On November 5, 1958, NASA, only four months old at the time, created the Space Task Group (STG) to manage its manned spaceflight programs. Although there had been earlier military studies of manned space concepts and many saw eventual manned orbital flights growing out of the rocket plane projects conducted by NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and the U.S. Air Force, at the time of the STG’s formation the U.S. had no formal manned space program. The initial group numbered 45 in all, including eight secretaries and “computers”—operators of electromechanical desk calculators, staffed largely with people from the NACA’s Langley Research Center and initially headquartered there. There were no firm plans for manned spaceflight, no budget approved to pay for it, no spacecraft, no boosters, no launch facilities, no mission control centre, no astronauts, no plans to select and train them, and no experience either with human flight above the Earth’s atmosphere or with more than a few seconds of weightlessness. And yet this team, the core of an effort which would grow to include around 400,000 people at NASA and its 20,000 industry and academic contractors, would, just ten years and nine months later, on July 20th, 1969, land two people on the surface of the Moon and then return them safely to the Earth.
Ten years is not a long time when it comes to accomplishing a complicated technological project. Development of the Boeing 787, a mid-sized commercial airliner which flew no further, faster, or higher than its predecessors, and was designed and built using computer-aided design and manufacturing technologies, took eight years from project launch to entry into service, and the F-35 fighter plane only entered service and then only in small numbers of one model a full twenty-three years after the start of its development.
In November, 1958, nobody in the Space Task Group was thinking about landing on the Moon. Certainly, trips to the Moon had been discussed in fables from antiquity to Jules Verne’s classic De la terre à la lune of 1865, and in 1938 members of the British Interplanetary Society published a (totally impractical) design for a Moon rocket powered by more than two thousand solid rocket motors bundled together, which would be discarded once burned out, but only a year since the launch of the first Earth satellite and when nothing had been successfully returned from Earth orbit to the Earth, talk of manned Moon ships sounded like—lunacy.
The small band of stalwarts at the STG undertook the already daunting challenge of manned space flight with an incremental program they called Project Mercury, whose goal was to launch a single man into Earth orbit in a capsule (unable to change its orbit once released from the booster rocket, it barely deserved the term “spacecraft”) atop a converted Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile. In essence, the idea was to remove the warhead, replace it with a tiny cone-shaped can with a man in it, and shoot him into orbit. At the time the project began, the reliability of the Atlas rocket was around 75%, so NASA could expect around one in four launches to fail, with the Atlas known for spectacular explosions on the ground or on the way to space. When, in early 1960, the newly-chosen Mercury astronauts watched a test launch of the rocket they were to ride, it exploded less than a minute after launch. This was the fifth consecutive failure of an Atlas booster (although not all were so spectacular).
Doing things which were inherently risky on tight schedules with a shoestring budget (compared to military projects) and achieving an acceptable degree of safety by fanatic attention to detail and mountains of paperwork (NASA engineers quipped that no spacecraft could fly until the mass of paper documenting its construction and test equalled that of the flight hardware) became an integral part of the NASA culture. NASA was proceeding on its deliberate, step-by-step development of Project Mercury, and in 1961 was preparing for the first space flight by a U.S. astronaut, not into orbit on an Atlas, just a 15 minute suborbital hop on a version of the reliable Redstone rocket that launched the first U.S. satellite in 1958 when, on April 12, 1961, they were to be sorely disappointed when the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin into orbit on Vostok 1. Not only was the first man in space a Soviet, they had accomplished an orbital mission, which NASA hadn’t planned to attempt until at least the following year.
On May 5, 1961, NASA got back into the game, or at least the minor league, when Alan Shepard was launched on Mercury-Redstone 3. Sure, it was just a 15 minute up and down, but at least an American had been in space, if only briefly, and it was enough to persuade a recently-elected, young U.S. president smarting from being scooped by the Soviets to “take longer strides”. On May 25, less than three weeks after Shepard’s flight, before a joint session of Congress, President Kennedy said, “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 Earth.” Kennedy had asked his vice president, Lyndon Johnson, what goal the U.S. could realistically hope to achieve before the Soviets, and after consulting with the NASA administrator, James Webb, a Texas oil man and lawyer, and no other NASA technical people other than Wernher von Braun, he reported that a manned Moon landing was the only milestone the Soviets, with their heavy boosters and lead in manned space flight, were unlikely to do first. So, to the Moon it was.
The Space Task Group people who were, ultimately going to be charged with accomplishing this goal and had no advance warning until they heard Kennedy’s speech or got urgent telephone calls from colleagues who had also heard the broadcast were, in the words of their leader, Robert Gilruth, who had no more warning than his staff, “aghast”. He and his team had, like von Braun in the 1950s, envisioned a deliberate, step-by-step development of space flight capability: manned orbital flight, then a more capable spacecraft with a larger crew able to maneuver in space, a space station to explore the biomedical issues of long-term space flight and serve as a base to assemble craft bound farther into space, perhaps a reusable shuttle craft to ferry crew and cargo to space without (wastefully and at great cost) throwing away rockets designed as long-range military artillery on every mission,followed by careful reconnaissance of the Moon by both unmanned and manned craft to map its surface, find safe landing zones, and then demonstrate the technologies that would be required to get people there and back safely.
All that was now clearly out the window. If Congress came through with the massive funds it would require, going to the Moon would be a crash project like the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb in World War II, or the massive industrial mobilisation to build Liberty Ships or the B-17 and B-29 bombers. The clock was ticking: when Kennedy spoke, there were just 3142 days until December 31, 1969 (yes, I know the decade actually ends at the end of 1970, since there was no year 0 in the Gregorian calendar, but explaining this to clueless Americans is a lost cause), around eight years and seven months. What needed to be done? Everything. How much time was there to do it? Not remotely enough. Well, at least the economy was booming, politicians seemed willing to pay the huge bills for what needed to be done, and there were plenty of twenty-something newly-minted engineering graduates ready and willing to work around the clock without a break to make real what they’d dreamed of since reading science fiction in their youth.
The Apollo Project was simultaneously one of the most epochal and inspiring accomplishments of the human species, far more likely to be remembered a thousand years hence than anything else that happened in the twentieth century, and at the same time a politically-motivated blunder which retarded human expansion into the space frontier. Kennedy’s speech was at the end of May 1961. Perhaps because the Space Task Group was so small, it and NASA were able to react with a speed which is stunning to those accustomed to twenty year development projects for hardware far less complicated than Apollo.
In June and July , detailed specifications for the spacecraft hardware were completed. By the end of July, the Requests for Proposals were on the street.
In August, the first hardware contract was awarded to M.I.T.’s Instrumentation Laboratory for the Apollo guidance system. NASA selected Merritt Island, Florida, as the site for a new spaceport and acquired 125 square miles of land.
In September, NASA selected Michoud, Louisiana, as the production facility for the Saturn rockets, acquired a site for the Manned Spacecraft Center—the Space Task Group grown up—south of Houston, and awarded the contract for the second stage of the Saturn [V] to North American Aviation.
In October, NASA acquired 34 square miles for a Saturn test facility in Mississippi.
In November, the Saturn C-1 was successfully launched with a cluster of eight engines, developing 1.3 million pounds of thrust. The contract for the command and service module was awarded to North American Aviation.
By January of 1962, construction had begun at all of the acquired sites and development was under way at all of the contractors.
Such was the urgency with which NASA was responding to Kennedy’s challenge and deadline that all of these decisions and work were done before deciding on how to get to the Moon—the so-called “mission mode”. There were three candidates: direct-ascent, Earth orbit rendezvous (EOR), and lunar orbit rendezvous (LOR). Direct ascent was the simplest, and much like idea of a Moon ship in golden age science fiction. One launch from Earth would send a ship to the Moon which would land there, then take off and return directly to Earth. There would be no need for rendezvous and docking in space (which had never been attempted, and nobody was sure was even possible), and no need for multiple launches per mission, which was seen as an advantage at a time when rockets were only marginally reliable and notorious for long delays from their scheduled launch time. The downside of direct-ascent was that it would require an enormous rocket: planners envisioned a monster called Nova which would have dwarfed the Saturn V eventually used for Apollo and required new manufacturing, test, and launch facilities to accommodate its size. Also, it is impossible to design a ship which is optimised both for landing under rocket power on the Moon and re-entering Earth’s atmosphere at high speed. Still, direct-ascent seemed to involve the least number of technological unknowns. Ever wonder why the Apollo service module had that enormous Service Propulsion System engine? When it was specified, the mission mode had not been chosen, and it was made powerful enough to lift the entire command and service module off the lunar surface and return them to the Earth after a landing in direct-ascent mode.
Earth orbit rendezvous was similar to what Wernher von Braun envisioned in his 1950s popular writings about the conquest of space. Multiple launches would be used to assemble a Moon ship in low Earth orbit, and then, when it was complete, it would fly to the Moon, land, and then return to Earth. Such a plan would not necessarily even require a booster as large as the Saturn V. One might, for example, launch the lunar landing and return vehicle on one Saturn I, the stage which would propel it to the Moon on a second, and finally the crew on a third, who would board the ship only after it was assembled and ready to go. This was attractive in not requiring the development of a giant rocket, but required on-time launches of multiple rockets in quick succession, orbital rendezvous and docking (and in some schemes, refuelling), and still had the problem of designing a craft suitable both for landing on the Moon and returning to Earth.
Lunar orbit rendezvous was originally considered a distant third in the running. A single large rocket (but smaller than Nova) would launch two craft toward the Moon. One ship would be optimised for flight through the Earth’s atmosphere and return to Earth, while the other would be designed solely for landing on the Moon. The Moon lander, operating only in vacuum and the Moon’s weak gravity, need not be streamlined or structurally strong, and could be potentially much lighter than a ship able to both land on the Moon and return to Earth. Finally, once its mission was complete and the landing crew safely back in the Earth return ship, it could be discarded, meaning that all of the hardware needed solely for landing on the Moon need not be taken back to the Earth. This option was attractive, requiring only a single launch and no gargantuan rocket, and allowed optimising the lander for its mission (for example, providing better visibility to its pilots of the landing site), but it not only required rendezvous and docking, but doing it in lunar orbit which, if they failed, would strand the lander crew in orbit around the Moon with no hope of rescue.
After a high-stakes technical struggle, in the latter part of 1962, NASA selected lunar orbit rendezvous as the mission mode, with each landing mission to be launched on a single Saturn V booster, making the decision final with the selection of Grumman as contractor for the Lunar Module in November of that year. Had another mission mode been chosen, it is improbable in the extreme that the landing would have been accomplished in the 1960s.
The Apollo architecture was now in place. All that remained was building machines which had never been imagined before, learning to do things (on-time launches, rendezvous and docking in space, leaving spacecraft and working in the vacuum, precise navigation over distances no human had ever travelled before, and assessing all of the “unknown unknowns” [radiation risks, effects of long-term weightlessness, properties of the lunar surface, ability to land on lunar terrain, possible chemical or biological threats on the Moon, etc.]) and developing plans to cope with them.
This masterful book is the story of how what is possibly the largest collection of geeks and nerds ever assembled and directed at a single goal, funded with the abundant revenue from an economic boom, spurred by a geopolitical competition against the sworn enemy of liberty, took on these daunting challenges and, one by one, overcame them, found a way around, or simply accepted the risk because it was worth it. They learned how to tame giant rocket engines that randomly blew up by setting off bombs inside them. They abandoned the careful step-by-step development of complex rockets in favour of “all-up testing” (stack all of the untested pieces the first time, push the button, and see what happens) because “there wasn’t enough time to do it any other way”. People were working 16–18–20 hours a day, seven days a week. Flight surgeons in Mission Control handed out “go and whoa pills”—amphetamines and barbiturates—to keep the kids on the console awake at work and asleep those few hours they were at home—hey, it was the Sixties!
This is not a tale of heroic astronauts and their exploits. The astronauts, as they have been the first to say, were literally at the “tip of the spear” and would not have been able to complete their missions without the work of almost half a million uncelebrated people who made them possible, not to mention the hundred million or so U.S. taxpayers who footed the bill.
This was not a straight march to victory. Three astronauts died in a launch pad fire the investigation of which revealed shockingly slapdash quality control in the assembly of their spacecraft and NASA’s ignoring the lethal risk of fire in a pure oxygen atmosphere at sea level pressure. The second flight of the Saturn V was a near calamity due to multiple problems, some entirely avoidable (and yet the decision was made to man the next flight of the booster and send the crew to the Moon). Neil Armstrong narrowly escaped death in May 1968 when the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle he was flying ran out of fuel and crashed. And the division of responsibility between the crew in the spacecraft and mission controllers on the ground had to be worked out before it would be tested in flight where getting things right could mean the difference between life and death.
What can we learn from Apollo, fifty years on? Other than standing in awe at what was accomplished given the technology and state of the art of the time, and on a breathtakingly short schedule, little or nothing that is relevant to the development of space in the present and future. Apollo was the product of a set of circumstances which happened to come together at one point in history and are unlikely to ever recur. Although some of those who worked on making it a reality were dreamers and visionaries who saw it as the first step into expanding the human presence beyond the home planet, to those who voted to pay the forbidding bills (at its peak, NASA’s budget, mostly devoted to Apollo, was more than 4% of all Federal spending; in recent years, it has settled at around one half of one percent: a national commitment to space eight times smaller as a fraction of total spending) Apollo was seen as a key battle in the Cold War. Allowing the Soviet Union to continue to achieve milestones in space while the U.S. played catch-up or forfeited the game would reinforce the Soviet message to the developing world that their economic and political system was the wave of the future, leaving decadent capitalism in the dust.
A young, ambitious, forward-looking president, smarting from being scooped once again by Yuri Gagarin’s orbital flight and the humiliation of the débâcle at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, seized on a bold stroke that would show the world the superiority of the U.S. by deploying its economic, industrial, and research resources toward a highly visible goal. And, after being assassinated two and a half years later, his successor, a space enthusiast who had directed a substantial part of NASA’s spending to his home state and those of his political allies, presented the program as the legacy of the martyred president and vigorously defended it against those who tried to kill it or reduce its priority. The U.S. was in an economic boom which would last through most of the Apollo program until after the first Moon landing, and was the world’s unchallenged economic powerhouse. And finally, the federal budget had not yet been devoured by uncontrollable “entitlement” spending and national debt was modest and manageable: if the national will was there, Apollo was affordable.
This confluence of circumstances was unique to its time and has not been repeated in the half century thereafter, nor is it likely to recur in the foreseeable future. Space enthusiasts who look at Apollo and what it accomplished in such a short time often err in assuming a similar program: government funded, on a massive scale with lavish budgets, focussed on a single goal, and based on special-purpose disposable hardware suited only for its specific mission, is the only way to open the space frontier. They are not only wrong in this assumption, but they are dreaming if they think there is the public support and political will to do anything like Apollo today. In fact, Apollo was not even particularly popular in the 1960s: only at one point in 1965 did public support for funding of human trips to the Moon poll higher than 50% and only around the time of the Apollo 11 landing did 50% of the U.S. population believe Apollo was worth what was being spent on it.
In fact, despite being motivated as a demonstration of the superiority of free people and free markets, Project Apollo was a quintessentially socialist space program. It was funded by money extracted by taxation, its priorities set by politicians, and its operations centrally planned and managed in a top-down fashion of which the Soviet functionaries at Gosplan could only dream. Its goals were set by politics, not economic benefits, science, or building a valuable infrastructure. This was not lost on the Soviets. Here is Soviet Minister of Defence Dmitriy Ustinov speaking at a Central Committee meeting in 1968, quoted by Boris Chertok in volume 4 of Rockets and People.
…the Americans have borrowed our basic method of operation—plan-based management and networked schedules. They have passed us in management and planning methods—they announce a launch preparation schedule in advance and strictly adhere to it. In essence, they have put into effect the principle of democratic centralism—free discussion followed by the strictest discipline during implementation.
This kind of socialist operation works fine in a wartime crash program driven by time pressure, where unlimited funds and manpower are available, and where there is plenty of capital which can be consumed or borrowed to pay for it. But it does not create sustainable enterprises. Once the goal is achieved, the war won (or lost), or it runs out of other people’s money to spend, the whole thing grinds to a halt or stumbles along, continuing to consume resources while accomplishing little. This was the predictable trajectory of Apollo.
Apollo was one of the noblest achievements of the human species and we should celebrate it as a milestone in the human adventure, but trying to repeat it is pure poison to the human destiny in the solar system and beyond.
This book is a superb recounting of the Apollo experience, told mostly about the largely unknown people who confronted the daunting technical problems and, one by one, found solutions which, if not perfect, were good enough to land on the Moon in 1969. Later chapters describe key missions, again concentrating on the problem solving which went on behind the scenes to achieve their goals or, in the case of Apollo 13, get home alive. Looking back on something that happened fifty years ago, especially if you were born afterward, it may be difficult to appreciate just how daunting the idea of flying to the Moon was in May 1961. This book is the story of the people who faced that challenge, pulled it off, and are largely forgotten today.
Both the 1989 first edition and 2004 paperback revised edition are out of print and available only at absurd collectors’ prices. The Kindle edition, which is based upon the 2004 edition with small revisions to adapt to digital reader devices is available at a reasonable price, as is an unabridged audio book, which is a reading of the 2004 edition. You’d think there would have been a paperback reprint of this valuable book in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11 (and the thirtieth anniversary of its original publication), but there wasn’t.
Project Apollo is such a huge, sprawling subject that no book can possibly cover every aspect of it. For those who wish to delve deeper, here is a reading list of excellent sources. I have read all of these books and recommend every one. For those I have reviewed, I link to my review; for others, I link to a source where you can obtain the book.
- The NASA History Series
- Spacecraft and Components
- Mission Control
- The Cape
- Photo Galleries
If you wish to commemorate the landing of Apollo 11 in a moving ceremony with friends, consider hosting an Evoloterra celebration.
Murray, Charles and Catherine Bly Cox. Apollo. Burkittsville, MD: South Mountain Books, [1989, 2004] 2010. ISBN 978-0-9760008-0-8.
Here is the Apollo 11 walk on the Moon, restored, as you may never have seen it before. A funny sequence, which I remember from when I heard it as it happened, occurs at 20:34 into the video.
Next we have a discussion for a presentation made in 1989 by those involved in planning the Apollo missions.
Part 3 of this panel does not seem to be available. Here is part 4.
Another panel discussion of 1989 involved people from Mission Control discussing how the Apollo missions were flown.
Here is an extraordinarily candid interview with famously private Neil Armstrong about his career and the unique circumstances which made Apollo possible. The interview was recorded in 2011, a year before Armstrong’s death.
This is a one hour interview with Buzz Aldrin recorded at the Science Museum in London three years ago.
Here is a one hour conversation with Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot Michael Collins recorded in April 2019 at the National Press Club. The interviewer, former CBS News reader Marvin Kalb, is stunningly ignorant, talking repeatedly about the “dark side of the Moon” and believing that the International Space Station is a “Russian space station” where U.S. astronauts “only visit”.