Book Review: One Giant Leap by Charles Fishman

Author:Charles Fishman
Title: One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon
Narrator: Fred Sanders
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2019)

50 years after the United States first landed people on the moon and returned them safely to Earth, the story of the Apollo program in the popular imagination is compressed.  The general story is that three courageous men flew into space and two walked on the moon and planted a flag. There have been moments in popular culture that offered glimpses into the bigger story – the movie Apollo 13 which showed the nerds at Mission Control as the real heroes rather than the jocks in space, and more recently the book and movie Hidden Figures that brought greater awareness to Black women performing calculations by hand for the early space program.

The goal of One Giant Leap is to broaden the understanding of the Apollo Program, getting a better sense of the tens of thousands of people who worked millions of hours over 11 years to get those two men to the moon (and then repeat if five more times). NASA had people working on the project in all 50 states, a sign of both the scale of the project and the need to divide up government spending to gain wide support.  Fishman also asks the question of whether flying men to the moon was worth the cost and effort, and provides some interesting answers.

Going to the moon was never popular, as it polled poorly throughout the 1960s.  People, now and then, asked whether that money and effort would be better spent solving a problem on Earth. Fishman wisely notes that budgets generally don’t work in a way where funding for Apollo could’ve been easily redirected to, say, ending poverty, but also that a discrete project with an defined end goal is actually easier to pull off than more dynamic problems such as ending poverty, racism, and war, and they need not be mutually exclusive.  Fishman also notes that despite the high cost of the Apollo Program, it did achieve its goal within the stated time, unlike other government programs that do not receive similar criticism. The Vietnam War, which occurred roughly contemporaneously with the Apollo Program, cost six times as much, lead to hundreds of thousands dead, and destroyed much of the country it was supposed to save.

One person surprisingly not that much interested in exploring space was John F. Kennedy.  His famous “we go to the Moon” speech (analysed in depth in this book) came in the context of the embarrassment felt at the USSR beating the US to every key space exploration milestone and the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Within in two years, Kennedy was looking to cut NASA funding and set a more leisurely timeline toward landing on the Moon as long as it looked like the Soviets weren’t going to get there first (and perhaps a bit selfishly, since NASA original promise of landing on the Moon by 1967 was pushed back, JFK saw no need to push a big program that wouldn’t even come to fruition until after his potential second term was over).  Kennedy’s assassination ironically saved the Apollo Program as it made a true believer in the space program, Lyndon Johnson, the President, and Kennedy’s “we go to the Moon” speech became an impetus to complete the mission in his honor.

Looking back on Apollo, people wonder what it’s legacy is since no humans have ever returned to the Moon and it did not usher in a Space Age.  Fishman offers that the true legacy of Apollo is not the Space Age, but the Digital Age.  In order to navigate the lunar module to the Moon and then rendezvous with the command module, the Apollo Program needed innovations in interactive computing and integrated circuitry. These advances sped up the development of computers that have revolutionized all aspects of society over the past 50 years.  Apollo also stood as a model of innovative project management. Even the more mundane nature of later space programs like the Space Shuttle and the International Space Program is a sign of the success of Apollo as it has made space exploration routine.

If there’s one critique of the book is that the narrative doesn’t flow as the author jumps around from topic to topic and could’ve spent more time diving into particular issues.  Nevertheless, the topics and anecdotes he shares are interesting, and include:

  • the key role of Bill Tindall, an aerospace engineer with the ability focus in on minute details, and who’s memos – called Tindallgrams – became must-read material within NASA
  • NASA almost forgot to pack a flag on Apollo 11, and a great analysis of the cultural importance of the flag planting ceremony on the Moon
  • how the lunar rover aided greater exploration of the Moon on later missions

Recommended books:

  • A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin
  • Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Race to the Moon by Alan Shepard
  • Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell

Rating: ****