The political machine behind the Apollo program (2023)

We are at the dawn of a new era in space exploration. SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket has succeeded in sending astronauts into orbit, a feat reserved for nation states for nearly 60 years. The new frontiers of commercial space travel are rekindling the mood over the prospect of human colonization of the celestial bodies. SpaceX has revived the hopes of those who believed that the Apollo program, which landed six missions on the moon between 1969 and 1972, failed to kick-start the space age. In this context, it is important to review the missions that first put humans on the moon. For those who saw it, it became a testament to America's pioneering spirit and a vision of what ambition can achieve. Apollo became a myth that promoted the nation.

IA giant leap: The impossible mission that flew us to the moonCharles Fishman, an experienced space reporter who began covering the failed Challenger mission in 1986, shows the importance of these missions beyond the actual feats. According to him, Apollo does not get the recognition it deserves for its contribution to America's managerial and technological excellence. It created the very culture that allowed America to dominate later revolutions in the information and communications industry.

Landing a man on the moon was impossible when Kennedy first announced in 1961 that they would achieve this goal by the end of the decade. And yet it was done. Apollo's leaders could use the project's difficulties to gain the necessary political support. It was not an obstacle, but a gain. American institutions were not inherently designed to handle such a feat. A deep dive into Apollo's history reveals how many political and institutional outcomes underlie the final launch and landing. Highly competent and functioning institutions do not arise at a standstill. People create them to achieve goals. It is therefore not surprising that the abandonment of the space program, along with other social goals set by mid-century America, preceded the decline of its institutions.


Apollo's institutional fingerprint covers various aspects of American life. His ambitious goals required a culture of rigorous standards among American manufacturers, a management system that guided rather than inhibited innovation, and created an initial demand for unproven technologies that allowed them to scale.

Apollo's project was also one of themSocial development. It had to overcome the public perception that technology was associated with destruction, a societal sentiment that dated back to World War II. Instead, technology had to be seen as a source of human achievement. Building the infrastructure to get Americans to the moon required mass mobilization.

The Apollo team and its supporters achieved these goals thanks to a highly competent team that could break down the steps necessary to put an American on the moon and build the institutions necessary to do so. While the 20th century US space program failed to explore the cosmos and turn humans into a multiplanetary species, it changed the landscape here on Earth forever.

The world that Apollo created

The most important contribution fromA huge leapis to show that Apollo's importance goes beyond his direct performance. By concretely documenting the events of Apollo, Fishman makes it clear what long-term effects it had on society on a cultural, technological and economic level.

While American homes in the 1950s were getting used to the many convenience-enhancing innovations—from televisions to dishwashers to microwave ovens—none of them bore the mark of technology as such. Rather, they were seen more simply as entities. The popular term "technology" referred to military technologies such as the atomic bomb or the B-29 bomber. Popular culture reflected this association; The violence generated by technological progress formed the general framework in literature, philosophy and other fields in the early 1960s. By hiring defense contractors such as Grumman (known for its scalable production of military aircraft during World War II) to build the module that would enable a lunar landing, the Apollo program inspired the belief that technology could be used for the benefit of all mankind. Apollo managed to cultivate a deep technological optimism in a generation that grew up remembering the global industrial war.

Beyond technological awareness, Apollo's influence on American manufacturing enabled the information and communications technology revolution in both time and place. In the long tradition ofstate-sponsored requirementFor new technologies, Apollo was an important early buyer of integrated circuits. The technology was still new and untested when NASA signed an agreement with Fairchild Semiconductor to buy hundreds of thousands of units for the computer that MIT was building. The MIT Instrumentation Laboratory recognized the promise of integrated circuits to dramatically increase computing power while reducing the size of computers. When it was first tasked with building a computer reliable enough to take humans to the moon and back, the lab was in a period of "non-computation" and regular malfunctions.

To ensure strict quality, MIT ordered large quantities of integrated circuits and pre-tested samples. If a chip experienced a weight change of 1/2000 gram, the entire batch was discarded. All of this happened before MIT even started testing the performance of each chip for over 30,000 hours. This was a clear message to Fairchild about the low error tolerance and precision required for MIT's work. The reliability of integrated circuits skyrocketed in the 1960s and their price dropped dramatically from $1,000 in 1961 to $1.58 in 1969, leading to the discovery of new applications and the spread of computing beyond military enabled applications . Gordon Moore, who coined Moore's Law of the same name, believed while at Fairchild that Apollo was the key purchaser of the technology that enabled the emergence of computing power.

Computer memory has also been revolutionized because of the clarity of things. In the 1960s, the code's "software" was still a hardware process, where each line had to be hand-sewn into computers by a team of "little old ladies" (computer factories were predominantly staffed by women). An early failure of the Mariner program to fly past Venus became a political humiliation for the United States. It was caused by a software transmission error where a line was not stitched in properly. Computer culture changed after this incident under the leadership of NASA. While computer factories opened the decade with fuming workers and poor quality control, they ended the decade with pristine conditions, disciplined assembly lines and heavy investment. Fishman sees astronauts' regular visits to computer factories as a source of investment that leads to a strong bond between workers and the mission they support. He recounts how the women who worked on a memory module strongly advocated its disposal, even though it passed all safety checks, because "it wasn't too good for one of our boys." Apollo's quality discipline for the wider computer industry lasted well beyond the project itself.

The program successfully created a culture of manufacturing excellence and commercial demand for advanced technologies and captured the imagination of an American public that initially disliked the space race. It is hard to imagine that America was not always at the forefront of technology, but before Apollo it was overtaken by the Soviets in satellites and rockets and equaled only by them in military aircraft technology. Fishman refers to aGallup pollfrom 1960, which determined that public opinion in all but two countries, the United States and Great Britain, expected the Soviet Union to be technologically superior by 1970.

Apollo changed that perception, raising awareness of America's technological excellence abroad and allowing the company to maintain that reputation at home by learning by doing. The public status of the Apollo program drew increasing numbers of American students into STEM subjects. It did so through the ambitious institution-building approach undertaken to fulfill its mission. This in turn built American capacity for breakthrough technology.

Domestic capacity building

The largest parts of the book document the scientific, technological and managerial feats that made the impossible possible for Apollo. In 1961, none of the skills needed to put a man on the moon existed. In eight years, the mission was completed before the eyes of tens of thousands of live television viewers who saw the American technological advances behind Neil Armstrong's steps onto the lunar surface. It is a testament to Fishman's storytelling skills that he paints a picture of how NASA was able to accomplish such a feat through concrete examples that coalesce into a single narrative thread. Fishman paints a picture of NASA's role in building America's technological capability through three central figures: James "Jim" Webb, Charles Stark "Doc" Draper, and Howard Wilson "Bill" Tindall. Each serves to emphasize the need for technical and business expertise to be brought together in a single person to successfully complete complex tasks.

Jim Webb was the 20th candidate to lead NASA, the last position to be filled in the Kennedy administration. Webb was a lawyer by training and an experienced executive who oversaw the growth of the Sperry Corporation, one of the US military's largest radar and navigation suppliers, during World War II. He had the technical acumen in aerospace manufacturing combined with the managerial and political skills needed to make NASA a success. Looking back on his tenure, Webb recalled that the management system that got us there was as important as landing a man on the moon—it proved that the American system could, on the whole, outperform Soviet central planning projects.

The scale of this management project can hardly be overstated. NASA grew from 10,000 employees just before Webb acquired it to 33,000 in less than four years. Apollo hired 20,000 different contractors from all 50 US states with over 400,000 workers to support production. Compared to World War II, the required production was a "relatively small fleet: 15 Saturn V rockets, 14 lunar modules, 12 command and service module combinations". These exacting standards and the collaborative spirit Webb brought to Apollo were key to developing a skin in the game for everyone involved.

The book is full of accounts of how NASA created this management philosophy during the Webb era. Officials visited the astronauts and contract factories. Their research strategy involved rival factions publishing reports detailing their opponents' views to ensure the spread of knowledge. Their bottom-up requirements allowed different contractors to put their components together. All this would have been impossible without a management that truly believed in their mission. When Kennedy mentioned to Webb that he wanted to provide military cover for Apollo to protect NASA funding, Webb suggested replacing him with a "military man." This commitment to Apollo's success made him willing to sacrifice his own career.

Webb's management approach ensured that Apollo was not used for political bribery or as a cash cow for contractors. What the story of Apollo emphasizes is that management philosophy must be combined with both managerial and technical competence. Today, outside of Silicon Valley, there are few Jim Webbs who combine a thorough understanding of their field with superb management skills. Considering that NASA itself is one of SpaceX's most important customers when it comes to simply putting people and goods into orbit, it's hard to believe that this organization could put someone on the moon today.

Focusing on Apollo's greatest contribution, Fishman delves extensively into the Apollo computer, which he refers to as "the fourth crew member." These were the most significant advances in computing power at the time. Two key figures emerge in this story: Doc Draper, head of the MIT Instrumentation Lab, and Bill Tindall, who devotes an entire chapter to it and refers to him as "the man who saved Apollo."

Doc Draper was a legendary MIT professor who developed the inertial navigation systems that allowed the B-29 bomber to fly long distances autonomously. He played an early role in trying to get the Kennedy brothers to support a mission to the moon, but without success. Once the mission was launched, his Instrumentation Laboratory at MIT was tasked with building the most complicated computer the world had ever seen, compact enough to fit on the rocket and lunar module and reliable enough to run during the eight-day Apollo mission to not to fail 11. The book devotes a lot of space to the technical marvel of building the Apollo computer and the start-up culture of the Instrumentation Lab, which got bright young minds working on new and exciting projects.

It is fascinating that a small academic lab with an exploratory culture was able to provide a key component to such an important mission when it already seems so difficult for government agencies to contract with startups. This was no easy task for NASA, who believed that MIT's inability to meet deadlines would delay the moon landing. Instead of transferring the contract to a more conventional manufacturer like IBM, NASA sent Bill Tindall.

The story of Bill Tindall is amazing in itself. A veteran aerospace engineer and a pioneer in orbital mechanics, he was responsible for disciplining the work at MIT and ensuring that the quality of the results met NASA's expectations. Tindall's relationship management skills and approach to improving coordination between different contractors should serve as a foundational case study for anyone trying to plan ambitious and difficult projects. Fishman rightly builds the legacy of a forgotten but pivotal figure. One of Tindall's most intriguing techniques was the use of widely circulated notes, called Tindallgrams, which outlined highly technical problems in easy-to-understand matter. His clear and witty writing style guarantees a high readership, and through the Tindallgrams everyone agreed on pressing issues and important tasks to be solved. The legacy of this approach emphasizes the need for effective management communication to ensure that a team achieves its stated goals and does not overlook its own failings.

There are countless other characters discussed in the books, and each will be discussed in terms of their particular contribution to the Apollo project. These stories convey a picture of the level of skill and expertise required to create an organization that could put a man on the moon, and how extraordinary the people who carried out that mission must be. Any approach to industrial development must align the skills and philosophies of everyone involved so that they work towards a unified vision, even when working separately. However, this vision was not delivered by a single person at NASA and is a testament to President John F. Kennedy's leadership in setting the wheels in motion to bring Apollo from the earth to the moon.

Ambition and the politics of Apollo

In the early 1960s, America was behind in a space race that the White House denied existed. The Soviet Union had shocked the world with the introduction of Sputnik in 1957 and continued to assert its technological supremacy. As Kennedy noted in 1961 after the successful space flight of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who became the first human to leave Earth's atmosphere, "The first country to put its national emblem on the moon was Russia, not America." The first passengers safely from those returning from a journey through space were called Strelka and Belka, not Rover or Fido." Eisenhower, who founded the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, was unfazed by the prospect of space travel, preferring to focus on American military dominance. As vice president, Nixon saw the consumer miracles of American capitalism as superior to the ambitious projects of despotic regimes. The humiliation was bearable, but the US did little.

Space superiority and the need to demonstrate the technological capabilities of the capitalist system became a hallmark of Kennedy's presidential campaign, although Fishman devotes long passages to showing how little Kennedy himself was concerned with space travel as such. The decision to put a man on the moon was not made with the intention of opening up scientific possibilities or promoting national development. For Kennedy, it was about defeating the Soviet Union. If the Russians had abandoned their space program, Kennedy would have had an excuse to withdraw in the face of NASA's massive increase in his budget. Fishman argues that without Kennedy's assassination, it would be unlikely that the US would have reached the moon by the end of the year - as it would have created both the need to honor the man's legacy and the more outspoken pro-space advocate Lyndon B Bringing Johnson into It The White House Decade.

The intriguing insight that comes out of this storytelling is how little the moon itself played a role in getting people there. The marvel of basic science, technological design and quality manufacturing required to complete the mission in just eight years is cleverly contextualized by Fishman in the political climate in which it took place. Reaching the moon was not a matter of science, but of national pride and competitiveness. The goal should be ambitious enough to demonstrate American superiority over the Soviets. His success is a tribute to the president's legacy of ensuring the world recognized America as capable of beating its rival, something that past failures in space and continued failures in Vietnam have called into question. The specific goal of putting a man on the moon and a clear deadline at the end of the decade ensured that political bribery would not jeopardize the project. It gave a clear view.

It is also important to draw parallels between the 1960s and today. Fishman links Apollo's political background to the riots of the 1960s. The civil rights movement, the Vietnam War protests, and the rise of feminism turned the quiet of the Eisenhower era on its head. A show of national strength was not in the interest of most Americans at the time, who would have preferred to divert the billions of dollars spent on spaceflight each year in the 1960s to alleviate problems at home. Throughout the life of the Apollo project, it never achieved an approval rating above 50%. NASA has raised public awareness of the moon sighting in a variety of ways and has taken extensive initiatives to increase its support, often without success. Apollo was one tooSocial developmentproject as it was a material project. Even in the scientific community, human spaceflight has provoked anger. Norbert Wiener, the godfather of cybernetics, coined the term "moondoggle" to describe the lavish waste involved in sending a man to the moon. The publisher ofScienceand senior White House science advisers viewed the project as a waste of money with little scientific value and a distraction from more pressing initiatives. There was no "scientific community" in the space race, but the usual array of interests and factions vying for political patronage.

The interesting thing about Kennedy's approach to Apollo is that he neither reduced it to his science nor allowed interest groups to get in the way. In public speeches, Kennedy built the Apollo myth and inspired Americans to feel part of this monumental project. If Kennedy is to blame for his actions, it is that his desire to defeat the Soviets created a need for spectacle at NASA, which in turn led to public boredom. NASA never really found a new purpose after the end of Apollo - a focus on robotic exploration doesn't have the same myth-making component eitherbreakthrough value. There are many political lessons to be learned from Apollo, but the fact that his energy could not be sustained warns against repeating his approach exactly.

Fishman's multifaceted account of the Apollo mission makes it one of the most compelling reads in recent memory and offers numerous lessons for anyone interested in recreating the magic of this magnificent achievement. First, clarity of purpose and leadership capable of defining that purpose are fundamental to getting large projects off the ground. From the war on poverty to the war on terror, US leaders have often been vague about their goals, making it harder to keep momentum going. Second, the right people, with the right motivation, can overcome insurmountable obstacles. The modern management and expert class often lacks thatversatility of skillsessential for this project due to the over-specialization. Thirdly, the result of an ambitious project cannot and must not be reduced to the goal itself. Large projects such as decarbonisation and Mars colonization must not only be justified by their direct benefits. This would hurt their ability to succeed.

In all of these lessons, we see awesomeness as a key factor in a project's success. The book begins with a quote from the speech William Safire prepared for Nixon if the Apollo 11 astronauts were in danger: “In ancient times, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.” Nothing better captures what Apollo did for the world and what the great endeavors we could undertake today will demand of us.

Ryan Khurana is Associate Editor at Palladium Magazine. He tweets at@RyanKhurana.



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