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How the race to the Moon–with an assist from pop culture–changed the meaning of the word ‘technology’

When the Space Age began, “tech” was the scary stuff of nuclear war.

How the race to the Moon–with an assist from pop culture–changed the meaning of the word ‘technology’
[Photos: NASA; The Jetsons: courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment; Lost in Space: courtesy of 20th Century Fox]

This is the tenth 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. 

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In April 1965, the government of the United States owned and used 1,767 computers. The nation as a whole in April 1965 had 22,500 computers, or 450 computers per state. We know this because on April 2, 1965, Time magazine published an 8-page cover story, “The Computer in Society: The Cybernated Generation,” 
that included that very precise census of every computer in the U.S.

Leaving aside that, at the moment, there are single buildings in Manhattan or Dallas that have more computers in them than the entire nation had in 1965. In the last Christmas season where Apple reported computer sales, it was selling 22,500 computers every 38 minutes.

The ’60s saw the birth of all kinds of revolutions–civil rights and feminism, the sexual revolution and rock and roll–but one revolution the ’60s doesn’t get enough credit for is the dawn of technology as a cultural phenomenon.

In 1957, when the Soviets launched Sputnik, and even in 1961, when President Kennedy launched the race to the Moon, there was no real concept of technology in ordinary life. Technology was a kind of Dr. Strangelove idea. Technology meant, mostly, atomic weapons, and the missiles and bombers associated with them.

Americans in the late 1950s and early 1960s had all kind of “gadgets,” but they weren’t electronics. They were home appliances, designed to make domestic life easier or more fun.

In 1950, only 9% of U.S. homes had televisions.

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In 1965, 90% did.

Americans bought air conditioners (up eight-fold during the 1950s), they bought dishwashers, washing machines, and vacuums. Convenience was a passion. The number of clothes driers went up 10-fold from 1950 to 1969; the number of disposals went up six-fold; and countertop electric can-openers outsold every other appliance.

Eric Schatzberg is a historian at Georgia Tech who studies the concept of technology, and of how use of the word itself has changed, and how that signals how we’re thinking about technology. He points out that Americans didn’t use the word “technology” to talk about their growing array of home gadgets, and the advertisements for all those modern items–from passenger planes to console TVs–also didn’t use the word. “There was no everyday idea of ‘technology’ the way we use it now,” says Schatzberg. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, “technology” was shadowed by a sense of “underlying unease,” as Schatzberg puts it.

In that context, he says, “NASA and Apollo had a powerful cultural impact.” Space changed the aura and the tone of technology. Americans spent a decade watching hour after hour of TV coverage of the space program, which meant hour after hour of images of people sitting at computer consoles in Mission Control. They were using computers not just for something that wasn’t involved with the military, they were using them to do the hardest thing people could imagine: fly in space, fly to the Moon. They were using computers on behalf of something that wasn’t just hard, it was a great adventure. The astronauts were the face and the personality of the trip, and the computers were vividly the tool necessary to make it happen, right alongside the gleaming white rockets and the spacesuits.

In fact, in that 1965 Time story about the growing impact of computers across American society, the picture spread across the opening page is a fisheye-lens photograph of NASA’s Mission Control, with dozens of consoles and computer screens. The opening anecdote is about the network of NASA computers spread among 15 locations around the world that “guided, watched, advised, and occasionally admonished the Gemini astronauts.”

The real use of computers in the space program was mirrored in popular culture. In 1950s America, there wasn’t a single TV show with space as a setting. In 1960s America, there were five big ones: The Jetsons, Lost in Space, I Dream of Jeannie, My Favorite Martian, and Star Trek. Three of those–The Jetsons, Lost in Space, and Star Trek—created whole worlds of technology, built around computers and robotic assistance of all kinds. Fifty years later, we’re still catching up to the home life of the Jetson family, and the spaceship Enterprise seems as fantastical an engineering achievement as it did during the Apollo age.

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Those TV shows also helped shape perceptions and attitudes. In all three, technology was in the service of people. It made food, navigated deep space, answered questions, provided instant video calling. In The Jetsons, technology cleaned house, made lunches for the children, and walked the dog, Astro. Overall, computers were easy to use and helpful and fit in seamlessly with everyday life, two to three decades before they would start doing that in real homes.

But the pop culture of the day also reflected how the Apollo astronauts and Mission Control were as far ahead of everyday Americans as Kirk, Spock, and Uhura were ahead of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins. At that moment, Americans’ relationship to technology was best summed up by the robot on Lost in Space, voiced by Dick Tufeld, who made famous the phrase “It does not compute!”

In President Kennedy’s speech in May 1961, when he asked Americans to spend the billions of dollars necessary to send astronauts to the Moon, he said, “in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the Moon . . . . It will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.”

Passenger jets had only been in service for two years. In 1961, most Americans had still never taken a flight on an airplane of any kind. Forget flying to the Moon, they’d never been airborne, even on Earth. By July 1969, when Armstrong and Aldrin stepped out onto the Moon, just 4% of Americans had touchtone phones. It was a gap that makes the Moon missions all the more astonishing, both technologically and politically.

The product that started to transform Americans’ feelings about tech was the first real “personal electronic” device: the AM transistor radio, which became available in the 1950s, but whose sales really boomed in the 1960s as the price came down. In 1965, you could buy a transistor radio for $19 (the equivalent of $150 today). By the time of the first Moon walk, 35 million transistor radios had been sold in a country with 200 million people. Significantly, the first handheld electronic device was named after the technology that made it possible, the same technology that was the building block of what got the astronauts to the Moon.


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 pre-order it here.)

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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 effort and the current ones. New posts will appear here daily as well as be distributed via Fast Company’s social media. (Follow along at #50DaysToTheMoon).

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About the author

Charles Fishman, an award-winning Fast Company contributor, is the author of One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew Us to the Moon. His exclusive 50-part series, 50 Days to the Moon, will appear here between June 1 and July 20.

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