Author: Charles Fishman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publishing Date: September 22, 2020
Pages: 512 (Paperback)
On July 20, 1969, much of the world watched with wonder as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made humankind’s first visit to the surface of the moon. It was an historic moment, one that will (most likely) be notable for generations to come. But, this moment did not happen in a vacuum. Already, just 60 years after the event, the details of this Herculean effort are being forgotten in the retelling. It is this hole in the dyke of history that Charles Fishman is attempting to plug with his recent book One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon.
The story Fishman relates begins with the early “firsts” of the Soviet space program—the first satellite in orbit (Sputnik, October 1957), the first dog in orbit (Laika, aboard Sputnik II, November 1957), and the first person in orbit (Yuri Gargarin, aboard Vostok 1, April 1961). The United States of America was behind in space and, consequently, in global public perception of scientific superiority.
Against this background, Fishman observes that it is impossible to decouple the audacious goal and frenetic pace of the 1960s U.S. space program from the Cold War pressure felt by US Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. For those two men, it was imperative that the leader of the Democratic “free world” be better at scientific achievement than their Communist Soviet rival. John F. Kennedy, the president who set America the challenge of going to the moon before the end of the 1960s, did not actually care about space. Fishman demonstrates convincingly that while Kennedy used space as a symbol of American progress in his 1960 presidential campaign promising to get America “mov[ing] forward again” (34), he was personally unconvinced of the benefits of space exploration. The surprising decision to go to the moon was purely politically motivated with the calculated intent to leap-frog to scientific preeminence in the wake of recent failures in other Cold War arenas (notably the Cuban Missile Crisis).
President Kennedy’s bold promise in May 1961 closely followed the successful launch of the first U.S. crewed space flight, which lagged the Soviets in both timing and magnitude (Freedom 7 flew a gentle arc to the edge of space in May, while Vostok 1 had previously completed a 108 minute full orbit in April). At the time of Kennedy’s announcement, not only was the US space program trailing the Soviets, they were technologically unprepared for the race. NASA’s rockets had a—very public and embarrassing—history of unreliability and were smaller than those of the Soviet Union (ironically because the US had developed smaller nuclear warheads during the 1950s). Furthermore, the math to rendezvous two vehicles while in orbit—let alone go to the moon—had not been worked out. Thus, fulfilment of Kennedy’s promise required innovation, invention, and unprecedented uses of technology.
Much of One Giant Leap focuses on the process of bridging the gap between Kennedy’s promise and the July 1969 trip to the lunar surface. Fishman is trying to bring the individuals and stories from the journey back into the cultural working memory. It wasn’t just the astronauts and men at Mission Control who made the moon landing happen. It was the engineers and computer programmers at MIT who created and programmed the computers that flew the spacecraft (and also almost prevented the program from hitting Kennedy’s deadline—see chapter 5). It was the individual men who knew their systems so well that they could rapidly troubleshoot the computer reboot problem that almost forced Aldrin and Armstrong to abort while on their way to the lunar surface, and the faulty abort switch in lunar orbit that almost prevented Apollo 14 from landing. It was the women in the Raytheon factory who knitted the computer’s programs memory with incredible attention to detail and commitment to excellence. It was the General Motors engineer who was determined that the astronauts would have a space car, even after NASA had decided not to take one. It was the action of all these individuals—and many more—who made the moon landings possible. It was, as Fishman calculates, more than 1,000,000 hours of work done by people on the ground for every one hour flown by the astronauts in space (by comparison, an individual working 40hr/wk over a 50 year career will work 120,000 hours). (29)
It was an incredible and dedicated technological effort. The US space program of the 1960s, in particular the Apollo program, necessitated development at the cutting edge, driving down the cost and increasing the reliability of silicon chips, requiring the invention of new materials and techniques, and accelerating the development of the field of computer science. The Moon race required focused work by individuals and companies. Going to the moon required dedication to staying the course on an expensive project with delayed gratification (which ironically, according to Fishman, might not have happened had Kennedy not been assassinated).
It was a nation-wide endeavor that shaped our social imaginary around the role of technology in our lives, and what people are capable of accomplishing. Today, we often look back at the moon landing and wonder why the crewed space program has stayed in low earth orbit in the past 60 years. These conversations often carry a “what went wrong” sort of tone. When that happens, Fishman argues, we are looking for the legacy of Apollo in the wrong places. The Apollo program, he concludes, not only leapfrogged the Soviets in global perception of scientific success, it leapfrogged the contemporary imagination of how technology could integrate into daily life. In Fishman’s mind, the ubiquitous computers in our smart phones/cars/homes is the legacy of Apollo; our cultural “American” belief that we can do anything we put our mind to is the legacy of Apollo; the continued interest in space exploration is the legacy of Apollo.
This reframing of Apollo’s legacy is interesting and worthwhile to consider, especially in light of continuing conversations about how America should pursue a crewed space program and the current interest in sending people to Mars. However, Fishman’s analysis of the cultural and technological impacts of Apollo is incomplete. The 1960s were a notable decade in recent American history (civil rights, environmental advocacy, and Vietnam, among other events), and while Fishman acknowledges that these upheavals were going on, he paints a rosy, technologically-oriented portrait of the era where the space program seems to march ahead oblivious to the cultural earthquakes. In telling the story this way, Fishman’s analysis misses—among other things—the legacies of the image of the Apollo engineer on STEM culture in America today, and the stories of race and gender inequality within the effort.
It is true that, as Fisherman points out, Apollo inspired a generation in STEM. However, it also portrayed a particular view of what an engineer looks like—a white male wearing a white, short-sleeve shirt and a short tie, with a pocket protector in his chest pocket—i.e. every picture of Mission Control you’ve ever seen. This image is deeply embedded in our social imaginary, to the point of subconscious bias. He also portrays an almost utopian space program, leaving out stories of race and gender inequality, like—for example—those told in the book Hidden Figures by Margot Shetterly. While he tells an interesting story, these omissions leave it wanting in his analysis of the program’s legacy.
Like most things in life, Apollo’s legacy is complicated. In One Giant Leap, Fishman’s reporter-style approach to uncovering the history of the program creates an interesting account of the work done by thousands of men and women to send a handful of men to the moon. While slightly nationalistic, his analysis addresses the positive parts of the Apollo legacy well, while skirting some of the more complicated parts. Overall, One Giant Leap is a good and accessible (if slightly verbose) read for anyone interested in the history of the U.S. space program.