View from the bird watch: Media, memory, and America's Mercury astronauts

Jennifer Rudeseal Carter


America's participation in the "space race" was an innovation in 1959, and the Mercury 7 Astronauts were seen as a "new breed of men." American media were participating in the creation of an image that still exists today. Coverage from newspapers, magazines, radio, and television created America's collective memory of Project Mercury. This memory shapes current thinking and legislation on space issues. The research showed that the development of NASA's powerful public affairs operation, combined with the tenacity of the print and broadcast reporters in a time of technological development, framed an international image for Project Mercury--and its astronauts--that has survived the test of time. This dissertation answered four specific questions about the media, collective memory, and Project Mercury. First, what is the collective memory of Project Mercury? An active, rich collective memory of the early space program does exist in many different communities, but there is no one definitive collective memory. How did media in the late 1950s contribute to the collective memory of Project Mercury? The research showed that media formed and shaped the collective memory of Project Mercury through reportage. In fact, in the early 1960s, the space beat was the hottest story around, and media did anything they could to get on the beat. A third, surprising finding concerned the contribution of public relations to the collective memory. Those journalists who participated in this study said they received reams of news releases, backgrounders, press kits, and advisories from the NASA public affairs office. While this was not the only element of the news story, the releases helped shape the news. Archival articles show that the articles were heavily used and helped channel coverage. The final question in this study concerned the fading memory of the final three flights of Project Mercury. Media representatives interviewed for this dissertation suggested that the final three flights were equally covered, but media were bored by the fourth flight. This study is historical, and materials used in the data collection section of this dissertation included NASA memoranda, transcripts, and news releases. One unique aspect of the study is the inclusion of twelve author-conducted oral history interviews with Mercury astronauts, print, wire, and broadcast journalists, public relations practitioners, and industry representatives.