One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon
June 21, 2019
Charles Fishman tells "the remarkable story of the trailblazers and the ordinary Americans on the front lines of the epic mission to reach the moon."
One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon by Charles Fishman, Simon & Schuster, 480 pages, Hardcover, June 2019, ISBN 9781501106293
Cornell University astrophysicist Thomas Gold predicted there would be a powdery dust on the Moon. What he didn’t know was how deep it was. There was a chance, he warned, that it was so deep that the Apollo spacecraft and astronauts aboard would be swallowed whole by it. There was also a chance that it would be chemically reactive—that it would explode when it came in contact with oxygen inside the lunar module. Neither of those things happened, of course, but there was another surprise that astronauts discovered on the Moon: the dust had a very distinctive smell—one that dissipates by the time it gets to Earth. I learned this in the first two pages of Charles Fishman’s new book, One Giant Leap.
I would read the phonebook cover to cover if it were written by Charles Fishman. He is that great a writer. Being in the midst of what may be the biggest project in our company’s history, I have not yet completed—cover to cover—his new book about the Apollo program, which is one of the biggest projects in our country’s history, but it has already changed my perspective on the entire endeavor, and on the decade in which it was accomplished. It was a program—and Fishman’s is a book—whose details are both “bold and bemusing.”
The Apollo spacecraft ended up with what was, for its time, the smallest, fastest, and most nimble computer in a single package anywhere in the world. That computer navigated through space and helped the astronauts operate the ship. But the astronauts also travelled to the Moon with paper star charts so they could use a sextant to take star sightings—like the explorers of the 1700s from the deck of a ship—and cross-check their computer’s navigation. The guts of the computer were stitched together by women using wire instead of thread. If fact, as arresting amount of work across Apollo was done by hand: the heat shield was applied to the spaceship by hand with a fancy caulking gun; the parachutes were sewn by hand, and also folded by hand. The only three staff members in the country who were trained and licensed to fold and pack the Apollo parachutes were considered so indispensable that NASA officials forbade them to ever ride in the same car, to avoid their all being injured in a single accident.
The astronauts went to the Moon, and their skill and courage is undeniable, and also well-chronicled. But the astronauts aren’t the ones who made it possible to go to the Moon.
NASA employed more people at Apollo’s peak than any private American company other than General Motors—a company that was itself contracted to build the lunar rover for Apollo’s last three moon landings after two GM engineers took it upon themselves to design and build a scale model of one themselves—and had an additional “20,000 companies across the country making and assembling the pieces of Apollo.”
And for three brief years, from 1969 to 1972, America did what seemed impossible—what was impossible—land human beings on the Moon with such ease and regularity that it became commonplace. We did it at a time when the nation was in upheaval. The first color photo of the Earth taken from space, “Earthrise,” was beamed back at the end of 1968 by the Apollo 8 crew. It was a year Robert F. Kennedy quoted the Greek poet Aeschylus before a crowd assembled in Indianapolis, that:
"In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."
He quoted those words just hours after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the news of which he was relaying to the mostly African American audience assembled before him that night on the campaign trail. He quoted those words, having felt them deeply, I imagine, after the assassination of his own brother—the man who called upon the nation to land a human being on the moon. Those two things happened concurrently in the 1960s, the assassinations and the ascent to space, great upheaval and great promise. That we have not been back to space since 1972 is seen a failure of the space program, but Fishman sees that point of view as a mistake. Earlier in the day of King’s assassination, Kennedy spoke at Notre Dame about the Vietnam War, and the "unjust and inequitable" draft laws that were sending young men to it. He spoke about racism, about poverty in America, and the need for better-paying jobs. Those were all issues King was devoted to, and we would not say he was a failure because his stance against the war, or his March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, did not solve them.
Bobby Kennedy would be assassinated himself just two months after giving that speech. One year later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out of the Apollo 11 spacecraft and onto the surface of the Moon. They would leave behind a plaque that read, “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
That the Moon landing has not lead to further human exploration of the solar system to date, let alone peace for all mankind, does not mean that it was not an ultimate success. Besides accomplishing exactly what it set out to do, in the time John F. Kennedy challenged it to do, the Apollo program and the moon landings hastened the technology that powers the modern age. It was, quite simply, “the dawn of the Digital Age.” NASA’s need for computer chips drove their very development, and drove the cost of them down 99.3 percent from 1960 to 1965, and then another 78 percent by the end of the decade. It was perhaps the best R&D effort in our history, based on an industrial policy that elevated science and technology to a place of prestige it has occupied ever since, and giving it a civilian place and use rather than a military one. As Fishman notes:
The computer chips that flew to the Moon created a market for the computer chips that did everything else.
In 1962, computer chips were considered unreliable. Today, they are the underpinning of our economy, as important a piece of our infrastructure, Fishman posits, as concrete or electricity. American semiconductor companies have dominated the industry for 50 years because they developed the technology, and they developed the technology because NASA needed it to put human beings on the moon. “No, Apollo didn’t usher in the Space Age,” Fishman conceded, “but it did usher in the Digital Age.”
The race to the moon helped unleash all the forces of the technological age in which we live, the culture of technology which is the hallmark of the late 20th-century and early 21st-century America. We revel in that culture and take pride in it; we identify with it, we rely on it, and we also see it as an American creation that we have shared with the world, not unlike the moon landings themselves.
But it did even more than that. People complain that the cost of sending human beings to the moon was too expensive. Apollo cost $19.4 billion over its 11 years. But, at the height of the Vietnam War, it cost $19 billion per year and $111 billion over its lifetime. And at the historical moment when that war was destroying trust and confidence in our government, Apollo was proving its power and effectiveness. As Fishman reminds us:
Apollo was a success. It was a demonstration of American technological prowess, a demonstration of engineering and manufacturing excellence; it was a reminder of American economic power and also American determination.
It was also a reminder of the power of working together. We spent far more trying to defeat communism in Vietnam and failed. But we made it to the moon, and that was also a cold war effort, driven by politics, driven by a desire to show that democracy could triumph over dictatorship. And, as Fishman says, “The moment when they unfurled the American flag, for all the complexity of America’s role in the world, that underscored that it was also an achievement of human freedom.”
It was an achievement of human imagination, and while we didn’t need to send human beings to get the technological and scientific benefits of the space program, we needed it for the human results, for the motivation, and for its addition to our culture and collective memory.
Many things in the world need doing. Flying to the Moon is nowhere on the list of national necessities. But if it is not precisely a necessity, it is still essential—in the way, for instance, art and music and storytelling are essential; in the way that scientists trying to solve the mysteries of the universe.
Even as it birthed a digital economy, the human future is still essentially analog. The experience and the expertise gained from sending human beings to the moon has been so much larger than scientific knowledge alone. To know what the moon smells like seems like a small thing, but it is also unforgettable and essential knowledge. And it wasn’t the achievement of one person. It was the achievement of the American system and people, of many minds and many hands. And that is the story that One Giant Leap tells.
In the end, Fishman argues with the idea that the America that sent Apollo astronauts to the moon was an essentially different America than it is today, that we don’t have the will to achieve such things today. What he shows is that it was a feat of imagination before it was one of human ingenuity and technological innovation. That is what great leadership like that of John F. Kennedy provides—the power of an idea, of a “moonshot.” Kennedy, he believes, reminded us that “Americans are their government, they are their country.” We still are. We can rise to meet the challenges of today—of climate change, of the division within our society—if we are asked, if we are challenged. It is again a time of great upheaval, but it also one of great promise. We have the tools, we simply need the motivation and leadership.