The role of the media in the space race

In the Cold War days, the media formed public opinion and often set the agenda.

WrittenBy:Martand Jha
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Year after year, the Indian Space Research Organisation gives us more reasons to be proud. This time, it’s the proposed Gangayaan Mission where India will send three astronauts—including a woman—to space. The mission has received a lot of column space and headlines in the press—even as the organisation itself keeps its head down and focuses on its work.

But looking back at history, the media has played a significant role in generating interest in outer space among the general public, for whom the technicalities of the mission go over their heads. The media’s role is often overlooked, in bringing the wonders of space exploration to the common man. The media performed the same job during the space race in the Cold War period, between the US and the Soviet Union, and had an important part to play.

Right from the outset, the media on both sides were actively involved in covering the space race. This was one of the big reasons behind the intensification of the Cold War itself. The media is seen as a voice of the masses by the political class, and a report or op-ed in a reputed newspaper impacts the decision-making of the ruling dispensation. For instance, opinion pieces carried The New York Times, The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal had a big impact on the international politics of space.

Back in the 1950s, in the context when outer space was mostly a strategic domain and both the superpowers were aiming to utilise its military potential, it was a pretty difficult task for outer space to become “newsworthy”. The technology used in the space sector has always been far from the reach and understanding of the masses, as it required highly specialised technical knowledge. So it wasn’t easy to make the “international politics of outer space” look appealing to the reader and carry its impact to the leaders.

During the space race years (1957-1975), the public at large got most of its information about outer space from newspapers that used catchy headlines to attract the readers regarding the space rivalry—for example, “Why did the US lose the space race?” Headlines like these tapped into the public’s psyche and added to the pressure on the government. This pushed the government to take steps to show the public it was doing its best. The US allowed its media to report on and criticise the space race, but also portray the USSR as the villain who needed to be defeated. This, in a nutshell, is what happened during the space race, particularly in the US.

It wasn’t the same in the USSR. The Soviet media, in general, was more controlled and this “agenda setting” happened differently. The space race was used as a tool of propaganda to build the USSR’s reputation for success. Critiques within the US media were given great mileage by successive Soviet leaders to prove their point.  The US political class couldn’t do the same with the Soviet media because it was mostly state-controlled. The intensity of the space race on the global scale couldn’t have been realised without the presence of an agenda-setting mass media. The constant flow of information was a key to establish a dedicated class of audience.

This was how public opinion was formed. It was only furthered by television shows and movies like Star Wars and Star Trek. So despite being just a watchdog to the events and milestones created by the space missions and satellite launches, the media is not only part of the whole process but adds to its successes and failures too. With all eyes on the Gaganyaan Mission, it’ll be interesting to see how the Indian media plays its part.


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