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Authors: Charles Murray,Catherine Bly Cox

Tags: #Engineering, #Aeronautical Engineering, #Science & Math, #Astronomy & Space Science, #Aeronautics & Astronautics, #Technology

Apollo: The Race to the Moon

BOOK: Apollo: The Race to the Moon

What the reviewers said about Apollo

“Apollo is a marvelous, deftly written book that captures the mood and spirit of the people who found a way to the moon.”

—Michael Collins, The New York Times Book Review

“Rich, densely packed, and beautifully told… . Filled with cliff hangers, suspense, and spine-tingling adventure.”

—Charles Sheffield, Washington Post Book World

“Heart-gripping… . So brilliantly told one can almost smell the perspiration in Mission Control.”

—Charles Petit, San Francisco Chronicle

“Murray and Cox’s description of the final moments of lunar lander Eagle’s descent is tension defined.”

—Philadelphia Inquirer

“An excellent new history… , an epic ‘captured in miniature.’”

—Thomas Mallon, Wall Street Journal

“Mission accomplished.”

—Peter Spotts, The Christian Science Monitor

“This book is a ‘GO.’”

—Walter J. Boyne, Chicago Tribune


Charles Murray & Catherine Bly Cox

Originally published as Apollo: The Race To the Moon

Copyright © 1989 by Cox and Murray, Inc.

Published by Simon & Schuster

2004 edition copyright © 2004 by Cox and Murray, Inc.

Published by South Mountain Books

Ebook edition copyright © 2010 by Cox and Murray, Inc.

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be resold or given away to other people. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, please purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the work of the authors.

ISBN 0-976008-0-6

For all the people who gave their best to Apollo—and for their families, who did too.

Foreword to the 2004 Edition

Apollo’s publication in 1989 was greeted by good reviews and modest sales. But reviews and sales were overshadowed for us by the book’s reception among the people of Apollo. Some were pleased that outsiders had finally gotten the details right, some that the wonder of the engineering feats was conveyed to non-engineers, some that we had told the stories of ignored heroes. The reaction we heard most often was that the book captured what being part of Apollo was like—the pressure, esprit, tension, and exhilaration that set the Apollo decade apart from everything else in their lives. Conveying that essence of Apollo had been our goal from the beginning, and we were content.

Then, after a few years, Apollo began to take on a second life. We got letters from people who had nothing to do with the space program who had fallen in love with the book. A Chinese edition was published, and a limited, leather-bound English version sold by subscription. People wrote us trying to locate copies of Apollo, which had become scarce and commanded exorbitant prices. In conference panels or magazine articles about the space program, Apollo kept popping up as the book that people had to read if they wanted to understand how we got to the moon. We kept hearing the question: Why don’t you republish the original?

Here it is. We have made a few cosmetic alterations to the text, but otherwise have left the story as we told it in 1989. This decision has already led to some anachronisms. In Chapter 19, we had explained that the cathode-ray tubes in Mission Control were “the kind used in commercial television sets.” Should we update that for 21st-century readers, who in a few years will know nothing but flat screens? We decided to leave the text unchanged. In Chapter 21, we had written that the computer capacity of the mainframes in the Control Center was smaller than that of some desktop systems. As of 2004, a much more radical comparison is needed to convey how primitive the computers of the late 1960s really were. We heard one recently: The entire Saturn V stack—all three stages of the booster plus the command module and the lunar module—had less computing capacity combined than today’s typical cell phone. But you will not find that tidbit in the text. The book Apollo is grounded in the last half of the 1980s, when we were writing it, and we decided not to tamper with that perspective.

The anachronisms point to the biggest change in the way that the story of the Apollo program will be seen as time goes on: The audacity of Apollo becomes more striking as contemporary technology moves farther from the technology that took us to the moon. Consider the case of Ron Howard’s film Apollo 13, meticulously accurate in almost everything. Why then do the scenes in Mission Control show charts and graphs on the flight controllers’ consoles? When the film was shooting, Jerry Bostick, a Flight Operations veteran who was acting as a technical advisor, explained to Howard that he should show the flight controllers looking at black screens filled with columns of white numbers. Howard replied that there are some things that an audience just won’t accept, and computer displays as incomprehensible as Bostick described are one of those things. If the screens the controllers used seem unbelievable now, just imagine how they will seem in another ten, twenty, or fifty years. We went to the moon with technology that is fast making the enterprise look like a romantic, impetuous gamble.

Impetuous it wasn’t. The Saturn V may not have had any nifty microprocessors on board—the microprocessor wasn’t invented until two years after the first lunar landing—but it worked every time, and its power dwarfed that of any launch vehicle made since. The engineering of the command module and lunar module was so ingenious that it brought the crew of Apollo 13 home despite a catastrophic explosion. The flight operations system, invented from scratch for the space program, proved itself a model of how to make life-and-death decisions in seconds. The proof of the technical excellence of Apollo is its record.

But Apollo was indeed romantic and indeed a gamble. For readers who are new to Apollo, the people and events we describe may already sound like a story from long ago and far away, when people in the public eye took enormous risks and held nothing back. Often things went wrong, sometimes disastrously wrong … and they did not falter, did not make excuses, but proceeded onward, taking new risks.

They covered ground in giant strides. Contemplate for a moment the bare bones of their timeline: On November 5, 1958, the United States formed the Space Task Group, consisting of forty-five people. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon—an elapsed time of ten years and nine months. Think back to what you were doing ten years and nine months ago, and realize how short a time that is. Now try to imagine a nation beginning a space program on that day with forty-five people, no launch vehicle, no spacecraft, no launch facilities, no experience with manned space flight—and landing on the moon this morning. What the people of Apollo accomplished is already hard to believe. In a few decades, it will be almost beyond imagining. Welcome to their world.

Catherine Bly Cox & Charles Murray

Burkittsville, Maryland

2 July 2004

The idea for Apollo came from Jack Trombka, who told us fascinating stories about life in Building 30. Then, after we had written a précis but decided we didn’t have time to do the book, Apollo survived because Amanda Urban, our agent, refused to take us seriously—and worked out a way that gave us time after all. To Jack and to Binky go our lasting gratitude for making it possible to live in the world of Apollo for the past four years.

At Simon and Schuster, Alice Mayhew first helped us to shape this ungainly project and then provided wise guidance the rest of the way, while David Shipley subjected each chapter, paragraph, and word to an astonishingly accurate editorial judgment.

Robert Sherrod generously opened to us his unique and monumental archive of material on the Apollo Program. We still wish we could read the book that only he could write, but in the absence of that, let it be understood that this book is partly his.

We received so much help from so many people in NASA that we will simply thank en masse the people in the public affairs offices, history offices, and photographic offices of Johnson Space Center, Kennedy Space Center, Marshall Space Flight Center, Langley Research Center, and NASA headquarters—plus, and especially, the audio office at J. S. C. Out of all those people, we must single out for special thanks Janet Kovacevich, Mike Gentry, Bob Lessells, Diana Ormsbee, Lee Saegesser, Terry White, and Dick Young. Special thanks go as well to Sylvia Kennick and John Dojka of the George M. Low Papers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Apollo depended ultimately on our interviews with the people who lived the experience. The interviews ranged from ten-minute telephone conversations to multiple sessions lasting for hours. The name of each contributor is listed in the discussion, “Apollo as History,” at the back of the book. We are grateful to them all.

Among the contributors, some went far beyond any ordinary standard of helpfulness. People rummaged through basements for flight control manuals, copied folders of old correspondence, showed us diaries, loaned us pictures, took repeated phone calls asking for clarification of one more detail, and occasionally fed us. Many of them patiently reviewed draft, often through two or three versions. We tried to pick out a few for special thanks, but it was too hard to know where to stop.

At least, however, many of our contributors have gotten in return what we hope is the pleasure of seeing their personal experiences described in the text. We would like to take this occasion to thank those who didn’t, the unsung contributors who added so richly to our understanding of Apollo: George Abbey, Lee Belew, Woody Bethay, Michelle Brekke, Forrest Burns, Jay Campbell, Charles Clary, Pete Clements, Jim Cooper, John Cox, Chris Critzos, Connie Critzos, Paul Donnelly, Michael Duke, Lyn Dunseith, Robert Farquhar, Bob Fricke, Billie Gibson, Walter Haeussermann, Jack Heberlig, Bill Hess, Clay Hicks, Dick Hoover, John Humphrey, Carl Huss, Fletcher Kurtz, Jack Lee, Larry Lettow, Ed Lineberry, Mary R. Low, Bryce Lowry, Al Martin, Alexander McCool, Dave McKay, Joe Mechelay, Harold Miller, John Miller, Sonny Morea, Warren North, George Page, Henry Pearson, Bill Phinney, Andy Pickett, Don Puddy, Paul Purser, Ernie Reyes, Jack Riley, Glover Robinson, Ted Sasseen, Norman Sears, Jack Sleith, George Smith, Bill Sneed, Buddy Sparkman, John Stonesifer, Chet Wasileski, Walt Weisman, Charlie Welly, Terry White, Don Whiting, John Wood, Gary Woods, DeMarquis Wyatt, Ken Young, Raymond Zedekar, and Ed Zirnfus.

To all the men and women of Apollo who helped us, sung and unsung, please know that we are facing now the question many of you faced after the landing of Seventeen: What can ever be as much fun again?

Catherine Bly Cox & Charles Murray

Washington, D.C.

16 February 1989
Apollo Abbreviations

We have tried to make this book read the way the people of Apollo sound when they talk about the race to the moon. This has meant being faithful to a variety of idiosyncrasies. Take, for example, “Space Task Group,” the organization that began the manned space program. People who were part of the Space Task Group never speak of it as “S.T.G.,” so neither do we. The Kennedy Space Center may be called either “K.S.C.” or “Kennedy, ” whereas the Marshall Space Flight Center is usually called “Marshall,” not “M.S.F.C.” We unquestioningly follow suit.

The big problem comes with acronyms, some of which are pronounced, some of which are spelled out. For example, people on the inside always refer to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics as “N.A.C.A.,” pronounced “en ay see ay.” They never say “nacka.” But (don’t ask why) they pronounce NASA “nasa.” The same inexplicable distinction applies to lunar-orbit rendezvous, L.O.R. (always “el oh ar,” never “lore”) and the descent propulsion system, DPS (always “dips,” never “dee pee ess”).

Confronted with this arbitrary mix, we use an arbitrary rule: If an acronym is spelled out, we put periods after the letters—hence N.A.C.A. and L.O.R. If an acronym is pronounced as a word, no periods—hence NASA and DPS. A complete list of acronyms is included in the glossary at the back of the book.

Prologue. May 25, 1961

On Thursday, May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy awoke to a glorious day, the kind that compensates Washingtonians for the oppressive summer to follow. The pleasant chill of the night was giving way to temperatures in the seventies, the skies were clear, the gardens on the Ellipse were in full flower. It was the perfect setting for a new beginning, and a new beginning was what Jack Kennedy badly needed.

In this fifth month of the new Administration, the country was in transition between Eisenhower’s fifties and the years that would be remembered as The Sixties. In movie theaters, the hits still tended to be big stories with big stars playing good guys—The Guns of Navarone with Gregory Peck and Spartacus with Kirk Douglas were drawing crowds that spring. Popular music was still Elvis Presley and Connie Francis, the Marcels and the Shirelles—it would be more than two years before the Beatles had their first hit. Prices were still fifties-style too. The Washington Post that Thursday morning informed its readers that they could buy porterhouse steak for seventy-nine cents a pound at the A&P or a four-bedroom house in fashionable Chevy Chase for a price in the “mid-20s.” As for unrest on the campuses, there was indeed a loud, disruptive demonstration at Harvard that spring—but it was to protest the substitution of English for the traditional Latin on diplomas. Timothy Leary was at Harvard, still an anonymous teaching assistant, just beginning to experiment with a new drug called lysergic acid diethylamide.

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