Sending Washington to the Moon: an interview with Richard Paul

A celebration of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 last year in Washington. A radio show two decades earlier examined the political issues behind the program. (credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Recently, the BBC World Service podcast “13 Minutes to the Moon” finished its second season, focusing on the Apollo 13 mission during seven episodes. It has been an outstanding series so far. But this was not the first time that radio has addressed the Apollo program in an interesting and substantive way. Two decades ago there was a two-part radio broadcast that also told a complicated space story involving multiple actors. In 1999, in honor of the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, radio station WAMU in Washington, DC, aired a program about the role of Washington politics in the lunar landing. “Washington Goes to the Moon” (WGTTM) was written and produced by Richard Paul and featured interviews with a number of key figures in the story, from historians to NASA and congressional officials to famed newsman Walter Cronkite. After the radio program aired Paul, the author of We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program, turned transcripts of the interviews over to NASA as historical documents. These transcripts included unaired portions of the interviews.

I recently contacted Paul to ask him how he first came up with the concept for the program and pursued it. As Paul explains it, the show started with a date, not a subject.

“My boss at the time, Steve Martin, who was program director at WAMU, wanted to do something because in 1999 it would be 30 years since 1969. He merely told me to come up with some programming about something that happened in 1969. He was thinking maybe something about Woodstock,” Paul remembered. “Instead, I suggested something about the public policy aspects of the mission to the Moon.”

WAMU is a radio station run out of American University in Washington, DC. Somebody flying into Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (or “DCA”, as locals refer to it) can easily spot WAMU’s big transmission tower in the northwestern part of the city.

“Howard McCurdy was a public policy professor at American University at the time—he’s at the University of Washington now—and somehow I became aware that he knew a lot about the topic I wanted the radio show to be about,” Paul added. “He suggested Roger Launius as someone else to talk to. At the time, Roger was the head of NASA’s history office and he and Howard had written a couple of books together.”

McCurdy’s book Spaceflight and the Myth of Presidential Leadership is one of the best explorations of the limits of presidential power and human spaceflight. Launius later went on to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and has written numerous books on topics from spaceflight to baseball to Mormonism.

“I had the two of them into the studio for two extensive interviews,” Paul remembered. “I think we may have talked for five hours, total. We didn’t have a budget for the project, and the original idea was just to cut up those interviews into shows.” Both McCurdy and Launius had done television and radio appearances before to talk about spaceflight. “But the material that they talked about in those two interviews was so fascinating,” Paul remembered, “that I just started calling around and booking interviews with people. Steve and the station’s General Manager at the time, Kim Hodgson, liked how things were going and I think they finally ended up spending $3000 or $4000 total (not counting my salary) so that I could put the show together.”

Paul had worked in radio for 20 years at this point, but this was his first documentary. “I had done some pieces for Metro Connection, the local news magazine show on the station that ran 20 and 25 minutes long. But doing something for a full hour was outside the scope of my previous experience. That said, I am thrilled with how it came out and what it has led to.” The program ended up as two episodes, almost an hour each.

As a baby boomer, Paul grew up as steeped in NASA hagiography as anyone. But what stuck him as he began working on the documentary, he said, was how controversial the space program was in its day. “I knew that there were African American newspaper editors and opinion leaders who thought it was a waste,” he said, “but the broader opposition? I had no idea.” He unearthed congressional testimony from scientists who, arguing that federal funding was a zero-sum game, said the space program would destroy the fight against cancer and other diseases. McCurdy told him that plenty of people in Congress felt the same way, and not just about science. The sheer scale of federal dollars that President Kennedy called for to send humans to the Moon was breathtaking, and Paul said he was shocked to learn how many times that federal spigot was nearly cut off. “As Howard [McCurdy] says in the documentary, the Moon landing was unlikely not only because of the engineering challenges, but because its costs were so vast and the nation’s needs were so dire,” he said.

Paul later received the Verville Fellowship in Space History from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in 2014. He used the opportunity to write a book about the first African Americans in the space program. “That never would’ve happened if it hadn’t been for ‘Washington Goes To The Moon.’”

The book uses all of Paul’s WGTTM research and combines it with the work he did to produce his 2010 documentary, “Race and the Space Race.” That program was the first to tell the story of NASA’s consequential if unintended role in the history of American race relations. To animate the story, Paul gathered what is now the largest existing collection of oral histories on the subject, talking with African-American technicians, mathematicians, and engineers who triumphed over segregation, discrimination, and the threat of violence to help put human beings on the Moon.

“I still have all of the audio tapes from those WGTTM interviews,” Paul added. “The funny thing about them is that, because they were recorded for the production of a documentary, rather than for posterity, my voice is not on them. In the transcripts that are printed, I took the original questions that I asked and put them in the blank spaces between the answers.”

After the program aired, Paul turned his transcripts over to NASA. It is unclear if they first went to the Headquarters history office and then ended up with Glen Swanson, who was then the NASA historian at Johnson Space Center, or vice versa. Swanson provided them to this author, who used them for a number of Space Review articles.

“Washington Goes to the Moon” was sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation, NASA, WAMU FM, WABE FM, and the Morehouse School of Medicine. You can listen to parts 1 and 2 for free here.

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