its last poisoned batch of dog food. In fact, Laika only survived a few hours after launch, perishing from in an overheated space capsule. The documents that revealed Laika’s true fate were not released to the public until 2002.

Given the times that might seem like a pretty small lie to keep for so long, and it makes you wonder what secrets remain unrevealed. Some sources have actually claimed that Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was not actually the first man in space but just the first to survive and return safely. This is where things get tricky because while that is probably just conspiracy theory it is clear the soviets did keep some of their failures secret in order to save face. So much of what we know about the soviet space program is shrouded in skepticism and myth because of how much control the Soviets had over information.

The U.S. did not have the luxury of hiding their failures and being able to sic the KGB on anyone who spoke out in a way that they didn’t like. So instead of trying to control the discussion like the Soviets, the U.S. decided to create a brand and inspire pride.

While it might be overstating the case to say public relations was the reason America won the race to the moon, it certainly played a significant role in the space program’s success.