Space Craze: Cultural Context

This page’s main goal is to provide a brief understanding of how the Space Craze of the late 1950’s throughout the 1960s was born out of the Space Race and eventually touched several areas of Americans’ lives. If you wish a further in depth reading of the Space Race, please refer to one of the many sources cited in this page or in the bibliography.


Important to keep in mind: The Space Craze is defined as the period from 1957 to the end of the 1960s when Space became a highly interest topic in America, that impacted many parts of Americans’ lives.


From the very beginning of America’s competition with the Soviet Union in space, the Space Race sparked what can be defined as the Space Craze of the late 1950s and 1960s, which ultimately impacted several areas of American’s lives. The start of the Space Craze can be linked to October of 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I into space causing an instant media sensation and sending a great sense of fear for several Americans (Rosenberg, 158). With Sputnik circling around the Earth and the launch of Sputnik II, many Americans became increasingly fearful the United States was lagging behind the Soviet Union. During this time, the Space Race began to dominate much of the news headlines in America and became a small portion of the political rhetoric for Kennedy in his race to the White House in 1960 (Rosenberg, 158, 161-163).


The Space Craze in America grew in rapidly into an obsession after April 9, 1959 when NASA revealed its project Mercury astronauts to America and heavily relied on the mass media to promote their image. Portrayed as “clean cut [military officers] and all American family men,” NASA hoped unveiling these astronauts and project Mercury to the public would calm much of America’s anxieties over the Space Race (Hersch, 76).


After 1959, NASA devoted a large effort to fully publicizing these astronauts to the American nation, placing the Space Race and its astronauts center stage throughout the 1960s. Life Magazine brought the Mercury 7 into the living rooms and coffee tables of Americans, detailing the personal stories of these astronauts that reflected the image NASA was trying to produce (Rosenberg, 168-169) Several other magazines would emulate the same process with the Apollo program during the 1960’s (Rosenberg, 169). Television also played a major role, which further helped NASA’s image infiltrate many Americans’ homes by televising space flight like John Glenn’s orbit around the Earth in Friendship 7 and the Apollo program, which allowed American’s to be eyewitnesses to the events unfolding in front of them in their living rooms (Chaikin, 54-55; Rosenberg, 168-170).


Just as the Space Craze entered many homes through its literal depiction of the Space Race in magazines, news programs, and special broadcasts, it also became a staple in many television shows and Hollywood movies during the time. Several science fiction television series during the 1960s revolved its plot around space exploration (Hersch, 77-78, 84-85). Not only did several place its plot around space, many of the main characters in these television shows depicted the image of an astronaut NASA produced with its Mercury 7 (Hersch, 77-78). Hollywood also joined the Space Craze and produced multiple space themed movies with its stereotypical astronauts most notably during the late 1960’s (Hersch, 80; Rosenberg, 1971).


Just as the Space Craze infiltrated both American’s news and entertainment, it also took hold in several consumer products. Throughout the Space Craze, children played with space themed toys and storybooks along with new forms of playground equipment that emulated Space Race figures, like rockets (Rosenberg, 179). The Space Craze even reached into adult consumer products such as tailfins on cars inspired by rockets and new futuristic space age designed appliances. Even fashion and household decorative items were not safe from the Space Craze (Rosenberg, 179).  


Finally, the Space Craze even impacted children’s education in schools. As early as 1958, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act which supplied educators with one billion dollars over seven years to develop skills that were essential to national defense (Rosenberg, 162).  This was a direct response to the launching of the two Sputniks and ensuring that America would have enough scientist and engineers to develop America’s space program throughout the future (Rosenberg, 162).


The Space Craze, as one can see, impacted several areas of Americans’ lives. Most of the items you will view are direct products of the Space Craze during the late 1950s throughout the 1960s. By viewing these items, you will see how the Space Craze became a part of everyday items like toys, television shows and playground equipment.