Mark Whitaker is the author of “Smoketown: The Unknown Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance.” Previously, he was managing editor of CNN and editor of Newsweek.
When astronaut Neil Armstrong emerged from the spindly lunar module Eagle onto the craggy surface of the moon, he united a bitterly divided nation in a brief moment of national pride and wonder. After years of Vietnam protests, political assassinations and urban race riots, an astonishing 94 percent of all American households stayed up into the late night of July 20, 1969, to watch the miracle of Apollo 11 unfold on live TV. “That’s one small step for man, and one giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong radioed once his boots touched the ground. Then he and Buzz Aldrin gathered rock samples, hopped in lunar gravity and erected a camera that captured the iconic image of Aldrin saluting an American flag they fumblingly planted into the gray moonscape. Yet soon enough, moon and space station missions became routine, and public indifference and second-guessing set in. So 50 years later, what are we to make of those hazy hours of glory?
In his meticulously researched and absorbingly written book, journalist Charles Fishman provides both a celebration of the Apollo 11 mission and a corrective to some of the myths that have crystallized around it. The first involves the role of President John F. Kennedy. True, Fishman documents, it was Kennedy who in 1961 announced the goal of putting a man on the moon “before this decade is out,” and who served as “our poet of space, and also our philosopher of space” in public. “We choose to go to the moon, in this decade, and do other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard,” Kennedy famously declared in a speech at Rice University, after visiting the construction site of a new NASA center in Houston in September 1962.
But Fishman argues that it was all about macho Cold War politics for Kennedy, after the Soviets took the lead in sending rockets, men and dogs into space. Privately, Kennedy cooled on the project after superpower tensions eased in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis that October, and he might have dialed it back, Fishman suggests, had he lived. (“I’m not that interested in space,” an exasperated Kennedy blurted out to NASA chief James Webb in a budget meeting when Webb wouldn’t guarantee that $400 million could ensure a victory in the race to the moon.) Only after Kennedy’s assassination did Lyndon Johnson double down on the Apollo program, and Jackie Kennedy tie her husband’s name to space travel for posterity by lobbying to have the space center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., named after him.
After all the movies and memoirs focused on astronauts, Fishman skips retelling the personal stories of Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins, the third Apollo 11 crew member who manned the Columbia command module. Instead, he introduces us to the scientists and engineers who made it all possible. Charles “Doc” Draper was the bow-tie-wearing ballroom-dance enthusiast who headed the MIT Instrumentation Lab, which designed the internal navigation system that allowed Apollo modules to all but pilot themselves once in flight. Bill Tindall was the talented writer and orbital mechanics “genius” from the old NASA headquarters in Langley, Va., who rode herd over the MIT scientists with more than 1,000 “Tindallgrams” in six years, mixing witty cheerleading with relentless flyspecking.
Most memorable of all, John Houbolt was the quiet, middle-aged, mid-level NASA engineer who dared to pester his superiors with long, single-spaced letters advocating a “lunar-orbit rendezvous (LOR)” — a “lunar ferry,” as the New York Times first described it, that would detach as it neared the moon, then link back up with the command module for the trip home. In making his case, the lowly Houbolt was taking on the “Earth-orbit rendezvous” scenarios originally advanced by the cocky Saturn booster rocket team led by the legendary Wernher von Braun. The von Braun design, Fishman writes, “kept the astronauts close to home, so if something went wrong with the rendezvous, they could simply fire their retrorockets and return to Earth.” But in a fateful meeting at the Saturn headquarters in Huntsville, Ala., in June 1962, von Braun suddenly threw his weight behind the LOR plan. Seven years later, Houbolt was invited to sit alongside von Braun in NASA’s VIP viewing room. When Armstrong reported that “the Eagle has landed,” von Braun turned to Houbolt. “John, it worked beautifully,” he said.
To the criticism that the Apollo program was a “moondoggle” (in the words of sociologist Amitai Etzioni) and a waste of billions of dollars that could have been better spent addressing social ills at home, Fishman offers a persuasive defense. Not only did space contracts with Grumman, General Motors and other companies account for hundreds of thousands of jobs spread across all 50 states, but for almost a decade, NASA and its contractors, along with the Pentagon team building the Polaris missile, served as virtually the only buyers for Fairchild Semiconductor’s integrated circuits, perfecting and driving down the price of the computer chips that now power everything from our laptops and smartphones to kitchen appliances and electronic cars. “No, Apollo didn’t usher in the Space Age, but it did usher in the Digital Age,” Fishman concludes. “It helped lay the foundation of the technology that created the digital revolution, and it helped give Americans a sense of excitement and anticipation about the Digital Age . . . that had been completely missing before the 1960s began.”
In his final chapter, Fishman riffs on the can-do “spirit of America” that the Apollo program came to symbolize, captured in the oft-repeated phrase: “If we can send a man to the moon, then why can’t we (fill in the blank).” As tempting as it would be to recommend “One Giant Leap” as a welcome diversion from our current political chaos, that meditation invites the question of what has become of that spirit in the self-dealing era of President Trump.
But Fishman rescues what could have come across as an outdated paean to American exceptionalism with a crucial caveat. “We have to be asked” if we are to accomplish hard and great things again, he writes. “We have to be rallied to the cause.” In this most fractious era since the 1960s, one finishes this book wondering: Will we ever again find missions that unite and inspire us as a nation, and leaders with the vision and magnetism to point the way?
By Charles Fishman
Simon & Schuster.
464 pp. $29.99