A Behind-the-Scenes Look At NASA’s incredible Journey to the Moon
Space journalist and insider Nancy Atkinson weaves together the riveting story of NASA’s mission to complete “the greatest adventure on which humankind ever embarked.”
This incredible account is a keepsake celebrating some of the most important and dramatic events in modern history. Told through over 60 personal interviews and oral histories, as well as personal photographs, this tribute to the men and women who made the Apollo 11 mission a reality chronicles the highs and lows that accompanied the race to the Moon: the devastating flash fire that killed the crew of Apollo 1; the awe of those who saw their years-in-the-making contributions to space exploration blast off from Cape Canaveral; the knuckle-biting descent of Apollo 11 to the lunar surface; a near-catastrophic event on the crew’s flight home; the infectious excitement and jubilation across the world after the astronauts returned safely to Earth.
These little-known stories of the dedicated engineers, mathematicians and scientists in the 1960s reveal the “hows” of the Apollo missions and bring to life the wonder and excitement of humanity’s first steps on the Moon.
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About the Author
Nancy Atkinson is a science journalist and author. She has been with Universe Today since 2004 and has contributed articles to several other publications, including Ad Astra, Seeker, Space.com, Wired and New Scientist. Her first book, Incredible Stories From Space tells the behind the scenes tales of those who work on NASA’s missions to explore the solar system and beyond.
Apollo 9 astronaut Russell L. (Rusty) Schweickart is a retired business and government executive. He co-founded the B612 Foundation, a private nonprofit foundation that champions the development of spaceflight capability to protect Earth from future asteroid impacts. Schweickart is also founder and past president of the Association of Space Explorers (ASE), the international professional society of astronauts and cosmonauts. He and his wife Nancy Ramsey live in Sonoma, California.
Read an Excerpt
You learned to keep your pencil sharp.
— CATHERINE OSGOOD, engineer, Rendezvous Analysis Branch
WHEN KEN YOUNG ARRIVED IN HOUSTON in June 1962, the first thing he did was drive about 25 miles farther southeast to the site where the new Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) was going to be built. And all he found was cows.
What would eventually become a six-lane highway called NASA Parkway was at that time just a narrow oyster-shell road that stretched from the Webster railroad tracks to Seabrook, following the curve around Clear Lake. All along was open coastal prairie pastureland with grazing Herefords, longhorns and shorthorn Durhams. Young noticed a livestock water tank with a windmill whirring nearby.
The land was part of the 20,000-acre West Ranch, owned by the heirs of the Humble Oil and Refining Company, later known as the Exxon Corporation. The Wests had donated a 1,000-acre portion of their ranch to nearby Rice University, who in turn had offered the property to the NASA Space Task Group. This was a group of engineers that managed America's human spaceflight programs and was charged with finding a suitable location for a new complex of research labs, office buildings and test and control facilities so that NASA could send humans to the Moon with Project Apollo.
This rural property in Harris County, Texas, was appealing to the Space Task Group since it met several of the site requirements, including access to barge traffic through Clear Lake — just on the south side of the road — which in turn provided access to Galveston Bay and the Gulf. The land was close to Ellington Air Force Base, providing easy air access; it was near institutions of higher education (Rice University and the University of Houston), and the region had a moderate climate "permitting out-of-door work for most of the year," according to the wishes of the Space Task Group's site selection memorandum. Plus, it didn't hurt that Texas was home to several influential US congressmen, such as Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn and Albert Thomas — the man who had the power over the country's purse as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee — as well as Vice President Lyndon Johnson. They were all big supporters of the space program, especially with the economic benefits that a big, new and prestigious facility in their state would bring. Congress had just passed a $1.7 billion NASA appropriations bill that included $60 million for the new facility in Houston.
And so, in September 1961, NASA announced the Space Task Group's decision to build the new facility on this plot of land near Houston. From its inception, it was to be the lead center for all US space missions involving astronauts. The cows would have to go (although years later, they would return to graze once again in a special pasture set aside to educate tourists about the history of this place).
But in 1962, the MSC would soon be the place where people would design, develop, evaluate and test the spacecraft for Project Apollo (as well as all of its subsystems) and train the crews that would fly these missions. The ideas were there, the dreams were there — but just how to implement all these monumental tasks was mostly unknown. The primary need was people, and in particular, brain power. NASA would need to transform from a small research organization into a large federal agency teeming with scientists, engineers and managers all to figure out how to do things that had never been done before.
In that year alone, more than two thousand new hires came pouring into Houston. The incoming recruits had one thing in common: they were young, either fresh from college or the military or plucked from the oil, aircraft or electronics industries. Some were single, crew-cutted and wide-eyed — and when they weren't working, they were on the lookout for fun and adventure. Many were already married with young families, families that formed the basis of the close-knit communities that soon sprang up.
Ken Young was among some of the first new hires to show up, one of the near-originals — his number at the new credit union for NASA employees was 173. But the real originals were the one hundred or so folks who were part of the Space Task Group that had transferred in during the winter and spring of 1962 from the Langley Research Center in Virginia and the Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. The group included thirty-seven engineers, eight secretaries and math aides (the women who did all the mathematical calculations and prepared the graphics) plus an additional thirty-two engineers from Canada who moved south after the Avro Arrow project — a specialized interceptor aircraft that was going to be constructed in cooperation with the US — was canceled.
NASA had given Young a pretty decent job offer, he thought. It wasn't the best he got, but he knew he could work at the new center in Houston and, being from Austin, he didn't want to leave Texas. He took it.
Most importantly, he was going to be working on something related to space — he knew that much — but as far as a particular task or job, he didn't have a clue. He checked in at the NASA personnel headquarters in a small upstairs office in the East End State Bank Building on Telephone Road in southeast Houston. After describing his interests and education with a personnel manager named Leslie Sullivan, Young was placed with the Mission Planning and Analysis Division. He was going to be working on figuring out trajectories for launch, orbit and reentry. One other aspect intrigued him: the rendezvous of two spacecraft, which was one of those things that had never been done before.
"All I knew was that I wanted to work on trajectories and orbits and stuff, but I went in there with no real idea," Young said. "There weren't any textbooks on the subject yet, but my new manager, Bill Tindall, had compiled a manual that was called the Space Notes, and as new hires — they just hired a bunch of us — we had to sit there and memorize things from this 3-inch-thick, stapled-together handbook and solve equations and work out problems with our slide rules, just to learn the basics of orbital mechanics. Hardly anybody knew how to do anything."
Since construction of the MSC was just getting under way, everyone who came to Houston for NASA was put to work in an assortment of about fifteen different buildings on the southeast side of Houston, now the property of the US government, either through leases, purchases or appropriation because of back taxes. Young went out with his group to the old Houston Petroleum Building, which had the distinguishing feature of a rusty oil derrick out front.
But Young settled in, soaked up new information like a sponge and found a place to live. At the end of his first week, he went to the credit union to borrow $200 so he could buy a black-and-white television set for his apartment. A guy with a new job had to have at least one small luxury.
Young had just graduated from the University of Texas in Austin. When he enrolled there, his original plan was to be an engineer — whatever the hell that was, it sure sounded good. But he was always analyzing things, interested in how different contraptions worked, and excelled in math. When he found out that civil engineers built bridges and such, he was intrigued.
But just two weeks after classes started his freshman year, all that changed. It was a Friday — October 4, 1957 — when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite. The small spacecraft, 23 inches (58 cm) in diameter, and its booster stage could be seen from Earth at dusk, orbiting the planet once every ninety-six minutes. Its eerily repeating beep-BEEP-beep-beep, beep-BEEP-beep-beep could be heard by amateur ham radios and was broadcast by radio stations as it continually transmitted signals back to Earth.
That launch a half a world away changed the direction of Americans' lives. First thing Monday morning following Sputnik 1's launch, Young marched over to the university's registration office and changed his major to aeronautical engineering. There wasn't anything called astronautical or aerospace engineering yet, but Young knew he wanted to be involved in this business of going to space. And he wasn't the only one.
Sputnik 1 was launched during the International Geophysical Year, a year dedicated to worldwide research on satellites and Earth's atmosphere. The international scientific community had a goal of launching a satellite to orbit Earth, and there was a race to see who could do it first. Russia's surprise launch of Sputnik 1 fueled the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States, intensifying the tensions between the two countries locked in the Cold War.
In the US, some people were in awe that humans could actually launch an object beyond the bounds of Earth and watched in wonder as the 184-pound (83-kg) sphere passed overhead. But mostly, a profound shudder went through the populace. Many were worried about falling behind "the Communists," that our education system wasn't good enough, that we had failed to encourage research and technology development, that our government was made up of a bunch of slackers. Others were just plain frightened. If the Soviets had rockets capable of sending objects to space, could they launch nuclear weapons to North America? Everything about Sputnik seemed threatening.
It didn't help that a month later the USSR launched Sputnik 2, with a dog named Laika inside a 1,100-pound (500-kg) payload. Putting a critter into space likely meant the USSR's goal was to soon launch humans as well, and the US was nowhere near that possibility.
"When I saw the dog go up, I said, 'My God, we better get going because it's going to be a legitimate program to put man in space,'" said Robert Gilruth, who at that time led teams of engineers at NASA's originating institution, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), and later became the leader of the Space Task Group. "I didn't need somebody to hit me on the head and tell me that."
Engineers at NACA had already been testing human capabilities and thresholds regarding spaceflight — in particular, g-forces — and they felt they understood some of the physiological limits well enough to start designing a human spacecraft. Then, through ballistic missile tests at a launch facility on Wallops Island, Virginia, they had data on how much heat was generated by high-velocity reentry through Earth's atmosphere. Their findings showed that a relatively new concept of using a preceding shock wave in front of a spacecraft was the best way to reenter a human-size vehicle through the atmosphere. That meant using a cone-shaped, blunt-ended spacecraft. It was a complete change in architecture to go from flying a pilot in a winged vehicle — which NACA had been advancing since 1915 — to putting an astronaut lying on his back in a space capsule.
The capsule concept was an extremely hard sell for engineers who had worked on airplanes most of their careers. Plus, many space-enthused engineers and designers had been inspired by science fiction (with Buck Rogers's winged ships depicted in comics and pulp magazines) or the series of 1950s articles by rocket engineer Wernher von Braun in Collier's magazine with fantastic winged spaceships portrayed by artist Chesley Bonestell. Hugh Dryden, the head of Langley, equated the space capsule concept to "shooting a lady out of a cannon." Others at Langley weren't convinced this infatuation with space travel might not be much more than a circus stunt or a passing fancy.
Gilruth began working with leaders in Washington, DC, to determine how the United States could get a human to space. But while the US had been launching ballistic missiles and other rockets for years, actually getting a payload into Earth orbit with multistage launch vehicles proved much more difficult, even though different branches of the military were working on it — and each in their own way. In a fierce competition, the Army was trying to get their Jupiter and Juno rockets flying before the Air Force could get their Thor or Atlas launchers off the launchpad.
In December 1957, the US Naval Research Lab project attempted to launch its Vanguard rocket with a satellite that was about the size of a grapefruit and weighed 3 pounds (1.3 kg). It rose a few feet into the air before blowing up in a massive, spectacular fireball. The event was broadcast live on national television, and the US press dubbed it "Flopnik" and "Stayputnik." More remarkable launch failures followed while the Soviets continued with a series of successful missions. Americans were embarrassed.
Suddenly the ability to launch rockets became a national priority. The Army Ballistic Missile Agency — directed by the rescued World War II team of German rocket engineers led by von Braun — quickly pooled resources with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, putting together a four-stage Juno rocket with JPL's canister-shaped, 30-pound (14 kg) satellite called Explorer 1. It launched successfully on January 31, 1958, the first US satellite. Its single instrument sent back data about the radiation environment high above Earth's surface.
With the advent of television and mass communications, the world now watched as the space race between the US and the Soviet Union unfolded.
But the United States needed to formally organize its space program. The Eisenhower Administration created NASA in October 1958. The new organization combined a small nucleus of engineers inherited from NACA (as well as personnel transferred from the Vanguard and Juno programs) and added the teams of the Army's German rocket men, now at the newly formed Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama.
A few launch successes came amid numerous failures while engineers tried to figure out how they could possibly put a human into space with the new Redstone rocket and a human-size, blunt-end capsule called Mercury, designed by the Space Task Group engineers. Even with successful launchings of monkeys on suborbital flights, more rocket failures ensued, and NASA wanted to be cautious before actually putting a person inside one of these unpredictable, catapulting bombs. But a group of seven astronauts had now been selected with much public fanfare, and they were undergoing training while the Mercury capsule was undergoing tests. And rockets kept failing or blowing up with an alarming frequency.
Further embarrassment came during the first launch attempt for the Mercury-Redstone in November 1960. The rocket rose just 4 inches (10 cm) and then its engines shut down, slamming it back on the pad. The rocket didn't explode, but in an almost comical, confused afterthought, the escape tower shot up into the air, and the capsule's drogue parachute popped up like a cork and ended up draped innocuously along the side of the rocket. That may have been the absolute lowest point of morale among those who worked on Project Mercury.
Meanwhile, some members of the Space Task Group — always the innovators with a look toward the future — formed a Research Steering Committee on Manned Space Flight. Headed by Harry Goett, the committee started mapping out an assortment of long-range strategies for NASA. Some thought von Braun and his team had the perfect idea of building gigantic rockets to explore the solar system. Some scientists thought Earth satellites to monitor the environment were important. Several engineers looked into what it would take to go to the Moon, and in fact, the Goett committee recommended either a circumlunar trip or a manned lunar landing as appropriate long-term goals of NASA's space program. But first, they suggested a major interim program to develop advanced orbital capabilities, such as the construction of a space station. But this was all far into the future, with no meaningful (i.e., financial) support for any immediate effort for such missions. It was hard enough to launch small rockets with any sustained success, and new, young President John F. Kennedy had not given the issue of space much thought.
But April 12, 1961, transformed all that. The USSR launched cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into a single orbit around the Earth. It was audacious and stunning, and Americans were shocked that the Soviets had won this race. The public, lawmakers and the media demanded quick action to counter the obvious fact that the United States was in second place on the space frontier.
Counteraction came just weeks later, when, on May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American to reach space, launching on a fifteen-minute suborbital Mercury flight. The success boosted US morale and strengthened hopes for the future of space travel. Shepard's admonition to the pad crew to "solve your little problem and light this candle" was indicative of the drive many Americans felt to get ahead of — or at least stay in step with — the Russians. Then suddenly, on May 25, 1961, just shy of three years after President Eisenhower signed an act creating NASA and just three weeks after Shepard's flight — meaning the US had only fifteen minutes of spaceflight experience — Kennedy set a goal for the United States that would surpass any previous engineering and scientific feat.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Eight Years to the Moon"
Copyright © 2019 Nancy Atkinson.
Excerpted by permission of Page Street Publishing Co..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
APOLLO 50TH ANNIVERSARY AND THE COSMIC PERSPECTIVE,
CHAPTER 1: 1962,
CHAPTER 2: 1963,
CHAPTER 3: 1964,
CHAPTER 4: 1965,
CHAPTER 5: 1966,
CHAPTER 6: 1967,
CHAPTER 7: 1968,
CHAPTER 8: 1969,
CHAPTER 9: APOLLO 11,
EPILOGUE: APOLLO 12-17,
ACRONYM REFERENCE GUIDE,
SOURCES FOR EIGHT YEARS TO THE MOON,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,