'10,000 Problems Had To Be Solved': What It Took To Pull Off The Moon Landing

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"One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon," by Charles Fishman. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon," by Charles Fishman. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Editor's Note: This segment was rebroadcast on Dec. 26, 2019. That audio is available here.

July 16 marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11, the mission that brought human beings to the surface of the moon for the first time.

Even in today's technology-driven world, the event maintains its place as one of the most remarkable accomplishments in human history, says Charles Fishman, author of the new book "One Giant Leap."

To put things into perspective, if you own an iPhone, you hold in your hand more processing power than every NASA computer in existence in the early 1960s, he says.

"When [President] Kennedy said, 'Let's go to the moon,' it was simply impossible," Fishman (@cfishman) tells Here & Now. "The tools to do it did not exist. In eight years, NASA and the 400,000 people working for NASA literally invented the rocket, the spaceship that could land on the moon, the space suits. All of that had to be invented from scratch."

The Apollo program "unleashed the digital age" — something NASA and its hundreds of thousands of scientists, mathematicians and technicians still don't receive enough credit for, Fishman says.

"We start the '60s with no sense of the value of computers, and a sense that if anything, computers were unreliable," he says. "And we end the '60s with an all-new sense of both the importance of computers and their trustworthiness … and also, a computer chip industry that understood that in order for computers to be valuable, the chips had to be fast, cheap and perfect."

  • Scroll down to read an excerpt from "One Giant Leap"

Interview Highlights

On how the Apollo program helped spark a digital revolution

"That little computer that flew the spaceships to the moon and back was an absolute marvel. A small computer in the 1960s was the size of three or four refrigerators lined up, and MIT created a computer that was more powerful than the four refrigerators, and faster, and it was run by the people who were using it — which was completely unheard of. And that computer was the first computer to use integrated circuits. It was the first computer to use computer chips."

In this July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, walks on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity. (Neil Armstrong/NASA via AP)
In this July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, walks on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity. (Neil Armstrong/NASA via AP)

On the Apollo program's cost

"I don't think it was very expensive. To me, that's one of the myths of Apollo that's worth unpacking. Apollo cost $19.4 billion. There were two years of the Vietnam War each of which cost more than the entire space mission. Apollo lasted from '61 to '72 — let's call it $20 billion. From 1961 to 1972, Americans spent $40 billion buying cigarettes."

On how Apollo astronauts managed to make the American flag appear perfectly for photographs

"The story of the flag is kind of a little bit of a silly side story, but a reminder [of] how hard even simple things were. First of all, NASA hadn't even planned to take a flag, and in April — 12 weeks before we went to the moon — somebody said, 'Well how are we going to celebrate this moment?' And a technical engineer in Houston, a guy named Jack Kinzler, proposed the plaque which rode on the lunar module attached to the leg, 'We came in peace for all mankind,' and he came to NASA officials with this very ingenious flag design, and his idea was that there were actually going to be two aluminum poles. There was the vertical one, and it was hinged at the top to a pole that was horizontal. And if you look at the pictures, it's very clear that the flag is quote-unquote 'flying' because it's hanging from a horizontal pole as well."

Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, the first men to land on the moon, plant the U.S. flag on the lunar surface, July 20, 1969. (NASA via AP)
Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, the first men to land on the moon, plant the U.S. flag on the lunar surface, July 20, 1969. (NASA via AP)

On the U.S. not sending people back to the moon in nearly 50 years

"Not only we haven't sent anybody back to the moon, no one's gone back to the moon since 1972, and once we had done it, there were no economic imperatives to keep going. I think what's really exciting in the world of space today in fact is what's going on in near-Earth orbit, what Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and a guy named Robert Bigelow are doing. They're trying to make spaceflight inexpensive, routine and unthinkingly safe the way air travel is. What will be really interesting is, if you can lower the price of going to space from $100 million a flight to a million dollars a flight, you'll unleash the kind of innovation that happened when we went from modems to high-speed internet."

On sending robots to the moon instead of humans, and why we haven't gone back

"There's no question that robots do wonderful science. But human contribution is invaluable and also can't be predicted. There's this wonderful moment when [Neil] Armstrong and [Buzz] Aldrin on Apollo 11 get back in the lunar module, they unsnap their helmets and the entire cabin of the lunar module is filled with this smell, the smell of lunar dirt, sort of like burned charcoal — Aldrin said, 'The smell of the air after a fireworks show.' No robot could tell you that the moon had a smell.

"We haven't gone back because there hasn't been either an economic or political imperative. And it is really hard. If it were easy, we would have gone back. Mars is 100 times harder than the moon. It's the difference between travelling for three days and traveling for three years."

Book Excerpt: 'One Giant Leap'

by Charles Fishman

Boy this thing sure flies nice.

Pete Conrad, Apollo 12 commander at the controls of lunar module Intrepid, preparing to fly to a pinpoint landing on the Moon

The Moon has a smell.

It has no air, but it has a smell.

Each pair of Apollo astronauts to land on the Moon tramped lots of Moondust back into the lunar module—it was deep gray, fine-grained and extremely clingy—and when they unsnapped their helmets, they immediately noticed the smell.

“We were aware of a new scent in the air of the cabin,” said Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the Moon, “that clearly came from all the lunar material that had accumulated on and in our clothes.” To Armstrong, it was “the scent of wet ashes.” To his Apollo 11 crewmate Buzz Aldrin, it was “the smell in the air after a firecracker has gone off.”

All the astronauts who walked on the Moon noticed it, and many of them commented on it to Mission Control. Harrison Schmitt, the geologist who flew on Apollo 17, the last lunar landing, said after his second Moon walk, “Smells like someone’s been firing a carbine in here.” Almost unaccountably, no one had warned lunar module pilot Jim Irwin about the dust. When he took off his helmet inside the cramped lunar module cabin, he said, “There’s a funny smell in here.” His Apollo 15 crewmate Dave Scott said: “Yeah, I think that’s the lunar dirt smell. Never smelled lunar dirt before, but we got most of it right here with us.”

Moondust was a mystery that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had, in fact, thought about. Cornell University astrophysicist Thomas Gold warned NASA that the dust had been isolated from oxygen for so long that it might well be highly chemically reactive. If too much dust was carried inside the lunar module’s cabin, the moment the astronauts repressurized it with air and the dust came into contact with oxygen, it might start burning, or even cause an explosion. (Gold, who correctly predicted early on that the Moon’s surface would be covered with powdery dust, also had warned NASA that the dust might be so deep that the lunar module and the astronauts them-selves could sink irretrievably into it.)

Among the thousands of things they were keeping in mind while flying to the Moon, Armstrong and Aldrin had been briefed about the very small possibility that the lunar dust could ignite. It was, said Aldrin, “the worry of a few. A late-July fireworks display on the Moon was not something advisable.”

Armstrong and Aldrin did their own test. They took a small sample of lunar dirt that Armstrong had scooped into a lunar sample bag and put in a pocket of his spacesuit right as he stepped onto the Moon—a contingency sample in case, for some reason, the astronauts had to leave suddenly without collecting rocks. Back inside the lunar module the astronauts opened the bag and spread the lunar soil out on top of the ascent engine. As they repressurized the cabin, they watched to see if the dirt started to smolder. “If it did, we’d stop pressurization, open the hatch and toss it out,” explained Aldrin. “But nothing happened.”

From ONE GIANT LEAP by Charles Fishman. Copyright © 2019 by Charles Fishman. Excerpted with permission by Simon & Schuster, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Julia Corcoran produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Jack Mitchell adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on July 15, 2019.

This segment aired on July 15, 2019.


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Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.



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