In 1961, John F. Kennedy charged the United States with going to the Moon by the end of the decade. Against all odds, the US surpassed the Soviets and Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969. The Apollo missions continued until 1972, but since then no manned space mission has ventured past near-Earth orbit. Far from ushering in an era of Moon bases and manned missions to Mars, Apollo’s legacy has left space enthusiasts disappointed. Fifty years after the Moon landing, what do we have to show for it? To answer that question and more, I’m joined today by Charles Fishman.
Charles is a journalist and author of One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew Us to the Moon as well as The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, among other works.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. You can download the episode here, and don’t forget to subscribe to my podcast on iTunes or Stitcher. Tell your friends, leave a review.
Pethokoukis: You write in One Giant Leap, and I’m going to quote you here, “Apollo was an unqualified success and it wasn’t — judged on its performance — a waste of money, nor was it a use of money that the United States simply couldn’t afford.” An unqualified success. Is that a contrarian judgment among people who are disappointed that Apollo did not lead to further exploration, did not lead to Moon colonies and humans on Mars? Or is that not a contrarian conclusion?
Fishman: I think it’s a contrarian conclusion that I am trying to shift into the mainstream, and here’s why. Very briefly, of course, we can say it was an unqualified success in that President John Kennedy charged America and NASA with landing people on the Moon by the end of the decade, returning them safely to home. And we did it.
We did it.
Yes. On May 25th, 1961, as I discovered in incredible, bemusing detail, when Kennedy said, “Let’s go to the Moon,” it was literally impossible. They didn’t have the rocket, the spaceship, the space food, the computer. They didn’t have a trajectory. They could not have plotted a course to the Moon. We didn’t know how to get there in a million different ways. It was impossible when he said, “Let’s do it.” And literally 100 months later, it was done. That’s stunning in and of itself. An incredible engineering achievement. An incredible scientific achievement. An incredible manufacturing achievement.
Often the incredible high-tech developments that the engineers and scientists came up with — there was no way to manufacture them. And so the interiors of the computers were woven by hand, by former textile workers hired from textile plants in Massachusetts. The spacesuits were sewn by hand on black Singer sewing machines. So the technology was advanced so far that we didn’t actually have the ability to make it. That was a stunning achievement. But the real achievement was that NASA and Apollo really ushered in the Digital Age that we all live in. [Apollo] was a stunning success in that it unleashed the world that we’ve become accustomed to and rely on every minute of every day. You can trace the quality and innovation and speed and robustness of your iPhone or your laptop computer, in terms of heritage, directly back to the computers that flew to the Moon.
NASA was the first organization of any kind to use integrated circuits, to use computer chips. NASA drove the price down 98 percent. And then having done that, it drove the price down 78 percent again. NASA bought almost all the computer chips in the world three or four years in a row for Apollo. And most important, those computer chips were so important to going to the Moon that NASA had this really elaborate acceptance procedure. When a batch of 1000 chips came in, there were 12 tests that every chip went through. Vibration, heat, cold — they immersed them in liquid nitrogen to make sure they were adequately sealed. If one of the 1000 chips failed one of the 12 tests, they stopped the test and sent the whole batch back to Fairchild or Texas Instruments. And they said, “These chips are no good. Send us good chips.”
And until that moment, computer chips weren’t particularly reliable. And the computer companies at that time said, “We had to set up separate manufacturing lines for NASA. NASA taught us to make chips, that when you press two plus two, you always get four. And when you ask for your phone app, you get the phone app and not the weather app.” And so NASA literally created the market and the understanding of computer chips in going to the Moon, and then we stepped up and adopted those computer chips for every function on Earth.
I think that story is really underappreciated, but space enthusiasts don’t see that as enough. We stopped the Apollo program and no one has gone beyond near-Earth orbit since. They view that as a failure of the last 50 years. Is that fair?
Right. So in 1972, the last time we went to the Moon, we flew 240,000 miles to the Moon. And literally since 1972, which is 49 years now, no human being has been further than about 240 miles from Earth. That’s where the space station orbits and where the Chinese now orbit. So if success means that Apollo opened the solar system to exploration and settlement by human beings — if that’s what you mean by success — then there is no question that Apollo didn’t accomplish that. You know the joke as well as I do, “What did we get from going to the Moon? We got Tang and Velcro. Just pure silliness.” No, we got the digital revolution that transformed the world.
We just have been looking in the wrong place. And when you look at the evidence, that’s unequivocal. We did not get “Star Trek.” We did not get “The Jetsons.” We did not get “Lost in Space.” We don’t all fly around with our robots and go where we want to go. I think we’re about to get it. You yourself are very interested in this and have explored it, and I think the key is economics. We went to space funded and motivated by a kind of national and global imperative. You can’t understand going to the Moon in the 1960s without understanding the geopolitics.
We would not have gone to the Moon without the Cold War. We were racing the Russians. And for five years, the Russians were beating the crap out of us. They did everything first. They appeared to have mastery of space in a way that we didn’t. They launched a person into orbit on their first effort to launch a person into space. And literally three weeks later, we launched a person in a pop fly. We couldn’t even match them coming later. We often did less well, two or three or four months after they had done something.
And so the problem with geopolitics as a motivator is, in 1972 when Richard Nixon looked out across the world, when the leaders of the Soviet Union looked out across the world, space wasn’t an important arena anymore. And it is expensive to go to space, and you need a clear mission, and you need a clear goal. And so if you’re a space person and you think Apollo failed because it didn’t pull us along, I guess what I would say is the economics weren’t there for companies and non-governmental organizations of all kinds to jump into space at that moment.
This is my sense of it: I’ve been a space reporter since 1986, and I don’t think the leadership of NASA was clear on where we should go next and how we should get there. And that muddle led to literally 30 or 40 years of compromises and poor missions — over promising and under delivering. I love the Space Shuttle. I love the Space Station. I don’t think they have been good custodians of our space money, to be honest. The robotic exploration missions have been brilliant and pioneering compared to what we’ve gotten from the human space flight program. But that’s not necessarily the fault of the frontline people at NASA. That’s a leadership failure.
Well, one bit of evidence that NASA and its leaders did not do a great job explaining the point of sending people into space after they landed on the Moon, is that now — when we seem to be in this new era of space exploration and thinking about a space economy and we have the billionaire space race — the criticisms of the 1960s Space Race are just being repeated today. These are 50-year-old critiques: How can we go to the space when we have inequality on Earth? That this is just about some vague sense of national prestige. Why are we really doing it? Those are the exact same criticisms we hear today. Apparently a lot of people feel like NASA never answered that. And it sounds like they really didn’t.