From JFK’s real motives to the Soviets’ secret plot to land on the Moon at the same time, a new behind-the-scenes view of an unlikely triumph 50 years ago
The Moon has a smell. It has no air, but it has a smell. Each pair of Apollo astronauts to land on the Moon tramped lots of Moon dust back into the lunar module—it was deep gray, fine-grained and extremely clingy—and when they unsnapped their helmets, Neil Armstrong said, “We were aware of a new scent in the air of the cabin that clearly came from all the lunar material that had accumulated on and in our clothes.” To him, it was “the scent of wet ashes.” To his Apollo 11 crewmate Buzz Aldrin, it was “the smell in the air after a firecracker has gone off.”
All the astronauts who walked on the Moon noticed it, and many commented on it to Mission Control. Harrison Schmitt, the geologist who flew on Apollo 17, the last lunar landing, said after his second Moonwalk, “Smells like someone’s been firing a carbine in here.” Almost unaccountably, no one had warned lunar module pilot Jim Irwin about the dust. When he took off his helmet inside the cramped lunar module cabin, he said, “There’s a funny smell in here.” His Apollo 15 crewmate Dave Scott said: “Yeah, I think that’s the lunar dirt smell. Never smelled lunar dirt before, but we got most of it right here with us.”
Moon dust was a mystery that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had, in fact, thought about. Cornell University astrophysicist Thomas Gold warned NASA that the dust had been isolated from oxygen for so long that it might well be highly chemically reactive. If too much dust was carried inside the lunar module’s cabin, the moment the astronauts repressurized it with air and the dust came into contact with oxygen, it might start burning, or even cause an explosion. (Gold, who correctly predicted early on that the Moon’s surface would be covered with powdery dust, also had warned NASA that the dust might be so deep that the lunar module and the astronauts themselves could sink irretrievably into it.)
Among the thousands of things they were keeping in mind while flying to the Moon, Armstrong and Aldrin had been briefed about the very small possibility that the lunar dust could ignite. “A late-July fireworks display on the Moon was not something advisable,” said Aldrin.
Armstrong and Aldrin did their own test. Just a moment after he became the first human being to step onto the Moon, Armstrong had scooped a bit of lunar dirt into a sample bag and put it in a pocket of his spacesuit—a contingency sample, in the event the astronauts had to leave suddenly without collecting rocks. Back inside the lunar module the duo opened the bag and spread the lunar soil on top of the ascent engine. As they repressurized the cabin, they watched to see if the dirt started to smolder. “If it did, we’d stop pressurization, open the hatch and toss it out,” Aldrin explained. “But nothing happened.”
The Moon dust turned out to be so clingy and so irritating that on the one night that Armstrong and Aldrin spent in the lunar module on the surface of the Moon, they slept in their helmets and gloves, in part to avoid breathing the dust floating around inside the cabin.
By the time the Moon rocks and dust got back to Earth—a total of 842 pounds from six lunar landings—the odor was gone from the samples, exposed to air and moisture in their storage boxes. No one has quite figured out what caused the odor to begin with, or why it was so like spent gunpowder, which is chemically nothing like Moon rock. “Very distinctive smell,” Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad said. “I’ll never forget. And I’ve never smelled it again since then.”
In 1999, as the century was ending, the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was among a group of people who was asked to name the most significant human achievement of the 20th century. In ranking the events, Schlesinger said, “I put DNA and penicillin and the computer and the microchip in the first ten because they’ve transformed civilization.” But in 500 years, if the United States of America still exists, most of its history will have faded to invisibility. “Pearl Harbor will be as remote as the War of the Roses,” said Schlesinger. “The one thing for which this century will be remembered 500 years from now was: This was the century when we began the exploration of space.” He picked the first Moon landing, Apollo 11, as the most significant event of the 20th century.
The trip from one small planet to its smaller nearby moon might someday seem as routine to us as a commercial flight today from Dallas to New York City. But it is hard to argue with Schlesinger’s larger observation: In the chronicle of humanity, the first missions by people from Earth through space to another planetary body are unlikely ever to be lost to history, to memory, or to storytelling.
The leap to the Moon in the 1960s was an astonishing accomplishment. But why? What made it astonishing? We’ve lost track not just of the details; we’ve lost track of the plot itself. What exactly was the hard part?
The answer is simple: When President John F. Kennedy declared in 1961 that the United States would go to the Moon, he was committing the nation to do something we simply couldn’t do. We didn’t have the tools or equipment—the rockets or the launchpads, the spacesuits or the computers or the micro-gravity food. And it isn’t just that we didn’t have what we would need; we didn’t even know what we would need. We didn’t have a list; no one in the world had a list. Indeed, our unpreparedness for the task goes a level deeper: We didn’t even know how to fly to the Moon. We didn’t know what course to fly to get there from here. And as the small example of lunar dirt shows, we didn’t know what we would find when we got there. Physicians worried that people wouldn’t be able to think in micro-gravity conditions. Mathematicians worried that we wouldn’t be able to calculate how to rendezvous two spacecraft in orbit—to bring them together in space and dock them in flight both perfectly and safely.
On May 25, 1961, when Kennedy asked Congress to send Americans to the Moon before the 1960s were over, NASA had no rockets to launch astronauts to the Moon, no computer portable enough to guide a spaceship to the Moon, no spacesuits to wear on the way, no spaceship to land astronauts on the surface (let alone a Moon car to let them drive around and explore), no network of tracking stations to talk to the astronauts en route.
“When [Kennedy] asked us to do that in 1961, it was impossible,” said Chris Kraft, the man who invented Mission Control. “We made it possible. We, the United States, made it possible.”
Ten thousand problems had to be solved to get us to the Moon. Every one of those challenges was tackled and mastered between May 1961 and July 1969. The astronauts, the nation, flew to the Moon because hundreds of thousands of scientists, engineers, managers and factory workers unraveled a series of puzzles, often without knowing whether the puzzle had a good solution.
In retrospect, the results are both bold and bemusing. The Apollo spacecraft ended up with what was, for its time, the smallest, fastest and most nimble computer in a single package anywhere in the world. That computer navigated through space and helped the astronauts operate the ship. But the astronauts also traveled to the Moon with paper star charts so they could use a sextant to take star sightings—like 18th-century explorers on the deck of a ship—and cross-check their computer’s navigation. The software of the computer was stitched together by women sitting at specialized looms—using wire instead of thread. In fact, an arresting amount of work across Apollo was done by hand: The heat shield was applied to the spaceship by hand with a fancy caulking gun; the parachutes were sewn by hand, and then folded by hand. The only three staff members in the country who were trained and licensed to fold and pack the Apollo parachutes were considered so indispensable that NASA officials forbade them to ever ride in the same car, to avoid their all being injured in a single accident. Despite its high-tech aura, we have lost sight of the extent to which the lunar mission was handmade.
The race to the Moon in the 1960s was, in fact, a real race, motivated by the Cold War and sustained by politics. It has been only 50 years—not 500—and yet that part of the story too has faded.
One of the ribbons of magic running through the Apollo missions is that an all-out effort born from bitter rivalry ended up uniting the world in awe and joy and appreciation in a way it had never been united before and has never been united since.
The mission to land astronauts on the Moon is all the more compelling because it was part of a decade of transformation, tragedy and division in the United States. The nation’s lunar ambition, we tend to forget, was itself divisive. On the eve of the launch of Apollo 11, civil rights protesters, led by the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, marched on Cape Kennedy.
In that way, the story of Apollo holds echoes and lessons for our own era. A nation determined to accomplish something big and worthwhile can do it, even when the goal seems beyond reach, even when the nation is divided. Kennedy said of the Apollo mission that it was hard—we were going to the Moon precisely because doing so was hard—and that it would “serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” And measure the breadth of our spirit as well.
Today the Moon landing has ascended to the realm of American mythology. In our imaginations, it’s a snippet of crackly audio, a calm and slightly hesitant Neil Armstrong stepping from the ladder onto the surface of the Moon, saying, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It is such a landmark accomplishment that the decade-long journey has been concentrated into a single event, as if on a summer day in 1969, three men climbed into a rocket, flew to the Moon, pulled on their spacesuits, took a few steps, planted the American flag, and then came home.
But the magic, of course, was the result of an incredible effort—an effort unlike any that had been seen before. Three times as many people worked on Apollo as on the Manhattan Project to create the atomic bomb. In 1961, the year Kennedy formally announced Apollo, NASA spent $1 million on the program for the year. Five years later NASA was spending about $1 million every three hours on Apollo, 24 hours a day.
One myth holds that Americans enthusiastically supported NASA and the space program, that Americans wanted to go to the Moon. In fact two American presidents in a row hauled the space program all the way to the Moon with not even half of Americans saying they thought it was worthwhile. The ’60s were tumultuous, riven by the Vietnam War, urban riots, the assassinations. Americans constantly questioned why we were going to the Moon when we couldn’t handle our problems on Earth.
As early as 1964, when asked if America should “go all out to beat the Russians in a manned flight to the Moon,” only 26 percent of Americans said yes. During Christmas 1968, NASA sent three astronauts in an Apollo capsule all the way to the Moon, where they orbited just 70 miles over the surface, and on Christmas Eve, in a live, prime-time TV broadcast, they shared pictures of the Moon’s surface, as seen out their windows. Then the three astronauts, Bill Anders, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman, read aloud the first ten verses of Genesis to what was then the largest TV audience in history. From orbit, Anders took one of the most famous pictures of all time, the photo of the Earth floating in space above the Moon, the first full-color photo of Earth from space, later titled Earthrise, a single image credited with helping inspire the modern environmental movement.
Anticipation for the actual Moon landing should have been extraordinary. In fact, as earlier in the decade, and despite years of saturation coverage of Apollo and the astronauts, it was anything but universal. Four weeks after Apollo 8’s telecast from lunar orbit, the Harris Poll conducted a survey and asked Americans if they favored landing a man on the Moon. Only 39 percent said yes. Asked if they thought the space program was worth the $4 billion a year it was costing, 55 percent of Americans said no. That year, 1968, the war in Vietnam had cost $19.3 billion, more than the total cost of Apollo to that point, and had taken the lives of 16,899 U.S. troops—almost 50 dead every single day—by far the worst single year of the war for the U.S. military. Americans would prove to be delighted to have flown to the Moon, but they were not preoccupied by it.
The big myth of Apollo is that it was somehow a failure, or at least a disappointment. That’s certainly the conventional wisdom—that while the landings were a triumph, the aimless U.S. space program since then means Apollo itself was also pointless. Where is the Mars landing? Where are the Moon bases, the network of orbital outposts? We haven’t done any of that, and we’re decades from doing it now. That misunderstands Apollo, though. The success is the very age we live in now. The race to the Moon didn’t usher in the space age; it ushered in the digital age.
Historians of Silicon Valley and its origins may skip briskly past Apollo and NASA, which seem to have operated in a parallel world without much connection to or impact on the wizards of Intel and Microsoft. But the space program in the 1960s did two things to lay the foundation of the digital revolution. First, NASA used integrated circuits—the first computer chips—in the computers that flew the Apollo command module and the Apollo lunar module. Except for the U.S. Air Force, NASA was the first significant customer for integrated circuits. Microchips power the world now, of course, but in 1962 they were little more than three years old, and for Apollo they were a brilliant if controversial bet. Even IBM decided against using them in the company’s computers in the early 1960s. NASA’s demand for integrated circuits, and its insistence on their near-flawless manufacture, helped create the world market for the chips and helped cut the price by 90 percent in five years.
NASA was the first organization of any kind—company or government agency—anywhere in the world to give computer chips responsibility for human life. If the chips could be depended on to fly astronauts safely to the Moon, they were probably good enough for computers that would run chemical plants or analyze advertising data.
NASA also introduced Americans, and the world, to the culture and power of technology—we watched on TV for a decade as staff members at Mission Control used computers to fly spaceships to the Moon. Part of that was NASA introducing the rest of the world to “real-time computing,” a phrase that seems redundant to anyone who’s been using a computer since the late 1970s. But in 1961, there was almost no computing in which an ordinary person—an engineer, a scientist, a mathematician—sat at a machine, asked it to do calculations and got the answers while sitting there. Instead you submitted your programs on stacks of punch cards, and you got back piles of printouts based on the computer’s run of your cards—and you got those printouts hours or days later.