The mesmerizing television coverage of the landing on the Apollo 11 moon 50 years ago brought previously unthinkable images and ideas to the homes of millions of people, leaving a profound impact on the the American psyche.
When the Eagle shuttle landed on the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969, a television camera mounted on its side captured the first hesitant steps and words of astronaut Neil Armstrong and sent them on hundreds thousands of kilometers and hundreds of millions of pairs of eyes. stuck to televisions.
Walter Cronkite, who anchored the CBS coverage of the Apollo 11 mission, was speechless. Finally, he managed to exclaim: "Man on the moon! … Oh, my boy … Phew, my boy!"
Later, he remembered that he had hoped to say something deeper, but the words that were uttered were "all I could say".
Nevertheless, the overall quality and scholarly content of Cronkite's continued coverage, as part of an energetic and extremely dedicated media effort, has had a lasting impact on public perception of the mission. It is so easy to watch. go back through rose-tinted glasses and forget some of the finer and more problematic details.
In the perspective of CBS coverage, Robert Wussler, producer of Cronkite, told Variety magazine that it would act as "the world's largest single show" in the history of television .
Indeed, when the program was broadcast, it was the culmination of a huge public relations campaign dating back to the creation of NASA in 1958, a campaign supported by Nasa journalists and politicians, aimed at to raise public awareness of the Apollo mission. a variety of selfish reasons.
Cronkite, who, thanks to his reports, was known as "the most trustworthy man in the United States," spent 27 hours out of the 30 that were required for the crew of the United States. Apollo 11 to carry out its mission, giving it the nickname "old iron pants". ".
"Cronkite was as poetic as he had ever been," recalls Edward Sills, who had attended the landing while he was a teenager, in his living room in Long Beach, New York. "He had just battled the Vietnam War and so had a bit more license to not be so stuck – it was an amazing event for a 13-year-old boy, but Cronkite also seen through young eyes. "
The enormity was also lost to Mr. Sills' grandfather who watched him.
"He was born in October 1893, so he grew up and knew the roads with a horse and a carriage and was absolutely delighted to see the story come true," says Sills. "The acceleration of the technology seemed incredible, and [Cronkite] explained how incredible it was. "
Cronkite had already followed the US rocket program under the auspices of the US Air Force, which was generally hostile towards Cronkite and CBS during test launches and facility tours in the early 1980s. 1950.
"At the time, he had to go to the other side of a wire fence," says Ben Wright at the American History Center Dolph Briscoe, who keeps the Cronkite archive. "As a general rule, there was only one bar in town, so the Cronkite team posted someone there to let you know when the bar was up and running. Is cleared, as it usually meant a launch. "
However, after the creation of NASA, the government realized that it was a good idea to convince the public to support this vast new expenditure.
This proved the manna of paradise for the media, with additional stakes in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy pledged to send a man to the moon by the end of the decade.
"NASA did an excellent job of marketing for the Apollo mission: it fed journalists rather than keeping everything under the hood," says Tracy Dahlby of the University of Texas at the School of Journalism. Austin.
"They have described the astronauts as heroes in a drama and, to a large extent, the media have bought it.It is an optimistic story that they could tell at a time when the information on the Vietnam War and our turbulent politics dominated the coverage. "
At the time of the Apollo 11 mission, television was heavily invested in the space program. He also had his role in terms of production, notes Wright.
"At that time, the studios had honed their skills," Wright said. "Although there was no technology resembling split screens, what you saw was not so different from the type of reporting you see today, with anchors that have been carefully cleaned by journalists on the ground. "
The planning of CBS News was complex, expensive and varied, involving numerous reporting sites on three continents. The memos from the CBS dating back to the time describe the extent of news coverage and the importance of the Apollo 11 mission.
"[The moon is the] first step in the attempt of the man to put in perspective the own origins of the Earth and our relation to that of other worlds, other elements and another life ", declared a memo.
"This Apollo flight will be ranked in history alongside events thousands of years past memorable by poets, historians and those whose curiosity, drive and determination would inspire them to take that extra step, because it was necessary to find a continent, conquered ocean or a polar region or an explored mountain ".
It was not just the imagination of those who, in the networks, were engaged by this daring gamble.
"It would not be wonderful if moon landing could be used to make more Americans proud to live on the largest nation in the world," wrote Bob Eckart, an underwriter in insurance, in a letter from 15 May to Walter Cronkite in New York. office, before describing a "moon party" that he and his friends were planning to hold, filled with "moon dust cookies", "crater soup" and "moonshine".
CBS, along with the two other networks in the country, NBC and ABC, spent $ 13 million (£ 10 million) on programming, which is close to what they had spent in November last year. cover the returns of the 1968 presidential election.
Their work was facilitated by the way NASA, concerned with its history and its future budget, worked tirelessly to make available to the public as close as possible to the audiovisual material of the landing, photographs and updates. printed for television networks. as well as journalists from radio stations and newspapers (all supplemented by a full 254-page press kit).
The effects of these combined efforts on the 94% of American television channel owners who watched to watch the landing on the moon were palpable.
"Without television, landing on the moon would have been a simply impressive achievement – an expensive waterfall for the cynic," said New Yorker Joshua Rothman. "Instead, seen live, without editing, and everywhere, it has become a true global intimacy experience."
- Apollo in 50 figures
- 13 minutes that defined a century
Mr. Wright notes that the magic is due for once to the cover, a good news among the turmoil of the 1960s in America: besides the demonstrations against the Vietnam War, assassinations of human rights officials and politicians as well as riots in many US cities and a national democratic convention that has sunk into anarchy.
John Craft, a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at the University of Arizona, explains John Craft. The landing took place after the launch by the Russians of the satellite Sputnik in space.
"Americans have seen how challenging our personal leadership in the world is," said Craft. "So, put a man on the moon, it's like we're back in business."
All the while, however, this uplifting and invigorating demonstration of American prowess could turn into tragedy in an instant – and viewers knew it.
"The blanket took you to the Houston control room, where you saw a row of sweaty guys wondering if it would work and if they would be able to get the astronauts out of the moon," he said. Mr. Craft.
"Viewers have felt the same as them – you can write it as a fiction, but viewing it in real time without knowing what would have made it incredibly dramatic."
He notes that he has never had a media event comparable to a convincing viewing.
"Watching television around the television in Ohio, I was able to go to the window and watch the moon, just when television was showing a man who was stepping on it," said M Craft. "It's going to be hard to match."
Cronkite described this landing as the Columbus moment of the twentieth century – which explains why the monumental achievement contained its own controversy.
Historians argue over the importance of NASA's Apollo missions. Compared to penicillin or microchip, landing on the moon appears as a frivolous feat.
Politically, the world has continued much as before, despite some commentators hoping that landing on the moon would be an opening for peace through inspiration and innovation.
The Apollo 11 mission was also an extremely white experience, said Mr. Wright, "with many men in suits who were talking about men in space suits and doing it very seriously, often citing Greek tragedy" . Women or people of color barely took into account – even space suits could not have been whiter, he notes.
- How black women started working for NASA
- NASA Renames the Street After "Hidden Figures"
According to a report by the Congressional Research Service published in 2009, the price was extremely high: $ 19.5 billion, or about $ 116.5 billion at current rates.
Critics at the time, including prominent figures in the anti-war and civil rights movements, pointed to the fact that one man on the moon did not serve much for impoverished children in neglected city centers. United States (today it is argued that the scientific research space program innumerable developments that continue to benefit the daily life).
"It's easy to forget, looking at the events in the rear-view mirror, that the American public worried about the money spent to put a man on the moon when we had all these problems that we were staring at the face on Earth, "said Mr. Dahlby. said.
"Journalism can be a blunt instrument, but I think today's media would apply increased control of all aspects of a great story like a moonlight – what was there put, who has been involved, the costs – and that's a good thing: data communication and other new techniques mean that the responsible media can go farther, faster and do a better job. "
In the aftermath of the mission, NASA worked tirelessly to promote its activities and consolidate its legacy, but in the 1970s, the public and the media began to question the costs associated with it. space exploration.
Yet, the cultural impact of the moon landing has proven, unquestionably, profound. "The dark side of the moon", "the eagle landed" and "a small step for the man", entered permanently in the American lexicon.
Meanwhile, the fascination for the outdoor space does not go out. The 1970s witnessed an explosion of interest in science fiction, influencing rock stars like Pink Floyd and David Bowie and filmmakers such as George Lucas, who led the classic science – "Star Wars" fiction, in 1977, and Ridley Scott, which sparked the horror film "Alien" on the public in 1979.
In the end, these strange images of the moon captured and broadcast 50 years ago continue to transcend the debate on cost-benefit analysis of the landing.
"The technological and scientific developments of our century are misleading," recalls Cronkite in the 2010 Conversations with Cronkite book, in which Briscoe Center CEO Don Carleton interviewed Cronkite about his life and work. extraordinary career.
"And yet, I think the only incident, the only episode we will remember, is the moment when man has escaped from his environment on the earth."
Then, at the terrestrial level of the American media, the emergence of new networks and increased competition marked the beginning of an inexorable renunciation, which consisted in providing a public service to the detriment of money.
"There is so much competition today that most media is a business – you have to earn money and be accountable to your shareholders," said Craft. "People forget that the public should be concerned about this."