Behind the Scenes

rocketmenWhat were you doing forty years ago, when the first men set foot on the Moon?

I was a chubby Eagle Scout shooting arrows, wielding hatchets, and tying knots (many, many knots) in the wilds of Idaho. Then word arrived that America’s most famous Scout, Neil Armstrong, said ‘hello’ to us at our national jamboree from his spaceship, Apollo 11. Thirty thousand boys whooped ‘hello’ right back.

I ‘d grown up in the Houston suburb of Sharpstown, famous across the state for both a banking scandal and a real estate flip scheme involving NASA astronauts and the developer’s sample properties known as The Parade of Homes. This was only a scandal outside the city, however, since Houston had grown so proud of hosting the Manned Spacecraft Center that local boosters were regularly calling it “Space City.” We thought of ourselves as nothing less than the future …

Four years ago, when I realized that the fortieth anniversary of Armstrong’s historic moment was coming, I thought: This may be one of the most important events of modern times, but it’s a story I already know. The memory of astronauts, moonwalks, that lunar jalopy, the Parade of Homes, Tang and those hundreds of knots blurred together into a happy 60s bog, as relevant today as fallout shelters andPolaroid Swinger cameras. Later, when I wrote Armstrong to ask for an interview, he did not reply, but explained to an acquaintance that everything that needed to be written about Apollo 11 already had been written. In 2005 when I first thought of this book, I couldn’t have agreed more.

Even so, I started researching. When you do what I do, attempt to find new insights into episodes of American history that everyone (including me) thinks they already know, there are moments in research that set off neurological charges. If this were the 19th Century. we’d call them ‘Eurekas!’ but the actual sensation is far more severe than the glow of a cartoon lightbulb. It’s like stumbling across the clue to a murder.

The first of these eurekas was a statistic. NASA strove for nothing more than a 1% failure rate in its ships and their systems (how they arrived at this number is a story retold in the book). Apollo 11 came with six million parts, however, meaning that, even with NASA’s rigor, 6,000 — that 1% — might fail.

The second research clue came when I found out what Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin both made sure to take with them on their flight to the Moon. Growing up in Texas, I knew full well that astronauts were brave (very true), daredevils (sort of true) and brawny (not true) cowboys (sort of true), but this image would be overturned by what Armstrong and Aldrin carried with them: Slide Rules.

The big history moment, though, came through learning about re-entry technology. It turns out that one of the most dangerous moments in space travel is coming home, when the Earth’s atmosphere annihilates anything that crashes too fast through it. It would take years for the Soviet Union to engineer an answer to this problem — they even had their cosmonauts bounce their ships against the edge of the atmosphere to slow them down — but as early as 1955, American researchers were developing blunt bodies to slow a parachute drop, coupled with beryllium shingles or ablative heat shields of phenolic resins, which scorched and melted off and away, taking the heat with them. The United States would use these three methods for NASA’s astronauts, the CIA’s spy satellites, and the Pentagon’s atomic warheads.

It was then that I realized that the story of Apollo 11 and the history of the Space and Missile Race was a story I in fact did not know. But now, four years later, I do.

In researching this book, what surprised you the most?

How incredibly dangerous space travel is, and how easily Apollo could have failed.
I went to Kennedy to simultaneously research their archives and experience a shuttle launch from the same pad used by Apollo 11. A NASA publicist offered me two places to watch; with the photographers, or from the VIP section. When I pointed out that the both of these were really far from the pad, and asked if there wasn’t anything closer, she explained that, since Apollo, the closest viewers were allowed was 3.5 miles away, because if a rocket blew up during ignition and liftoff, it would explode with 4/5ths the power of an atomic bomb, hurling 100-pound shrapnel for a radius of 3 miles.
I’d just been to the NASA archives in Washington where I’d read through one Apollo executive’s daily reports, an encyclopedia of failures, disasters, and hopelessness, and had come across the (at least) three times that Neil Armstrong had come very close to getting himself killed while a NASA employee. These discoveries made the story more urgent and compelling than I’d ever imagined.

What are astronauts really like?

Like most Americans, before working on Rocket Men my image of astronauts was a mix of jock cowboy daredevils (from the book and movie The Right Stuff) and the conservative, military, people-next-door portrayals of Life magazine. And what I found out was that, even though these characterizations are somewhat true, they are only a midge of the picture.
The astronauts are much smarter and more interesting than they’ve been portrayed — two of my favorites, Mike Collins and Alan Bean, now spend much of their time painting, which is not exactly what you’d expect from macho Right Stuff guys — but what I think is surprising is how diverse a group the corps really was. Wally Schirra loved playing outrageous pranks, for one example, while Neil Armstrong had such a dry sense of humor that most journalists interviewing him didn’t get the jokes. Looking at his pre-NASA resume, Buzz Aldrin would seem to be the perfect astronaut, but he was at first rejected, and then wasn’t all that popular with the rest of the corps. In many ways, Glenn and Armstrong seem so similar as to be related, but Glenn had the political sociability to become a U.S. Senator, a quality anathema to Armstrong.
And, besides having to be accepted into the training programs for military pilots, and then test pilots, Apollo astronauts had to have advanced science or engineering degrees, and were extensively involved in NASA’s science and engineering R+D. In the run-up to Apollo 11’s launch, Collins worked with space suit development; Aldrin, on docking and rendezvous; and Armstrong on lunar landing simulation.

Hasn’t there been enough written about this story already?

What I discovered was a story of unsung heroes — that 400,000 people across the United States worked to put Armstrong and Aldrin on the Moon, and between interviews and archives, I was able to let them speak for themselves about what it was like to take part in this immense national achievement. So this book became, in a way, the human side of Apollo.
At the same time, the science and engineering of how this was done is just amazing and not well understood by anyone outside the space elite, since things were so much more primitive forty years ago than they are today. NASA subcontractors used the term LOL, for example, not to mean ‘laughing out loud’ but ‘little old ladies,’ because that was the workforce using glue pots to assemble the inner bladders of Armstrong and Aldrin’s spacesuits, and weaving the memory cores of their ship’s computers.
Also, when you look at the global tour that Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins made after they returned from their mission, you can clearly see that moment when the United States of America was the most admired nation in the world. It wouldn’t be so bad for our country to achieve that position again.

Why did Americans go to the Moon?

The answer was blazingly simple at the time — to beat the Russians, of course! — but the real story is far more complicated, and interesting. While the Soviet Union held a clear lead in the Space Race for 11 years (from October 1957 to December 1968, a mere 7 months before Apollo 11, when Apollo 8 circled the Moon), the United States additionally suffered a host of other international incidents  — from the U2 embarrassment through the Bay of Pigs, a Communist triumph in Laos, and a scandal in Congo — so many that the country and its new President, John Kennedy, needed a epic achievement to counter this litany of humiliation. If JFK hadn’t had such a rough first few months in office; if he hadn’t seen the outpouring of public support for Alan Shepard, the first American in space; if he hadn’t been assassinated; and if he hadn’t been replaced by Lyndon Johnson, who felt honor bound to fulfill the great majority of Kennedy’s executive pledges, it’s difficult to  believe that Americans would have gotten to the Moon “before this decade is out.”

What does the future hold for NASA?

One of the great ironies of this history is that NASA essentially originated as a global public relations endeavor, yet the great majority of its employees loathe public relations. If its P.R. efforts were as good today as its science and engineering, the agency would hold nearly the same level of admiration and love in American hearts that it had during the Glenn and Armstrong era. How many Americans know (to name a few examples) what was learned from the moon rocks brought back by Apollo; or what the International Space Station will be used for; or what NASA satellites monitoring the Earth have revealed; or what its robots have discovered on Mars, Venus, Mercury, and beyond? Because so few taxpayers know so little of what the agency accomplishes (outside of breathtaking Shuttle liftoff and Hubble space photos), when NASA tries to launch epic missions (such as its current lunar base and voyage to Mars), the price seems too high. It’s very likely, however, that another Space Race could begin with China, India, Russia, or the European Union, and when a foreign spaceship lands in the Sea of Tranquility, removes the U.S. flag and plants its own, we’ll see what the American public thinks NASA should be achieving …