One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew us to the Moon: A Review

When I reviewed Prof. Robert Kuttner’s Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism, I fretted about America’s bad situation. I needed to get away. Lucky for me, I had at hand Charles Fishman’s One Giant Leap (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019 — ISBN 978–1–5011–0629–3). To my surprise, Fishman had a bit of everything, even an answer for Kuttner. Fishman’s prose is often inspiring. The anecdotes that he has collected range from terrifying to engaging. And, it is all relevant to our current situation.

How do I connect these books? In the half century since the United States put twelve men on the moon, our space mission has been adrift. But, the decade in which President Kennedy inspired the Apollo program, we had every ill that you could imagine: an omnivorous military-industrial complex, a “forever war” in Vietnam, a cold war with the Soviet Union, a coming to account over race, global economic rebalancing,…

Where are we today? We have that same omnivorous military-industrial complex, a refreshed coming to account over race, a “forever war” in Afghanistan+, an emerging cold war with the People’s Republic of China, global economic rebalancing,…

Beyond a well told story, what do we get from Fishman? Here are three sets of takeaways:

  1. No valuable project goes unopposed. There was strong and un-subsiding opposition to the Apollo project. Some of this was budget based. Some of it was concept based. On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy proposed that the United States should put a man on the moon within the decade. Ignoring the hedge — did he mean by 1970, or 1971 — the President was spurred by his personal competitive spirit: Soviet Communism could not be more successful than the then version of American Capitalism. And, yet in 1961, the Soviets had put dogs in space, and then Yuri Gargarin was the first human to orbit the earth. The United States was well behind.

The cost of Apollo was always challenged. The challenge grew as the evidence showed that the Soviets were unable or unwilling to compete to put the first man on the moon. The challenge expanded as the Vietnam War pressurized the American treasury. And, as the Civil Rights movement highlighted American poverty, the question was asked, couldn’t the funds allocated to Apollo end poverty now? Fishman offers direct and indirect answers:

As a national project, Apollo put jobs in all fifty states. These were new jobs changing old technologies and introducing new ones, especially in computing. Unlike the waste of war, Apollo’s 400,000 jobs were constructive and shaped how we live and work today.

When confronted about the Apollo cost, which would reach $19 billion, President Kennedy was able to point out that American discretionary spending on cigarettes and cigars was greater each year than the Apollo budget.

As for Vietnam, the $111 billion spent was greater and the results devastating in the loss of life, political failure, and diversion of funds from domestic needs to geopolitical waste.

2. No fruitful project gets credit for its greatest contributions. The reliable integrated circuit, not Tang! Even when I was a teenager, we were convinced that Tang was a NASA by-product. Turns out that Tang first appeared when I did — four years before President Kennedy’s launch of the Moon program. Even though Kennedy never guessed what we would learn from the mission, we learned: materials science, quality control, improved inertial guidance, real time computing, DSKY display-keyboard interaction, reliable integrated circuits, semi-conductors, chip reliability, non-stop computing, battery technology, electric vehicles, communications technology, satellite technology, rocketry, better project management, and tens of thousands of engineering and aerospace solutions. Most of what Apollo gave us, we don’t know about. Most of it has become indispensable to our modern lifestyles. And, much of it can be used to address the very challenges of our day from climate change to better healthcare and clean energy.

One of the greatest invisible triumphs of Apollo was that it brought a new wave of STEM students. In growth of astronomers before Apollo was 4–5% p.a. During Apollo, it was 15%. Today, absent the inspiration, we are begging our students to pursue STEM curricula.

From 1960 until 1965, the cost of integrated circuits dropped from $1,000/chip to $7.58/chip. The power and reliability increased. Apollo was the father of the Digital Age. Imagine how Apollo shrank a computer from the size of a building to that of a large suitcase (one cubic foot). And, now, we have more power than those computers in our phones.

Fishman summarizes, “We haven’t spent 50 years neglecting space; we’ve spent 50 years catching up.”

3. Even during the Apollo program, critics feared that the moon program was a zero sum trade off with poverty alleviation. NASA Administrator Thomas Paine recalled telling civil rights legend Reverend Abernathy:

“…the great technological advances of NASA were child’s play compared to the tremendously difficult human problems with which he and his people were concerned. I said that [he] should regard the space program, however, as an encouraging demonstration of what the American people could accomplish when they had vision, leadership and adequate resources of competent people and money to overcome obstacles. I said I hoped that he would hitch his wagons to our rocket, using the space program as a spur to the nation to tackle problems boldly in other areas.”

What is sad about this quote is the ensuing fifty years of diminishing vision and leadership that have led our problems to fester.

In its time, however, Apollo’s 400,000 jobs were increasingly color blind, our next great project will be better.

Fishman likes to state that Apollo’s success is how we live now. Its next success should be the message for 2020 and beyond. Either we invest in planet B — hint that isn’t going to infuse enthusiasm for the nine-plus billion who stay behind. Or, we embrace the Green New Deal, projects that revitalize our planet and reduce the impacts of climate change. Apollo gives us a road map about how to afford the Green New Deal and change the next 100 years.

In Kennedy’s words, “The American people must never lose sight of the fact that, while ardently competing with the Soviet Union in space, a concurrent goal is to create a better world here on Earth.” Today, we collaborate with Russia in Space and prepare to face-off with the People’s Republic of China in numerous venues. Nonetheless, our ultimate goal should be Kennedy’s better world on Earth.

Fishman captures the drama of putting the Kennedy vision into place and concludes that “…Apollo was solved with a series of brilliant technical, engineering, and management efforts.”

There is no “we” in Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson, if their rocket is a success, we are observers. But, for Americans, the Apollo program was truly “we”. And, an inspiring “we” As Kennedy predicated, the entire nation went to the moon. The US may be failing part one of the COVID-19 test, just as it failed part one of the space race, but Kennedy’s assertion that democratic capitalism cannot be matched proved right. If we manage capitalism and keep our democracy, we will sprint ahead in the next phase of several great challenges: COVID-19, climate change, and sustainable, clean energy. As Fishman shares “We took those very limited skills and used them,…, to do the very hardest thing that had ever been done: fly to the Moon.” It’s time to take those unseen, widely present benefits of Apollo, and build a terrestrial “Apollo project, whether it is a “Green New Deal” or a global health solution.

As I closed the last page, I felt as if I was saying good-bye to a friend and hello to hope.




Raised in Southern Ohio to become a globe trotter,…

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Abdulkader Thomas

Abdulkader Thomas

Raised in Southern Ohio to become a globe trotter,…

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