A Space Odyssey: Reading Charles Fishman’s “One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon”

On July 20, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.  In 1969, the odyssey of Apollo 11 seemed to some of us the realization of the American dream. I have a joyful remembrance of watching the grainy TV footage, and nowadays I feel a deep sadness that NASA’s space shuttle program was canceled. I will attend a  Moon Landing theme party on July 20, where we will play Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” on vinyl; make a batch of imitation Space Food Sticks (a predecessor of energy bars); and play a round of Moon Trivial Pursuit (we all bring trivia cards).

And let me recommend Charles Fishman’s new book, One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon, a meticulously researched history entwined with vivid details that tell a fast-paced story. Fishman begins by telling us the moon has a smell. After walking on the moon, the astronauts, Neil Armstrong and and Buzz Aldrin, noticed the dust they had tracked in smelled “like wet ashes,” or like “a firecracker” that had gone off.

Did you know that John F. Kennedy was, in some respects, responsible for the moon landing? In 1961 he told reporters at a press conference that Americans would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. In part, this was a reaction to the Cold War space race: Russians had just sent the first man into space, and Europeans were mocking the Americans.  Kennedy’s advisors and NASA scientists had first confirmed to him that putting a man on the moon was the only way to beat the Russians.

This was an incredible achievement. In 1961 NASA had not done even the preliminary researh for travel to the moon, so hundreds of thousands of scientists, engineers, MIT geniuses, seamstresses, computer whizzes, craftsmen, and builders worked together. The craftsmanship was prodigious. The spaceship was built by hand, women were hired to knit the wires for the computer by hand, the Playtex bra company designed the space suits and women sewed them by hand , and the parachutes were also sewed by hand.  And eight years the first men landed on the moon.

Fishman stresses that the Apollo missions had a revolutionary effect on the culture of the ‘60s, which simultaneously embraced rock music, the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s movement, the environmental movement, protests against the war in Vietnam, science, science fiction, popular TV shows like Star Trek, Lost in Space, and  Laugh-in.  It was a time of daring and boldness, as well as a time of the terrible tragedies of the assassinations of JFK, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King.

And  NASA drove the computer chip business, which powered the space shuttle computers and drove the price of chips way down,  which drove the market for home computers eventually.  The chips began to be used in electronic appliances.  Before Apollo 11, transistors were cheaper.

The trip to the moon was hailed by some as thrilling and necessary, by others a waste of money. But Fishman points out that the money spent on Apollo 11 would never have gone to the fighting of poverty and other important issues anyway.

Did you approve of putting men on the moon, or resent it because you thought the funds would be better-spent elsewhere?

I learned so much from Fishman’s book.  An excellent page-turner!