Air and Space Museum’s “Moon Man” Celebrates MTV’s 30th Anniversary

Celebrate MTV’s 30th anniversary by looking back at the history of the iconic “Moon Man” statuette, and learn its surprising connection to the Smithsonian

The award’s design derives from the station identification that MTV used when it debuted in 1981, which included astronaut images overlain with rock music. Photo by Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum

Thirty years ago today, MTV went on the air for the first time with footage from the Apollo 11 moon landing–with a twist, of course. The black-and-white image of the American flag was replaced by a technicolor MTV logo. The picture became iconic, and today, at the channel’s famous Video Music Awards, category winners are awarded the “Moon Man”–a silver statuette of an astronaut holding an MTV flag.

Surprisingly, the National Air and Space Museum houses within its collections two of those iconic statuettes, including one that flew to space with Russian cosmonauts in 1996. Space history curator Margaret Weitekamp explained that MTV chose the moon landing as the opening images for their new channel because of the implications of venturing into new territory.

“When MTV started, the idea was that this would be a very different kind of television,” Weitekamp said. “Instead of tuning in to watch a program or a particular star, you would tune in to the network of music videos and current music programming. So what they wanted to do to launch that was the idea that this was a giant leap forward in television programming and thinking about television.”

The network had originally planned to use the audio from the Apollo 11 moon landing, with Neil Armstrong proclaiming, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Two weeks before the planned air date, however, MTV got a call from NASA–they didn’t have permission to use Neil Armstrong’s voice. They scrambled to re-cut the sequence and change the soundtrack, and put music in the background instead of dialogue.

“They had this kind of Andy Warhol-ized, colorized version of these Apollo moonwalkers crossed with the rock and roll,” Weitekamp said. “And I’m not sure people entirely got the connection to the new giant leap forward in the network because the form of it had to change so much in the weeks before they went to air, but it still became very identifiable.”

So identifiable in fact, that for the 1996 VMAs, Pepsi paid to have a moon man statuette flown into space, and planned to have the Russian cosmonauts (wearing Pepsi hats) talk live with the host of the show, comedian Dennis Miller.

“The whole thing turned out to be a little bit of a disaster,” Weitekamp said. “The cosmonauts didn’t speak English, and obviously Dennis Miller doesn’t speak Russian, plus there was a few seconds delay. So on live television, he would ask them a question, and they would be waiting not only for the transmission but for the Russian translation and then finally, around the time that they would start to speak the host would decide it was time to ask another question, so they just talked all over each other.”

The statuette (minus its base, which had been removed for weight purposes) came to Air and Space in 2007 when curators were working on an exhibit about images of astronauts in popular culture. The museum approached MTV, and the network donated the Moon Man, along with another blank statuette with an intact base to show what the entire piece looks like together (seen at left). The statuettes aren’t currently on display, but Weitekamp says that one day she would love to do a popular culture exhibit and allow visitors to see a little bit of MTV history.

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