‘One Giant Leap’ Explores The Herculean Effort Behind The 1969 Moon Landing

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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.

"[The U.S.] didn't have a spaceship that could fly to the moon," journalist Charles Fishman notes. "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 even some disagreement about whether human beings would be able to think in zero gravity.

Nevertheless, the race to the moon was on — especially after the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit Earth, on April 12, 1961. Fishman's new book, One Giant Leap, tells the story of the ordinary people who mobilized behind the Apollo program to pull off the most extraordinary human achievement: the July 20, 1969, moon landing.

Fishman notes that 410,000 men and women at some 20,000 different companies contributed to the effort. They designed, built and tested the spacecraft and equipment the astronauts used — often working by hand.

"It was an enormous undertaking," he says. "It's 10 times the effort to build the Panama Canal. Three times the size of the Manhattan Project. ... Apollo was the biggest nonmilitary effort in the history of human civilization."

Interview Highlights

On what computers were like in the early '60s and how far they had to come to go to space

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 [out] of four hours. Well, that's only three minutes [out] 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 next to each other, and so this was a huge technology development undertaking of Apollo.

On the seamstresses who wove the computer memory by hand

There was no computer memory of the sort that we think of now on computer chips. The memory was literally woven ... 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. ...

The Apollo computers had a total of 73 [kilobytes] of memory. If you get an email with the morning headlines from your local newspaper, it takes up more space than 73 [kilobytes]. ... They hired seamstresses. ... Every wire had to be right. Because if you got [it] 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.

On the Apollo parachutes that floated the module back to Earth

The parachutes were made of high-tech fabric, and yet they were sewn by hand, and then this sort of marvelous detail: There were only three people in the whole country certified to fold and pack Apollo parachutes. Those three people packed the parachutes for all the Apollo missions, and they had to be relicensed by the FAA every six months to be recertified that they knew what they were doing. And they were considered so valuable to NASA that they were forbidden to ride in the same car at the same time, out of fear that that car would be in a car accident and NASA would be without people to pack its Apollo parachutes.

On the team that designed the spacesuits

There's video of a man named Sonny Reihm who was in charge of creating the spacesuits. The spacesuits were the work of Playtex, the Cross Your Heart Bra people, which in and of itself is a 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 ... decided to see what the limits of his ability to gallivant around on the moon were — and perhaps what the limit of his spacesuit was.

[Aldrin] 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 is in charge of spacesuits, was in mission control in Houston ... with a group of spacesuit people in case something went wrong. He describes just being petrified ... so nervous that Buzz Aldrin was going to do something that was going to cause the spacesuits to fail, and there's the TV camera and there's 600 million people around the world watching and Buzz Aldrin is going to crack open his spacesuit somehow and die. ...

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.

On the heat shield on the command module

The command module is coming back through the atmosphere, it enters the atmosphere at 25,000 miles an hour. So NASA and the scientists and engineers needed to come up with, literally, an all new substance to protect the capsule from heat that was at the surface of the sun. And then they were able to come up with this material, this heat shield epoxy, but then they had to conceive of a way to get it onto the back of the capsule. ...

They came up with a honeycomb grid, in which the cells of the honeycomb would be filled with this heat shield material. But how do you get the heat shield material into the honeycomb? It turned out that the technique they used was an old-fashioned one: They used the equivalent of caulk guns, and the people who filled the honeycomb were called gunners. There were 370,000 cells in that honeycomb framework on the back of the command module; each one of those cells was filled by a person using a sort of sophisticated caulk gun; and filling those cells was considered so important — it had to be done so perfectly — that it took two weeks to train somebody to fill the cells correctly with the sophisticated caulk gun, all done by hand.

On the American flag that was planted on the lunar surface

The really interesting thing is that it didn't even come up until just a few weeks before [Neil] 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? ...

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 said he actually even had conceived a way of making the flag fly. He said he was inspired by his 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. ...

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. It's very un-NASA-like, in fact, to have forgotten to plan something that important in advance.

On humans' first encounter with moon dust

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 spaceship 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.

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. ...

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.

Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

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