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'One Giant Leap' Explores The Herculean Effort Behind The 1969 Moon Landing

In 1961, when President John F. Kennedy announced a goal of "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth" before the end of the decade, the mission seemed all but impossible.


Other segments from the episode on June 12, 2019

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 12, 2019: Interview with Charles Fishman; Review of the album Western Stars.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week.


JOHN F KENNEDY: I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.

DAVIES: That's President John F. Kennedy in May 1961 just five months into office setting the goal realized with the first Apollo moon landing 50 years ago this summer. Our guest Charles Fishman says when Kennedy announced that goal, the U.S. couldn't have been less prepared to meet it. NASA had no rockets to launch astronauts to the moon, no computer small enough for a spacecraft, no spacesuits to wear and very little idea how they'd pull this off. Even when the moon landing occurred in 1969, there were enough uncertainties that President Richard Nixon had a speech already written in case the astronauts died during the mission.

Fishman's new book is an account of how the nation mobilized to reach the moon, emphasizing the untold stories of the 400,000 men and women who designed, built and tested the spacecraft and equipment the astronauts used, much of the painstaking work done by hand.

Charles Fishman is a longtime journalist who started reporting on the space program for the Washington Post and has written about space for the Atlantic and Smithsonian. He's also the author of the books "The Wal-Mart Effect" and "The Big Thirst." His new book is "One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us To The Moon."

Charles Fishman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. One of the things we learned very early in your book which surprised me is that the astronauts discovered the moon has a smell. What is it?

CHARLES FISHMAN: (Laughter) Well, the smell turns out to be the smell of fireplace ashes or, as Buzz Aldrin put it, the smell of the air after a fireworks show. This was one of the small but sort of delightful surprises about flying to the moon. NASA and the scientists supporting NASA and the astronauts were all aware of and concerned about moon dust.

Moon dust had been in a vacuum for millions, if not billions, of years. And there was a concern that when you brought it back into the lunar module cabin, when you brought it back into the spaceship, you know, all over your spacesuit and sealed the cabin and then pressurized it with oxygen, with an atmosphere, it might react; it might smolder or even catch fire or explode.

And Armstrong and Aldrin actually had been instructed to do a little experiment. They had a little bag of lunar dirt, and they put it on the engine cover of the ascent engine which was in the middle of the lunar module cabin, and then they slowly pressurized the cabin to make sure it wouldn't catch fire, and it didn't. But then they unsnapped their helmets, and the lunar module cabin, which, to be fair, was very small - the size of a small closet or a small pantry - had been filled with the smell of this lunar dirt. It smelled like fireplace ashes or like, as Aldrin said, the air after a fireworks show. And that was a complete surprise.

DAVIES: In that first mission to the moon, a lot of people were surprised by things or at least anxious about them. And one of the little details you describe is the two astronauts were outside on the lunar surface and bouncing around and doing things. There were a few folks looking at them pretty nervously. And they'd had to do with the spacesuits. What were their concerns?

FISHMAN: This was a moment that I actually found captivating, and it really changed my perspective on the work of the people back on Earth who sort of had to do everything that was necessary to get the astronauts to the moon. There's video of a man named Sonny Reihm who was in charge of creating the space suits. The space suits were the work of Playtex, the Cross Your Heart Bra people, which in it of itself is sort of a kind of remarkable moment in the life of NASA that they turned to Playtex to build spacesuits.

And there's video of Sonny Reihm and a couple of his colleagues talking about how nervous they were because Buzz Aldrin, who had the slightly bigger personality of the two first lunar explorers, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin - he was a little more antic. And Buzz Aldrin's still with us, still fairly antic. And they'd been on the surface of the moon about half an hour, and all of a sudden Buzz Aldrin decided to see what the limits of his ability to gallivant around on the moon were and perhaps what the limits of his spacesuit was. He started racing from one side of the landing site to the other, bunny hopping, doing sort of NFL running back cuts this way and that way.

And Sonny Reihm, who was in charge of spacesuits, was in Mission Control in Houston - the industrial division of Playtex was in Delaware - with a group of spacesuit people in case something went wrong. And he describes just being petrified, just being so nervous that Buzz Aldrin was going to do something that was going to cause the space suits to fail. And there's the TV camera, and there's 600 million people around the world watching. And Buzz Aldrin is going to, you know, crack open his spacesuit somehow and die.

And what that did for me was it just reminded me that every one of these missions was sort of pioneering. And NASA was pushing the limits every single time until you sort of get to the later missions. And those folks did not, in fact, know how the story would come out. It came out - you know, every mission was a success. Even Apollo 13, which was a disaster, was a triumph. But I was so struck by their nervousness about their own work.

DAVIES: So this all happened in July of 1969. And what's fascinating about the book is it really takes us the 10 years or so before it that led to the mission. And when President Kennedy decided to challenge the nation to get to the moon in 1961, there was a certain historical context, which was, we were way behind the Soviets in the race for space.

And there's a wonderful little anecdote which I had kind of forgotten about, which is, the first Soviet-manned flight - the astronaut Yuri Gagarin had a short flight, and his descent in particular was really interesting. Just describe that episode for us.

FISHMAN: Yuri Gagarin took one lap around the Earth, one orbit. And the Russians had launched him without knowing how to slow down the spacecraft. And so Yuri Gagarin was ejected from his space capsule at about 40,000 feet. He and his seat and his spacesuit were ejected. The capsule came down in one place. The seat came down in another place. And Yuri Gagarin is the only space traveler to ever parachute down from his journey into space. He had parachutes. He landed in a potato field.

The Soviets kept that secret for many years. The New York Times actually found someone within a few days who speculated that Gagarin's spacecraft hadn't landed with the astronaut in it. The Russians were worried that the international spaceflight body wouldn't certify it as a spaceflight if he hadn't come down with his spacecraft. That's why they kept it a secret. But it was an extraordinary end to the first ever space mission of a human being.

DAVIES: So the drive to reach the moon before the end of the decade was rooted in the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. At the end of the 1950s, where did the U.S. stand in comparison to the Soviets and the reach for space?

FISHMAN: The Soviets beat the Americans to every significant early space milestone. The Soviets launched, of course, the first space mission of any kind, Sputnik. It was just a beeping satellite. A month later, they launched a spaceship that weighed half a ton and carried the dog Laika. So they launched the first creature into space. Laika unfortunately never came back. Laika died in space.

The Soviets launched the first creatures to space that they then recovered, who reentered the atmosphere and were recovered safe and sound - two dogs, Strelka and Belka. The Soviets went to the moon with a robotic craft before the United States. They photographed the far side of the moon in an extraordinary sort of technical achievement. And they had the film from those photographs developed onboard the spacecraft, digitized and sent back to Russia all before the end of the 1950s.

And then famously, of course, they launched the first person into space. That was April 12, 1961. So John Kennedy had been president just three months. And at that point, both Kennedy and Congress were really frustrated at coming in second.

DAVIES: We should note that the American program was noted by spectacular - really spectacular failures - I mean, rockets blowing up on the launching pad.

FISHMAN: Right. There's this very famous moment. The Russians launched Sputnik 1. Thirty days later, they launch Sputnik 2, which is 1,100 pounds with a living creature in it and a TV camera. A month after that, the U.S. Vanguard program is set to launch in early December - a single satellite that weighs 6 pounds. It weighed less than half what the dog Laika weighed. And that Vanguard launch got exactly 3 feet off the launch pad before it crashed back onto the launch pad at Cape Canaveral and exploded in gales of flame and smoke.

And that was a worldwide mortification. The New York Times literally ran an entire page of mocking comments from the Polish army and the editorial pages of Paris, France. It was called Kaputnik and Flopnik.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

FISHMAN: And it's a little hard to appreciate now, but it wasn't just an embarrassment. The Cold War was a life and death struggle - you know, the war in Korea, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis, ultimately Vietnam. And so the fact that the Soviets were performing so publicly and so well in space made it look like they had drawn equal with the U.S. in sort of technical, scientific, engineering proficiency.

DAVIES: So when Kennedy decided in the spring of 1961 that it would be a national goal to reach the moon, how much did our scientists know about getting there?

FISHMAN: It was literally impossible when he asked us to do it. We didn't have a spaceship that could fly to the moon. We didn't have a rocket that could launch to the moon. We didn't have a computer small enough or powerful enough to do the navigation necessary to get people to the moon. We didn't have space food.

There was an argument at that moment about whether human beings would even be able to think in zero gravity. We could not have been less prepared to do this. And inside NASA - and Kennedy was told this - they thought there was only a 50-50 chance of making it safely to the moon and back by Kennedy's deadline of the end of the '60s.

DAVIES: Wow. So a lot of your book is looking at the people that made this happen - you know, not the astronauts, but the - you know, those who had to design and build and test all of these various systems that made the launch possible. We'll talk about some. But generally, what was the scale of this effort? How many people? How many companies? How much money?

FISHMAN: Apollo was the biggest non-military effort in the history of human civilization. Four hundred ten thousand people worked on Apollo, 20,000 companies. It's ten times the effort to build the Panama Canal, three times the size of the Manhattan Project. In fact, in several years of Apollo, there were more people working on 11 space missions - there were 11 Apollo missions in the end - more people working on those than fighting in Vietnam. It was an enormous undertaking.

DAVIES: So one of the things that needed to be resolved was how to get some computing power on the spacecraft, which would provide guidance for the spaceships as they traveled to the moon, as they orbited around the moon, as they landed on the moon and returned. What was the state of the computer industry then?

FISHMAN: The computer industry was just at its very beginnings. There's a wonderful moment from one of the people in charge of designing computers for the spaceships at MIT. MIT got the contract to design the computers and then program them and supervise their construction and assembly. And he said, it's hard to appreciate now, but in 1961, 1962, 1963, computers had the opposite reputation of the reputation they have now. Most computers couldn't go more than a few hours without breaking down.

Even on John Glenn's famous orbital flight - the first U.S. orbital flight - the computers in Mission Control stopped working for three minutes of four hours. Well, that's only three minutes of four hours, but that was the most important computer in the world during that four hours, and they couldn't keep it going during the entire orbital mission of John Glenn.

So they needed computers that were small, lightweight, fast and absolutely reliable. And the computers that were available then - even the compact computers - were the size of two or three refrigerators, you know, next to each other - consoles. And so this was a huge technology development undertaking of Apollo.

We often hear, almost dismissively, that the race to the moon didn't involve any kind of fundamental breakthroughs the way the Manhattan Project did. But taking a computer the size of three refrigerators lined up next to each other and making it literally the size of a small briefcase and having the small one be much more powerful and much more capable than the big one - that was a fundamental breakthrough. And MIT did it.

DAVIES: Not many people will remember this - I do - that back then, these room-sized computers - the way we would communicate with them was by hundreds and hundreds or thousands of punch cards, each of them carrying a specific instruction for a piece of the program. You would feed all these punch cards into the computer. That's how it would operate. That clearly wasn't going to work for a machine that needed to do real-time guidance of a ship landing on the moon.

FISHMAN: Right. As you say, that wasn't - you couldn't fly to the moon that way. You needed instantaneous computing of the sort, of course, that we're accustomed to that basically didn't exist when Kennedy said, let's go to the moon. And the computer also had to be run by the astronaut.

The Apollo spacecraft computers - it's called the Apollo Guidance Computer - it had to be small, fast, nimble. And it also had to have a user interface that the astronauts could use. And MIT, and then Raytheon, did all that, and it was really an extraordinary achievement in 1969. They ended up with this small, what was then superfast computer. And it was so designed with the astronauts in mind that the keys on the keyboard were a little oversized because the astronauts would often be using the computer while they were wearing spacesuit gloves.

DAVIES: Right. It really was something brand-new. And there's something you describe in the book - I don't exactly understand this - but that the software code was woven into the memory of the Apollo Guidance Computer. And this required people, who turned out to be women who essentially almost did the work of seamstresses with this very, very thin wire - can you explain what this process was?

FISHMAN: Well, you've got it almost exactly right. It's just hard to get your brain around. There was no computer memory of the sort we think of now. And so the computer memory for the Apollo computer - what happened was - and this happened not just in the computer but in a couple of other arenas. The ability to conceive the technology that was needed ran a little bit ahead of the ability to manufacture it. And the computers were a perfect example. There was no computer memory of the sort that we think of now on computer chips. The memory was literally woven in ones and zeros onto modules. And the only way to get the wires exactly right was to have people using needles and, instead of thread, wire weave the computer program one one and zero at a time.

The Apollo computers had a total of 73k of memory. If you get an email with the morning headlines from your local newspaper, it takes up more space than 73k, right? And it took these women - and they turned out to be women. They hired seamstresses who were - every wire had to be right because if you got a one or a zero wrong, the computer program didn't work. They hired women, and it took eight weeks to manufacture the memory for a single Apollo flight computer, and that eight weeks of manufacturing was literally sitting at sophisticated looms, weaving wires one wire at a time.

DAVIES: There's a lovely little detail where - I think where Raytheon had a strike. Some management people tried to substitute - right? - some guys with not particularly positive results (laughter).

FISHMAN: It turned out - right - Raytheon had a strike in the middle of the race to the moon, and the all the factory workers walked out. And the supervisors tried to do the work that the women had been doing. And as one of the supervisors said, everything we made was trash. It all went in the garbage when the strike was over.

DAVIES: There's another question that the planners of the Apollo mission had to resolve. And you described this in a chapter as how do you get to the moon. This was a really big strategic question in designing the program. What was the dilemma that they had to overcome?

FISHMAN: When I say that in 1961 when Kennedy said, let's go to the moon; NASA didn't know how to do it, that is absolutely fundamentally true. They didn't know what kind of rocket they wanted to take to the moon, how they would get that rocket there. We have this image of the huge Saturn 5 launching and then the smaller spaceship, the command module and the lunar module sort of, you know, coming off and heading for the moon and coming back. But there were many options about how to get to the moon, and the two most popular were to send a single, large rocket all the way to the moon, land it on the moon butt-down with the three astronauts at the top and then take back off. That was that was one of the most popular plans. And the second was to send two big rockets into space from Earth and then assemble a lunar rocket in Earth orbit and then send it to the moon.

And it took a man named John Houbolt almost two years to persuade NASA that neither of those really ill-conceived ideas was going to work. John Houbolt worked for NASA. He was sort of a mid-level engineer, pretty highly regarded, but he eventually became something of a crank. What he figured out and lobbied for was that there's this critical problem, which is that anything that you're taking all the way to the moon requires an enormous amount of fuel. So even the fuel requires fuel. So if you're going to launch an eight-story rocket back off the moon, you've got to have all the fuel in the rocket from the launch pad at Cape Kennedy to launch it back up off the moon. And that's just not practical. You can't carry that much fuel when you launch in the first place.

And so Houbolt ran this campaign inside NASA to get them to understand that what you really needed was a small, nimble, sort of moon shuttle, a moon ferry to go just from orbit in the moon down to the surface, back up. And then you discard that spaceship and come home without it. And he literally had to put his own job at risk. He jumped about nine levels in the chain of command in frustration and wrote to Robert Seamans, the second in command of all of NASA. He wrote a letter saying, you may think I'm a crank, but you guys need to change how you're thinking about how we're going to get to the moon, or we're not going to get there.

DAVIES: Instead of building a rocket larger than anyone had ever seen and try to fly it all the way to the moon and then take off and then back, they launched these - this assembly of several different pieces - a big service module which had a lot of the material that they'd use, the command module that the astronauts would fly and then this lunar module which would descend to the surface of the moon after the exploration. Only the top half breaks off - it's that much lighter - gets back, rejoins the rest of it, and they come home. It's lighter. It does require a lot of rendezvous in space, which was not so easy.

FISHMAN: That was the part that scared NASA. It seems kind of silly to think, why would anybody in NASA argue for trying to land an 80-foot rocket on the surface of the moon with no support staff, no place to land? How would that ever work? What the people at NASA were scared about was the complexity of bringing two spaceships together in orbit.

And it's really hard for everyday people to understand how hard space travel is. And NASA does this all the time now. But when you send a spaceship up to, for instance, the International Space Station - when you send the - when we used to send the space shuttle to the space station, in order to catch another object in orbit, if you speed up, if you point the nose of your spaceship at the thing you want to rendezvous with and you're in orbit around the Earth, and you give it some gas, you aim right at it and fly toward it, you end up above it and behind it. Instead of getting closer, the harder you charge at that thing, because of the complexity of orbital mechanics, the farther away you get.

And in the early 1960s, NASA was worried about the skill necessary to sort of put aside your intuitive sense of how to fly in space and learn to rendezvous. And the feeling was, if we rendezvous in Earth's orbit, if something goes wrong, we're only 250 miles away. We can just come home. If the lunar module flies to the surface of the moon and then, somehow, the lunar module coming back off the moon can't get back to the command module, then you've got astronauts looping around the moon forever with no way of getting home. That's what they were worried about, and they only got confidence in doing it that way once NASA and the astronauts started to learn how to rendezvous in space.

DAVIES: There was a big catastrophe in the space program. In 1967 - January of 67' - a fire - not in a mission, not in a flight, but on the ground - killed three astronauts. What happened?

FISHMAN: The three astronauts - Grissom, Chaffee and White - were supposed to be the first astronauts to fly in the Apollo spacecraft. And they were on - they were in the capsule on the launch pad, running tests for a mission that would've been about a month off. And the interior of the command module, the interior of the spaceship they were in during the test caught fire, and they - all three died literally in less than a minute. The fire was horrific in the interior of the spacecraft.

And the - when the pressure hull of the command module burst because of the pressure from the fire within the first minute or minute and a half of the fire, the explosion was so powerful that it knocked the people staffing the test on the launch pad off their feet. It knocked them onto the ground.

And so that was an absolutely terrible event. It was a terrible event, obviously, for the astronauts and their families, but for NASA and for the nation. And it called into question whether this was worth doing. A senator named Walter Mondale really went after NASA and the whole effort and said, this is a waste of money, and this is a waste of lives.

And most important, the fire revealed that the culture we associate with NASA in the 1960s - this no errors, no problems, everything perfect - in January 1967, that culture didn't exist. The fire was really the result of careless assembly of spacecraft. And it - the fire was a searing experience, but it - in the end, the fire was the reason that NASA and the United States made it to the moon successfully because it transformed the culture inside NASA. People suddenly realized that everything they did mattered and everything they did could take down - any small thing could take down a space mission.

DAVIES: So double, triple, quadruple-checking everything after that.

FISHMAN: Double, triple, quadruple-checking. And they just built in systems differently. There was a kind of astonishing moment at the lunar module factory in Bethpage, Long Island, in the wake of the fire in which a senior NASA official went around with a cigarette lighter - went around the factory trying to light parts of the lunar module on fire. And the managers at Grumman just looked on in horror, as they couldn't say anything. This was the customer. He said, I'm just trying to show you how dangerous your lunar module is, and you are going to have to change how you do business.

And as part of coming back from the fire, at one point, Grumman literally put a pan of blazing gasoline inside a lunar module that had been redesigned to show that the only thing that would burn inside the lunar module, if you happened to have a burning pan of gasoline in it, was the burning pan of gasoline.

DAVIES: When it seemed clear that the United States was going to reach its goal and get a crew to the moon and back, the question arose of whether an American flag would be planted on the surface of the moon. Was there much debate about that? How did people consider the question?

FISHMAN: Well, the really interesting thing is that it didn't even come up until just a few weeks before Armstrong and Aldrin took off. There was no NASA effort to think about, how do you celebrate this moment of landing on the moon not as a technical achievement but as a human achievement? And it was - oddly, it was a line or two in Richard Nixon's inaugural address that caused someone inside NASA - a senior headquarters official - to say, we've got to do something on the surface of the moon. They formed - NASA formed the Committee on Symbolic Activities for the First Lunar Landing. (Laughter) If that's not a NASA moment, I don't know what is. And the committee didn't meet until April 1, 1969. The first moon landing launched July 16.

And at that meeting, a guy named Jack Kinzler, who worked at the manned space flight center in Houston, suggested two things. He suggested the plaque, which ended up being attached to the leg of the lunar module. And he suggested the flag. And he actually even had conceived way of making the flag fly. He said he was inspired by his mom's own work when he was a child making curtains. And that's what the flag is. The Apollo flag turns out to be a sort of sophisticated curtain-rod rig. The rods are hinged at the upper corner, and the astronauts would bring the horizontal rod up. And it would latch into place, and then you could slide the flag out. The flag was hemmed at the top. And they were just ordinary, off-the-shelf $8 flags.

There was - NASA briefly proposed to Congress that they'd take a United Nations flag. And you can imagine how that would go over in today's political environment. And it went over exactly the same way in the political environment of 1969. Tom Paine, the administrator of NASA then, was told that if he sent any flag but the United States' flag to be posted on the moon, he would find his funding eliminated (laughter), so NASA took that to heart.

What's amazing is that that is the iconic photo both from Apollo 11 and from many of the later missions. The flag flying and an astronaut holding it or standing next to it - that's one of the images we associate with the moon landing. And so it's very un-NASA-like, in fact, to have forgotten to plan something that important in advance.

DAVIES: So what's the state of American space exploration today?

FISHMAN: It's a little bit of a both exciting moment and a sad moment. The United States today has no way of putting its own astronauts into space. We rely on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which was first conceived and built in 1965. So the nation that beat the Russians to the moon now has no way of getting its own astronauts into space. We are - we have less capacity as a space-faring nation than we did in 1965. And we are literally depending on 30-year-old technology from the nation that we raced to the moon successfully, so NASA's space program - the manned part - is sort of in a ditch at the moment. The exciting part of the space program - one of the exciting elements is the unmanned robotic probes. NASA does a really spectacular job with that. You don't need to watch those missions over the shoulder of the JPL folks every day. But when those pictures come back from Mars from the orbiting space telescopes, that really opens a window on the universe. And that work is spectacular.

And, you know, we're having a real blossoming of what may turn out to be the dawn of the Space Age we imagined was coming - the Jetsons-style space age we always imagined was coming in the 1960s. Elon Musk and SpaceX, Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin - those guys are really driving the development of space infrastructure. How do we get the cost of going to space down and the reliability up? We need rockets we can reuse over and over again. We don't fly from LAX to LaGuardia and then throw the jet away every day. That seems insane. And then tomorrow we get a new one and get to LaGuardia and throw the plane away, but that's how we've run space travel until now.

And Bezos and Musk are really driving a new era in which the cost of going to space will come down literally by 90 or 99% because we'll use rockets the way we use airplanes. That's not going to happen by 2025. But it is quite possible that 15 or 20 years from now, you'll be able to go to space as part of your routine work the way people go to an offshore oil rig or go spend six months in orbit doing scientific research the way somebody might go spend six months in Delhi or six months in Beijing on a work assignment. I think we're at the dawn of an era in which space travel for important purposes will become a lot more routine.

DAVIES: Well, Charles Fishman, thanks so much for speaking with us.

FISHMAN: Thanks so much for having me, Dave.

DAVIES: Charles Fishman's book is "One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us To The Moon." Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews Bruce Springsteen's new solo album "Western Stars." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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