State in Space: The Department’s Role in the U.S. Space Program

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Representatives of the USSR, United Kingdom, and the United States sign the Outer Space Treaty January 27, 1967 in Washington DC.  Left to Right (at table): USSR Ambassador to the USA Anatoly F. Dobrynin, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Permanen
Representatives of the USSR, United Kingdom, and the United States sign the Outer Space Treaty January 27, 1967 in Washington DC.

State in Space: The Department’s Role in the U.S. Space Program

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and look to our next giant leap in the future of space exploration, the U.S. State Department is proud of its legacy and ongoing involvement in the U.S. space program.  Just as the launching of Sputnik in 1957 led to the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), it also led to an upgrade in the importance of science and technology issues in the State Department.  The implications of these issues in U.S. foreign policy was so pronounced that it led to the eventual creation of the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (or “OES,” as it is known), the home of our current space diplomacy efforts.

The Outer Space Treaty is an early example of the State Department’s work in supporting the U.S. space program.  Foreign Service Officers are not known for their piloting abilities like astronauts, but they can definitely negotiate a treaty.  In 1967, in the midst of the Cold War and the space race, the U.S. Department of State led negotiations with the former USSR on the Outer Space Treaty, which has served as the cornerstone of international space law for over 50 years, allowing government, civil, and commercial space activities to flourish for decades. 

State and USIA worked to ensure the world was well aware of the U.S. space program. This was accomplished through the sharing of education material and literature as seen at the USIA library in Cambodia

As attention turned to the Apollo program, and our goal to land on the moon, the State Department and the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) made a concentrated effort to keep the world informed about the U.S. space program.  What became the largest expenditure in USIA history was an attempt to describe the U.S. space exploration program to the world in a transparent manner, representative of the United States’ as a free and democratic society.  Customized exhibits explaining the Apollo missions—including life size renders of the command and lunar modules—were installed at U.S. missions and U.S. cultural centers around the world.

The Department of State and USIA worked to ensure the world was well aware of the U.S. space program. This was accomplished through full-scale models of the lunar module including one visited by the Apollo 11 crew at a USIA exhibit in Bombay, India.

The moment that Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon was the most watched event in television history.  The estimated audience was 650 million with 500 million of those viewers being overseas.  Every country with the technical capability to show Apollo 11 live did so except for the USSR, East Germany, and China.  Other countries without the ability to show the event live received tapes as quickly as they could get them from hardworking State Department and USIA Public Affairs Officers, who in some cases, literally ran them to local news stations.  For those who could not see the moon walk on television, radio was the other option, as over 500 million listened to the transmission, including one station in the USSR, two stations in China, and even Laplanders who followed the flight on transistor radios while pasturing their reindeer.  Much of the educational content shared over the airwaves in advance of the moon landing came from material created by State and USIA.  State and USIA’s public diplomacy efforts helped ensure that no matter where someone lived, everyone felt like a participant in Neil Armstrong’s historic “giant leap for mankind.” 

U.S. embassies were flooded with congratulations on the achievement of Apollo 11 and President Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger agreed to use the moment to further foreign policy efforts and illustrate the United States as a democratic society willing to share its space knowledge with the world.  This led to the organization of a world tour for the Apollo 11 crew and their wives facilitated by the State Department.  The overall director of organization was the State Department’s Deputy Chief of Protocol, and the final itinerary included visits to 24 countries and 27 cities, all within 45 days where welcoming crowds at times exceeded one million. 

Michael Collins first press briefing at the U.S. Department of State.

Following Apollo 11’s historic mission and subsequent world tour, Astronaut Michael Collins retired from NASA and accepted a position at the State Department as the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs.  As Spokesperson, Collins was present during critical times at the State Department in 1970, including for the U.S. space program.  When Apollo 13 suffered an explosion on its way to the moon and nations reached out to offer assistance to the United States, the State Department fielded those requests.  Having Collins, an Apollo 11 astronaut, at the podium sharing updates with the world helped build confidence in America’s ability to get the Apollo 13 crew home safely.

During the era of the space shuttle, as NASA prepared to launch crews repeatedly from Cape Kennedy in Florida, a small team of diplomats in Washington, DC, also gathered at the State Department Operations Center during each launch.  Their role was to help facilitate emergency landings of the shuttle overseas, should it be necessary.  With a special phone that connected to mission control, the team was also connected to backup landing sites in various countries around the world in Europe, Africa, and Asia.  If an emergency landing was needed, the State Department would have quickly informed the country involved.  While an actual emergency landing never occurred, State played a vital role in making sure the bilateral agreements for these sites were in place and enabled use at a moment’s notice.

The State Department’s support of the space program continued in 1998 with the launch of the International Space Station (ISS).  The ownership and use of the space station is established by intergovernmental agreements that were negotiated by the State Department in partnership with NASA.  As the current ISS partner nations discuss the future of the Station, the State Department is front and center working with these nations on the future of space exploration.

The ownership and use of the International Space Station is established by intergovernmental treaties and agreements negotiated by the State Department in partnership with NASA.

Space remains a priority for the Administration today and the release of four space policy directives by the President has led to a new focus on America’s leadership in space, the commercialization of space, and the future of space exploration.  In support of these objectives, the Secretary of State appointed Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden as U.S. Science Envoy for Space in June 2018.  A former astronaut and former head of NASA, Bolden has spent the past year traveling around the world promoting U.S. leadership in space exploration, supporting the U.S. space economy, and reminding space-faring nations that there is no better partner for space exploration and the commercialization of space than the United States.

At the March 2019 meeting of the National Space Council—of which the State Department is a member—the United States announced it would return American astronauts to the Moon in 2024.  The State Department joins NASA in support of this goal as we seek to establish partnerships with other nations and the private sector for our future lunar activities, and the longer-term exploration of Mars, the solar system, and the universe beyond.

Space continues to capture the world’s imagination, and today the State Department’s missions around the world are celebrating the 50th anniversary of humankind’s first steps on the moon.  The State Department has a long history of engaging in space diplomacy with direct impacts on the U.S. space program.  As we prepare for the next giant leap, the Department stands ready to once again help inspire the world.

About the Author:  Hillary LeBail serves as a Public Affairs Officer in the Office of Policy and Public Outreach in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.

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Hillary LeBail

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About the Author:  Hillary LeBail is a Public Affairs Officer in the Office of Policy and Public Outreach in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.