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Twenty years after its publication, Apollo: The Race to the Moon still stands as one of the best histories of the program.

Apollo: The Race to the Moon, twenty years on

This year marks not only the fortieth anniversary of Apollo 11, but also the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Apollo: The Race to the Moon, widely held to be the best Apollo history ever written. Thomas J. Frieling, long-time observer of the space program, submitted these questions to author Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox, his wife and co-author.

You are a noted social scientist and author of several much-debated books, and your wife is a former professor of English, so how did you two come to write a book on the Apollo program?

CM: It was Catherine’s doing. She enrolled us in a Smithsonian course on astrophysics for dummies, as it were, in 1983. One of the lecturers was Jack Trombka, who had a science package on Apollo 15. We took him out for burgers after the final lecture, and he started telling stories about the weird and wonderful place that was Mission Control. He said at one point that someone should write a book about it. Catherine looked at me meaningfully. At the time, I was working on the manuscript that became Losing Ground, but we had no expectations that we could live on its sales, and we needed to think about generating income. So we had a financial incentive and a topic that grabbed both of us. Off we went.

The heart of the book is really about the men who made Apollo work. You and your wife interviewed scores of them. Their ranks have inevitably dwindled in the intervening years—Bob Gilruth, Max Faget, Rocco Petrone, and Bill Tindall, to name just a few. About how many of the people you interviewed are still around today and do you still keep in touch with them?

Kennedy wasn’t interested in space. He was desperate for something to retrieve his fortunes, and the moon/decade proposition was his best shot. It was a completely political—almost cynical—decision.

CM: We’ve kept up with Jerry Bostick and Glynn Lunney, and periodically gotten to see some of the others, mostly former members of the Trench. I had a wonderful dinner a few years ago at a steakhouse in Houston with a couple of Dallas friends, Chris Kraft, Glynn Lunney, Gene Kranz, Jerry Bostick, Jay Greene, and John Aaron. The wine flowed and the guys started reminiscing among themselves. It was like listening to the Founding Fathers swap stories about writing the Constitution. We were close to Bill Tindall—whom, as you note, we sadly lost a few years ago.

In the prologue you set the scene for the story to come—a young, new, untested President takes office, stumbles badly in his early months, then comes before Congress to propose a bold new space initiative in the context of Cold War politics. We are in something of a déjà vu moment now with the new Obama Administration facing not a Cold War, but one on terrorism with an international economic crisis thrown in on top. Any hope that he might issue a Kennedy-like declaration on space policy?

CM: Not with the economy the way it is. Actually, Kennedy’s decision to go to the Moon was part of the stumbling. I think we had the story right in the book (and no one’s ever challenged our account): Kennedy wasn’t interested in space. He was desperate for something to retrieve his fortunes, and the moon/decade proposition was his best shot. It was a completely political—almost cynical—decision.

CBC: It was actually Lyndon Johnson who was excited about space and urged the Moon shot on JFK. But when you went to interview the Apollo people, it was always JFK’s photograph on the wall.

Your account of the debate over how Apollo should go to the moon—the Mode Decision—highlights the young NASA at its contentious best. You described the organization then as a collection of semi-independent fiefdoms, fighting for their own interests. Those fractious days are long gone and NASA now is often described as a hidebound bureaucracy. Does the NASA of today have the organizational capability to return to the Moon?

CM: Theoretically, yes. But practically? We got to the Moon with a NASA that was completely unlike the normal bureaucracy, with people who thought nothing of cutting across bureaucratic levels and ignoring the rules when they needed to get something done. I sometimes say that the real race to the Moon was not with the Russians. It was with time—would we get to the Moon before NASA became bureaucratized? We barely made it. If you want to see how much NASA changed, compare the story of how Apollo was done with the story of how the space station was built. The space station did get built, eventually, and I suppose we will eventually get back to the Moon. Parenthetically, one of the poignant things about doing the research was that many of the stars of Apollo were still with NASA. It’s not the people who went bad, but the organization that changed ineluctably. I should add that I’m a libertarian, so my animus toward government bureaucracies is generic, not at all specific to NASA.

One thing that strikes me in your account is how young so many of the Apollo personnel were. The story of Apollo 11’s troubled final descent to the lunar surface being saved by two computer technicians each in their mid-20s sounds more like something out of fiction than the reality it was. Was that part of Apollo’s success—bright men and women who were too young to be daunted by the enormity of their task?

CM: That’s what a lot of them say—“We were too young to know it couldn’t be done”—and there is something to it. But you’ve got to remember that it wasn’t just the young ones. George Mueller was 45 when he pushed through the all-up decision against the opposition of every other senior manager in NASA, including Wernher von Braun. George Low was 44 when he decided to take Apollo 8 around the Moon. These were both breathtakingly audacious decisions. The kids surely did benefit from not knowing that something was impossible. They were like the 19-year-old Marines who storm pill boxes. But they had some Stonewall Jacksons and George Pattons leading them.

If we told NASA, “please build us a launch vehicle with the capacity to put 260,000 pounds in low Earth orbit,” how long do you think it would take them? Ten years? We had that capacity forty years ago.

CBC: Both Charles and I were dazzled by the trust that the senior managers had in the kids. It was a central part of their genius: During missions, they had the nerve to leave the decisions to the people who had the most intimate knowledge of what was going on. You mentioned the Apollo 11 lunar descent, where more than once it was young guidance officer Steve Bales who made the call not to abort the landing. Another example was the decision to take Apollo 12 out of earth orbit and send it to the Moon after it had been struck by lightning during launch. EECOM John Aaron had figured out right away what was going on with the consequent spacecraft telemetry, and the obscure fix that would right it. We kept pushing Rocco Petrone to tell us about the agonizing he must have gone through with the other senior mission managers. But there was no story there. The guys in the MOCR had decided the spacecraft was good for TLI, and Rocco basically said, “Okay.”

In the book you opine that the Saturn V was perhaps the Apollo program’s most technologically significant achievement. Could you elaborate?

CM: I’m not sure it was the most significant in terms of state-of-the-art advances. It didn’t use any revolutionary new technology. Probably “most jaw-dropping” is the right way to think of it. Just consider: The space shuttle has a payload of 50,000 pounds. If we told NASA, “please build us a launch vehicle with the capacity to put 260,000 pounds in low Earth orbit,” how long do you think it would take them? Ten years? We had that capacity forty years ago. And the thing worked magnificently. It had some glitches on its second flight, Apollo 6, and even then it completed its mission objectives. On all of the manned flights, it worked perfectly. And it was all done in a few years. It was a miracle of engineering.

The Saturn V certainly enjoyed an eminently successful, albeit short, career—thirteen launches, no failures in just six years of operations. Do you think we retired the Saturn V too soon?

CM: It makes you want to cry. We didn’t even use all the ones we built. That Saturn V lying on its side at the Johnson Space Center is the real thing—a fully operational Saturn V that just needed a load of fuel. And another one wasn’t used either. I’m told that the blueprints for the Saturn V don’t even exist anymore. The air seemed to go out of the space program all at once, the day that Apollo 11 touched down on the moon.

On a similar note, your final chapter, memorably entitled “We drank the wine at the pace they handed it to us,” ends with a wistful scene of one of the flight controllers standing alone in the Mission Control room after Apollo 17’s splashdown, lamenting that Apollo ended just as they were getting the hang of lunar surface operations. Did we rush through Apollo too fast?

CM: It wasn’t the schedule that was the problem, perhaps, but the objective. I often suspect that Bob Gilruth (among others) was right: If we had started with a space station instead of the race to the Moon, it would have been easier to sustain public support over the long haul, as we found things to do with the space station, including using it as a platform to support a Moon landing. After Apollo, we were left with a “what next?” problem that NASA wasn’t able to solve. A space station at that point seemed anticlimactic.

You dedicated the book to all the people who gave their best to Apollo and for their families, who did too. Are the wives and sons and daughters the unsung heroes of Apollo?

CM: It was like a mantra among the Apollo men—“I don’t know how my wife put up with it.” And a lot of them didn’t. The divorce rate in the suburbs around KSC and JSC was stratospheric. I wonder if it made it easier or harder on the wives to know that their husbands loved working those eighty-hour weeks. Bill Tindall was one of the few who admitted it. “We weren’t working, we were playing,” he liked to say. But if the question is who were the unsung heroes of Apollo, they were the people we wrote about. For the public, Apollo was the astronauts and the nameless men they saw from the television shots of Mission Control. The only people on the ground who got any publicity were Wernher von Braun and, to a lesser extent, Chris Kraft. After the movie Apollo 13, Gene Kranz got some name recognition, but that’s about it. Giants like George Mueller, Joe Shea, Bill Tindall, George Low, Rocco Petrone, and Max Faget were completely unsung outside the space fraternity. We sang about them as best we could.

For the sake of crafting the book’s narrative structure you note that many stories from your interviews were omitted. Is there one particular story you wish to share now that didn’t make it into the book?

CM: The material we didn’t include involved day-to-day activities that we couldn’t figure out how to describe in a way that would engage the reader. The untold stories were not really “stories.” A lot of the unused material involved the work at the Cape. We spent hours talking with Joe Bobik, the mechanic who rose to be Chief Inspector for the spacecraft, and with lots of others at the Cape who were involved in getting the stack ready for launch, and thoroughly enjoyed listening to them—Bobik especially was a classic American character—but we were stymied when it came to converting the interview transcripts into a narrative.

It was like a mantra among the Apollo men—“I don’t know how my wife put up with it.” And a lot of them didn’t. I wonder if it made it easier or harder on the wives to know that their husbands loved working those eighty-hour weeks.

CBC: We began our work by talking with Jack Trombka, the gamma-ray astrophysicist, and we collected lots of great stories from Jack and his colleagues. Originally we were going to have several chapters at the end about their work–and about the coming together of the two cultures, scientists who lived in the world of the sixties and controllers who lived in a world more like that of The Greatest Generation. They began with misunderstandings, and ended with great mutual respect. Alas, that section would have felt tacked on to the narrative as it eventually took shape. It would still be fun to write.

You quote Rocco Petrone in observing that an Apollo came only once, yet forty years after Apollo 11 the current plan is to return to the Moon using a spacecraft based on the general Apollo-style command and service module design, launched atop a rocket that will use a descendent of the Saturn V’s J-2 engine. After abandoning manned lunar exploration these past few decades, is Constellation Project Apollo’s vindication?

CM: Apollo was its own vindication. But John Houbolt, who will turn 90 this year, must be smiling about it.

What advice would you give to the men and women who today are working on the Orion spacecraft, the Ares launch vehicles, and the Altair lunar lander?

CM: Catherine and I never kidded ourselves that we were anything but enthusiastic amateurs. I wouldn’t presume to give them advice. But if President Obama wants to know how to get the space program moving again, I have some advice for him. Disband NASA. Bulldoze all the centers. Identify a couple of hundred guys at Marshall who are obsessed with rockets and keep them. Choose forty-five people from Langley and Lewis—half of them space nuts, and half of them people whose supervisors want to get rid of them. Give them a mission and a lot of money and stand back. And then when President Obama tells me I’m crazy, I’ll point out that what I’ve just described is what we had when the Space Task Group was formed in 1958. We were on the Moon eleven years later.

As Apollo recedes further into history and enters our national mythology as the epic adventure it was, what lessons do you hope that people will take away from the Apollo story?

CM: One of the lessons that people tried to take away from the Apollo story was wrong—“If we can send a man to the Moon, we can end poverty.” Or do whatever else is your favorite cause. Engineering challenges are different from social challenges, and a lot of money has been wasted on programs that were rationalized by the “If we can send a man to the Moon…” analogy. Maybe that suggests the real lesson: Apollo, like the Manhattan Project, proved that humans are capable of extraordinary feats in unbelievably short periods of time, but only if five conditions are met: The people doing the work have to have a concrete goal. They must have a sense of urgency—because of a specific calendar deadline in the case of Apollo, or beating the Germans in the case of the Manhattan Project. The concrete goal has to be technological, not social (we just don’t know how to change human behavior on a large scale). The people paying for the work must be willing to spend lavishly. And, most importantly, the people paying for the work must get the hell out of the way of the people doing the work.

CBC: The people of Apollo accomplished a great human feat beyond the technological one. The program began as a war project, though that war was cold, and ended in a different kind of glory. Everything we learned from the people who worked on Apollo vouched for the sincerity of the plaque left on the Moon by Apollo 11. The wording still gives me chills. “Here men from planet earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”