This is the fifth in an exclusive series of 50 articles, one published each day until July 20, exploring the 50th anniversary of the first-ever Moon landing. You can check out 50 Days to the Moon here every day.
One of the great myths of the race to the Moon in the 1960s is that Americans wholeheartedly supported it. But according to polls conducted at that time, at no point did even half of Americans think going to the Moon was a good use of money and effort.
In a Gallup Poll published on June 2, 1961, Americans were asked if they supported spending billions of dollars to send a man to the Moon:
No opinion: 9%
The poll was published eight days after President John F. Kennedy’s dramatic speech asking Americans to send a man to the Moon–after the waves of banner headlines from the speech, and the days of press coverage that followed about what Moon flights would be like and what they would require.
But here’s the thing: The poll had been taken before the speech.
The timing of the poll was unfortunate, and the nationwide coverage of it didn’t help Kennedy, or the race to the Moon. The Washington Post headline was typical: “58% Oppose Moon Shot Proposal.”
Polling in the 1960s was not as frequent or as consistent as the practice today, and there is no poll of how American opinion shifted in the weeks and months after Kennedy’s “go to the Moon” speech. But Kennedy asked Americans to “sacrifice” to support a whole range of costly programs in that speech, including space, and shortly after it, Gallup did ask Americans precisely that: “For which of these would you be willing to make sacrifices, even if it meant increasing your own taxes?” Gallup listed seven proposals from Kennedy’s speech.
Only one got support from more than half of Americans: 67% said they would sacrifice to support retraining programs for the unemployed.
“Increased space research efforts” won support from 21% of Americans. The question doesn’t mention a Moon landing, and does mention the possibility of increased taxes, but the sentiment is clear.
Not even the direct rivalry with the Russians–whose space achievements were so much more dramatic than the Americans in the early 1960s–motivated Americans. In 1964, Gallup asked, Should America “go all out to beat the Russians in a manned flight to the Moon?” Only 26% said, “Yes.”
By July 1965, well into the space race, and on the heels of a dramatic U.S. space mission, Gemini 4, that lasted four days and included the first U.S. spacewalk by astronaut Ed White, Americans for the first time thought the U.S. was ahead of the Soviet Union in space, 47% to 24%.
But the most revealing question in that poll was a new one: “Would you, yourself, like to go to the Moon?”
The answer was resounding: 87% of Americans said “no,” they didn’t want to fly to the Moon. Even among the college educated, 76% said “no.” (Gallup didn’t ask that question again until 1999, for the 30th anniversary of the first Moon landing. Then, 72% of Americans said “no,” they didn’t want to go to the Moon.)
In January 1967, Louis Harris asked two pointed questions: “Is the space program worth the $4 billion a year it costs?”
Not sure: 12%
And, “Do you favor or oppose the space project aim of landing a man on the Moon?”
Not sure: 11%
That was after almost a half decade of growing American success in space, and years of saturation coverage of the astronauts as adventurers and American heroes (and just before the devastating Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts, and made some question the value of the whole program).
The greatest NASA triumph before the actual Moon landings was the Christmas 1968 flight of Apollo 8 all the way to the Moon and back. Astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders orbited the Moon 10 times, took the famous “Earthrise” photo, and read from the book of Genesis on Christmas Eve, to a worldwide television audience that was then the largest in history. Apollo 8 was a technological triumph–it proved Americans could navigate safely to the Moon and return–and also a political triumph. Although the astronauts didn’t land, the United States had, without question, beaten the Russians to the Moon. (The U.S.S.R. would never even orbit astronauts around the Moon, let alone land them.)
Even Apollo 8, though, didn’t swing public sentiment. Four weeks after Apollo 8’s successes, Harris polled the same questions he had in 1967. Asked if they favored landing a man on the Moon, only 39% of Americans said “yes”–even as the Moon landings were about to start. Asked if the program was worth its $4 billion annual expenditure, 55% said “no”–even as Americans were finally starting to get their money’s worth. In fact, both numbers had drifted in the negative direction in the intervening two years. The headline on the poll story in the Burlington (VT) Free Press: “Moon Landings, Space Exploring Are Unpopular.”
Whatever their feelings about the value and the cost of pursuing the Moon landings, reality polled slightly differently, at least to start. The first Moon walk of the Apollo 11 astronauts didn’t begin until about 11 p.m. on the night of July 20, 1969, on the East Coast. But Nielsen reported that 94% of American households watched it on TV.
Three years later, for Apollo 17, the sixth and last U.S. Moon landing, fewer Americans watched the astronauts explore the Moon than watched that week’s episode of the sitcom All in the Family.
It turns out that the attention span of Americans in the 1960s and 1970s wasn’t any longer than it is in the era of the iPhone.
Charles Fishman, who has written for Fast Company since its inception, has spent the last four years researching and writing One Giant Leap, a book about how it took 400,000 people, 20,000 companies, and one federal government to get 27 people to the Moon. (You can preorder it here.)
For each of the next 50 days, we’ll be posting a new story from Fishman–one you’ve likely never heard before–about the first effort to get to the Moon that illuminates both the historical and current efforts. New posts will appear here daily as well as be distributed via Fast Company‘s social media. (Follow along at #50DaysToTheMoon).