The moon is a harsh mistress. While the world celebrates 50 years of the first men on the moon, it seems unlikely that humanity will be able to return there before the 50th anniversary of the last manned moonshot, in December 2022. Apollo 17 was not only the last manned moon mission, it was also the last to carry a crew beyond low earth orbit, as space programmes turned conservative. Manned lunar missions are prohibitively expensive, offer no financial returns and operate at the cost of welfare. It explains why, before Apollo 11, public enthusiasm was tepid.
But 50 years after, two Asian nations and some private companies are shooting for the moon, and Charles Fishman argues that a profit and loss account misses the point entirely. Apollo 11 was JFK’s political gambit to demonstrate technical superiority in the Cold War, and without it, the world could have been a different place today. Besides, while the project failed to ignite a race to the stars as expected, but it kicked off the digital age and rapid growth in high technology in our era. “Space didn’t get us ready for space,” writes Fishman. “It got us ready for the world that was coming on earth.”
Instead of focusing on the Apollo 11 astronauts and their mission, Fishman brings to centrestage the back office of the operation — the 2,000 companies and over 4 lakh scientists and technicians who made sure that the Saturn V thundered off the launch pad, that the Eagle lander made touchdown, and that every last piece of equipment worked reliably. They included the seamstresses who stitched the spacesuits for the three astronauts, and General Motors engineers who noticed a wedge-shaped space free on the Eagle, and proposed a rover for future missions just months before Apollo 11 was launched.
Fishman outlines the unprecedented scale of the challenge that Nasa faced in 1961, when Kennedy announced the moonshot. At the time, he points out, Americans had spent a grand total of 15 minutes in space. Even the depth of moondust was a matter of debate, and some scientists expected the lander to sink into it for ever. What would astronauts live on? Science fiction has predicted a meal in a pill, but dietitians had to work with everyday foods that might run, spill or crumble in zero gravity. Floating debris might get into the eyes of astronauts, or between the contacts of circuits at a critical moment, severely endangering the mission. The medical profession did not even know how humans would tolerate weightlessness over extended periods. Would they remain rational enough to use a computer and do the math that steering to the moon required?
In retrospect, perhaps the most significant elements of Apollo 11 were computer circuits and programming. At a time when a computer typically filled an air-conditioned hall and could not run for more than a few hours without a hardware failure, the Apollo Guidance Computer was quite small and was the first to use integrated circuits. Each IC contained a single logic gate, and the rig had 2kb of RAM. Equally creative was the programming of the computer, done by Margaret Hamilton’s team at MIT. References to her are littered throughout the book — quite naturally, because she was one of the people who elevated programming to the level of engineering. While programming was originally regarded as a woman’s job, and consisted of wiring and rewiring circuits in the manner of a telephone switchboard operator of the time, Hamilton sought respect for her team by calling them software engineers.
One Giant Leap is one of three notable books which have appeared coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. The others are Douglas Brinkley’s American Moonshot: John F Kennedy and the Great Space Race, which offers a snapshot of the time and its politics, and James Donovan’s Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11, which retraces the back story of Apollo 11 — the earlier missions to space, all the way back to Sputnik. Like Fishman’s account, it marvels at how a nation that could barely get to space could imagine, with complete conviction, that it would make it to the moon. But Fishman’s book is richer for the tiny details that it is littered with. For instance, he tells us that the Apollo spacesuits were stitched by hand. Now, who could have imagined?