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How NASA Sold Us the Moon 45 Years Ago but Fails to Market Human Spaceflight Today

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This week the world marks the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, the most audacious and globally significant accomplishment in human history. Sadly, after the Apollo program concluded in 1972, humans were stuck in low Earth orbit for decades and since the final Space Shuttle mission three years ago, our nation has lost our ability to return humans to space.

The Apollo missions were an incredible engineering feat. To deliver 24 men to the moon, 12 of whom ventured to its surface, with 1960s technology, is even more remarkable from our vantage point four decades later. It was a huge project. That America spent an average of 3.3 percent of the federal budget on NASA during the peak years from 1963-1969, a period when the Vietnam War was in full swing, made the Apollo program not only a remarkable political and technological accomplishment, but also an amazing global marketing and public relations achievement.

During the Apollo years, NASA was a government agency that got it right. In today's partisan political climate, who can point to a government agency with similar success? Arguably more than anyone else, it was President Eisenhower who got the story right and President Kennedy, who put the big wheels into motion, but who saw it all mostly in Cold War terms, sided with the angels when it came to selling the big idea.

NASA and the Greatest Marketing and PR Case Study in History

Apollo has another legacy, one of marketing excellence. Apollo is the largest and the most important marketing and public relations case study in history. It is a marketing story that needed to be told, but to date had not -- and certainly not from the perspective of marketing and PR practitioners. I'm the co-author with Rich Jurek of Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program (MIT Press, 2014). Captain Eugene A. Cernan wrote the forward to Marketing the Moon. Flying to the moon not once, but twice, Captain Cernan also holds the distinction of being the last man to have left his footprints on the lunar surface. "We were marketing the United States of America," Captain Cernan told us about Apollo.


As we started our research, we had always assumed that NASA had a massive PR machine that drove Apollo. That's the common wisdom and this position is frequently incorrectly reported in books and articles. What we learned by speaking with half of the men who walked on the moon, NASA public affairs officers, PR representatives from contractors like Boeing and Raytheon and journalists from outlets like Reuters and the New York Post is that NASA didn't put a man on the moon alone: It was a team effort by NASA, industry, and the media.

Primed by science fiction, magazine articles and appearances by Wernher von Braun on the "Tomorrowland" segments of the Disneyland primetime television show, Americans were a receptive audience for NASA's pioneering "brand journalism." NASA and its many contractors used sophisticated efforts to market the facts about space travel -- through press releases, bylined articles, lavishly detailed background materials and press kits, and fully produced radio and television features -- rather than push an agenda.


American astronauts, who signed exclusive agreements with Life magazine, became the heroic and patriotic faces of the program. And there was some judicious product placement: Hasselblad was the "first camera on the moon;" Sony cassette recorders and supplies of Tang were on board the spacecraft; and astronauts were equipped with the Exer-Genie personal exerciser. Everyone wanted a place on the bandwagon.

NASA's insistence on live television on the surface of the moon, despite protests from senior astronauts and engineers, means that we can enjoy watching those first footsteps again this week.

NASA losing today's marketing and PR battle

Today NASA consumes less than half of one percent of the Federal budget, and employs around 58,000 people (private contractors and government employees) compared to 411,000 in 1966. NASA continues to shrink, plagued by those in Washington who have neither the political will nor the bold vision of generations past to harness greatness. As a society -- and as the Nation that funded and supported the Apollo Program, and thus own its legacy -- we must ask ourselves: now what? Are we going to simply squander the legacy of Apollo in platitudes of nostalgia? Or are we going to brave enough to not only dream the big dreams again, but also structure them to succeed?

Where are the cheerleaders of the U.S. space program today? The only people I see are Neil deGrasse Tyson and the men like Buzz Aldrin and Gene Cernan, who walked on the moon over 40 years ago.

While NASA is doing an excellent job with robotic space missions, human space travel seems an afterthought. The real missing frontiers today are tangible public relations and marketing aspects of a human space program, to persuade the public of the program's direct and long-term benefits.

Today, NASA and our politicians on both sides have failed to articulate the benefits of continuing our space efforts. Not so during the Apollo era, when some 20,000 contractors joined with NASA to promote every activity, every achievement, and every derivative product from wristwatches to rocket engines. When President Johnson was asked by Congress about the expense he replied, "Now, would you rather have us be a second-rate nation or should we spend a little money?"

Photos via Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program, MIT Press, 2014.