Space Exploration on Public Broadcasting

We accept or marvel at the revolutionary products of science while giving little thought to the basic ideas, concepts, techniques and logic that have gone into exploring, understanding and explaining our universe or in building our technical civilization.

Description from WGBH’s series Of Science and Scientists (1957)
Image of Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the moon. Image courtesy NASA

Fifty years ago the Apollo 11 spaceflight was the first to land humans on the Moon. Commercial broadcasting was the first to broadcast historic moments from the moon’s surface and journalists like Walter Cronkite (CPB) and Jules Bergman (ABC) became household names, however, public broadcasting was closing the gap between scientists and non-scientists by leading the way in educational programming.

On the afternoon of July 21, 1969, civilization transitioned into a new chapter of human history. Public radio and television programs attempted to give analogy or demonstration to the scientific concepts behind this new frontier and evidence of this history can be traced through the collections of the American Archive of Public Broadcasting (AAPB), a collaboration between the Library of Congress and WGBH to digitally preserve and make accessible over 100,000 programs of public media that document the 20th and 21st century.

Below is a selection of public programs that highlight the impact of space exploration on local media, and vice versa. And to provide background and context, we welcome Dr. Ingrid Ockert as guest commentator. Dr. Ockert is currently a NASA History Fellow and Postdoctoral Researcher at the Science History Institute.


The year 1957 was an incredible year for science communicators and educators. On October 4th, 1957, the Soviet satellite Sputnik launched into Earth’s orbit. Commercial broadcasters like CBS scrambled to cover the event on television. Meanwhile, newspapers ran articles fretting that American schools had fallen behind the Soviet classrooms. Following these discussions, commercial and educational broadcasters created a new generation of science television shows, many focused on space sciences.

Dr. Ingrid Ockert
Image fromThe Size of the Universe, WGBH (1957)

Of Science and Scientists Series (1957) produced by WGBH Educational Foundation

Of Science and Scientists was a collaborative project between MIT and WGBH. The opening episodes were hosted by Gerald Holton, a Harvard physicist, who was later known for his seminal work in the history of science. The series allowed eminent university professors an opportunity to present their standard lectures to a larger audience.

Contributed by: WGBH and Library of Congress

Of Science and Scientists, university professors teach a class to their television audience. One of the most interesting lectures comes from Dr. Cecillia Payne-Gapochkin, a rare example of a woman scientist lecturing on science on television from the 1960s. Using models and drawings, Dr. Payne-Gapochkin walks us through a lesson about measuring space on Earth and between planets.

Dr. Ingrid Ockert

Doctors in Space Series (1958) produced by National Educational Television and KUHT-TV

The Doctors in Space series aims to inform the public about the advances made in space flight, the problems encountered there, and the medical research going on to enable man to fly in space. In an age of “dog-bearing satellites,” National Educational Television viewers would be interested to learn about the possibilities of trips by human beings into outer space. Produced by KUHT, Houston in co-operation with the US Armed Forces, Doctors in Space has been cleared by the Department of Defense.

This six part series takes a comprehensive look at the history of space medicine, a sub-discipline of space studies. The episodes feature frank discussion with top physicists and medical researchers about the ways that humans could survive a trip to outer space and live on other worlds. Produced at the Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, the series was hosted by Dr. John Rider, a professor of physics at the University of Houston. Leading experts used models of planets, diagrams, and filmstrips to think through future space flight. Notably, it featured interviews with Heinz Haber, a German engineer who was featured in Disney’s 1957 production “Our Friend the Atom.” Haber became a popular science communicator in Germany.

Dr. Ingrid Ockert


Here & There In Maryland: Field Trips; Nasa-Goddard Space Flight Center (1979) produced by Maryland Public Television

There in Maryland: Field Trip takes students to places that are significant to the development of the state of Maryland. This episode is split into six segments. While the episode was filmed in 1979, such The segments as “Nasa-Goddard Space Flight Center,” address historic topics such as Dr. Robert Goddard, the history of the NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center, and the Center’s various attractions.

Notably, this episode of “Here and There” takes us to Goddard’s Visitor Center and walks through the activities available to visitors. For historians, this offers us a valuable opportunity to see how curators utilized basic 1970s technologies (video screens, telephones) to create an interactive atmosphere.

Dr. Ingrid Ockert


Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Muni; Radio Moscow; Man in Space (1961) contributed by WNYC

This program produced by Radio Moscow recounts the first manned spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin on April 12th, 1961 aboard the Vostok 1. The recording includes audio from his first transmission, reflections and tributes from Nikita Khrushchev and other scientists and a short history of the Soviet space program.

A Word on Words; Alan Shepard (1994) produced by Nashville Public Television

Image from A Word on Words (1994)

The A Word on Words Collection contains features thoughtful and surprising discussions about literature and the lives of authors. This interview is conducted with Alan Shepard about his book titled Moon Shot.


50 Years After John Glenn Orbited the Earth (2012) produced by NewsHour Productions

In this episode, PBS NewsHour reflects on the space race before and after astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.

NASA Moon Documentary (1960s) produced by KUHT

Contributed by: University of Houston

Image from NASA Moon Documentary, KUHT (1960s)

This NASA documentary describes the technology used to map the moon’s surface and the equipment utilized to house men on moon missions. Footage includes a detailed description of travel to the moon, and the lunar module.

This documentary provides a short, comprehensive look at the plans for the moon landing. It has it all – a brief interview with controversial NASA scientist Dr. Werner von Braun, hand-drawn animations of the docking procedure of the Apollo 11 mission, and even a jazzy soundtrack. There’s even a tour of the ‘lunar receiving laboratory,’ with glimpse of the non-white, male and female scientists conducting research.  This documentary showcases the public relations arm of NASA – by the 1960s, polished films like this stoked public enthusiasm for the Apollo 11 mission.

Dr. Ingrid Ockert

Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (1962) contributed by: University of Maryland

The National Association of Educational Broadcasters in cooperation with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration presents the peaceful uses of space. In the spring of 1960 to the Seattle World’s Fair in 1964 was the scene of a conference on space research. This is program number two in a series of 13 reports of highlights from that conference.

Image from PBS NewsHour (2016)

Hidden Figures: Motion picture about the black women computers for NASA: PBS NewsHour

From 2016, this segment of PBS NewsHour covers the film “Hidden Figures”, which tells the history of early space flight and the crucial role African-American women played behind the scenes as mathematicians and engineers. The interview includes actresses Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer.


Image from The Challenge of the Space Age, Mayer-Skylar Productions (1963)

Exploring the Universe Series (1963) produced by Mayer-Skylar Productions

Contributed by: Thirteen WNET 

Exploring the Universe is a series that looks at the (then) modern theories and advances of science from the possibilities of life on other planets to the creation of our universe. Host for the series is Dave Garroway (known for as the founding host of the “Today” show) and his guests include prominent scientists who convey their own awe and the wonder at the universe to the television audience.

Like Of Science and Scientists (WGBH), Exploring the Universe (WNET) helps us explore the culture of science in the 1960s. Each episode takes a slightly different format. Sometimes host David Garroway interviews the scientists involved, other times he lets them talk amongst themselves. It’s the latter conversations that prove to be the most interesting. Take, for instance, “The Challenge of the Space Age,” where guests Dr. Robert Jastrow and Dr. Philip Abelson debate the merits of scientists involved in public engagement. In the 1960s, more and more research scientists felt compelled to give public lectures and publish popular books, hoping that their efforts would result in a more educated public. Jastrow urges his colleague to take to the stage and encourage others to conduct public outreach. Abelson decries this, arguing that scientists barely have enough time to conduct basic research, let alone public outreach! This short clip gives historians great insight into the tensions that existed within the scientific community at the time.

Dr. Ingrid Ockert


About Science; About Surveyor (1966) produced by the California Institute of Technology KPCC-FM

Contributed by: University of Maryland 

This program focuses on the science behind the Surveyor program that sent the spacecraft to the moon. The guest for this program is Dr. Leonard Jaffe, Surveyor Project Scientist, Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“What do poets and physicists have in common?,” quipped Dr. Peter Lissamen in 1968, “If your answer is, a touch of lunacy, you’re right.” That was the beginning of his segment on the CalTech series, About Science, a radio series, which examined a variety of topics in the late 1960s. Lest we forget, scientists on the west coast were just as active as their east coast contemporaries in conducting public outreach. The California Institute of Technology was a particularly active force of popularization. In this episode, Dr. Lissamen and Dr. Hibbs talked about lunar geology. Hibbs explains that, until the late 1960s, planetary geologists weren’t certain that the moon wasn’t made of ‘fluffy dust.’ The segment reminds historians just how little was known about the Moon and how the first missions focused on geologic goals. 

Dr. Ingrid Ockert

The Moon Race: Facts, Fiction, and Dividends (1967) contributed by the Hoover Institution Library & Archives, Stanford University

A few months after the Apollo 1 fire, Werner Von Braun argues that the space program has numerous benefits. Among these is it raises the prestige of the country, it stimulates the national economy, and that much new knowledge and technology from the U.S. space program has been transferred to everyday use.


Space and the Nation (1968) contributed by the Hoover Institution Library & Archives, Stanford University

In this lecture, American electrical engineer, George Edwin Mueller, discusses the (then) upcoming Apollo 8 mission and the goal of circumlunar flight. His discussion is within the context of advocating the importance of the space program to the future viability of the United States.

NASA Administrator George Mueller delivers a thoughtful lecture about how the Space Race has positively changed the economic landscape of the American aerospace industry. Mueller was an engineer who developed the testing procedures that ensured safe flights for manned missions like Apollo 8 and Apollo 11. The hour-long talk gives an unusual perspective on ‘space investment’ from one NASA’s leading figures. He talks about the new products developed for NASA’s missions, such as a special type of foam, that have the properties of foam, but with the lightness of balsa wood. Additionally, this lecture recovers an unusual sonic landscape: the dinner lecture – the light clinking of silverware and plates can be heard throughout the presentation. The last twenty minutes of the lecture are dedicated to questions from the audience – giving historians a perspective of what’s on the minds of non-scientists about the space race in 1968.

Dr. Ingrid Ockert


Image from Essay: Moonstruck (1999)

Essay: Moonstruck (1999) produced by NewsHour Productions

In this episode, essayist Paul Hoffman, then the editor of “Discover Magazine,” marks the US’ lunar anniversary of Apollo 11.


Aeronautics and Space Report: Skylab III produced by KUHT (1973)

Contributed by: University of Houston

This program includes a NASA film describing the problems that occurred during the launch of Skylab 1, and the efforts made to remedy the problems for Skylab 3 mission. Includes interviews with program director William C. Schneider, and astronaut Rusty Schweickart demonstrating tools underwater.

In this NASA report, the viewer learns about how Sky Lab III studies will contribute to greater scientific knowledge. This short feature has the hallmarks of NASA’s mid-70s public relations approach: it highlights the ways that NASA’s scientific studies contribute to a better understanding of the ecosystem.  Starting in the 1970s, NASA refocused their public relations material to emphasize NASA’s ecological goals. For instance, astronaut Alan Bean suggests that experiments conducted aboard Sky Lab III will allow scientists to learn how to better manage Earth’s resources. Pilot Jack Lousma describes how space missions help scientists visualize fresh and polluted waters.

Dr. Ingrid Ockert

Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr.; S0100; Was It Worth It? produced by Southern Educational Communications Association, South Carolina Educational Television Network (1973)

Contributed by: Hoover Institution Library & Archives, Stanford University

The television series Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr. was a venue for debate and discussion on political, social, and philosophical issues with experts of the day. In this interview, Admiral Shepard has thought deeply and speaks engagingly on matters such as what, apart from the human spirit, space exploration is good for. 


Sally K. Ride: Medallion Speaker Address (2005) contributed by the Hoover Institution Library & Archives, Stanford University

In this radio broadcast, Sally K. Ride gives a lecture about her career.


Segment on Kathryn Sullivan (2005) produced by The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer

In this segment of the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, former astronaut Kathryn Sullivan gives perspective on space walking.


North Carolina Now: 10th anniversary of the Challenger explosion (1996) contributed by UNC-TV

Image from North Carolina Now (1996)

In this episode, North Carolina Now reflects on the tenth anniversary of the Challenger explosion, and the legacy of North Carolina native and Challenger astronaut Dr. Ronald E. McNair that lives on in North Carolina.


Image from the NewsHour Productions (1989)

20th anniversary of man’s first walk on the moon (1989) contributed by NewsHour Productions

In this episode, NewsHour reflects on the past, present, and future of the 20th anniversary marking man’s first walk on the moon. The news segment revisits the very first moments of contact, including commentary with astronaut Buzz Aldrin, followed by writers Maya Angelou, Isaac Asimov, Daniel Boorstin, and James Michener, followed by lunar reflections from essayist Roger Rosenblatt.


August – The Space Shuttle Discovery deployed the Hubble Space Telescope.

Focus; The Hubble Telescope and The Space Telescope Program (2004) produced by WILL Illinois Public Media

This program includes an interview with Mario Livo, head of the Science Division, Space Telescope Science Institute and John Baheall, Richard Black Professor of Astrophysics at the Institute for Advanced Study.


North Carolina Now; Mae Jemison (1995) contributed by UNC-TV

In this news segment, Dr. Mae Jemison, the nation’s first female African-American astronaut, visits North Carolina to promote a new hands on science program and to find out more about her historic spaceflight.


Image from PBS NewsHour Eileen Collins coverage 1999

The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer (1999)

In this 1999 episode of PBS NewsHour, Air Force Colonel Eileen Collins, the first female commander of a space mission, spoke to reporters at a news conference.


The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer: Dennis Tito (2001)

This news segment covers American Dennis Tito’s spaceflight as a tourist.


Assignment The World; The Role of NASA and Space Exploration in Young People’s Future (2002) contributed by WXXI Public Broadcasting

This episode of Assignment the World discusses the role of NASA and space exploration in young people’s future. Through interviews and projections, we learn about past space programs, and how children can get involved and what subjects to focus on to become a part of NASA when they grow up.


The Future of Space Exploration: a Roadmap for the Practical Visionary (2004) contributed by the Hoover Institution Library & Archives, Stanford University

Hubbard speaks on the future, philosophy, goals, and means of space exploration. Framing it as humanity has “no choice but to explore,” he recalls the history of both land and space exploration in order to explain the trajectory of space exploration. He sees humans going back to the moon, eventually going on to Mars and then on to the moons of Jupiter.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s