One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon

Image of One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon
Release Date: 
June 11, 2019
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by: 

Charles Fishman’s One Giant Leap provides historical and political context to the race to send a man to the moon and back. Fishman is a really, really good storyteller, and One Giant Leap would make a fantastic audio book. The prologue transports the reader to the moon in a “you are there” moment with Neil and Buzz, and the first chapter praises the hundreds of thousands of men and women, the NASA employees and government contractors, and the roles they played in the mission’s success. 

Fishman next jumps back in time to President John F. Kennedy’s world-famous speech that started the moon race. America, in May 1961, at the time of Kennedy’s speech, had a grand total of 15 minutes of manned spaceflight experience. Fishman writes, “the sheer audacity of a country that hadn’t even been in orbit declaring it was landing on the moon.”

Fishman adds context to the moment, putting 1961 at the tail-end of the 1950s, where despite the Cold War, America was experiencing a post-WWII boom—a “boom” in more ways than one. Not just a boom of economic consumerism, but the boom in open-air atom bomb tests. Atom bomb tests were so common that one was televised nationally, while hotels in Las Vegas offered bomb watching parties on their rooftops. 

The reader gets a sense of America as it was and how it changed with the Apollo mission. During the ’50s, delivery of atom bombs (if such a thing were to be needed) transitioned from internal combustion engined bombers, to jet engined bombers, to rocket powered intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The manned rocket to the moon, the Saturn V, was a modified ICBM.

From the start, the Russian space program appeared to be (if not actually was) ahead of America’s. The first public launch of an American satellite on December 6, 1957, failed on live TV and resulted in “global mockery.” Fishman writes, “The embarrassment, the indignity, the vaudevillian slapstick failure of the world’s greatest nation having its first satellite launch ballyhooed for a week and then ending in a spectacular, televised explosion was almost too much to take.”

America was shocked with the Russian satellite launch of the beachball sized Sputnik, on October 4, 1957. Thirty days after Sputnik, Russia launched a dog, Laika, in a larger rocket with a pressurized chamber (sadly for the dog, this was a one-way trip). Russia boasted it would soon be headed for the Moon.

At the launch of Sputnik, the American president was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who did not see Sputnik as a threat, and stated so in a speech. Having access to classified reports, Eisenhower knew more than the average American, but chose to not say what he knew, that the Soviet Union hadn’t surpassed the U.S. program—the U.S. had larger rockets in development that could carry more weight.

The problem in “optics” was that Eisenhower was thinking in terms of national security and not in terms of prestige. For the world, the battle for outer space was a proxy for the war between East and West, between Communism and Democracy. The impact of the Russian success was as much of political win over the U.S. as it was a win in science and technology.

Space was a Cold War contest, and the Russians appeared to be winning.

Russia next put the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin, on April 12, 1961. April 1961 was after Kennedy’s election but before he took office. As president, Kennedy went into action, putting Vice President Lyndon Johnson in charge of space policy. Kennedy’s directive to Johnson was to beat the Russians in space.

Kennedy also had to pick the head of NASA. NASA, at that time was barely two years old, having been created by Eisenhower as a response to Sputnik. The job of top administrator in a post that was publicly being trounced by the Russians was a job that no one wanted, and 19 potential heads turned down the role. The President’s 20th pick, James Webb, was a lawyer not a scientist or engineer, and initially turned down the offer down as well, but was strong-armed by Johnson into accepting the responsibility.

Fishman points out two key takeaways of the beginning of the race to the moon. First, the moon mission became the goal in itself, overcoming its Cold War beginning as a game of showmanship; and second, the U.S. at its start was incredibly unready to tackle the task and basically starting from nothing. At the time of Kennedy’s speech, there was no infrastructure, no science, and no technology of how to get to the moon or what to expect once there. Part of the infrastructure included the need to track a spaceship from launch to landing and back again, which in turn required the building of a world-wide space tracking system. All of the necessary infrastructure, technology, and science was mastered in the few short years between May 1961 and July 1969.

Between 1961 and 1966, 20,000 companies and a half a million workers were designing, building, or assembling pieces of Apollo. Fishman notes that if Apollo were a corporation, it would have been bigger than every Fortune 500 corporation except for GM. “In the three peak years of Apollo’s employment, 1964 through 1966, more Americans were working on the moon mission than were fighting in Vietnam.” Fishman reminds the reader that both Apollo and Vietnam were Cold War projects, and despite Fishman’s inept comparison of running a war versus conducting a civilian infrastructure project, that even though Apollo was expensive, Vietnam cost five times more and caused tens of thousands more American deaths.

Fishman paints Apollo by the numbers. There were eleven Apollo flights with Apollo crews seven through 17, October 11, 1968, through December 7, 1972, with 33 crew members who flew 2500 hours, for a total of 104 days from launch to splashdown. For each and every hour of flight there was one million hours of preparation on the ground.

Today, we know more about the choices on the moon race made by President Kennedy early on, choices made in secret, recorded by a hidden recording machine in the oval office that have since been declassified. Though the president supported Apollo in public, in private, Kennedy voiced his doubts. To save money, he was prepared to declare victory and walk away after the launch of Saturn I. This was six years before the first launch of the moon-mission capable Saturn V.

What saved the moon mission was Kennedy’s assassination. The moon mission became part of Kennedy’s legacy.

Fishman picks and chooses among the pieces of spacecraft that were part of Apollo’s success, though the focus is, for the most part, on the parts having major technological and political impact, the Lunar Module (LM), the Apollo Guidance computer (AGC), the Lunar rover, but also the politics that went into planting an American flag on the moon.

Most attention is paid to the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC). The AGC was a small computer, filling one-cubic foot of volume when at that time a typical computer was huge, filling an entire room. The AGC was designed, developed, and programmed by MIT, which was chosen because of the past successes of Charles Stark “Doc” Draper, head of the MIT Instrumentation Lab.

At the win of the bid to construct the AGC, the Instrumentation Lab had previously pioneered the development of small computers, one for the Polaris missile, another for a 1950s Mars space probe that never flew. But most important for Apollo was the inertial navigation, the technique of cruise control for airplanes that Doc Draper invented in the early 1950s. Inertial navigation was essential for Apollo’s success.

Though the flight computers were basic in technology, construction, and computing power, the software run was not. In the era of big computers and batch processing the AGC introduced the breakthrough concept of real-time processing, and monitored 200 inputs and outputs. The AGC’s display was a green high-voltage electroluminescent seven-segment display, and the its keyboard was roughly equivalent to a calculator keyboard in that it only had numbers and special function keys. Commands were entered as two pairs of two digits, the first pair specified the command, and the second pair specified the subcommand or coded parameter.

The AGC may have been basic in technology, construction, and computing power, but by funding the development of the AGC, NASA jumpstarted the computer revolution in the development of reliable integrated circuit (IC) chips. Ahead of IBM, NASA by 1963 had purchased 60% of all the ICs made in the U.S. for use in the AGC.

Due to the very early stages of technology, the AGC’s main memory wasn’t made of ICs constructed by hand-sewing wires through toroidal-shaped magnets, in a Raytheon plant in Waltham, Massachusetts. Called “core memory,” each AGC memory module contained a mile of wire. Core memory was so tough that when Apollo 12 was hit by lightning, twice, on its way to orbit, the AGC survived and only needed a reboot. Of one hundred AGCs built, only 20 flew into space. First testing of the AGC was in Apollo 8 in 1968, where it was used to fly to the moon, and though Apollo experienced many near-failure situations, the guidance computers never failed in any of Apollo’s eleven flights.

It takes two space-going nations to have a space-race. The Russian program matched the American program until 1968 when it became clear that Russia couldn’t get its largest rocket, the N-1 to work. At that point, Russia settled for conducting robot missions. Trying to steal some of Apollo 11’s thunder by arriving in orbit two days ahead of Apollo 11, Russia’s Luna 15 intended to land, collect soil samples, and return to Earth.  However, unable to find a safe landing site, Luna 15 impacted the side of a mountain on the moon at 300 mph.

The last chapter of One Giant Leap reflects on the long-term impact of the Apollo program on America. Fishman asks the question of “Was it worth it?” and provides answers from a varied group of eminent historians, scientists, politicians, and philosophers. The most common complaint was of the failure to capitalize on success, that is, the apparent lack of follow-up in crewed missions to field an orbiting space station, a moon base, or in traveling to distant planets. Fishman calls the letdown, “a spaceflight hangover—that has lasted almost 50 years.”

The one positive aspect, in Fishman’s view, was, however, a big positive, in that the Apollo program can be credited for creating the commercial IC market, and in that, creating today’s inexpensive computers and advanced technology. Fishman credits NASA for opening up the digital revolution, for paving the way for real-time computing, for rechargeable batteries, for accelerated weather forecasting, and for global communications.

Throughout One Giant Leap, Fishman names the well-known and the less well-known having a hand in Apollo’s success—men and women, and many of the less well-known deserve biographies of their own.

One Giant Leap provides more than one hundred pages of notes, sources, bibliography, and index. There are two sections of black and white photos, including a photo of a moon-rover with busted fender, held fast with duct tape. Yes, duct tape works in the vacuum of space.

This reviewer has but one complaint, that even at 480 pages, One Giant Leap could and should have been even longer, with more on the Mercury and Gemini missions preceding Apollo, more on the Saturn V, more on each Apollo astronaut, and more on their discoveries.