Operation Moonglow

A Political History of Project Apollo


By Teasel Muir-Harmony

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The moon landing was an important moment in history, but many forget what was happening behind the scenes — discover the groundbreaking political history of the Apollo program in this riveting exploration of America’s space missions.

Since July 1969, Neil Armstrong’s first step on the Moon has represented the pinnacle of American space exploration and a grand scientific achievement. Yet, as Smithsonian curator Teasel Muir-Harmony argues in Operation Moonglow, its primary purpose wasn’t advancing science. Rather, it was part of a political strategy to build a global coalition. Starting with President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 decision to send astronauts to the Moon to promote American “freedom” over Soviet “tyranny,” Project Apollo was central to American foreign relations. From that perspective, the critical event did not just take place on the lunar surface, it took place in homes, public squares, palaces, and schools around the world, as Apollo captured global attention like never before. After the Moon landing, the Apollo astronauts and President Richard Nixon traveled the world to amplify the sense of participation and global unity shared by billions of people who followed the flight.

Drawing on a rich array of untapped archives and firsthand interviews with Apollo astronauts, Operation Moonglow paints a riveting picture of the intersection of spaceflight, geopolitics, propaganda, and diplomacy during the Cold War.



“Not since Adam has any human known such solitude as Mike Collins is experiencing,” a NASA official commented when the Columbia spacecraft swung behind the moon on July 20, 1969.1

Collins would spend the next forty-eight minutes orbiting the far side of the moon, blocked from all radio communication with his crewmates, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, who were on the other side of the lunar surface, as well as the rest of humanity back down on Earth. He felt this isolation “powerfully.”2 Outside his window, the vastness of space—teeming with stars—contrasted sharply with the darkness of the lunar surface below. On board Columbia, a spacecraft he affectionately dubbed his “mini-cathedral,” Collins occupied his time busily preparing the ship for his crewmates’ return. While Armstrong and Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the surface of the moon, Collins experienced the solitude of space, floating nearly a quarter million miles from Earth—alone on a spacecraft with no ability to talk to any other person.3 He jested, “If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God only knows what on this side.”4

This sense of solitude would not last long. What impressed Collins most on his return to Earth was not the isolation of space travel but its unifying effects. When I spoke with Collins almost fifty years after the flight, he told me, “I thought that when we went to different countries that people would say you Americans achieved XYZ.”5 But what he discovered on returning to planet Earth was the opposite of what he experienced orbiting the far side of the moon: a profound sense of community.

Collins explained to me that everywhere the astronauts went, “It was ‘we.’ We human beings—‘We did it, we did it.’ That was the punch line, everywhere we went.” As the Apollo 11 crew circled the world on a postflight diplomatic tour, touching down in twenty-seven cities in twenty-four countries, they observed the same refrain: “We did it.”6

That use of we instead of you Americans or you astronauts attests to the profound sense of collective participation felt by billions of people when humans first set foot on the moon. It also hints at the growing awareness of global interconnection—or the sense that we are part of one global village—that arose alongside, and in part, because of the Space Age.

As Neil Armstrong climbed down the Eagle’s ladder and took “one small step” into the dusty lunar regolith, a record-breaking global audience waited with rapt attention. Never before had so many people come together to witness an event. But it wasn’t just the numbers that made this audience exceptional. The sense of participation and global unity shared by billions of people around the world became one of the most significant consequences of the first lunar landing, with reverberations that affect us to this day.

During our conversation Collins added an essential point: this use of we around the world must have been “worth its weight in gold” for the US State Department and US Information Agency.7 As he knew well from his years as an astronaut followed by his tenure as the assistant secretary of state for public affairs, the unifying effects of Project Apollo were not just spiritual; they were also political.

This book arose from the right combination of intention and accident. Sitting in the US National Archives on an August afternoon in 2007, I was researching how scientific programs affect culture and politics. Taking the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s global network of satellite tracking stations as my jumping-off point, I spent the summer reading memos, reports, letters, and any other archival material I could get my hands on. In the archive’s airy reading room, I focused on the Smithsonian’s close relationship with the Tokyo Astronomical Observatory, a Meiji-era institution established in 1888.

The material I had been reviewing told me about the day-to-day workings of the cooperative international project at the observatory, but it seemed like something was missing. I had just read John Dower’s Embracing Defeat, a masterful study of the postwar reconstruction of Japan from within. “What matters,” Dower stresses, “is what the Japanese themselves made of their experience of defeat.”8 What role did science play in the larger story of US-Japanese relations in this period? I knew that the effects of the US use of two atomic bombs during World War II echoed far beyond 1945. As an article published in the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun less than a week after Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender famously explained, “We lost to the enemy’s science.”9 How were the astronomers at the Tokyo Astronomical Observatory, as well as people throughout Japan, viewing US science and technology a decade after the war? And how was the US marshaling its scientific and technological programs in support of the nation’s political interests in Japan? With Dower fresh on my mind and some hours left in my day, I requested a few boxes from a collection that seemed promising.

What I found, tucked neatly in cream-colored folders, was a story that would come to dominate my life for over the next decade and transform how I understood the relationship between science, power, and globalization.

Holding up a US Information Agency field report dated September 4, 1962, I read, “The Friendship 7 Exhibit in Tokyo was held at the Takashimaya Department Store July 26th through 29th from 10:00 a.m.–6:00 p.m. daily, and was viewed by over half a million people, a crowd exceptional in size even by Tokyo standards.”10 Five hundred thousand people. Five hundred thousand people in just four days. Could a small space capsule really have attracted such an enormous crowd? I read on. Several hundred police and guides, it continued, “channeled the crowd up nine flights of stairs, zig-zagged them across the roof and brought them down nine flights of stairs to the exhibit.”11 The scale and level of interest in the exhibit are hard to comprehend. This crowd was exceptional in size not just by Tokyo standards but by any other standards. Clearly, the department-store space capsule exhibit suggests a passionate enthusiasm for the US space program in Japan. But what is the larger significance of this popularity? I knew that John Glenn became a national hero within the United States after his flight. The country conferred the status of celebrity on him. But what did his space capsule mean to people in Japan? Why did they wait in a five-hour line to walk by his small, charred vehicle? Does this story hint at something larger, something more fundamental about the ties between early spaceflight and foreign relations?

Luckily, I did not have to wait long to start finding the answers to these questions. That summer I had a fellowship at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM). The day after first reading about Glenn’s space capsule exhibit in Tokyo, I returned to my office in the Space History Department to ask curators what they knew about the exhibit. Although a few had heard of a capsule tour, it was not an episode anyone knew about in detail. I returned to the archive to find out more.

As I delved further into those cream-colored folders, I soon discovered that this record-breaking exhibit was no chance event. Instead, this modest capsule display exposed a nuanced political tactic at the core of US grand strategy in the early 1960s. At the height of the cold war, both the US and the Soviet Union were mobilizing their vast technical and scientific resources to wield global influence. They built transnational ties through scientific exchanges and education. They attempted to influence and at times divert the trajectory of other national scientific and engineering research programs. And as in the case of the Friendship 7 exhibit in Tokyo, they attempted to foster political alignment through demonstrations of scientific and technological preeminence. The wildly popular space capsule exhibit in Tokyo was just one part of a much larger, more extensive US initiative to spread liberal democratic values. Spaceflight spectaculars, and their promotion abroad, were by design aimed at winning over international public opinion, countering anti-American sentiment, and, most importantly, shaping the emerging global order. The Toyko exhibit was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that the Kennedy administration looked to spaceflight as an essential arm of US diplomacy.

What I learned is that the moon landing and diplomacy were profoundly and intricately allied. From the very start, US politicians weighed the soft-power potential of space exploration as they evaluated which programs to fund.12 They argued over the psychological benefits of being “first” in space. They created a global communications infrastructure explicitly so people around the world could follow US space successes. They spent millions of taxpayer dollars on space-themed films, exhibits, press releases, buttons, lectures, and radio broadcasts to promote and leverage international interest in spaceflight. They hired polling firms on every continent that repeatedly assessed the effectiveness of space propaganda. And through years of feedback and fine-tuning, they honed a powerful message that bound global progress with US space accomplishments.

As the story of Project Apollo makes clear, people—not just advances in transportation, trade, and communication—shape and propel the process of globalization. Individuals have advanced our awareness of interconnection and have created experiences that unite us. Mike Collins cogently captured this when he explained to me, “The response we got—we human beings have landed on the moon—it was the ‘giant leap,’ as Armstrong put it.”13 Each person I spoke with over the past decade amplified and sharpened the significance of “we” in the story of lunar exploration. Buzz Aldrin and I laughed about his exploits with Italian paparazzi while he traveled the world after his flight. As I walked along a riverbed in western Japan with artist Michio Horikawa, he reflected on how the collection of moon rocks prompted his deeper appreciation for the rocks here on Earth. From the shiny offices of a design firm in Manhattan, World’s Fair exhibit designer Jack Masey explained why space exploration was such a potent form of propaganda. In Oslo, Erik Tandberg, a television personality, told me how he became the “Norwegian Walter Cronkite.” Over a long lunch at Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell’s restaurant north of Chicago, I heard the story of the global Christmas Eve broadcast from the moon. And while celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the first lunar landing with Neil Armstrong at MIT, I spoke with him about the diplomatic responsibilities of astronauts and the sense of international participation shared around the globe. He told me in his quiet and unassuming way that this was an essential piece of the Apollo story that should be told. And so I took his advice.



The most important component of our foreign policy is the psychological one.


At the launch range near Tiura-Tam, Kazakhstan, Soviet rocket designer Sergei Korolev and his team used caution. Korolev had barely slept in weeks. Anxious that the United States would beat the Soviets into space, he had moved the launch of the artificial satellite Sputnik up a few days to October 4, 1957. Just before dawn on October 3, he personally convoyed the train carrying the rocket and satellite from the assembly building.

“Let’s accompany our first-born,” Korolev told his staff.1

They joined him, walking alongside the train track as the vehicle made its way to the launchpad. Tiura-Tam was a sparsely populated stop on a rail line among Kazakhstan’s desert steppes. When planners selected the site for the launch facility, the entire vegetation in the area amounted to three trees standing beside the train station. Plagued by frequent dust storms, soaring temperatures in the summer, and bone-chilling cold in the winter, it was a place to launch rockets but not much else.2

By the evening of October 4, the rocket was ready, but Korolev was still nervous. He had the staff check and then double-check the nearly hundred-foot-tall R-7 rocket, now standing erect on the launchpad. The stakes were too high, and Korolev was too stubborn, to let any slipups stand in his way. Earlier in the day when the unseasonably warm weather threatened the satellite’s delicate instruments, staff on the launchpad covered the payload with a large white cloth, hoping that this would bring down the temperature. It did not work. Next, they tried shooting cool air from a hose into the payload fairing, which seemed to do the trick. At last, under the illumination of large floodlights, the final checks were complete.3

Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, or “SP” to his team, was about to realize his lifelong dream of spaceflight after laboring for years under unimaginably harsh conditions. As with many other early rocket pioneers, H. G. Wells’s and Jules Verne’s fantastical space exploration capers first sparked his imagination. But while his German counterpart Wernher von Braun used the workforce of Nazi concentration camps to build his beloved V-2 rocket, Korolev labored in a prison camp. In 1938, at the age of thirty-one, he had been snatched from his home in the middle of the night and sent to a gulag as part of Stalin’s purges. After nearly seven years in prison, Korolev’s health had diminished, but his devotion to spaceflight remained intact. As he stood on the launchpad at Tiura-Tam, about a dozen years had passed since he had been released from the prison camp. Here he was, a chief designer in the Soviet space program, about to launch the first satellite into space.4

A scant ten minutes before the launch, Korolev finally felt confident that everything was in order. He left the pad—already evacuated and silent by this time—and joined staff at a nearby bunker. Inside, nearly a dozen people sat at six command-and-control panels monitoring the rocket and satellite. Tensions were high. Only the operators sat while the rest of the personnel stood stiffly, waiting in anticipation. Korolev’s eyes moved between the various instruments and the body language of the operators, scanning them for any sign of trouble. As a deputy in the bunker recalled, “If anybody raised their voice or showed signs of nervousness, Korolev was instantly on the alert to see what was going on.”5

Unlike American rocket launches, the Soviet space program did not use a countdown, no three, two, one… blastoff. A voice over a loudspeaker announced the minutes until readiness and commands like “key to drainage.” When the voice said “Pusk!” (Launch!), a young lieutenant pushed a button, initiating ignition. The rocket did not spring from the launchpad at this point. Over a minute passed as steam vented around the base of the rocket, and the engines ignited and then started their preliminary thrust process, before the operator finally announced “Pod’em!” (Liftoff!).

Vibrations from the engines pounded the walls of the small bunker. At first the rocket seemed stuck, hovering over the ground. But soon the four boosters with their hundreds of tons of thrust propelled the R-7 into the inky blackness of outer space. A little over five minutes after the launch, Sputnik separated from the core rocket booster and began its first orbit.

“It’s too early to celebrate,” Korolev warned his apprehensive staff.

Not until Sputnik completed its first ninety-six-minute trip around the Earth and the radio engineer picked up Sputnik’s now iconic “beep-beep-beep” and shouted “It’s there! It’s there!” did Korolev announce that it was time to send word to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev.6

On the evening of October 4, Khrushchev had joined Ukrainian leaders and guests from Moscow for a leisurely dinner in the large hall at the Mariyinsky Palace, a grand, bright-blue baroque-style building that hinted at the lavish tastes and lifestyles of Russia’s eighteenth-century czars. Once a favorite retreat of Catherine the Great, the palace now stood as a weathered remnant of another era. Khrushchev had decided to stop off in Kiev on his way back from vacation in Crimea, a popular resort destination on the temperate Black Sea. A heavy-set, complex character, with protruding ears and a volatility that left an impression, Khrushchev was a man of contrasts. He was complicit in Stalin’s crimes such as the ruthless mass executions of Polish nationals but also de-Stalinized the Soviet Union. He was flamboyant, brutal, and also decent; his wife once described him as “all the way up or all the way down.”7 That evening there was an urgent matter occupying his mind, and it was not the harried preparations under way at the Baikonur space launch facility in Kazakhstan. Rather, Khrushchev was fixated on how to oust his longtime friend—or former friend—Marshal Georgy Zhukov from power.

Zhukov was a World War II hero who personally commanded the final attack on Berlin and represented the Soviet Union at the German surrender.8 In June 1957 Zhukov, who by that time had become the most influential military man in the Soviet Union, thwarted an antiparty group’s attempt to overthrow Khrushchev. But now, a mere four months later, Khrushchev was suspicious that Zhukov was planning his own coup.9 After nearly losing his premiership in June, Khrushchev was on a mission to secure his status as the USSR’s undisputed leader. To aid this mission he had gathered the secretary of the Party Central Committee, Leonid Brezhnev, who controlled the defense industry; the first deputy minister of defense and commander of ground forces, Rodion Malinovsky; the first secretary of the Ukrainian Central Committee, Alexei Kirichenko; the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, Demyan Korotchenko; the chairman of the Council of Ministers, Nykyfor Kalchenko; Central Committee secretaries; and his son Sergei Khrushchev.10

For much of the evening, the gathering of top officials discussed the harvest, new factories that needed new equipment, and inadequate capital investments. These were typical topics, meant to loosen the premier’s purse strings. Near midnight, after hours of conversation, an aide interrupted the meal and whispered something in Khrushchev’s ear. He nodded and then excused himself to take a phone call in a nearby room. A few minutes later the premier returned to the dining hall with a smile. He quietly sat back in his chair, paused, calmly looked around the table, and then spoke: “I can tell you some very pleasant and important news. Korolev just called.”

He paused again, this time with a secretive look. “He’s one of our missile designers. Remember not to mention his name—it’s classified.” Then Khrushchev announced the news: “So, Korolev has just reported that today, a little while ago, an artificial satellite of the Earth was launched.”

The dinner guests responded with polite if indifferent smiles. At that moment no one in the room foresaw the far-reaching and long-lasting significance of Khrushchev’s announcement.11 Even the first article on Sputnik in the leading Soviet newspaper, Pravda, was buried below the fold with no mention of the imminent political and social fallout of the pathbreaking launch. It was brief, written in a clinical style with facts and figures like “the carrier rocket has imparted to the satellite the required orbital velocity of about 8,000 meters per second.”12

A few minutes after Khrushchev’s announcement, the aide returned to the dining hall, set up a radio in the corner of the room, and told the dinner guests that the satellite’s broadcast could be picked up on the device. He turned the knob, and Sputnik’s now famous “beep, beep, beep” filled the hall.13

Following the launch of Sputnik, US president Eisenhower tried to counteract the notion of a “space race” between the US and the USSR at every turn. But space exploration became the prime psychological battleground in the cold war. For more than a decade, and some would say right up until the fall of the Soviet Union, space competition served as the measuring stick for national strength, technological know-how, and the efficacy of political systems. How did spaceflight—an idea that once only existed in the imagination of a few scientists, analysts, and dreamers—receive such a lofty status within international relations in the mid-twentieth century? The answer does not simply lie in the popular appeal of spaceflight or the idea that it is in human nature to explore. The United States and the Soviet Union did not invest fortunes in space development solely to push forward the edges of human experience. So what accounts for spaceflight becoming the new political currency within the cold war world order?

The answer is found in the emergence of what a young Henry Kissinger—among other influential political theorists of the day—identified as the “new diplomacy.” In 1955 Nelson Rockefeller, Eisenhower’s special assistant for psychological warfare, asked Kissinger, at the time a recent PhD and instructor at Harvard University, to join a study panel on the “Psychological Aspects of a Future U.S. Strategy.” Kissinger articulated the tenets of this new diplomacy in a secret report to Eisenhower.

Today’s international relations, Kissinger wrote, required psychological strategy. Symbols, rhetoric, ideas, and images assumed new political potency in a changed geopolitical landscape. The existence of thermonuclear weapons rewrote the terms of how politics—especially diplomacy—was done. The risk of global annihilation, combined with technological innovations in mass media, revolutionized the influence of the public—especially public opinion—in both domestic and international politics. These factors contributed to a bifurcation of US diplomacy. Political negotiations were taking place on two interconnected planes. High-level political talks between governments were coupled with public diplomacy.14 After the first gathering of Rockefeller’s group, Kissinger would tell fellow panel member Walt Rostow, professor of economic history at MIT, that “the most important component of our foreign policy is the psychological one.”15

Many historians make the claim that it was not until Sputnik orbited overhead and the world reacted that Eisenhower saw satellite development in terms of prestige. His focus before October 4, 1957, was on reconnaissance and ballistic missile strategy, they say.16 But records from before the fall of 1957—especially from National Security Council (NSC) meetings—reveal an entirely different chronological arc. They show policy analysts attuned to the psychological implications of spaceflight years before Sputnik made its debut, and attuned to the bearing of psychology on international influence and power. Eisenhower and those who advised him, such as Rockefeller, recognized that satellites would have both military and propaganda advantages. From the very start, policy makers saw satellites as highly visible demonstrations of scientific and technological capability on the international stage.

In 1957 the small Soviet satellite—and more importantly the tenor of domestic and international response—cemented the association of space exploration and national strength for decades to come. The military undertones of space shots, the rapid spread of news coverage, the reverence for technological and scientific achievement at that time, and the political prominence of global public opinion within cold war geopolitics—the core elements of the “new diplomacy”—all played their part.

When Eisenhower took the oath of office in January 1953, the United States faced steep military and political challenges. The cold war raged. The Korean War stalled. During his 1952 presidential bid, Eisenhower charmed voters with his quiet confidence, “plain talk,” and smile. And with a meteoric military record—rising from a lowly lieutenant colonel to the commander of the Allied invasion of Europe in just five years—Eisenhower seemed well-positioned to lead the country safely through swelling nuclear-war fears. More so than any president before him, Eisenhower entered office with a fully formed national security philosophy. “To amass military power without regard to our economic capacity,” he warned the country at his first State of the Union address, “would be to defend ourselves against one kind of disaster by inviting another.” Eisenhower’s fiscally responsible national security strategy, articulated powerfully and concisely just two weeks after he assumed office, remained the defining framework of his presidential security policy.17

A free-market conservative, Eisenhower believed that government expenditures must be contained. He articulated this message frequently, cautioning his country against becoming a “garrison state” because of cold war fears.18 Instead, he advocated a “New Look,” a phrase taken from the fashion industry. In designer parlance the New Look referred to the lengthening of women’s skirts, but in Eisenhower’s defense strategy it meant “more bang for the buck.”19 Eisenhower slashed the Army and Navy budgets, arguing that the country should invest in avoiding war, not fighting one. The cold war would likely last for many years, he recognized. The US, then, must take an approach that sustained both the military and economic health of the country in the long term. And because Eisenhower was confident that the Soviet Union would never directly mount an attack on the United States, he favored investment in the psychological and political—as opposed to the military—battlefields of the cold war. He turned to the “new diplomacy.”20

The New Look is often remembered as Eisenhower’s call for the massive buildup of a nuclear arsenal to defend the country while avoiding straining the budget. These weapons would have a psychological impact, deter the enemy, and in turn avoid the need for costly direct conflict with the Soviet Union. But Eisenhower’s defense policy steered a more comprehensive global governance agenda. Under the New Look, the United States nurtured international trade, funded development programs, encouraged formal and informal alliances, moderated conflicts between other countries, invested in cultural and educational exchanges, and increased overseas propaganda. The United States would pursue international influence by winning the hearts and minds of the world’s public and political leaders.21

Eisenhower’s experience on the European front during World World II had convinced him that psychological warfare figured prominently in the Allied victory. Propaganda and persuasion, he saw, were integral to power and influence. When he entered the White House, he pushed for an elaborate propaganda program to contain the spread of Communism. At his very first Cabinet meeting, on January 23, 1953, psychological warfare became a focus of discussion. In short order, Eisenhower appointed a special assistant for psychological warfare, put him in charge of the Psychological Strategy Board, and created the President’s Committee on International Information Activities to assess US psychological warfare programs and to make recommendations for improving and centralizing these efforts.22


  • "The epic tale of Apollo has been told with precision and passion by numerous historians of politics and technology, including myself. But only now, fifty years after the first Moon landing, we have at last the big story others ignored: Apollo's global triumph in public relations. Moreover, Muir-Harmony's thorough research, elegant style, and evocative anecdotes decorate every page. Operation Moonglow is a joyful trip down memory lane for aging baby-boomers and a welcome inspiration for younger Americans."—Walter A. McDougall, author of thePulitzer-Prize winning Heavens and the Earth
  • "The Apollo program is a performance of power in this fascinating history of the way American presidents used the race to the moon to strengthen U.S. diplomacy. Operation Moonglow is a deeply researched and beautifully written fusion of space, politics, and international relations. It will appeal to a broad audience."—Mary L. Dudziak, authorof War Time
  • "Teasel Muir-Harmony brings the early years of the space race vividly back to life in this wonderful book. Operation Moonglow focuses on a little-known part of this story: how NASA astronauts came to play a significant role in U.S. diplomacy, and the impact they had on America's international standing. Muir-Harmony's richly-detailed narrative reminds us how turbulent this era was-with the Cold War at its height, the fall of colonial powers abroad, racial unrest, and assassinations at home-and the many delightful anecdotes she includes humanize the main actors."—KathrynD. Sullivan, former NASA astronaut
  • "Operation Moonglow: I love the title, because to me, the moon does glow. The book is a thorough examination of the Apollo Program, and provides a fascinating tour of our political evolution from nationalism to global diplomacy. As a work of history, it is first rate. Teasel Muir-Harmony's focus on space diplomacy lends a unique perspective on the space age. Full of fascinating interviews, sprinkled with little-known tidbits, the narrative glows."—Michael Collins, Apollo11 astronaut

On Sale
Nov 24, 2020
Page Count
384 pages
Basic Books

Teasel Muir-Harmony

About the Author

Teasel Muir-Harmony is the curator of the Project Apollo collection at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and teaches at Georgetown University. She is the author of Apollo to the Moon: A History in 50 Objects and a contributor to the television series Apollo’s Moon Shot. She lives in Washington, DC.

Learn more about this author