One Glorious Day in 1969 – American Memory of the Space Race

Americans have a very fond recollection of the cold war space race. It has become one of the defining features of many parts of American popular culture, politics and ideology. It is one of the few occasions that a majority of the population had been untied for and working towards a common goal. There are a few main ways that American national identity can be seen to be intimately tied to and shaped by the cold war space race;

In Film


Film has been a great representation of the way that the memory of the cold war space race has bolstered American national identity. Most films depicting the Cold War space race in serious terms often have very similar motifs and symbolism. Both depict the space race as an enormous collective effort of patriotic Americans. Most will focus on the astronauts as main characters, but will include numerous characters of support roles, to stress the enormous collective effort of the program. Most are uplifting patriotic fare, with strong emphasis on the ‘American-ness’ of the program as a crucial factor for the success of the program.

For Political Ends

Political use of the space race began as soon as there was a space program. President Kennedy was perhaps the first to use the language of the space race for political purposes. Kennedy was perhaps the first to stress the importance of the space race to the nation, remarking that, “In a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon – if we make this judgement affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.”

Since then it has been used by any number of politicians within America. The two that I have found to be most illustrative of the trend of the space race memory within American popular culture would be President George W. Bush and Congressman Bill Posey. Both have used expansions in the space program as electoral assurances, promising boosted space programs. President Bush promised the development of the constellation program, and Posey promises to lobby to reinvigorate the space program of his electorate, the Florida ‘Space Coast.’

As Evidence Of Ideological Superiority


American successes in the space race have often been taken as a yard stick for measuring ideological superiority between itself and the USSR. The Apollo period was the first time where the United States was able to beat the USSR to a space milestone. The USSR was the first to have a satellite into orbit in 1957, and followed with a string of successes that beat the Americans at every turn. The USSR were also the first to place an animal into orbit in 1958, First man in space in 1961, first woman/civilian in space 1963, first space-walk in 1965, first Robot on a celestial body in 1970 and the first space station in 1971. This has led to the Apollo space race taking a pre-eminent position in the minds of most Americans, becoming a huge part of their national identity. This can be found in any other part of my research, from the characterisation of the Russians in most space race films to the way that politicians are able to call upon the space race as a means to garner political support. What is also interesting is that the first picture that emerges upon a Google search for ideological superiority is a photograph of a footprint on the lunar surface, the photo on the left, above. This is a great shorthand example of how enmeshed the Apollo space race has become to not only American national identity, but a something larger.

Death of Neil Armstrong


With the death of Neil Armstrong in August of this year, the Apollo space race has once again become a prominent feature in the media. Armstrong represented the culmination of the Apollo space program. Armstrong himself has come to represent the Apollo program and the space race in general. He was chosen by NASA officials for his humble personality as well as his skill as a pilot and engineering background. Armstrong was always insistent that his role was always a very small cog in a very large machine. Armstrong withdrew from public life after the Apollo 11 mission, taking a position teaching engineering. These factors, combined with his status as a civilian pilot has led to the memory of the man as the emissary of the entire United States population, a physical representative of the entire population, representing the three main faces of the Space program; the enormous civilian support, the military pilots and equipment, and the enormous engineering processes involved.

What is unfortunate is that there is only one photo of Neil Armstrong on the moon, taken by Buzz Aldrin during a panoramic survey sequence. This is the photo on the right, above. Neil Armstrong is visible in the right of the image, working on equipment in the Lunar Lander Module.



4 comments on “One Glorious Day in 1969 – American Memory of the Space Race

  1. juliendupuche says:

    I really like how this article was constructed and how your title perfectly encapsulates your argument. I think the heading “One glorious day in 1969” says it all really. The really large symbolic importance of America pipping the USSR to the post so to speak is really well covered by, as you mentioned, American politics and particularly American films. I remember watching Apollo 13 myself and like you suggest you can really gain a total insight in the sense of the mission being a collective effort geared not only at making it to the moon, but being the USSR after being beaten in almost every other aspect of the space race like you suggest. I think with the death of Neil Armstrong, like in my own article where i talk about the death of Donald Bradman, you can see how the contribution of a personality is emphasised through a kind of homogenous discourse that they (in this case Neil) will be remembered as national heroes due to their perceived contributions to the construction of their country’s national identity.

  2. maritwarlow says:

    I enjoyed your article. You have really put it in perspective by listing the firsts. The hype that accompanied the Apollo program was intense even here in Australia. I remember being packed into a room with my classmates to watch the landing and wondering if Michael Collins would be bored just orbiting above them. When Neil Armstrong and Edwin Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the moon I think we all held our breath with excitement. Your depiction of film as a memory aide and reinforcer of an idealised memory underlines the unity that this one American program brought to America, and the needs of the Americans to reinforce that unity. Thank you for a good read.

  3. The impact of the space race and Cold War competition on American national identify is a really interesting topic and most pertinent to modern politics and understanding of the American psyche. The blog highlights well how different symbols became motifs in American popular culture that represent American-ness and have a specific cultural understanding. It was interesting to see how space exploration became a political tool after the Cold War. Clearly, achievements and developments in space technology and discovery became a method for asserting American identity and supremacy and is a haunting shadow of the ideological conflict between the former USSR and the USA. The section on the impact of the death Neil Armstrong, a national hero and icon for the space race, and the public and media frenzy that ensued posits the cultural weight that the space exploration still has to this day. Truly an interesting read, good work!

  4. lizziejane91 says:

    Wow! What a great topic! Your research seems extremely interesting. I like how you stress the space race as being very collective. I love the idea of unity that you have expressed with the space race. Given all of those that deny Armstrong landed on the moon, I often think of reactions to the space race as being negative. Your blog and research however have alerted me to the fact that there was a lot of collectivity involved in the space race. I love the way you have set your blog in a nice, simple way. You have articulated your research coherently and succinctly. Your pictures also make your post very engaging. A great, post. Yo should be very proud of your research it looks great!
    – Elizabeth feeney

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