God of Poetry

Apollo was about more than going to the moon

By the morning of July 16, 1969, Cape Canaveral, Florida, and its surrounds had been engulfed by a million people. Their number included half of all the members of the U.S. Congress, the ambassadors of sixty-­nine countries, celebrities major and minor, and countless reporters. All were there to witness the launch of a 111-metre rocket, much taller than the Statue of Liberty, atop which sat a small conical spacecraft containing three astronauts. If all went well, the crew of Apollo 11 was headed to the moon.

Among the crowd was the novelist and New Journalist Norman Mailer. He was covering Apollo 11 for Life magazine, at the time an unabashed booster of the American space program. Mailer’s plunge into NASA press briefings and mission control tours, however, had failed to spark in him feelings of enthusiasm and patriotism for what he regarded as a bland world of routine, checklists, and “technologese.” But the night before the launch, he was struck by the number of people gathering on nearby beaches, islands, bridges, causeways, and ­promontories — ­anywhere within twenty-­five kilometres that might offer a clear view.

Mailer was a fair distance from the launch pad at 9:32 a.m., when the Saturn V started to crawl skywards. Like many others that day, he saw the sparkling rocket rise well before he heard the growl of its five giant first-stage engines, each of which was devouring three tons of fuel per second. “Therefore the lift-off itself seemed to partake more of a miracle than a mechanical phenomenon,” he wrote, “as if all of massive Saturn itself had begun to silently levitate, and was then pursued by flames.”

Mailer would recall that few were prepared for the drama of “this slim angelic mysterious ship” or the enormous size of its flames, which “grew in cataract against the cusp of the flame shield, and then sluiced along the paved ground down two opposite channels in the concrete, two underground rivers of flame which poured into the air on either side a hundred feet away, then flew a hundred feet further.” But at least some were prepared for the sound: the “furious bark of a million drops of oil cracking suddenly into combustion.”

A year before, Michael Collins, part of NASA’s third class of astronauts, had watched an earlier Saturn V launch from a causeway five kilometres away. When the sound reached him, “it is a surprise, a jolt, a shock — even from one who has thought it overdue.” For the former fighter pilot, it was more than noise: it was a “presence” that “reaches out and grabs you.” This time, as Mailer and millions of others watched in person and on television, Collins was not a distant spectator. He was strapped into his customized couch inside Apollo 11’s command module — going for a ­historic wild ride.

The history of rocketry goes back to late twelfth-­century China, and the word “rocket” entered the English language four centuries later. For hundreds of years, rockets relied on black powder for thrust (it’s what made for the “rocket’s red glare” of Britain’s assault on Baltimore in the War of 1812). But some forty-­three years before Apollo 11, in 1926, Robert Goddard, a physics professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, built and launched something new: the first successful liquid-fuelled rocket.

Goddard had long been fascinated by rocketry and the idea of space flight. In 1898, at the age of fifteen, he read a serialized version of H. G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds in the Boston Post. He was enthralled. The pivotal moment came the following year, when, on the afternoon of October 19, 1899, he climbed a tall cherry tree behind his family home in Worcester. Armed with a saw and hatchet, Goddard began to trim off dead branches:

It was one of the quiet, colorful afternoons of sheer beauty which we have in October in New England, and as I looked toward the fields at the east, I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had the possibility of ascending to Mars, and how it would look on a small scale, if sent up from the meadow at my feet. . . . I was a different boy when I descended the tree from when I ascended, for existence at last seemed very purposive.

October 19 was now his “Anniversary Day,” and each year he would reread The War of the Worlds. Space flight had become an obsession.

Early in 1913, Goddard’s doctors diagnosed him with double pulmonary tuberculosis. They gave him two weeks to live. A few months later, he took out the first of his over 200 patents on rocketry, and he went on to become one of the best-known scientists in the United States between the two world wars.

Through his calculations and relentless series of experiments, Goddard recognized the limitations of black powder for reaching extreme altitudes. Although he saw the advantages of a mix of liquid oxygen and hydrogen — the same combination that would propel the second and third stages of the towering Saturn V — it was more practical for him to use a mix of gasoline and liquid oxygen. His early experiments became well enough known to earn the scorn of the New York Times. Professor Goddard, the paper opined in 1920, “does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react.” The physicist, it continued, lacked “the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.” (A day after Apollo 11 departed for the moon, the Gray Lady printed a correction to its 1920 article, conceding that “it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.”)

By March 1926, at a cabbage patch at his Aunt Effie’s farm, Goddard was ready to launch his first liquid-­fuelled rocket. He described the moment in his notes:

Even though the release was pulled, the rocket did not rise at first, but the flame came out, and there was a steady roar. After a number of seconds it rose, slowly until it cleared the frame, and then at express train speed, curving over to the left, and striking the ice and snow, still going at a rapid rate.

Goddard, now in his mid-­forties, described his invention as “almost magical as it rose.” It was as if the rocket had decided, “I’ve been here long enough; I think I’ll be going somewhere else, if you don’t mind.”

Goddard would go on to reach impressive heights, with one rocket soaring to 2.6 kilometres in 1937. But that first flight lasted just two seconds, rising a mere twelve metres — basically the height of two Saturn V F‑1 engines stacked on top of each other. Nonetheless, it proved a pivotal moment in realizing a dream.

Most days for fifteen years, I would make my way to my office at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Like the museum’s nine million annual visitors, I would enter the building through the Milestones of Flight gallery. There, ten metres or so from each other, sat the original Apollo 11 command module, Columbia, which carried those three astronauts to and from the moon, and a model of Goddard’s 1926 two-metre liquid-fuel rocket. Hanging above all was the original Wright Flyer, from 1903.

It was, and is, tempting to trace an undeviating, inevitable path between these aerospace artifacts — each naturally leading to the other. But however compelling the lure of the linear is, especially in a museum, there was nothing preordained about the technological spectacle that was a Saturn V rocket.

Between Goddard’s experiments and NASA’s moon shot were numerous fits and starts; massive social, political, and economic changes; and tremendous technological and scientific upheavals. Goddard may have pointed the way to a moon mission, but he could fly only so high with his four assistants and small workshop. It would take the vast resources of the state to go higher.

How to secure — and manage — those resources was something the German nobleman Wernher von Braun understood. Whereas Goddard had secured most of his research funds from a private foundation, a youthful von Braun struck a Faustian bargain, in 1933, with the German army to work on its fledgling rocket program, which aimed to develop very long-range artillery. Less than a decade later, on a beautiful autumn afternoon in 1942 at Peenemünde, on the Baltic coast, a rocket rose into the air on a plume of flame and smoke and streaked into the sky. It reached a height of 90 kilometres before plummeting back into the atmosphere, smashing into the sea some 190 kilometres from the launch site.

A human-built object had touched the very edge of space for the first time. The A‑4 rocket, which would become better known as the V‑2, was a sophisticated machine that weighed around 13,000 kilograms, stood some fourteen metres tall, and was propelled by an explosive mix of liquid oxygen and alcohol. Today, at the Air and Space Museum, if you stand alongside the Apollo 11 command module and look east, you can see one of von Braun’s groundbreaking V‑2s.

Von Braun’s legacy, however, goes beyond a fourteen-metre rocket. In an era before “systems engineering” and “project management,” he understood the essential importance of “systems integration” — a role he played himself in pulling together the disparate elements of the A‑4’s design and construction.

Systems management would prove increasingly crucial in the 1960s as the Apollo program came to dwarf Germany’s Second World War rocket ­program. The need to mesh together the work of thousands of institutions and industry partners — some 400,000 people — meant there could be no one system builder. Rather, the system builder itself had to be a system. And von Braun, who became a U.S. citizen and minor celebrity after the war, would again play a central role, directing the design of the Saturn V.

So vast was the American space program in the early 1960s, so rapidly did it expand, and so new were the challenges that skilled engineers, managers, scientists, computer programmers, and technicians were in short supply. Many were barely out of university. Others were hired without even being interviewed. As one exasperated Jet Propulsion Laboratory manager exclaimed, “Where are the people who know what they are doing?”

Some who did know what they were doing came from Canada. In December 1959, thirty-two engineers from the cancelled Avro Arrow project joined NASA. The head of the space agency personally approved the hiring of the “research and development group of alien scientists having special qualifications in fields closely related to manned space flight.” One of the “alien scientists” was Jim Chamberlin, a graduate of the University of Toronto and Avro’s chief designer.

Chamberlin became head of engineering for Project Mercury, NASA’s first human space flight program, which launched six American astronauts, including Alan Shepard and John Glenn, into space atop modified missiles. Chamberlin was also the chief designer on Project Gemini — the “engineering bridge” between Mercury and Apollo that pioneered space rendezvous and docking techniques that would be essential for a moon mission.

It was just twenty days after NASA’s first manned flight that President John F. Kennedy committed the United States to “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” It was a bold goal that nobody knew how to achieve, but Chamberlin would help settle some of the key engineering debates that animated Apollo for the next several years over, among other questions, the best way to land on the moon.

One option, championed by von Braun, was known as Earth Orbit Rendezvous. NASA would first launch a proto–space station of sorts, and then assemble and fuel a lunar vehicle in space. Once completed, that vehicle would fly to the moon and land directly on the surface. Another approach was known as Direct Ascent, which would involve one massive spacecraft leaving the earth, landing on the surface of the moon, and coming back (a scenario envisioned by countless science fiction novels and familiar to anyone who has watched Marvin the Martian on Looney Tunes).

Chamberlin supported a third approach: Lunar Orbit Rendezvous. In this scheme, championed by the engineer John Houbolt, an Apollo command and service module would go into orbit around the moon and undock from its lunar module, or LM. This LM, which required a throttleable rocket engine (which had not yet been invented), would then fly separately to the moon’s surface. After the astronauts had completed their excursion, they would take off in the upper part of the LM and reunite with the orbiting spacecraft for the journey back to the earth. Chamberlin’s Arrow may never have gone into full-scale production, but his work on rendezvous and docking techniques ultimately played a major role in the Apollo missions.

If Chamberlin helped figured out the techniques, another former Avro engineer helped figure out the craft. Owen Maynard had served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War before earning an engineering degree from the University of Toronto. As part of the Avro team, he’d been something of a troubleshooter, at one point tackling a problem with the Arrow’s landing gear. As the LM’s engineering chief, he worked closely with the bug-like craft’s manufacturer, Grumman Aircraft on Long Island, to develop a completely original flying machine. Throughout the Apollo 11 mission, he watched events unfold from a private analysis room just off the primary mission control room in Houston.

In the early days of human space flight, network television broadcast the launches and splashdowns — but little of a mission’s in-between action. To help fill in the gaps, producers scheduled “teach-ins” on science and technology, setting up crude studio laboratories, for example, or sending camera crews to see where spacecraft, rockets, and spacesuits were actually built. Broader discussions on the politics or social worth of space flight — and there were many such discussions happening on the streets, in the papers, and in Congress — rarely got a look in these transmissions.

On Christmas Eve 1968, at the end of a particularly tumultuous year in the United States, the three astronauts of Apollo 8 arrived to orbit and photograph the moon. “For all the people back on Earth,” they said in a live broadcast, they read from the Book of Genesis and sent back black and white “Earthrise” images. It was, at the time, the most watched television event in history. When he got home, the Apollo 8 commander, Frank Borman, received a telegram, one of many, that read, simply, “Thanks, you saved 1968.”

Just seven months later, with Apollo 11 coasting toward the moon, live coverage had expanded: the astronauts hosted two broadcasts from inside their spacecraft. And, for the first time, transmissions from space were in colour. For the second broadcast, on July 18, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin donned their spacesuits and crawled into the LM, which they had named Eagle, to give viewers back home a tour of the cramped space, which lacked even seats.

Two days later, Armstrong and Aldrin headed into Eagle once again. They completed their final checks and then undocked, leaving behind Michael Collins in Columbia. With Armstrong at the controls, Eagle started its harrowing descent. As the astronauts went down, guided by an MIT-built computer system no more powerful than an Apple II, alarms began going off. Back in Houston, mission control grew increasingly concerned about the craft’s fuel levels.

Armstrong had been an outstanding test pilot, and in 1966, he’d skillfully averted certain disaster aboard Gemini 8, which had spun out of control in orbit. He now calmly piloted Eagle over the Sea of Tranquility, passing boulders the size of houses and manoeuvring to avoid a crater. When the LM finally touched down, Charlie Duke, the only person speaking directly to the astronauts, summed up Houston’s collective state of mind: “We copy you on the ground. You’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”

Each Apollo 11 astronaut was allowed a few personal items on the journey. Aldrin carried a satchel, with a bit of bread, some wine, and a small chalice. An elder at his Presbyterian church, he paused before putting on his bulky life-support backpack to perform the first Christian sacrament on another world. Among Armstrong’s choices were some pieces of the Wright Flyer, which Orville Wright had piloted in 1903 — just sixty-­six years earlier. Six people witnessed that historic flight, which lasted twelve seconds and covered only thirty-seven metres. Now part of the Wright Flyer had travelled another 385 million metres. And back in Kitty Hawk, a much larger crowd than before had gathered at the Wright Brothers National Memorial to watch what would happen next.

Armstrong and Aldrin were scheduled to take a break before leaving the LM, but they persuaded Houston to let them head out sooner. After a four-day journey, they were understandably eager to get outside. Getting ready was like “two fullbacks trying to change positions inside a Cub Scout pup tent,” Aldrin would recall. The LM’s skin was so thin in places, it could be pierced with a pencil. “We also had to be very careful of our movements.” Eventually, as Armstrong lowered himself to the moon’s surface, he deployed a television camera to transmit images of himself, the LM, and the moonscape back to an estimated worldwide audience of around 600 million. Unlike Orville Wright, Armstrong was a performer — an instant celebrity — in a public theatre of the largest scale.

As he stepped onto the lunar surface, Armstrong said what would become iconic, if debated, words: “It’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” In Toronto, the CBC’s Knowlton Nash called the moment “simply a night of magic.” He would later recall, “I was anchoring the network coverage of the most dramatic moment in the space age — the first human being to walk on the moon. It was the biggest audience CBC News had ever had.” In Washington, President Richard Nixon described it as “the greatest week since the beginning of the world.” The moon landing, like everything Apollo, was made for hyperbole.

After Aldrin joined Armstrong, the two placed experiments, collected rocks, and then planted and saluted an American flag (the thrust of the LM’s ascent rocket would actually knock it over the next day). Inside the LM were two other American flags, to be flown over the two houses of Congress; the flags of all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories abroad; the United Nations flag; and those of 136 other countries.

There is no separating the Apollo mission from the very real, very messy politics of the 1960s: the era’s Cold War fears and anxieties, the military-industrial complex, or pork-­barrel spending. But on July 20, 1969, much of the world came together for a brief moment. It was a day that Goddard had seen in a dream years before, one in which he had stood on the moon and used a small Kodak camera to photograph the earth. Armstrong and Aldrin brought Hasselblads, and they took plenty of pictures. After two and a half hours, they returned to Eagle, where they started preparing to rendezvous with Columbia.

For Collins, circling the moon on his own, 100 kilometres above the surface, the moment that Eagle’s ascent engine fired was particularly nerve-racking. “I have been flying for seventeen years,” he said. “But I have never sweated out any flight like I am sweating out the LM now.” What would happen, he wondered aloud, if Eagle’s novel rocket engine somehow failed? “My secret terror for the last six months has been leaving them on the moon and returning to earth alone; now I am within minutes of finding out the truth of the matter. If they fail to rise from the surface, or crash back into it, I am coming home, forthwith, but I will be a marked man for life and I know it. Almost better not to have the option I enjoy.”

Of course, we know how the story ends. Eagle successfully rendezvoused with Columbia. There were more broadcasts on the journey home, and television viewers watched as the three men reached the small “re-entry corridor” of the earth’s atmosphere, travelling at speeds of 40,200 kilometres per hour. Temperatures around the command module reached 2760 Celsius, before giant parachutes slowed it for a gentle landing in the Pacific Ocean.

The Apollo program was cancelled after the Apollo 17 mission, in December 1972. NASA had successfully landed on the moon six times in three years, but political and public interest had waned.

For a moment in time, though, the program had been audacious, and this meant it had to be huge. The final cost was some $26 billion — hitting 4 percent of the U.S. GDP during some years. The employee count was hundreds of thousands, many of them young and brand new to the aerospace industry. For many men and women, Apollo would be the highlight of their career. Out of President Kennedy’s commitment in 1961 flowed countless innovations in science, technology, computer programming, and systems management. Large-scale facilities around the United States were built to complement NASA’s numerous space centres, including the one just outside Washington named after Robert Goddard, where scientists and engineers now explore our own planet and the distant cosmos by using even more sophisticated ­spacecraft.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” Arthur C. Clarke once wrote. To someone from the past — say, from 1903 — Apollo would surely have appeared magical, even godlike. But Apollo was a highly complicated god, and even gods are challenged from time to time. With its fits and starts, the program was contested and doubted every step of the way. It was anything but linear. It was also, undeniably, poetic.

Among the artifacts that survive are those that evoke Apollo’s scope and ambition. The Saturn V on display at the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida, is striking. Its first and third stages were initially intended for Apollo 18, which never flew. Even decades later, its size carries an emotional punch. When I first saw it, I felt awe, but also regret and sadness, like seeing a lion caged in the zoo: the mighty rocket that never flew is displayed ­horizontally.

The Saturn V was meant to stand before it soared, and that’s how it was assembled. To mate the three stages together, NASA erected a unique structure in 1966. The Vehicle Assembly Building is 160 metres tall and some 158 metres wide. Once a Saturn V had been readied, the largest self-­powered vehicle ever built drove it 6.4 kilometres to an available launch pad. When I toured the cavernous space in the 1980s, I found it breathtaking. It remains the biggest single-­storey building in the world.

Some twenty years before my visit, the Vehicle Assembly Building played host to Norman Mailer, who ultimately found NASA and its emphasis on routine deeply unsatisfying. But even he was astonished by what he described as a “warehouse of the gods” and a “giant cathedral of a machine.” The building, just one of many testaments to Apollo, helped him “recognize that the world would change, that the world had changed.”