Among the flurry of statistics to be found in a pair of new books about the Apollo program, two numbers stand out: 20 and 45. The first, from David Whitehouse’s Apollo 11: The Inside Story, marks the percentage of human beings currently alive who were drawing breath when Neil Armstrong’s boot landed on the surface of the moon in 1969. The second, from Charles Fishman’s One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon, is the percentage of Americans who, in 1968, thought our space program was worth the expense.
The first number captures the unexpected foreignness of America’s moonshot years. In 1969, the moon landing was widely understood to be simply the first “small step” into a larger cosmos. Instead, the Apollo program wrapped up and that was that. I’m 43 years old, a “young man” only to ancient liquor-store clerks, and no human being has walked on the moon in my lifetime. My most vivid memory of watching lunar exploration on TV comes from cable reruns of Superman II.
The second number is part of Fishman’s justification for writing a different kind of Apollo book. From the beginning, the author suggests, histories of Apollo have shared the kind of focus Whitehouse brings to bear: a focus on the astronauts and their in-flight experiences. That’s understandable, but Fishman is fascinated with the rest of the iceberg, the vast program America mobilized to land a dozen men on the moon.
Fishman also wants to situate the program in the ’60s. We went to the moon while also fighting a war in Vietnam and undergoing an unprecedented social upheaval. No wonder most Americans thought we had a better use for that $4 billion a year — and no wonder the relatively modest amount of public demand for a succeeding mission has yet to bring one about. If the space program had only 45% support when it was about to make history, what does it have today?
Both authors draw attention to just how inextricable the Apollo program was from its Cold War context. Whitehouse’s book, with its straightforward timeline, makes this almost alarmingly clear: rocketry pioneers had stars in their eyes, but their governmental sponsors were seeing mushroom clouds.
By the end of World War II, it was clear that rocket-mounted nuclear weapons would transform our notions of military power. As long as there was any possibility of a window in which potential opponents would have them and your side wouldn’t, there was no priority higher than developing such weapons for yourself. If you didn’t, you’d be like the Rebels facing the Death Star — with dozens of thermal exhaust ports to target instead of just one.
Although the role of space in future conflicts was less clear, most military planners and members of the public assumed there would be one. That’s why the space race was funded like a military program, and framed as a competition between the world’s two superpowers.
Whitehouse devotes a lot of attention to the Russian side of the race, which adds an almost poignant layer to the story. Russia’s early successes — launching the first satellite, putting the first human in space — lit a fire under American efforts, but ironically became an impediment to Russia’s own chances of reaching the moon first.
Humiliated in the world’s eyes, John F. Kennedy set an ambitious goal: landing men on the moon within the decade. (Fishman points out that his language was carefully chosen: “before this decade is out” could have been stretched to mean ten years from the date of his 1961 speech.) With that bold but relatively long-term goal, NASA could design a series of missions that would develop the tools and experience needed to effect a successful moon landing.
Russia, on the other hand, had become hooked on the quick P.R. hit of the showy success. Instead of concentrating on sustained development, they launched a series of increasingly risky missions that strained their existing technology beyond its limit…with deadly results for their cosmonauts.
The U.S. got better at publicity, too. In our current era of live-streamed everything, it’s hard to appreciate just how daring it was for NASA to make its most ambitious efforts public in real time. As Fishman writes, if one of the Apollo astronauts happened to tear his spacesuit, “The suit would deflate instantly, catastrophically, and the astronaut would die, on TV, in front of the world.”
That kind of consequence applied to every aspect of the Apollo program, which is where Fishman derives his fascination with the technology underlying the program. It didn’t just have to be innovative in its design and pioneering in its effect, it had to be absolutely reliable.
While both authors acknowledge that the 1960s space program didn’t lead to the far-out achievements that enthusiasts anticipated — a permanent moon base, a Mars landing — Fishman argues that it was a decisive spur to U.S. technology, that in a sense you carry the legacy of Apollo in your pocket.
To track the moon missions, writes Fishman, NASA built “the world’s first dedicated high-speed data network.” 2,300 people were staffed to run the network alone, which allowed Mission Control to remain in near-constant radio contact with the astronauts and to track their ship with a precision greater even than the spaceships themselves were able to manage.
Fishman also devotes fascinated attention to what was considered “the fourth crew member” on Apollo: the computer the astronauts used to deliver data and control their ship. You’ll appreciate 2001 in a whole new light after reading Fishman’s description of how revolutionary it was for anyone in the 1960s to be interfacing live with a computing device, let alone one tasked with performing critical functions. Engineers had to not only design and build a compact computer with power that was then unprecedented, they had to design an interface using only a limited keypad and a series of calculator-style numeral displays.
To fully appreciate the texture and scope of the mission, though, you have to see it — ideally on as large a screen as possible. I stand by First Man as one of last year’s most under-appreciated movies, but even so pristine a recreation is no substitute for the real thing. A “First Steps Edition” of Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary Apollo 11 is now playing at IMAX venues and Omnitheaters across the country (including at the Science Museum of Minnesota).
As a film, it’s almost review-proof. The majestic footage of the massive Saturn V rocket is judiciously edited, and Matt Morton’s original score lends a touch of atmosphere without being overbearing. Presented with diagrams that serve as a primer on the mechanics of the flight, Apollo 11 is testament to NASA’s dedication to capturing as much footage of the historic flight as possible. If there was ever an original “pics or it didn’t happen” event, it was the moon landing.
All told, the greatest legacy of the Apollo program may be neither its physical or its technological frontier-pushing, but simply the fact that we were able to make it happen. One of the many new words it added to the language was the compound “moonshot,” indicating a vastly daunting task requiring large-scale mobilization of a society’s resources.
Over the years there have been plenty of calls for another literal moonshot, as well as other worthy “moonshots” like curing cancer. None have been achieved, though — at least not as deliberately and spectacularly as the Apollo program was.
As the former vice-president of Boston University Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, I share Whitehouse’s sense of loss at the deflating decades since men last walked on the moon. For those of us still struck with the romance of space, there is a bitterness to the fact that for all our technological advances over the past 50 years, we seem as a human race to have decided that space exploration is optional.
Of course, it always was. Some aspects of the Apollo logistics also support the notion that maybe, just as the geographic exploration of Earth has led to irreversible corruption, we’d just do the same thing to space. If you were to visit the Apollo 11 landing site now, after all, you’d find an abandoned campsite — complete with human waste, discarded food packaging, and a collapsed American flag. (That latter detail is a fairly delicious touch given the absurd criticism of First Man for giving the flag too little screen time.)
We do need a moonshot more than ever, but it’s not a moonshot: it’s a Green New Deal, or whatever it takes to preserve spaceship Earth for future generations. The challenge is far greater than landing on the moon, which is one reason no less eminent a scientist than Stephen Hawking argued we need to keep exploring space because one day soon we’ll need to abandon Earth.
Can we muster the innovative, collaborative spirit of Apollo to save the planet that served as its launching pad? This time, of course, we don’t have a convenient rival to motivate us: just the possibility of facing oblivion if we fail. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…