Marking the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, a close look at the scientific and technological challenges that needed to be overcome to make it possible—achievements that regrettably have been “mostly invisible.”
Rather than focus on the astronauts, journalist Fishman (The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, 2011, etc.) offers lively profiles of many tireless, imaginative, and innovative scientists, engineers, and technicians who contributed to the Apollo mission from May 1961, when President John F. Kennedy announced that the United States would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade, until July 1969, when Neil Armstrong stepped onto lunar dust. Kennedy’s proposal stemmed not from an adventuresome spirit but from Cold War urgency: He wanted to beat the Russians in the space race and demonstrate the triumph of freedom over communism. However, that triumph was hardly certain; NASA, surprised by Kennedy’s announcement, gave the U.S. only a 50-50 chance of success. As Fishman amply shows, the nation was woefully unprepared for space flight. Astronauts had “exactly 15 minutes of manned spaceflight experience,” and rockets, landing ships, navigation equipment, spacesuits, and a new generation of computers and software all had to be invented from scratch. In the 1960s, computers took up whole rooms, required huge amounts of electricity, and could not run for more than a few hours without failing. The MIT Instrumentation Lab, headed by the irrepressible Charles Draper and his brilliant colleague Bill Tindall, was charged with inventing and building flight computers, writing and wiring their software, and training astronauts in their use, and 20,00 companies contributed to the construction and assembly of the spacecraft. For eight years, 410,000 people put in 2.8 billion work hours to make the flight possible. As the author sees it, those efforts—long before the innovations emanating from Silicon Valley—ushered in the digital age, making technology “a tool of everyday life.”
A fresh, enthusiastic history of the moon mission to be read alongside Douglas Brinkley’s American Moonshot and other recent books commemorating the 50th anniversary.