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;
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.