This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

NASA's Hidden Power: NACA/NASA Public Relations and the Cold War, 1945-1967




Starr, Kristen

Type of Degree





During the 1960s, NASA’s human spaceflight program commanded national and international attention. The program created American images infused with heroic values. What were these images? How and why did the process of image creation occur? The answers to these questions lie in the way the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and NASA interpreted and articulated their aviation and space achievements to the public. Their Public Affairs Offices, or --Y΄Offices of Public Information,‘ purveyed information from the agencies to journalists, media outlets, and the American public. I use the term ΄saltation‘ to explain the dramatic qualitative and quantitative change in NASA public relations practices with the initiation of the human spaceflight program. Intially, NASA’s Public Information Office relied on the modest --Y΄NACA style‘ of operation, which included one public information head at Washington vi Headquarters, two or three employees working with him, and a single public information representative at each ΄field center.‘ The NACA, due to its small size and modest means, could be successful with such a staff, and with a reactive rather than proactive public relations methodology. Yet NASA leaders realized that, due to the explosion of public interest in the human spaceflight program, its public relations effort would require more concerted analysis and planning, a larger and more organized staff, and stronger centralized control. As NACA and NASA Public Information provided its constituencies with information, it presented this information through particular narratives. NACA and NASA public relations borrowed the thematic refrain of the Cold War: the necessity of the triumph of ΄good‘ capitalist democracy over ΄evil‘ communist totalitarianism. The NACA, America’s aeronautical research agency, needed to legitimize its continued existence in the changing aerospace world. Its successor, NASA, needed to justify its much larger budget and the importance of civilian spaceflight, an essentially --Y΄symbolic‘ technology with few ΄practical‘ ramifications, for the waging of the Cold War. The NACA and NASA portrayed their technologies as imbued with democratic ΄American‘ meanings and as harbingers of infinite technological, social, and political progress. By January 1967 and the Apollo One Fire, NASA’s public relations operation had grown large and complex, with a high degree of centralized control. The Public Affairs Office handled the tragedy more effectively than it could have during its earlier years. Yet it still suffered from discord, both internal to the organization and external in terms of public support for NASA.