Talking with Authors: Charles Fishman “One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon

    Today, our author is journalist and New York Times best selling writer Charles Fishman. We spoke with him as part of a book tour for his latest work “One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew Us to the Moon” in July of 2019…50 years to the month after the first historic words transmitted from the surface of the moon were heard, “Houston…Tranquility Base here…the Eagle has landed.”

    Charles went from being a little kid in 1969 repeatedly listening to that call from Neil Armstrong on the moon to capsule communicator Charlie Duke on Earth on a phonograph record, to being a journalist with multiple beats, including being a space reporter with the Washington Post.  When writing this book, he didn’t want  to tell the stories of the 21 individuals that flew to the moon during NASA’s Apollo program. They’ve already been widely told. In “One Giant Leap”, he wanted to tell some of the stories of the more than 400,000 people on Earth that were involved in the entire Apollo program. We’ll talk about those stories as well as thoughts on the state of space travel today from journalist and writer Charles Fishman on this episode of “Talking with Authors”.

    Buy “One Giant Leap”

    Transcript

    Host:
    Charles Fishman, welcome to St. Louis.

    Charles Fishman:
    Thank you very much. I’m so happy to be in St. Louis.

    Host:
    I think you wrote in your book that you were eight when the Apollo mission?

    Charles Fishman:
    I was eight at Apollo 11 and I was building Saturn V models and lunar module models. In those days, once the mission happened you couldn’t replay it because there was no replay, there was no recording. But you could mail away a coupon from the newspaper for all these missions and buy a record album of the mission, and they put the coupons in the newspaper before the mission. And I actually have a record album of, I think it’s the Gemini 8 and Gemini 9 mission, and I used to sit … It’s the first Moonwalk, the Gemini Mission in which, so it’s not Gemini 8 and Gemini 9, the first Moonwalk, Ed White and the Gemini Mission after that, one on one side, one on the other side.

    Charles Fishman:
    And I remember, I would have been six or seven sitting on the floor in my bedroom, playing that album over and over again and I still have it and I took it off the shelf when I started working on the book and put it on the turntable and it is still hypnotic. You can, of course, listen to all that stuff on the Internet now. It’s all been uploaded, but absolutely I was really captured by, I mean by the sort of little kid romance of space. Flying to the Moon sounds cool when you’re eight years old, it sounds cool when you’re 58 as well.

    Host:
    So the fire was lit then, but you said in 1986 is when you really said, “Oh, boy,” that was when you really got …

    Charles Fishman:
    Well, I was a space reporter for the Washington Post. I covered the Challenger disaster, which was a daunting story to cover. That’s the accident in which the teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe, and six astronauts were killed. So that was not a fun story in any way, but fascinating, challenging, important. The Post, we actually had five people covering it full-time for six months. So one of those events that got a lot of attention for a long time, and so that sort of connected me to the world of NASA. The world of NASA in the 1980s was not the Apollo NASA, it was a different kind of organization then. But I was in Houston for about six weeks of that six months and the reporters worked in a workspace, a temporary space that they set up for us right next to a real lunar module.

    Charles Fishman:
    And at one point, we asked the press people at the Johnson Space Center if they would let us look inside, and we got to climb up the ladder of the lunar module and step into the cabin. And I really think that was the moment when I was sort of reconnected with the Apollo missions. And actually, I’ve written three previous books but this is the book I’ve always wanted to write. And so with the anniversary coming, four or five years ago I thought, “Well there’s the right occasion to try, and tackle the story.”

    Host:
    The time is now.

    Charles Fishman:
    Right.

    Host:
    And in your book, I mean you interviewed many, many astronauts for this book.

    Charles Fishman:
    I certainly interviewed hundreds of people who worked on Apollo. I was less worried about astronauts. The 12 men who have walked on the Moon have written 15 books among them. Just those 12 guys have 15 books, so it would take you a month just to read the books just that the guys have walked on the Moon have written, and they have sort of told their story. For me, the story I was interested in was the story of the people who got the astronauts to the Moon. We always tell the Moon story from the perspective of the astronauts and that’s totally understandable and there’re lots of astronauts in my book, but I wanted to tell the story of going to the Moon from the perspective of the people back on Earth who had to do the work because that’s not a well told story.

    Host:
    And that’s what’s fun because it’s people that we all can kind of relate to. Right?

    Charles Fishman:
    Exactly. Ordinary Americans sort of rose to the occasion in this remarkable way and they’re the ones who got us to the Moon, right? The astronauts flew the spaceships, but they didn’t build the spaceships. They didn’t design the spaceships. They didn’t imagine the spaceships and all the things that went along with it. So that too is a great story, and the astronauts would be the first to tell you that, that work was more important even than their own work.

    Host:
    We’re talking a lot of people, 410,000 people over the course of the mission?

    Charles Fishman:
    It’s kind of extraordinary, 410,000 people worked on 11 Apollo missions. Four hundred and ten people working on 11 flights and that was more people in the late 1960s than were fighting in Vietnam in three years of the war. So really it’s the largest undertaking by human beings ever in history that was not a war. I mean it was 10 times the size of the Panama Canal, three times the size of the Manhattan project. Really an unbelievable sort of Herculean undertaking. And so there’re great stories all through there.

    Host:
    Right, 2.8 billion hours of work.

    Charles Fishman:
    That was a fun afternoon doing the math to add up the total number of hours of work. What’s more interesting in some ways, is you take the total amount of work that was done and divided by the total number of space flight hours. There were 2,500 hours of Apollo missions, about a hundred days. Even that number’s a little surprising. We don’t think of the Moon missions lasting a hundred days because we have these little clips of the astronauts on the Moon that last 45 seconds, but there were 11 missions and some of them were quite long. The Moon landing missions lasted eight or nine or 10 days, depending on how long they were on the Moon.

    Charles Fishman:
    For every hour of space flight, for every hour of flying to the Moon, walking around, driving around, 1 million hours of work was done back on Earth, and a typical American works a hundred thousand hours in their entire career. So an hour of Apollo spaceflight required the equivalent of the entire work lives of 10 people. That’s sort of mind-boggling. Imagine being allowed to do something for one hour that 10 people had worked their entire careers to get you ready to do and then the next hour, 10 more people had worked their entire career.

    Host:
    Ten more people, yeah.

    Charles Fishman:
    That sort of, that level of intensity is almost unimaginable. And so that’s what going to the Moon required. It was really, really hard.

    Host:
    Intensity. That’s a good word because I know when, in your book, you talk a lot about how there was the standard of perfection. Things had to be figured out because one little slip could mean disaster.

    Charles Fishman:
    Right. Space is an all-new operating environment and I don’t really think, obviously, NASA and the astronauts and the companies that work in space today appreciate this and we learned it in the 1960s but it’s a very different environment. I tell the story in the book of a single dash, a single line that was omitted from a piece of software and just that one line that was the length of an ordinary dash, not being in the computer program caused an entire rocket to have to be destroyed and a robotic space probe. If a bolt wasn’t in the right place on a B-52 bomber, to be honest, if 20 bolts weren’t in the right place or weren’t screwed in exactly correctly, the plane wasn’t going to fall out of the air. But space is a much more unforgiving environment and computers are much more unforgiving. There’s a difference between a one and a zero in a computer program and it often is all the difference in the world.

    Charles Fishman:
    That is what is so impressive, a lot of work back on Earth was done by hand. The spacesuits were sewed by hand, the parachutes were folded by hand, The wheels of the Lunar Rover were made of piano wire and the piano wire was also woven by hand. And if any of that work wasn’t done perfectly, then the spacesuit might not perform the way it needed to on the Moon. And so yes, it was very exacting and there was a culture inside NASA in that, in that era, and I think people knew about this. The astronauts would go visit people in factories. They would do factory visits, and it sort of looked kind of like PR-ee, but it really wasn’t. When you go back and talk to some of those people who are still alive and also just read accounts of them talking about it from that era. Every spacesuit was 21 layers. So you are nesting 21 layers of fabric, hand-sewn, one inside the other, each having to be perfect. Those spacesuits were custom-tailored to each astronaut. That’s actually not exciting work. That’s pretty tedious work. It has to be perfect.

    Host:
    Right? And the stress that has to be perfect.

    Charles Fishman:
    Right, it has to be perfect, but it also is not a thrilling moment to moment. And so the visits of the astronauts really connected the work that was being done every day with real people and also with the mission itself. They obviously, didn’t want to put anybody in harm’s way. The people building airplanes today don’t want to put anybody in harm’s way either. But there was this other part, which was it wasn’t just the astronauts, it was the reputation of the whole country relying on the quality and the diligence of that work. And having the astronauts go visit all of these factories was a way of saying, “Thank you,” was a way of reminding people that the people who are going to use this stuff actually knew that there were people out there making it. But it was also a way of sort of keeping up morale and reminding the folks doing the work where this stuff was going. You weren’t just working on a little piece of this, this was part of a huge important project.

    Host:
    I love how you talk about LOL, not laugh out loud. The Little Old Ladies.

    Charles Fishman:
    The Little Old Ladies, so the most amazing example of this sort of high-tech equipment that was made by hand is, in fact, the computer. Each of the spacecraft had a computer onboard. The command module and the lunar module and the computers were identical, but they were programmed differently because the command module flew to the Moon and back, and the lunar module flew from orbit in the Moon down to the Moon and back, so they needed to be programmed differently. Those computers were the smallest, fastest, most advanced computers that had ever been created at that moment, but we didn’t actually have the technology to manufacture the circuitry.

    Charles Fishman:
    And so the wiring of the computers, the programming, was woven by hand as you say by women who got the nickname, Little Old Ladies, the LOL Ladies in a factory in Waltham, Massachusetts. They weren’t old. Most of them were clearly in their 30s or 40s if you look at the pictures and watch the videos, and they were literally former textile workers, every single one and zero in a spacecraft computer was woven by a woman with a needle attached to wire getting the wire in the right place.

    Charles Fishman:
    And you were talking about how everything had to be perfect. If a single wire of that program was done incorrectly, was misrouted, the computer would not work right. That wasn’t the memory for the computer. It was the actual program being woven by hand by women sitting at looms in a factory in Waltham, Massachusetts. And so that’s sort of mind-boggling. The most advanced computer ever created, a computer for a spaceship being woven by hand by women sitting at benches in a factory in Waltham, Massachusetts. But, for me, that was what was fun and completely captivating about the mission about telling the story is that you wouldn’t believe that if it weren’t true. It is kind of an amazing story.

    Host:
    You talked about the little things, the hyphen, the laundry detergent caused an explosion, right?

    Charles Fishman:
    Well, that too is a kind of incredible story. So everything was tested and there was a real culture inside Apollo in those days of any failure needed to be investigated. It wasn’t like, “Oh, that’s not going to cause a big problem.” Anything that went wrong on Earth was considered, not to be cheesy about it, It was considered a gift. Like, “Okay, went wrong here where A didn’t do any damage and B, we can figure out why it went wrong?” So during the design and construction of the lunar module, the lunar module had 71, no, the lunar module and the command module together, the whole spacecraft assembly had 71 high-pressure gas tanks, and a helium tank was being tested out in California at the company that made it, Air Research. And these were sort of sophisticated versions of propane tanks, a top and a bottom welded together, but capable of keeping liquid helium super cool, so hundreds of degrees below zero. And it was pressurized and it exploded. This was 1966.

    Charles Fishman:
    And so, okay, “Was there something wrong with that tank? Something wrong with the design? Something wrong with the materials, that 20 tanks were made out of? We have to do an investigation.” This was sort of NASA’s famous traceability. Everything that went into the spacecraft, and this is still true, this is still the way NASA operates, “Where did that material come from? Who made it? Where did the raw materials come from? Who excavated those?” That whole sort of trail of traceability and they couldn’t quite figure out, they couldn’t find anything wrong with the tank except that there was a crack that caused the explosion where the two hemispheres had been put together. And so the manager of Tank Construction literally went back and did an investigation. Every single step of the assembly of the tank, he questioned everybody involved asking, “Was this tank built in any way differently than a previous tank?” And here’s what he discovered.

    Charles Fishman:
    A wiping cloth was used to clean the edges of the tanks before they were welded together. And this was the first tank in which the wiping cloths weren’t brand new. Somebody had decided that there was no need to use them once and throw them away, “We should launder them and reuse them.” A $19 billion project, let’s save 14 cents. But, you can actually appreciate that was … Why not? Why throw them away? And it turned out that there were tiny little traces of laundry detergent left in the cloths after they were laundered and rinsed and that laundry detergent, some of those molecules of laundry detergent, got on the tank when you wiped the edge. And that laundry detergent was corrosive to titanium, which was what the tank was made out of.

    Charles Fishman:
    And so literally, individual molecules of laundry detergent corroded the titanium between the two halves of the tank and caused the explosion. Well, imagine the kind of questioning you had to do to get somebody to say, “Oh yeah, yeah, no, we changed the way we handled the cloth.” You wouldn’t even think that the wiping cloths were a significant part of the manufacturing process, right. But also, it wasn’t trivial. If that tank had exploded during the mission in space, everybody would’ve died. So it really was an ongoing lesson in appreciating that the smallest things could really change the course and make, make the difference between success and failure.

    Host:
    Of all the stories you found out through this research, was there one that you really loved or one that really brought it home for you, how immense this mission was?

    Charles Fishman:
    Well, the fun of doing this book was that literally every single day there was a discovery, there was a story that … They aren’t unknown stories because if they were unknown, I wouldn’t have been able to find them. But they’re stories that are sort of lost to history. And so I love the fact that when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin got back in the lunar module and took off their helmets, the whole cabin of the lunar module had a smell. It was the smell of Moon dirt. And the smell was the smell they said of Armstrong described it as the smell of fireplace ashes. And Aldrin said it smelled like the air after a fireworks show, a real sort of smell of burned gunpowder. Well, that’s kind of amazing, right? Who knew that the Moon had a smell.

    Charles Fishman:
    And then every one of the subsequent five crews that landed on the Moon came back in, covered in Moon dirt. The Moon dirt turned out to be really clingy, hard to remove. They all reported the same thing. Well, that’s just a wonderful, that’s not, “How did we get there? How did we do it?” But it’s a great moment. We sent a car to the Moon. We sent three cars, we sent a car three times to the Moon and it really changed the whole complexion, the whole texture of the Moon mission because walking is hard on the Moon. It’s exhausting, and NASA had rules. Those first three missions didn’t have a car, NASA had rules about how far the astronauts could get from the lunar module, not much more than a mile. And if you think about walking a mile, walking a mile isn’t that hard, but walking a mile in a spacesuit is actually quite hard. And then you’re supposed to do work when you get there. Right?

    Host:
    It’s not like walking on Earth because it’s not the same gravity.

    Charles Fishman:
    It’s not like walking Earth, right. Well, in some ways it’s easier, but the astronauts actually found it quite taxing to walk long distances. And a part of that was not the gravity, but you’re sort of fighting against the spacesuit itself, which is pressurized. So the car really changed the range and ambition of the science you could do. You could pick five things you wanted to visit from Earth and say, “We’re going to go look at these five really interesting things,” and then you could go do it. And you could also stop and say, “Wait a minute, that looks interesting. Let’s take a little side trip and go visit that,” and when you arrived, you weren’t exhausted because you had been riding.

    Charles Fishman:
    Well, the only reason we sent a car was because two General Motors engineers insisted that the astronauts would need a car. NASA had actually been developing lunar vehicles to send to the Moon on these Apollo flights, but they were imagining, they were literally designing and they built prototypes of things that were the size of a Honda minivan. And then sort of somebody sort of did the math and said, “We’re going to need to launch a whole extra rocket just for the rover. And so instead of trying to reimagine that, NASA just canceled the rover development and these two guys at General Motors, a guy named Sam Romano and a guy named Ferenc Pavlics, they said, “The Moon car is really important. The astronauts deserve a vehicle and it’s going to be a GM vehicle.” So for two years, two and a half years, they continued to work on developing a car using General Motor’s money.

    Charles Fishman:
    And then they had built a tiny little prototype about 24″ long of the vehicle that they had designed that actually worked, was radio-controlled. And they took it to Warner von Braun, who was the sort of legendary rocket pioneer at NASA. They took it to his office and they hid in the corridor and radio control drove the little lunar dune buggy, the lunar Jeep into his office. And he was on the phone and he was like, “Whoa, what’s this?” And he hung up and then he poked his head out into the corridor, which is just what they expected. And he said, “What going on here?” And they came in and said, “We work for GM, we’ve designed this lunar vehicle. It only weighs 460 pounds,” right? The spare tire and a Honda Odyssey weighs 460 pounds, “and it folds up like an origami. There’s a little compartment in the lunar module. We have designed this vehicle to fit in that compartment and we really think the astronauts, the last three missions need a car.”

    Charles Fishman:
    That meeting, that little moment when they drove the model car into Warner von Braun’s office, that happened in March 1969. So the first Moon mission was just literally weeks away. All the Moon equipment was designed and built and tested, and the astronauts had been training on it for months. So the idea that just weeks before the first Moon launch, you were going to introduce this whole new-

    Host:
    Idea, yeah.

    Charles Fishman:
    … I mean, it’s a kind of spaceship really was a little crazy, but Warner von Braun was absolutely captivated with it. He said, “This is it. You have figured it out. We don’t need something big and elaborate. We need something small that gets the job done,” and he is the one who sort of grabbed this idea. He’s one of the few people in NASA who really had the oomph at that moment to make it happen. And by the end of 1969, the design team at General Motors had gone from 10 people to 400 and Boeing won the contract to build it.

    Charles Fishman:
    So it was, in fact, a General Motors car. General Motors designed and engineered. Boeing constructed it, and I’m not sure we would have gone to the Moon those last three times if they’d just been walking around. People were really like, “Okay, we’re going back again. What are we doing this time?” And the rover, they literally went eight, 10 miles away from the lunar module. They drove around those missions. They did three moonwalks each of which lasted seven hours. So it was really transformative. So that’s a great tale. Who knew that the lunar rover was the result of two guys who just said, I don’t care if they’ve canceled it, this is going to happen.”

    Host:
    And that they were able to get their employers to say, “Okay, we’re going to invest that money,” right?

    Charles Fishman:
    Yes, that’s true, although 10 people at General Motors isn’t huge, but you’re right. The easy thing inside General Motors would have been to say, “Why are we building something that they have said they don’t want?”

    Host:
    They don’t want. Yeah.

    Charles Fishman:
    And then not only did they figure out how to do it, they came up with this clever idea for how to persuade Warner von Braun how important it was. And then it changed the course of the Moon missions. So stories like that, that’s why I wanted to write this book because there’s plenty of stories like that about the astronauts and it’s good we know them and we’ve heard them a hundred times. The six successful Moon landings involved 18 people. You include Apollo 13, 21 people, 12 of whom actually walked on the Moon, 410,000 people back on Earth. So there’s a lot of incredible work and imaginative work and great human stories behind what it took to get us there.

    Host:
    So Mike Pence recently said that we’re going back to the Moon. We’re in a space race again with China this time. Do you think that we could have that happen? I think he said in five years.

    Charles Fishman:
    He gave a big speech. He said the Trump administration wants to go back to the Moon in half the time we went the first time. I mean, all I’ll say is that the NASA budget right now is $20 billion a year. If it were raised to the Apollo level, so that’s going to the Moon in 10 years, it would be double that. It would be $38 billion a year. And if you want to do it even faster than we did it the first time, you’d probably want to spend more money. And the Trump administration requested a NASA budget this year that was 2% less than last year. So unless there’s a magic trick in there somewhere, they’re talking about doing something that they’re not asking Congress to pay for. This is, in fact, the most exciting moment I think in space since Apollo and what’s exciting is not, unfortunately, what NASA is doing.

    Charles Fishman:
    What’s exciting is what’s happening with private companies. What Elon Musk is doing with SpaceX, what Jeff Bezos is doing with Blue Origin. Those guys are trying to create the Southwest Airlines of space travel. They’re trying to make it safe, reliable, and inexpensive to go to space. And their goal, they’re sort of are rivals and that’s good.

    Host:
    Right, it’s always a good thing, yeah.

    Charles Fishman:
    They’re sort of, they like to poke fun at each other, right? They Tweeted each other but they’re actually doing sort of the same thing and that’s kind of nice. We don’t have one airline. We don’t have one cell phone company. We don’t have one maker of cell phones. They are trying to bring the cost of a launch down from $100 million to $1 million. Now, a $1 million is still a lot of money, but it’s not a lot of money for a company. A 100 million is sort of out of reach, unless you’re a really big company, $1 million isn’t. It’s like going from having a modem that you connect your computer to the Internet with a phone line versus high-speed Internet. High-speed Internet is what got us streaming video. It’s what got us the whole online commercial world. It’s what got us Amazon. Who knows what bringing the price of a spaceflight down from a 100 million to a million going to get us? But it’s going to change the world.

    Charles Fishman:
    Right this minute. Here’s a perfect example of why this is exciting. Right now, and this has only happened in the last two years, every square foot of land on Earth is photographed from space every single day. They don’t photograph the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but they photograph the entire landmass of the Earth every day. Every part. My front yard, the Washington Monument, the cornfields that are flooded in the Midwest right now, the entire Earth is photographed every single day by a private company called planet.org. That’s how we know what’s going on with North Korea because we photograph their nuclear weapon sites every day. We photograph their ports and their rail yards and their truck yards every day so you can see what the trains are doing. You can see what’s happening at the nuclear weapon sites.

    Charles Fishman:
    This is not the NSA. This is not the CIA. This is not NASA. This is a private company with small satellites launched on private rockets and it’s changing how we understand what other countries are doing. It’s also changing how we understand climate and growing food and development patterns in cities. Just that one thing, by that one company, is an absolute blossoming. When you photograph the same place every single day, day after day after day for months, you see things that you can’t see any other way. That’s what’s going to happen once Musk and Bezos really get operational. Right now, in the world, there are about a hundred rocket launches in a busy year, somewhere between 80 and a hundred total in the year.

    Charles Fishman:
    Bezos has said he fully expects, within a few years, that he will be launching once a week. Like, “Why wouldn’t you on Thursday? It’s Thursday, Blue Origin is launching to space,” right? “If you want to be on this Thursday’s flight, get ready. If you’re not ready, there’ll be another flight next Thursday.” That’s how trains run, right? That’s how trucking companies run. That’s how huge cargo ships work, right? Scheduled service. Well, that’s what these guys want to do and I think what that means is that 10 years from now, 15 years from now, you will be able to go do a stint with your company in orbit. The way you go to Beijing, the way you go to Delhi. I think you’ll be able to go up there. The way people go work on an offshore oil rig, it will be something people do and that’s self-sustaining.

    Charles Fishman:
    They’re trying to create a space economy. When the Trump administration says, “Let’s go to the Moon, let’s race, let’s spend all this money,” you do have to ask the question, “To what end? Why?” I didn’t feel like there was a really good motivation as there was in the 60s. We were racing the Russians to the Moon with good reason because there was a huge global contest for countries to understand the difference between capitalism and authoritarianism, between Democracy and Communism. The costs required to go to the Moon need to be justified in some way and at the moment that doesn’t feel like it’s going to happen. But I think what’s going to happen in space in the next 15 years is going to be just as amazing as sort of the blossoming of the online world was 10 and 15 years ago.

    Host:
    Will you be in line to report on it?

    Charles Fishman:
    I’ll be in line to report on it. I’m getting to the age where I’m not sure I will personally go to space, but I have college-aged kids and it’s very clear to me that by the time they’re 30 if their work requires it and if they want to, I think we’re really going to see a transformation. At this moment, as we speak, only about 550 people have been to space total during the entire space age. If you go back to the era of Apollo, we haven’t even launched one person a month to space, about nine a year for the last 50 years. That’s not the Space Age. That’s not the Jetsons. That’s not the USS Enterprise. But I think 50 years from now, we will look back at this moment at this anniversary and say, “That was the moment when things started to change again.”

    Host:
    Thank you for this conversation. It was a lot of fun.

    Charles Fishman:
    Oh, thank you so much. As you can tell, I love telling this story.

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