The Natural Aristocrat spoke with Dr. Teasel Muir-Harmony about the legacy of Neil Armstrong’s iconic first steps on the moon.
Dr. Teasel Muir-Harmony told The Natural Aristocrat about why the Apollo 11 moon landing meant so much to so many, the unifying once-in-a-lifetime television broadcast, and the Politics of Space Flight during the era. Muir-Harmony’s quote about NASA’s reputation painted a fascinating picture on its own. “It’s hard to imagine any other government agency where people wear their T-shirts, just because they’re so excited about the work that they do.” During our interview, Muir-Harmony discussed how important the mission was to foreign relations and how ‘that’s often forgotten today.’
As the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Space History Department Curator and Artifacts Expert, Muir-Harmony has an excellent vantage point toward current public reception of space flight. Particularly by youth, who she said are captivated by the idea. Dr. Teasel Muir-Harmony mentioned once meeting legendary astronaut Neil Armstrong, who asked about her research while she was a bit starstruck… Or you could say, moonstruck!
Smithsonian Channel will be airing a six-part series called Apollo’s Moon Shot starting tonight (6/16) in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing on July 20, 2019.
Watch the interview video above or read the full transcript below!
Interview with Dr. Teasel Muir-Harmony
The Natural Aristocrat [Nir Regev]: How do you feel space education has changed over the years? Do you think kids today have lost any interest in space compared to the 50s? I’m really curious about your thoughts after asking the Armstrong brothers about it.
Dr. Teasel Muir-Harmony: Well, I think there is an immense interest for space exploration today! If you look back 50 years, kids were very captivated by the Apollo program. But working at the [Smithsonian] Air and Space Museum, I see millions of visitors coming every year and enthusiasm for space exploration really hasn’t waned. It’s there! The sheer numbers alone, the kids in particular seem really captivated by spaceflight.
Did you ever want to be an astronaut yourself?
No! I never wanted to be an astronaut. I’m afraid of heights and claustrophobic so, I always wanted to be a historian of Astronomy and Space Exploration. I’m exactly what I want to be!
I’m surprised you’re afraid of heights!
Yes, I… I don’t think I could have gone into the command module on top of a Saturn V rocket. I’m not that brave! (laughs)
What does it mean to you to be a part of this moment? To be attached to this special moment frozen in time for people across the world alongside Neil Armstrong’s own sons. You’re now a part of its preserved legacy.
I feel extraordinarily lucky, I came to this topic at a perfect moment. I’ve had the opportunity to speak to many of the astronauts who were involved in the program. As well as people who worked on all different dimensions of Project Apollo including Public Diplomacy, which is my particular area of research. I just feel Extremely lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to speak to so many people who were involved first hand.
How do you feel about the general population’s perception of NASA these days? There have been some tragedies in the past (The Challenger and Columbia). Do you feel overall, NASA’s legacy has been rejuvenated and come back in the public eye?
I think if you just walk down the street, you get a sense of how NASA has maintained a lot of enthusiasm among the general public. You see people wearing NASA paraphernalia all the time who do not work for NASA. I think that’s quite a sign. It’s hard to imagine any other government agency where people wear their T-shirts, just because they’re so excited about the work that they do.
Did you get your own NASA T-shirt from Urban Outfitters?
That’s true, I feel like they’re all over! You see them everywhere and it always reminds me that there is a lot of public interest in space exploration and what NASA does.
What were your studies like back at MIT? How do you feel you’ve changed since then? If you have changed…
(laughs) Well, I think I’ve had the opportunity to broaden my understanding of Project Apollo. In Graduate School, I really focused on the role of Apollo within Public Diplomacy and Foreign Relations and sort of as a form of soft power. Being at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum has given me the opportunity to focus on many other dimensions in the history of space flight and also what resonates with people today.
I’m curious since you’ve written about ‘The Politics of Space Flight,’ can you elaborate more on the what is encompassed in that phrase? I have a pretty good idea of what you mean by it but I’m very interested to hear it from the original source.
I tell everyone, go and listen to Kennedy’s original speech when he proposed Project Apollo. He really made it very clear, that he was motivated by soft power and the potential of space flight to effect National Security interests and National power. He said, ‘If we are to win the battle that is going around the world between freedom and tyranny, dramatic achievements in space should made it clear. As should the Sputnik in 1957.’ I can’t do the Kennedy accent! (laughs) But it’s about winning hearts and minds, it’s about political alignment.
It’s very much a Cold War program and Kennedy was motivated to demonstrate U.S. Technological Capability, Managerial Capability. Spaceflight was sort of the measuring stick National power and prestige at that moment in time, and he recognized that. It was an extremely important program when it comes to foreign relations. I think often we forget that today. But that is what motivated Kennedy and that was essential to why the nation at one point, invested over four percent of the federal budget in space flight.
My final question… Some day, someone will likely walk on Mars. It could be through NASA or SpaceX or something else altogether. How do you think it’ll compare to the moon and that iconic first step?
I think it’ll be an entirely different experience, and resonate with people in a different way as well. When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, space exploration was still relatively brand new. The first human that was launched into space was in 1961 and then he [Neil Armstrong] was taking those first steps in 1969. So it was a brand new field, and it’s also important to remember the role of television. People at that time were just getting television sets in their house on a large scale.
By the end of the 1960s there were televisions across America, but the first lunar landing was the first live global television broadcast. That’s an important part of that mission that explains how we remember that moment in history. It enabled the whole world to follow something in unison. That was new at that time, and I don’t know how we recreate something new like that. So I think when humans go to Mars, people are going to be excited for different reasons!
Thank you Dr. Teasel!
Be sure to follow Dr. Teasel Muir-Harmony on Twitter at @teaselmuir for her latest updates!