The first human footsteps on the moon and the legendary Woodstock music festival both happened in the summer of 1969 – they were two very different era-defining events that would seem to have no cultural or social links in common. However, a new book from Harvard University Press by Associate Professor of History Neil Maher, Apollo in the Age of Aquarius, shows how there are significant connections between the aspirations of NASA’s Apollo space program and the earthbound concerns of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War struggles, as well as environmentalism, feminism and the counterculture.

The organizational, technological and fiscal resources dedicated to the national goal of sending humans to the moon, boldly announced by President John F. Kennedy, made the Apollo program a litmus test for the culture wars of the 1960s. For many people, the Apollo program would be spiritually unifying and reinvigorating, perhaps recapturing to some degree the sense of national purpose that had faded in the years following World War II. For many others, launching humans into the hostile environment of space was a colossal waste of resources needed to solve critical problems on our home planet.   

Nonetheless, from Maher’s perspective on the era, synergies did develop between key aspects of the space program and terrestrial activist groups engaged with environmentalism, women’s issues, the rights of racial and ethnic minorities, and other social and political concerns. The famous “bright blue marble” photo taken in space far from Earth became both a sobering and inspiring reminder of how we are all dependent on the environmental health of the fragile home we share in the vastness of the universe, and how technology developed by NASA provided powerful new tools to monitor global ecology. 

The male-dominated culture of NASA — with iconic images of crew cuts, white shirts and pocket protectors bulging with pens — sparked feminist debates not only about opportunities for women in the space agency, but in our society as a whole. Activists called on NASA to bring its technical know-how to bear on improving urban infrastructure, including housing and energy resources, with important implications for improving the quality of life for Black Americans and other minorities.

Faced with the funding challenges that followed the moon-landing of the summer of 1969, as Maher posits, NASA’s programs attempted to evolve, sometimes successfully, with respect to the concerns of these political and social movements. For example, NASA has brought more women and minorities into the enterprise of space science, and has also applied space technologies such as remote sensing to fields as diverse as agricultural resource management, climate change science, and archaeological discovery.

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