Articles: Review - Apollo, The Race to the Moon

by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox.

Few events ever occur that will endure in the culture of mankind for more than a few hundred years. I feel lucky and privileged to have witnessed such an occurrence when a bunch of American test pilots were given the fabulous opportunity of stepping out onto virgin lunar soil.

The rest of us soaked up the coverage given to the spectacle by the media who, by this time, were running on their reserve supply of superlatives and clichés. Astronauts were proclaimed as 'heroes' and as having the 'right stuff,' teflon was held aloft as a great spin-off from the space program and we had come to believe that going to the Moon was only about as great an achievement as building new skyscrapers or climbing another mountain.

The Apollo project was let loose from the starting blocks by an embarrassed John F. Kennedy in April 1961. He was not a proponent of the space program but he turned to it when he needed a dramatic gesture to save his skin after the Cuban 'Bay of Pigs' fiasco and the launching into space of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin with its associated international prestige. Kennedy sent a memorandum to his vice-president asking "Do we have a chance of beating the Soviets by [a lunar space program]... at the earliest possible moment?" The reply was affirmative, partly because people within the fledgling NASA had already been looking at the possibility. They had even christened it 'Project Apollo' and had initiated design studies into the spacecraft and launch vehicle. Kennedy told them to get on with it and do it before 1970.

Apollo, The Race to the Moon is a recent book which aims to provide a realistic comprehension of the political motivations, technical rigour and managerial inspiration which conspired to realise a dream. It provides us with a chronological narrative which is not strictly comprehensive but runs a series of threads through NASA's crucial heydays and crises.

The language and experiences of the people involved explain how the whole preposterous plan was conceived, planned and executed. Their tales give a frightening impression of the personal stresses they gladly endured in their pursuance of a dream and a deadline set by an assassinated president. The book tries to recreate how the people of Apollo talk about Apollo, adopting the lingo of techspeak and acronyms with suitable explanations. 'Mission Control' and 'capsule' are discarded for 'MOCR' and 'CSM'.

Astronaut adulation in the conventional 'newsy' style is assiduously avoided as the authors seek out those who did not come under public gaze but who designed the systems, built the hardware, controlled the missions and held the pieces of a vast technological jigsaw together. The book neatly illustrates how poor many management systems are when applied to technology. One sees how, in order to complete the task, management conventions were set aside and the expediency of the mission timetable ruled. The command module was perhaps the most complex machine then made. During its construction, only five people could get into it at once and if it was to be ready for the deadline then their time was more precious than anyone else's. John Healey, the manager in charge of the first Apollo spacecraft after a fatal fire in 1967, told his staff he would make sure they got all the support they needed, "and they kind of smiled. I said 'No. I mean it. I'll do it.'" And he did. He had vice-presidents chasing plans so the workers could stay in the command module.

'All-up testing' was one of the most daring methods of trying out new technology. Usual aeronautical wisdom was to test, alter slightly, then test again. This step-by-step approach proved impractical and too time consuming for an expendable yet very expensive machine like the giant Saturn V vehicle. Instead, the engineering and ground testing had to be of such a quality that they could have complete confidence in it. If the thing flew successfully, with all its new engines and its huge scale, at the first couple of attempts, then it was deemed to be man-rated.

This risky method was vindicated by success as no mission was ever lost due to a faulty Saturn. This is all the more remarkable when one considers the Saturn's main engines. The F-1 engine was the most powerful single rocket then conceived and they had a disconcerting habit of destroying themselves on the test bed. These devices generated 670 tons of force each by burning kerosene and liquid oxygen. Internal temperatures of nearly 3000 °ree;C and comparably brutal pressures were achieved seconds after ignition. Pressure waves would form and begin to race around the combustion chamber creating instabilities of extreme violence and ripping the machine apart.

It took three years before this capricious engine was tamed to the extent that a small bomb could be exploded within it and the resulting disruption would dissipate within half a second. The account of the F-1 gestation is one of many examples where the book manages to lift the lid on the real story of Apollo.

Sometimes NASA screwed up, as in the Apollo 1 fire of 1967 when three men were killed during a test on top of an unfuelled rocket, or on Apollo 13 when the spacecraft blew up four days from Earth. The latter became the pinnacle of NASA's commitment to returning men safely to Earth, and its ability to respond to a crisis. The former tragedy became a watershed for NASA, a unifying force which eventually led to a great spacecraft. Murray and Cox show how this organisation would publicly take itself apart, find out what went wrong and learn from it to the benefit of future missions. The politicians and media would abuse NASA, accusing it of complacency and negligence without really understanding the issues involved. This is a microcosm of how society has a general incomprehension about issues of science and technology.

For most of the time, NASA understood the quote by Richard Feynman, "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled." The book describes with enlightening detail how NASA discovered its mistakes, fixed them and triumphed.

More than twenty years on, the public does not seem to have regained the enthusiasm it once had for space. If so, then this book will likely be lost on most people. That would be a shame as it is an exciting document about how to realise a dream in a cynical world. Apollo, The Race to the Moon celebrates the use of human technology for a benign and almost spiritual quest. At least it is a book which the enthusiast will savour. The atmosphere of frenetic creativity is captured as engineers, some of whom were barely out of college were set a task that was just pure fun to them. A veteran of the MOCR described how it was a little like gulping good wine. There was no time really to enjoy or savour it. Instead, as he says, "we drank the wine at the pace they handed it to us."

Apollo was a product of its time and circumstances. We can now only look back with the help of fine books like this, and try to grasp what these people did. We may never recreate the awe that the events generated. But then, leaving for the first time can only happen once. And that is what Apollo was about. Leaving.

This book has been republished as Apollo and is available from Amazon.