Thursday, June 13, 2019

Inside Apollo

The June 2019 issue of SMITHSONIAN magazine includes a long article on little-known aspects of the Apollo lunar exploration project. Unfortunately, the online publication is behind a paywall. Here's a sample of the article:

What You Didn't Know About Apollo

Pick up a copy of this issue if possible. It contains some shocking revelations (shocking to me, anyway). Despite his inspirational public speeches about the race for the Moon, President Kennedy stated in private that he had no particular interest in space as such. He simply wanted to beat the Russians. A significant percentage of Americans considered the space program a waste of money. In 1968, only four weeks after the Apollo 8 flight, a Harris Poll survey revealed that only 39% of Americans favored landing a man on the Moon. When asked whether the project was worth its cost, 55% said no—even though the war in Vietnam was costing more per year than the total price of the Apollo program so far. Aside from the excitement of televised launches, most ordinary citizens didn't give much thought to the Moon project. Even scientists, polled in 1961 by Senator Paul H. Douglas, were divided on the importance of a manned Moon mission, 36% believing it would have "great" value and 35% "little" value. This attitude seems so remarkable to me as an SF fan, since I've regarded the vital importance of space exploration as obvious for most of my life. In October 1963, funding for the Apollo program was being reduced. Ironically, if Kennedy had lived longer, lunar aspirations might have faded away, whereas President Johnson "was an authentic believer in the space program."

Equally astonishing to me, as described in the SMITHSONIAN article, was the United States' level of unpreparedness for the promised goal of a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s. When Kennedy announced that goal, "he was committing the nation to do something we simply couldn't do." As the article puts it, "We didn't have the tools or equipment" and furthermore "didn't even know what we would need." We didn't have a list of requirements; "no one in the world had a list." And yet we proceeded to do the impossible, producing along the way results such as the most advanced computers created to date, "the smallest, fastest and most nimble computer in a single package anywhere in the world." Furthermore, NASA invented "real-time computing." Not being a tech person, before reading this article I had no idea what a revolutionary development that was. Previously, the only way to get problems solved with a computer was to submit a pile of punch cards and wait hours or days for the printed results of the calculations. Clearly, the space race gave us a lot more than Tang!

It felt strange to read this article and realize how the groundbreaking achievements of our nation's space program, which now seem like a foregone conclusion of unique historical significance, often hung by precariously slender threads.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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