Published: October 2008
Slipping the Bonds
Humans in space
By Joel Achenbach

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.

They'd be propelled to another world with no atmosphere and so far from the Earth that our planet would become a blue marble small enough to hide behind an outstretched thumb. Then they'd have to be lowered to the surface, somehow. You can't use parachutes in a world without air.

No one knew with absolute certainty whether the moon's surface would support the weight of an astronaut, much less a space-ship. There was a maverick hypothesis that the lunar module—the little dinghy that would descend to the surface with rocket thrust—might simply sink on landing. Or maybe moondust would, on contact with oxygen inside the lunar module, burst into flames.

The astronauts needed to find a level spot to land in that cratered mess, because if the lunar module tipped over on its side, they'd never get off the moon. Going to the moon wasn't the hardest part of the mission—getting home was. They'd have to launch from the moon, rendezvous in lunar orbit with the command module, then fire their engines yet again to rocket back to the Earth, where they'd reenter the atmosphere at—italics alert—seven miles a second. They'd create a giant fireball and finally parachute into the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where they'd hope someone would be kind enough to find them.

At the time, space enthusiasts viewed the moon landing as the first of many bold forays beyond Earth. But predictions of the future are reliably wrong. It turned out that the moon landing wasn't the beginning of an inexorable, progressive conquest of space. Or at least it didn't ignite a Buck Rogers future. If anything, it signaled the end of an era. Americans were thrilled by Apollo 11 and strangely bored by Apollo 12. The drama of Apollo 13—the glorious failure that may have been NASA's finest moment of all—helped remind the public that going to the moon wasn't as easy as throwing a Frisbee. But even as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, Project Apollo was being trimmed. NASA, under pressure from congressional bean counters, canceled several planned moon missions. We came, we saw, we conquered, and then we cut the budget.

The post-apollo era has had its signature triumphs, such as when astronauts aboard the space shuttle have repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. The construction of the International Space Station is a remarkable engineering accomplishment. But somehow the simple goal of exploration got lost in the bureaucracy of the space program. The stated goal of the space shuttle, to make spaceflight routine, was both impossibly ambitious (it has cost two shuttle crews their lives and remains dangerous) and politically unwise (because people got bored with it).

No human being, at this writing, has been beyond low Earth orbit since the last moon mission in 1972. The Europeans, the Chinese, and the Japanese have robust space programs. In the near future, billionaire entrepreneurs expect to sell space rides to mere millionaires. And the civil space program in America has an elaborate plan for a return to the moon (and perhaps an eventual manned mission to Mars). But you don't have to be a cynic to wonder when and how and if the money will actually materialize for another moon shot.

Putting human beings on the moon would be a great engineering feat—again—and might yield innovations that we can't now imagine, but the central achievement of getting there and back safely would be built on Apollo-style space architecture. The way they did it in the 1960s is pretty much the way we'd do it in the 2020s.

Apollo happened because of the Cold War. This elaborate voyage had to be accomplished by the end of 1969 to uphold President Kennedy's vow to put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth "before this dec- ade is out." This was, after all, a race against the Soviet Union, which had its own lunar ambitions.

The Soviets inaugurated the space age with their launch of the tiny satellite Sputnik in 1957. They trumpeted their edge in missile technology. Rocket science and missile science went hand in hand; the history of Apollo is inextricably tied to the history of the nuclear arms race. Space was, like Korea and Vietnam, a proxy battlefield for the superpowers.

The Soviets had the more powerful rockets in the early years, and the more accomplished space program. Their superiority was broadcast to the world in 1961 when Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space and orbited the Earth. Alan Shepard, one of the celebrated original seven Mercury astronauts, made it into space a month later, and though that was a mere suborbital flight, it showed that America was in the game.

Both space programs had fiascos and tragedies. The second American spaceflight ended badly: The returned capsule sank, and astronaut Gus Grissom barely got out alive. Grissom, along with Roger Chaffee and Ed White, died in early 1967 when their Apollo 1 capsule caught fire during a training exercise at Cape Canaveral. That tragedy set the program back almost two years. The Soviets had fatalities, too, but those were hushed up in keeping with the secretive nature of the Moscow regime.

The Soviet moon program lagged after the sudden death of its leader, Sergei Korolev, and after several test failures of its giant moon rocket, the N-1. Maybe it also faltered because though Soviet central planners were good at building big things, like subways and tanks and rockets, spaceflight, it turned out, was full of small details, inventiveness, contingencies, serendipity. To make it work, sometimes you had to fly by the seat of your pants.

We all remember—those of us old enough—where we were when Armstrong walked down the ladder. But few of us had a clue, at the time, how dicey Eagle's descent was.

As Armstrong and Aldrin neared the surface, an alarm went off. The computer displayed the alarm code 1202. Neither astronaut knew what it meant. It was, in fact, the computer announcing that it was being overloaded with data. At mission control in Houston, the experts decided to ignore it and let Eagle continue its descent.

Armstrong, piloting the lander, saw that they were heading straight for a crater full of boulders. He had to fly over the crater as he searched for a new landing spot—miles beyond the planned target. And they were running low on fuel.

"Sixty seconds," said mission control. A minute of fuel left.

Armstrong could barely see anything. The rockets were throwing up dust. It was like flying in a cloud.

"Thirty seconds."

They were having heart attacks in Houston. The world was watching but had no ability to grasp how close the astronauts were to disaster. The men themselves, by training and nature, were not emotive. Yet Armstrong, the prototype of the calm, almost robotic astronaut, clocked a pulse of 156 beats a minute as he struggled to land the craft.

"Contact light!" shouted Aldrin. A light indicated that a prong at the bottom of one of the lander's legs had touched solid ground.

Humankind is an imperfect species, and so perhaps it is fitting that the first words spoken by a man walking on the moon were botched. "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," Armstrong said. He meant to say "small step for a man," and there are those who insist the missing article was lost in transmission.

Ultimately it's moot: Although we speak imperfectly, we also have learned to get the gist of what people are trying to say. We knew what he meant. And we liked what he said.

And one answer is: We can't put a man on the moon, actually, except with extraordinary effort and great courage in very special circumstances. That we did it at all is still, 40 years later, hard to believe.

Was Apollo really that important? Some would say it wasn't. The program spun off a lot of nifty technology, but it's not credible to think that without Apollo we'd still be using adding machines the size of toasters. Apollo didn't vanquish the Soviet regime, which managed to lumber along for another two decades. Apollo critics are fond of saying that all it did was leave a lot of "flags and footprints." It's been called a stunt.

If so, it was the greatest stunt of all time.

We simply had to go. It's in our DNA to explore. And how do you put a price tag on those stunning images of astronauts on the moon? There's the wondrous vision of the lunar rover, bouncing over alien hill and dale, reminding us that human beings don't like to travel anywhere without access to a car. Four hundred years ago Galileo looked through his telescope and saw, for the first time, what looked like mountains on the moon. Of course we had to take a closer look. Space exploration may change fundamentally. People will probably wind up exploring Mars, Europa, Titan, asteroids, and a comet or two the way they seem to do everything else now: online. With a handheld portable device. They'll hit "Ignore" when they get a call just as they're busy joysticking a rover on Mercury.

Life in the 21st century increasingly skews electronic and virtual. You don't have to show up in the flesh. But in 1969, that was the entire point. No one remembers that the Soviets had an unmanned probe trying to land on the moon at the same time as Apollo 11 (the Soviet probe crashed). Apollo 11 was about human ingenuity, courage, risk, derring-do. And showing up in person was 100 percent of the game.

For a long time afterward you could denote the competency of anything by comparing it to Apollo. It set the standard for technological mastery. All residual societal backwardness had a new framework: If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we …?