Published: October 2008

Space Special

Man on moon with flag

Slipping the Bonds

Humans in space

By Joel Achenbach
Photograph by NASA

It's still almost unbelievable: Men Walk on Moon. Next to that headline, everything else seems provincial. The biggest events since July 20, 1969, have involved wars, scandals, terrorism, disasters. Maybe we should give a nod to the invention of the Internet, and the decoding of the human genome. It's not like we've been total sticks-in-the-mud for these last 40 years.

But nothing tops the Apollo program. The voyages to the moon were feats so mind-boggling that, to this day, there are people who refuse to believe they really happened. Apollo required a combination of technological creativity, white-knuckle courage, management genius, national will (read: lots of taxpayer money), and exquisite political timing.

Because we know how the story turns out, it's hard to remember how audacious the moon shot was, how full of uncertainty—how dangerous. Apollo would use, unlike the Mercury or Gemini programs that preceded it, a huge new rocket, the Saturn V, which stood 363 feet tall and would be filled with nearly six million pounds of explosively flammable liquid oxygen and other propellants. All sensible human beings stayed many miles away as it stood there on the launchpad. Three astronauts had to sit on top of it. Then the thing would ignite and they'd be—it's impossible to avoid switching here to italics—blasted off the planet and into outer space.

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