Book Review:  One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon by Charles Fishman

I picked up this recently-published book thinking it was an updated history of the Apollo program but as I began to read I soon realized that it is not really that at all. Instead, it is a look behind the scenes at some of the aspects of the intense race to the moon in the 1960s that never made it into the spotlight of public awareness. This is evident from the first few pages of the introduction, as Fishman describes that when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin got back into their capsule after humankind’s first-ever moon walk, they discovered that the moon dust clinging to their suits smelled like spent firecrackers.

Besides bringing lesser-known stories of the Apollo program to light, in the first and last chapters Fishman focuses on a retrospective look at its value. At the time and in subsequent decades, many critics derided the Apollo program for its expense and for the lack of follow-up missions. In the almost fifty years since the last moon mission in 1972, there have been no landings of humans on celestial bodies. One would think that by now the entire solar system would be colonized, but we seem to be as far from that as we were in the sixties. As for the cost, One Giant Leap points out that compared to the cost of the Vietnam War, which was occurring at the same time, the expense of Apollo was miniscule. Additionally, in practical terms, if the Apollo program had never happened, it doesn’t mean that the funds spent on it would have been automatically diverted to feeding, clothing, and housing the poor. That’s not how government spending works. And it’s true that the trips to the moon in the late sixties and early seventies were not followed up by further forays to the moon, Mars, and the outer planets and moons, but its legacy goes far beyond that. The intense research into computers capable of the complex calculations necessary for space travel that would fit snugly into a tiny manned capsule helped ignite the digital age.

As I mentioned above, Fishman does not tell the story chronologically but in the highlighting of various facets of the program. One of these is MIT’s development of computers that would be small enough to go to the moon but complex enough for celestial navigation. At the time, computers were prohibitively expensive and filled rooms. It was all but inconceivable that a computer could be devised to meet the need. To accomplish it, for the first time MIT constructed computers using integrated circuits, which at the time were brand-new and very expensive. The software too had to be incredibly complex, because the aim was to make it sophisticated enough to navigate the ship on its own with very little help from the astronauts. The stories of the computer hardware and software development each have lengthy sections in this book. Other technical stories that Fishman tells involve the creation of the lunar module and the decision to use LOR, or lunar orbit rendezvous, as the flight plan to land men on the moon.

Fishman also delves into the controversy of the flag that ultimately got planted on the moon. Before the final decision there was intense controversy about whether to plant a UN flag, an American flag, or no flag. Ultimately an American flag was hoisted not as a symbol of conquest but as an acknowledgement of the achievement of having made the trip. Fishman also delves into the difficulties technicians faced of where and how to store the flag on a capsule on which space and weight was so precious. As a side note in the flag chapter, Fishman relates how the astronauts on one mission had multi-page instructions attached to their wrists; in the midst of these a member of the ground crew had hidden scaled-down pictures of Playboy playmates which the men discovered while going about their tasks.

The driving force behind the Apollo program was John F. Kennedy, who early in his presidency expressed determination to land men on the moon before the end of the decade of the sixties. According to Fishman, for Kennedy this was solely a Cold War tactic to prove superiority over the Russians, who had managed to get a satellite and even a man into orbit long before the Americans were capable of doing so. Fishman claims that by 1963 interest in space was waning, but Kennedy’s assassination helped to spur the program on to completion. Another recent book, American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race by Douglas Brinkley, gives a much more nuanced and complex look at Kennedy’s involvement and fascination with space exploration and the Apollo program in particular.

All in all, this book contains fascinating insights into the race to the moon in the 1960s; however, it gets very technical and a bit repetitive in parts, and it does not offer a comprehensive history of the Apollo program.

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