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.
Only 39 percent said yes. 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. Where is the Mars landing? Where are the Moon bases, the network of orbital outposts? That misunderstands Apollo, though. The success is the very age we live in now. 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 s 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. Microchips power the world now, of course, but in they were little more than three years old, and for Apollo they were a brilliant if controversial bet.
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.
But in , 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. But the Apollo spacecraft—command module and lunar module—were flying to the Moon at almost 24, miles per hour.
In an era when even the batch-processing machines took up vast rooms of floor space, the Apollo spacecraft had real-time computers that fit into a single cubic foot, a stunning feat of both engineering and programming. We were no more inclined toward the virtues of slow-and-steady progress, no more capable of delayed gratification.
Even before was over, there were prominent public voices stoking skepticism and dissent about the value of the Moon race. In , Senator Paul H. Douglas released his own poll, not of the American people but of U.
Douglas had arranged to poll the membership of the American Astronomical Society, and received written replies from astronomers and space scientists. In August the Russians launched two cosmonauts, in separate spaceships, within 24 hours of each other, the double mission totaling seven days in space at a moment when the total for all four American spaceflights was 11 hours.
This year we submitted a space budget which was greater than the combined eight space budgets of the previous eight years. There was no eloquence about space in them, the responses more dutiful than enthusiastic. In the fall of , Kennedy did a two-day tour of space facilities to see for himself how the Moon program was taking shape. Von Braun showed the president a model of the Saturn rocket that would eventually launch astronauts to the Moon. Von Braun took Kennedy to the firing of a Saturn C-1 rocket as a demonstration of the coming power of American rocketry.
The test—eight engines firing simultaneously, roaring red-orange rocket thrust out of a test stand, with Kennedy, von Braun and the visiting party in a viewing bunker less than a half-mile away—shook the ground and sent shock waves across the Alabama test facility.
When the engines stilled, Kennedy turned with a wide grin to von Braun and grabbed his hand in congratulations. At the cape, JFK visited four launchpads, including one where he got a guided tour from astronaut Wally Schirra of the Atlas rocket and Mercury capsule Schirra was set to ride into orbit in about two weeks. Kennedy ended the day in Houston, where his popularity was on vivid display.
In the blazing early-morning Texas heat—already 89 degree at 10 a. It created an obligation to reach for the Moon, and to reach beyond. We choose to go to the Moon We choose to go to the Moon, in this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
The Rice speech took place on September 12, Not even the NASA people agreed about the wisdom of that.
The poetry of the Rice speech, the vision of the future it expressed, is nowhere to be found in the cabinet room that Wednesday. The recordings preserve two high-level conversations about space that reveal a very different Kennedy attitude about the race to the Moon. Webb had been telling Kennedy that a Moon landing was possible in late , but was more likely in Kennedy wanted it sooner.
How do you move it back into ? How about early ? What would that take? Four months here or there over four years is hard to nail down. Thirty minutes into the conversation, the president takes a step back. I think we ought to have that very clear. This is, whether we like it or not, in a sense a race.
The president was being as clear as he possibly could. Not because he needed to fly to the Moon.
The conversation continued well after Kennedy lost patience, and left. In the politics of going to the Moon got even more challenging than they were in Webb was worried about the scientific community, many of whom felt that a space program that sent humans into space would consume huge amounts of federal money that could be used for scientific research with more immediate value on Earth. In April, in an editorial in the prestigious journal Science , the editor, Philip Abelson, provided precisely the cerebral, almost disdainful critique Webb had been hearing in his conversations with scientists.
Abelson walked through the justifications—military value, technological innovation, scientific discovery and the propaganda value of beating the Russians—and dismissed each in turn. The first lunar landing will be a great occasion; subsequent boredom is inevitable. On June 10, Abelson was among a group of ten scientists called to testify, over two days, before the Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences about the future of Apollo. I believe that [Apollo] may delay the conquest of cancer and mental illness. The Moon has been there a long time, and will continue to be there a long time.
As it happens, on that day NASA announced the end of the Mercury program, the small capsules with just a single astronaut. Next up, the much more sophisticated, and much more ambitious, missions of Gemini. Only President Kennedy and Jim Webb were present. This meeting with Webb was long—46 minutes. The question was how to sustain Apollo during what were clearly going to be years of spending without years of excitement.
A real tough job. This huge project he had set in motion. It would also have been a moment of political calculation. How do you possibly hang on to a discretionary program of such enormous scale, already under fire, through four more budget cycles? How could he talk with enthusiasm about space, when there were no spaceflights for anyone to be enthusiastic about? In fact Kennedy saw only one strategy for protecting Apollo, an extension of the very first reasoning behind the Moon race.
Webb went deep into the budget negotiations with Kennedy, talking about congressmen by name, but he also pulled back to remind the president of the incredible power of this kind of exploration and science for the life of Americans, for understanding how the world works, and also for the practical value of technology development, and for inspiring American students to pursue science and engineering.
He was talking about all the things that made Americans nervous after Sputnik, all the things Kennedy himself so forcefully argued in his Rice University speech. That seemed to be sending an ominous signal about the fading sense of congressional urgency and enthusiasm for reaching the Moon by the end of the decade.
So if John Kennedy had not been assassinated, would Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin have stepped off the ladder of the lunar module Eagle onto the Moon on July 20, ? President Kennedy visited Cape Canaveral for the third time, on November 16, flying up from where he was spending the weekend in Palm Beach, for two hours of briefings and touring. He got to see the Saturn I rocket on its launchpad, the rocket that would, a month later, finally put into orbit a payload larger than anything the Russians could launch.
The Saturn I was scheduled to launch in December; it ended up being launched successfully on January 29, , sending ten tons into Earth orbit in a milestone considered so significant that the midday event was carried live by the TV networks. In San Antonio he dedicated a new Air Force research center devoted to aerospace medicine. In the speech that had been written for him to give in Dallas at the Dallas Trade Mart—the speech he was on the way to deliver when he was shot—Kennedy would have talked with pride about reinvigorating the U.
Under his administration, the nation was spending more money on space each year than the entire space budget for the decade of the Fifties; U. He had lots of other things he wanted to do. Six days later President Lyndon B. Johnson announced, in his somber Thanksgiving Day address to the nation, that he was renaming the space center in Florida the John F. Kennedy Space Center and renaming the piece of land it sat on Cape Kennedy. In a brief meeting the day before, Jacqueline Kennedy had asked Johnson to do that, and he had agreed. Johnson, unlike Kennedy, was an authentic believer in the space program.
In announcing the NASA budget, he reaffirmed his determination to get the nation to the Moon by By March the most sophisticated spaceship ever conceived was well along in its design. As Grumman conceived the lunar module, it was a two-stage spacecraft; the full ship would land on the Moon, but only the small upper stage and crew compartment would blast off from the Moon and return the astronauts to the command module, in orbit. So the lunar module had two rocket engines, a big one to land the ship, and a smaller one to blast the crew compartment back into orbit.
Each of those rocket engines weighed less than the engine in a typical midsize car—and each was a marvel. The descent engine could be throttled: powerful thrust to bring the lunar module down to the Moon from orbit, and lower thrust to allow the LM to hover near the surface of the Moon while the astronauts picked a final landing spot. No rocket engine before had ever had variable power. The smaller engine, which would return the astronauts to the command module, absolutely had to work when the launch command was given. So the ascent engine was a study in simplicity to reduce the number of ways it could fail.