One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon
by Charles Fishman
Simon & Schuster, 2019
hardcover, 480 pp., illus.
This summer is one of celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, including the series of books about the mission and events around the country, as well as product tie-ins on everything from beer to Oreo cookies. But in the back of minds of many, though, is the realization that while we will celebrate this summer the landing of the first humans on the Moon, in three and a half years we will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the landing of the last humans—to date—on the Moon. Even with the acceleration of NASA’s Artemis program, and private efforts, it’s highly unlikely there will be any humans on the Moon before the 50th anniversary of Apollo 17 in December 2022.
The end of Apollo started decades of efforts to try to at least duplicate it, if not expand on it, and also decades of hand-wringing about the failures to do so. While Apollo might have been a success in a Cold War-fueled race, it was a failure to expand humanity’s presence into the solar system. A new book, One Giant Leap, tries to recalibrate the definition of long-term success for Apollo, with mixed results.
If Apollo was supposed to be the start of human exploration and settlement of the solar system, author Charles Fishman acknowledged, then it was a failure. “The success is the very age we live in now,” he argues early in the book. “The race to the Moon didn’t usher in the Space Age; it ushered in the Digital Age.” NASA’s demand for integrated circuits needed for Apollo’s computers supported early development of such chips, improving their quality and decreasing their cost, thus stimulating other applications for them. NASA also, he says, “changed our perception of technology’s appeal and usefulness” in general.
That is an interesting argument to make, but Fishman doesn’t spend much of the book fleshing it out. (It ignores, for example, the role the Air Force’s Minuteman missile program played in stimulating demand for integrated circuits; as Paul Ceruzzi noted in his book A History of Modern Computing, both programs played key roles in the rise of integrated circuits, with Minuteman coming first.) Fishman undermines his own argument just a few pages into this discussion: “Would we have had microchips and laptops without Apollo? Of course.” NASA should still get credit for its role, he says, but it’s clear that the technology would have developed anyway even without that early race to the Moon.
A couple of chapters in the book do explore the development of the Apollo computers and software; these are among the most interesting chapters in the book. But there’s no flow to much of the book: after those chapters, Fishman then go to the “secret” tapes made by President Kennedy of his discussions about Apollo (which, of course, have not been secret for decades), the development of the lunar module, and the process by which NASA decided to and selected a flag to fly on the lander; those last two chapters are about the same length. It’s certainly not a detailed or chronological account of Apollo, but rather a hodgepodge of topics about the program.
Fishman returns to that reconsideration of Apollo in the final chapter of the book. It is a bit defensive, arguing, as he did earlier in the book, that it helped begin the “Digital Age” and wasn’t a waste of money. “We love space,” he said. “We are not, in fact, bored by the romance and adventure of our own space travel.” Yet, as he acknowledges elsewhere in the book, public support for Apollo was never strong until Apollo 11 itself, and television audiences dropped dramatically for the landings after Apollo 11. The public’s interest in space, then and now, is broad but not deep.
Rather than attempting to redefine the meaning of success for Apollo, as this book attempts to do, let’s accept Apollo for what it was: a tremendous programmatic success thanks to both technological accomplishments as well as skilled management, stimulated and supported by Cold War geopolitics. Trying to redefine it makes as little sense as trying to duplicate it, as decades’ worth of failed initiatives have demonstrated. If human spaceflight does have a long-term future, on the Moon, Mars, or elsewhere, it will look very different from Apollo.
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