Moon landing Special 1 – The Apollo Space Program
Mat: Hello everyone. Welcome to Living History and the first of a series of special episodes we are going to bring you in July which celebrate 50 years since man walked on the moon and we’ve got some great stuff coming up, some incredible interviews, the highlight of which is an interview with Charlie Duke who was on Apollo 16. He was the 10th man to walk on the moon, one of only four men left alive who has actually set foot on the lunar surface. So later in the month we’re going to bring you that interview. We’ve got a whole range of fascinating interviews about the Apollo space program and the incredible achievement that was walking on the moon.
The first of those today is an interview with NASA historian Brian Odom. Brian is based at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. This is the center that built the Saturn 5 rocket that took man to the moon. It’s an extraordinary facility and Brian has a huge knowledge of the entire space program, but particularly what went on around this time of Apollo and the significance of that program to put men on the moon. So it was a real privilege to catch up with Brian and let’s hear him now talking about the Apollo space program.
Brian, thank you so much for joining us on Living History to talk about what is a very special anniversary.
Brian: Hey, thanks Mat. I’m glad to be here. This is exciting.
Mat: You work at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama and I think particularly from an Australian perspective, we would be familiar with Kennedy Space Center in Florida where the spaceships launched from. We’d be familiar with Houston, where mission control was, but I think we’d know less about your institution in Alabama in spite of the fact that that’s actually the largest NASA institution, isn’t it?
Brian: Yeah, it’s a huge thing, and particularly during Apollo. I mean, Marshall is known as a propulsion center, so that’s what we do. We build, develop, design, test big rockets there. I mean that’s what we do, and you mentioned it’s pretty common that even for people in America, not just in Australia, when you think about Apollo, you think about those iconic images, and if you’re talking about launch vehicles, it’s not usually the construction that comes to mind, but it’s the launch down at Kennedy Space Center, the fire and just how cool those events are. But there’s so much work that goes on in getting it to the pad, for Apollo and for the space shuttle program, and now for the space launch system. I mean, that’s a lot of work that that Marshall’s heavily involved in.
Mat: So you deal with specifically propulsion at the Space Center there. So tell us a bit more about that. So obviously the construction of rockets, you developed the Saturn 5 for the Apollo program. Tell us a little bit more about what goes on there.
Brian: Yeah, I mean, it even predates that. I mean, back in the early times during the army years at Marshall, the Army time before Marshall was created, you had the von Braun team that came over and they got to Huntsville in I guess, June of 1950. So from 1950 to 1960, they were developing a lot of the Redstone rockets. So America’s response to Sputnik launched on the Jupiter-C rocket, which was basically provided by Marshall Space. Well, provided by the army, Redstone arsenal before Marshall. The Redstone rocket, that was important there. I guess Alan Shepard’s first launch, May 5th, 1961, and that was aboard a Mercury Redstone. Redstone the launch vehicle, and that was something that Marshall had contributed as well. So, the Saturn I, Saturn V so there’s a lot of work that’s going on in the background there.
Mat: You mentioned von Braun and the team. I mean this relates directly to World War II, and interestingly, I lived in London for a couple of years and at the end of my street was a little church and it had damage on the side, which I assumed was from the Second World War, and what I found out when I did some research is that was from a V-2 rocket that landed in the park next to the church. So we’ve got this whole chapter of history related to the vengeance weapons that the Nazis were firing on London. That’s very closely linked to America’s space program, isn’t it? Can you talk us through that era a little bit in this connection between what was happening in Germany in the Second World War and the early days of the American space race?
Brian: Yeah, well a lot of what the Germans had done, von Braun’s team, he’s a young guy, he comes in and he leads this group and they really, for the first time ever ballistic missile development took something that had been theory and really made it. They developed a lot of experience, put it into practice. They solved a lot of problems like guidance and control, and developed it for a wartime piece that was the V-2 rocket, and definitely that’s kind of a harsh chapter in this whole history because, as we know, there’s a lot of things associated with that as far as the development of those rockets and the manufacturing in particular, the use of concentration camp labour and that sort of thing.
So it definitely puts a…it’s a harsh thing, and President Truman who signed on to what became Project Paperclip, they brought this team over to America. Even Truman himself had a lot of problems kind of justifying that moral issue, is this something that we can be involved in? but the decision was made basically out of a new cold war necessity that was emerging around them that, you want to get this tech, you want to get this experience that this group has and harness that intellectual capital or intellectual reparations, I guess, but you also want to deny it to who you now see as the next enemy, which would be the Soviet Union. So eventually Truman agrees to go through with it.
Von Braun and 118 people come across with him as part of this Project Paperclip. They’d go out into the desert. They bring a lot of V-2 hardware with them. A lot of the work that was done out there was firing and refining these systems and that V-2 engine basically is the same engine that goes into the Redstone rocket, which definitely like you said, that connection between those two things, between those two programs is actually pretty profound when you think about it, but very interesting
Mat: Into the 1950s, the development of the space race against the Soviet Union. I mean, America pretty much at every turn was behind the Soviets. Talk us through some of those achievements that had been made in the 1950s in space exploration, and America’s situation in relation to the Russians.
Brian: Yeah. That was always part of the story was that with Sputnik in October of 1957, the Soviets take the first big step and put the world’s first satellite into orbit and for people in America and I guess, in different parts of the world, that had a pretty profound psychological shock because the Soviet Union that a lot of people had viewed at the time, based on the propaganda of the age as being this vast backwards country that technology was far inferior of any Western power. All of a sudden that’s changed, seemingly overnight, and there’s this fear of the unknown of what might go on, but Eisenhower was somebody who, as president of the United States at the time, Eisenhower, he had access to information that a lot of people, the American public didn’t have, and he knew there wasn’t a missile gap. He understood the situation a little better, but the public is different. The public was inflamed by these things. They demanded an American response to kind of, if you will, reset the balance of power, and as they saw it before that event and Explorer I was again launched aboard a Jupiter-C, developed right in here in North Alabama, and for a moment it seemed that things were getting better, but lo and behold in April of 1961, you know the clock kind of strikes again with Yuri Gagarin’s flight, his orbital flight, and that just again, America was behind, and by this time you had a new President, President John F. Kennedy, who basically ran on being a new man who was going to bring America’s full potential to bear in these issues that Eisenhower was behind and he was lost. He was asleep at the wheel, but it’s on Kennedy’s watch that America loses again, and that really has again a psychological blow to America, but it has a psychological blow to Kennedy because it’s a short period of time later, America does respond the following month, on May the 5th 1961 with Alan Shepard’s flight, in this suborbital flight into space, still not the accomplishment of what Yuri Gagarin had done, but Kennedy believes now that we’ve got 15 minutes of space flight and he’s kinda scrambling, where is the next piece? Where can we achieve a victory? And really the impetus for the Apollo program is born of that psychological state that, where can we beat him? Well, we believe we can do this, and Kennedy says, well, if we believe we can do it, then we have to do it.
Mat: Well, as you say, Kennedy made that famous speech in 1961, committing that America was going to send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. I mean, audacious doesn’t really sum up how really crazy that statement was at the time. I mean, people looked at that as absolutely remarkable. As you said, that American only had mere minutes in space, and now that we’re going to send a man to the moon. Sum up for us just how audacious that statement was. What had been achieved at this? Just put it in terms for us that we can understand. What had America actually achieved at the point that Kennedy made that speech, just to illustrate what a huge leap going to the moon was going to be?
Brian: Well, I can tell you, I mean, the rocket that we will produce that would land human beings on the moon, the Saturn V was capable of generating 7.5 million pounds of thrust at launch. The vehicle that launched Alan Shepard was capable of generating 86,000 pounds of thrust maximum. So, I mean, that’s a huge, gigantic leap. You just don’t scale up those things. So the people at Marshall understood what the challenge would be, but it’s almost a situation where they didn’t even understand the technical challenges that they would face until they begin to actually develop the technology. So it’s learning every day, and so the audacity of Kennedy’s declaration really struck people. I’ve heard lots of different comments about they were up for the challenge because they were so young. That’s one of the things to remember that the average age here is, 20, 25, 27 years old, and these engineers just didn’t know what they didn’t know and they didn’t know any better. So it gave them this naïveté that actually worked in their favour, going forward, and in Kennedy’s mind, Kennedy was someone who thought in terms of this. He thought in terms of a kind of Camelot style. This is the world that I will bring us to. This world where these things are possible and failure is not an option, and all of these different types of things. But that speaks to Kennedy’s romanticism with technology that Eisenhower never shared. Eisenhower once referred to technology as “soulless and barren.” It wasn’t what Kennedy thought. Kennedy understood technology as having the power to reshape society, to unleash a social revolution, and so it was just… In his mind, it was a break with the old world.
Mat: This whole era in America, I mean, I look at it as someone who was born after this era and on the other side of the world, I look to America perhaps with rose colored glasses a little bit, but in the 1950s and the 1960s, it was the absolute pinnacle of this raw ambition from America, this optimism that America could do anything. I mean, it really was a time that I don’t think has been seen before or since where America just felt that it could achieve anything, and I mean, that was summed up so well in the space program, wasn’t it?
Brian: I think you’re exactly right. I mean, the level of optimism, America had been a super power for a very short period of time. After World War One when America had emerged on the international scene, it quickly retreated into an isolationism. The Great Depression had struck everyone and it made people think internally about what can we do for infrastructural improvements and focus on the self, and World War II had broken that mold again in America had emerged onto the scene, and an important thing that comes out of World War II was the development of the atomic bomb. Things like the atomic bomb and the Apollo program are somewhat linked because they show a world of fantasy becoming a world of reality and the people who grew up in that world, it’s set them with a sense of optimism of the things we believe to be impossible just a decade before, now we’re in everyday reality.
Atomic energy was coming on the scene and it was just everything. Every day was a new marvel and the people that were involved in the Apollo program were just gonna produce yet another new marvel, something that was just incredible and just so impressive, and they wanted to be part of that, and Kennedy’s goal, one of the things that does is it doesn’t just energize, but it brings everything to a focal point. All of that optimism is placed in one key place. Like you said at one particular time where all of these other currents are there and things are coming together, when people believe that they themselves will produce the next great marvel.
Mat: During the research for this special series we’re doing on the moon landing, I’ve spoken to quite a few historians about the space race and several of them have expressed to me the concept that Kennedy’s statement about going to the moon, this plan to put America on a course to land a man on the moon by the end of the sixties was so audacious. It was such a huge leap that that’s what gave America an opportunity to catch up to the Russians by projecting rather than just saying, okay, let’s take the next step by planning to take a step that was a thousand steps in the future of space development, that enabled them to catch up to the Russians and overtake the Russians because the Russians had no plans to put a man on the moon either. Do you see that era in the same way?
Brian: In a way I do. It was impossible for the people, going through that period to know what the Russians had planned, this series of one offs, and Kennedy, having access to what he had access to. I mean, he could kind of see behind the curtain, but the people here didn’t and that left them just to continue to wonder if the Soviets could accomplish Sputnik, if they could then accomplish manned flight or manned orbit with Yuri Gagarin, what was their next step going to be? Well, obviously we used to look back in hindsight and we see how it’s going to end, but at the time when all this was unfolding, there was a lot of uncertainty about this.
And so Kennedy’s manoeuvre to say, well, we’re going to do the most ultimate thing that can be done in space and that’s going to be our goal and nothing short of that will be successful basically puts all the cards on the table, right? Because either you do that or you don’t do that you can kind of see, historically, when you look at the records, you can kind of see Kennedy wrestling with that as well throughout his life, which again was cut short in November of ’63 so he’s not around for a long time to see this. He’s wrestling with these things and asking the NASA administrator Jim Webb. He’s saying, are we going to win? Because if we’re not going to win, we shouldn’t be playing this game because it’s much too expensive to be playing this game.
Mat: Did the people involved in this project, Brian actually think it could be achieved? Because as you said earlier in the interview, the technology didn’t exist. The knowledge to go to the moon didn’t exist. There was so much to be done that it was quite an outrageous idea that by the end of the 1960s, man would be walking on the moon. Did the people involved in those early days actually believe they were going to pull it off, or was it simply a case of well, we’ll give it our best shot and we’ll see what happens?
Brian: It just really depends on who you ask, I guess. From person to person, that is completely different. You’ll hear people saying, it’s like you’re sitting around, just shooting the breeze with someone and then the President comes out and tells everybody what’s just shooting the breeze with, he’s going to be spilling your secret. But I think that they did. Again, it’s that youth, and they had absolute faith at Marshall in particular. They had absolute faith in their management structure, and that was such an important piece because you go back to the V-2 era, a lot of the people who were in charge at Marshall during this time were from that same group of people.
The Germans dominated both of the laboratories where they were solving the hard problems, center management Werner von Braun and Dr Everhart Reese who was his technical associate. These young people, these 23, 24 year-olds had absolute faith that these guys knew everything that could be known, and it’s fascinating really to talk to people and the memories they have of those people just gave them this level of confidence, and then if the President says you can do it, I mean, it’s up to you now, and yeah, they had hard problems and as they would encounter, it’s not long into the program that they began to encounter those huge technical problems. I mean, one of them was just, not to go into a duty, but combustion instability in the F-1 engine. Basically all that is we don’t really understand how an engine this size, the problems that it has, that they have experienced in development were not even understood. So if you don’t understand the problem, how do you solve the problem that you can’t understand? And back then they didn’t have the analytical tools that we have today, so they were trying to solve these problems on the ground with very rudimentary tools and just a lack of understanding of thermal flow and how all this works, and so every new problem was a problem that could prevent the mission from being accomplished, and like you said, just the audacity to believe that you can do anything.
It was a very particular time in American history, and we can talk about it too. But the other thing that’s going on here is throughout the 1960s in America and across the world to some degree, social issues are on fire. In America, in the location we’re in today, the south was still the Jim Crow south of segregation and in the midst of all this technological marvel, you had a world that existed of two separate cities. There was a city for African Americans and then there was a city for whites and all of these things came together at the same time, and it’s really just amazing.
Mat: You’re so right, and talking about America at this time, I mean, I’ve heard America described before as the great contradiction that on one hand, you’ve got this incredible coming together of hundreds of thousands of people to make the Apollo space program a success and to put man on the moon, and then as you say that the social issues that are going on in the background, also we’ve got the Vietnam War taking off at this time. It really was an era of dramatic change to put it very mildly, wasn’t it?
Brian: It was, and that’s something that Kennedy wrestles with because Kennedy understands that a lot of it is political. Kennedy understands that he’s won a narrow election against Richard Nixon, Eisenhower’s Vice President, and he understands that he has the ability now as President to transform the south and to really bring the south into the fold. The Civil War in the minds of a lot of people in the south, the civil war hadn’t ended yet. It was still these two separate countries almost, and Kennedy and Johnson to a larger degree later on, utilized this funding for the space program as a lever to bring the South further into the fold, to develop a new middle class that would understand, a sunbelt economy where people had jobs and they were technological jobs, so that was all changing too, and from the very beginning, Kennedy understood that a big piece of that was going to be civil rights to… Could he change the south and be electable in 1964 and he did do that.
In 1961 in March of that year, he issues Executive Orders about Equal Employment Opportunity in the federal government. So again, pushing that ledger, pushing that action and pushing that further and Kennedy was great at that, and that had a ripple effect across the south because the places like Huntsville, Alabama, where these jobs existed, the segregated cities, the civil rights activists here in the city understand that now that federal investment and those laws on Equal Employment Opportunity have become leveraged to really transform that society, to tear down Jim Crow segregation and to make it a new world because they want to embrace those new opportunities as well. Places like historically black colleges and universities here locally, those colleges were wanting to take advantage of this new funding and these new positions to train a new class of African American engineers, and all of this stuff came together in this critical role, and as the decade wore on it, it continued because when Kennedy was assassinated and Lyndon Johnson becomes President, he actually says, we’re gonna expand this because I believe we can push harder, we can push further, and he begins a war on poverty in the south, and it has these ripple effects that people take for granted today.
But looking back, and that’s one of the things I think about Apollo and we can come back to this, but I think that’s why the legacy of Apollo is all these things. It’s the Hidden Figures, the African Americans who are working in the program. But Apollo was so big and it was so powerful ideologically, economically that it could transform society. It didn’t just land on the moon and go away. It changed America forever. To some degree, it changed the world.
Mat: One of the examples of just how audacious this program was, the changes that would be required. I mean, the most obvious example is probably the technology when we talk about getting man to the moon, and in your installation down there in Alabama where the Saturn V rocket was developed, I mean, that was really crucial, wasn’t it? I understand that there were incredible technological developments at every stage of this program. But no one was going anywhere unless they came up with a rocket powerful enough to get them out of the earth’s atmosphere and to the moon. Tell us a little bit about, I mean, it’s your baby really down there in Huntsville. Tell us a little bit about the Saturn V and what a remarkable piece of technology that was.
Brian: It really is. I mean, to this day it’s still just one of the most impressive things that humanity I believe has ever produced. You talk to people about being here in Huntsville when they were testing that rocket and just the first stage. I mean, it’s a very powerful first stage, but it has these five F-1 engines, each one of those generating 1.5 million pounds of thrust and collecting those things together and testing them in one system and people could feel the vibrations in their homes in the nearby city. That’s something that that generation grew up with, and no one that was here forgets where they were the first time they felt it and how big of a deal that was, but from just developing the technology itself, it was just like you said, it was a marvel. Just the power of the individual turbo pumps for the engines, just something that had never been even conceivable before, and as we mentioned before with problems like combustion instability, with problems just getting those turbo pumps to function how you want them to. It’s amazing, and developing new materials because the old alloys just weren’t working properly. You want to have as light of a vehicle as possible, but it has to be very rigid, very strong, and so finding a balance there, finding materials that will allow you to have, in the second stage of the vehicle, the Saturn V, that second stage you have hydrogen in there and just huge quantities, and hydrogen likes to be at about negative 450 degrees or basically just boils off, it evaporates, and so understanding new processes of developing insulation to keep that from happening.
I was out in California. They solved that problem from a number of different angles, but one of the things they did was they looked at how they would develop surfboards. They looked at the surfboard design and they said, hey, that might work. That type of installation, that honeycomb style installation. Let’s apply that here and see how it works, and it did. It was just so impressive. California obviously contributing surfboard technology was a big piece, but every piece of this is just… and I’m not doing it justice really, but it’s impressive.
Mat: It’s difficult to summarize in only a few minutes the magnitude of everything that was going on and the coming together of all these ideas, like you say, surfboard technology. I mean that applies to the people as well, even the astronauts themselves. As part of this series, I’ve been fortunate to interview Charlie Duke who went to the moon on Apollo 16 and he was saying that when he joined the program, they weren’t even sure what type of person they needed to be an astronaut. Even the concept of who was going to be an astronaut and what skills you would require to walk on the moon was up in the air, and that there was a suggestion that maybe deep sea divers would be the right sort of people or maybe acrobats to deal with the weightlessness in space. They absolutely had no idea.
I actually love that there’s a naïveté to it that I absolutely love, that the idea that we had to create from scratch all of these concepts. Talk to me a little bit about the astronauts who were eventually chosen because they decided that test pilots were the way to go in the end. Talk to me just about this amazing group of men who went through all the programs, through Mercury in Germany and then on to Apollo. Talk to me about this amazing group of men that that actually would go into space
Brian: That’s exactly right. I mean, it takes a very unique mind to do that. Physically obviously, the physicality of being an astronaut to this day continues to be a key prerequisite. The work that these men and women do today is incredible and the shape that they’re in and their minds and what they have to know to accomplish this job. You’ve mentioned that the development of the Saturn V hardware, you would expect that the engineers who are down in the weeds with these things, they understand them from top. They’re a piece of it. They understand very well, but one of the things about the astronauts is that they were trained. Each person was given that one piece of hardware that they had to learn. So you’d have someone who became basically an expert on the Saturn V. You had somebody who became an expert on the Command Module, on the Lunar Rover and all of these different pieces, the guidance computers. So they had to be Renaissance Men. They had to be able to do all of these things and just take in all of this information and then be able to still have those steel nerves when things didn’t go as you planned, to be reactive to it and to use all the work you’ve done in simulators to prepare yourself for this, to prepare for every eventuality that might occur and be ready for it and not get too tense, not, so it’s incredible. You go back to the first program, the Mercury 7, and you think about the work that they were going to have to do.
Basically for Mercury, it was a little different. Mercury was a program that was just putting human beings into space, and that was basically the idea because there was so much you didn’t know about that. Could we put a human being in space and how would they react to it? Would they be able to see? Would their eyes get distorted? There was the idea that there might be some space insanity or something, so all of those things were on the table. So during the success of Mercury, we solved a lot of problems, and the next step was the Gemini Program, and Gemini was about learning to live and work in space. Okay, now we can get to space. Now let’s be there for a little bit. Let’s learn some things that we’re going to need to go to Apollo. So rendezvous and docking with spacecraft during orbit was something that was very difficult. It’s a piece that people take for granted that you can manoeuvre in space and in orbital mechanics and get things to line up just like you like them, and then dock with another spacecraft. If if you’ve seen the movie First Man, you see the problems with some of that, right? I mean, Neil Armstrong is in space and he’s docking with the Agena Vehicle and things go wrong, and what do you do when things go wrong?
So that exemplifies again the type of person that these guys were, that they were willing to risk this. I mean, by the time you get to the Apollo program, you think about Apollo 1, the fire. Apollo 1 reminded everybody exactly what it was they were doing, how risky this was, and the astronauts themselves, I mean, Gus Grissom, he’s one of the astronauts that’s killed in the Apollo 1 fire. Grissom, they asked him that question, how risky is this? And he says, it’s very risky and we understand the risks and if something happens, know that we’ve understood the risks, but that the risks were worthwhile because of the larger mission of what we’re doing.
So doing all of these things and learning all these things, knowing what the risks were and still going through with it. If there’s a group of people who were heroes at a time when people needed heroes, it was these guys and the work that they were doing. But again, also don’t forget the science side of it. I mean, Harrison Schmidt, one of the last men on the moon, he’s a geologist. He’s a PhD geologist and he’s taught people, when we get to the moon, why do we go to the moon? Again, today we’re going back to the moon in 2024. Why don’t we go back to them then? Well, the moon tells us a lot of very important things and these astronauts understood all of this. They understood the value of the science, the value of what they were doing and took those risks. Just beautiful.
Mat: You mentioned Apollo 1 and the fire in 1967 that killed three Apollo astronauts. When I spoke to Charlie Duke and I mentioned this because he was obviously very heavily involved in the program at this time. He was one of the astronauts training for the Apollo program at the time and he expressed the view that it wasn’t all plain sailing, that even though there was this optimism and even though great achievements were being made every day, he did touch on the fact that perhaps there was a little bit of this “go fever”, this idea that we have to go, we have to go, we have to go, and that perhaps corners were being cut, that perhaps the risks weren’t being fully understood and that the Apollo 1 fire changed all of that. He said it was a new program after Apollo 1 the way they did things, the caution that they used going forward. Do you see that in your analysis? The history of this time?
Brian: Definitely. The things that were going on that led to Apollo 1, like you said, the schedule and the pressure to fulfil the mission by the end of the decade, particularly after, Kennedy is assassinated, now doing this for a martyr president and making sure that it was done in the Cold War value of all of this, and making sure that we weren’t beat again, because the other thing is that a lot of people, there’s this notion that after a while, after Gagarin’s flight that the Russians somehow just went away and stopped playing the game. They didn’t. The Russians got back in. They lost their surrogate. Sergei Korolev passes away in the middle of their program and he was someone that was incredibly vital to their own program.
When he’s gone, there is this lull, but by 1968, the Russians are clearly back in the game. So there is this pressure that feeds back into the system. This system of over 400,000 people nationwide who are developing these hardware across the country in almost every state is contributing something to this program, and they did feel the pressure, but Apollo 1, that fire, I think it really, like you said, it reset the table. It made people turn, why are we doing this? When there are people involved in this and let’s clean up. Let’s get the system back together, and there were a lot of changes that were made in management. There were a lot of changes that were made in vehicle design. They had allowed certain things like one of the problems with Apollo 1 was the 100% oxygen environment of the capsule, but that wasn’t done because for a sloppy reason. They were used to that 100% oxygen environment because one of the things it does is it reduces complexity and it reduces weight. But there were co-related issues of things in the cabin. Just the wiring wasn’t up to snuff, and then there was, okay, well we can’t get it there in time. Well after Apollo 1 fire, we’ve got time, we’ve got time, we’ve got resources. Let’s get back in there and let’s solve these problems.
Mat: It’s really remarkable to think that it was only two years after that fire though we actually walked on the moon, because that could have been the thing that, I won’t say ended the program, but losing three astronauts on the launch pad during a test and the first one as well, Apollo 1. This wasn’t Apollo 7 or Apollo 6, you know Apollo 1. The first Apollo program, the first capsule on the launch pad, losing those astronauts. There must have been a temptation there to delay the program, to put the brakes on and say, okay, well let’s, let’s not worry if it doesn’t occur in the ’60s, let’s just do it right.
Brian: Well, Apollo 1. That was just part of a test, right? So if we’re having these problems on a test, what is it going to be like when we finally get this gigantic Saturn V that has all these problems? Because another decision that was made pretty early on was… It was called the “all up” decision. George Miller, who was one of the administrators in headquarters, he said, we’re going to meet this schedule. We can’t test this vehicle like the Germans would like to, which is one stage at a time. In fact, we’re going to test it all at one time. We’re going to stack the vehicle, we’re going to launch it. We won’t have humans on board, but we have to jump start this schedule, and Apollo 4 was the first launch of a Saturn V November of 1967 so you’re talking about just in the fall of the year where you have lost astronauts and that launch Apollo 4 was flawless. It was. They couldn’t have imagined that it would have gone as well as it did. I mean, just everything clicked just at one stroke. So there’s this confidence there.
Well, the next launch of a Saturn V was Apollo 6 and the launch of Apollo 6 was almost terrible at every stage except for the fact that it actually achieved its goal of an orbit, which wasn’t exactly the one they wanted, but it was close. I mean, there was pogo up in the vehicle, which is basically a thrust oscillation up and down the vehicle causes it to shake violently. If there had been crew at the top in the capsule, they probably would have sustained some sort of injury. We’re not certain about that, but the second stage, you lose two engines. Two out of your five J-2 engines, you lose that. You finally get separation of the third stage and that stage, which is designed to restart an orbit, fails. It doesn’t restart. So you’ve got problems all up and down the vehicle. But because the Russians are still in the game, the decision is made after Apollo 6, even though it was flawed as it was, the next launch of the Saturn V is going to have humans on top of it. So all of these things are problematic, but the schedule is what it was, and the Russians are threatening to send humans around the moon.
Apollo 7, it was a Saturn 1-b, a smaller vehicle, but it had gone so well that they said, well, okay, we’ll send human beings on Apollo 8, and that’s what they did, and you talk about bad years. 1968 was a horrible year in American history, and again, to some degree across the world. Every day you had the Vietnam War, and ’67 and ’68 was at its peak. The same day the Apollo 6 had launched, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. That summer, Robert Kennedy, who is one of the front runners for the democratic to be nominated for President, he is assassinated in Los Angeles. 1968! At the end of that year, people were looking for anything, anything to take their minds off what was going on. Apollo 8 delivered that. Apollo 8 was very successful mission, sends three astronauts around the moon. They read from the book of Genesis on the way back on Christmas Eve. They take a photo during that mission that basically of all of the Apollo missions, is one of the most iconic photos and it’s not really of the moon. It’s of the earth rising over the lunar horizon, and it just gave people… That image, it energizes the environmental movement and it gives people this view of themselves that they’ve never had before, and really, it’s really a time for reflection, and to this day, that image is still one of the most iconic NASA images that there is. So 1968, ups and downs, a lot of work is going on for the Apollo program, but that year ends on a very successful note with the success of Apollo 8 and really sets the stage for Apollo 11.
Mat: I think Apollo 8 must rate as the… Well the most underrated of the Apollo missions because it was an extraordinary achievement that doesn’t really get talked about very much. So it’s great that you’ve summed up the importance of it there. Moving forward to Apollo 11, the one that would land on the moon. We’re celebrating the 50th anniversary this year. Talk to me about Neil Armstrong because he’s an enigmatic figure and everyone that talks about him… I mean, he wasn’t the right man from necessarily from the publicity point of view because he wasn’t as outgoing as someone like Buzz Aldrin, but every person I’ve spoken to who is involved in the program, who knew Neil Armstrong said that he was absolutely the right man for the job. So tell us a little bit about Neil Armstrong and the significance of his role in Apollo 11.
Brian: Yeah, you’re exactly right, but I think from a mission standpoint, I don’t think they could have found a better person. Someone whose eye for detail and somebody with a mind that can really take all this in and be cool and collected in the simulator and then reproduce that as the mission is unfolding. But yeah, you’re right. From a PR standpoint, he never was somebody who was outspoken. He preferred to be more quiet, behind the scenes. But he was always very supportive of the space program. He was always someone who, even in his later career, he’s a professor, he would step up whenever people needed him to support whatever NASA was doing. So, somebody who’s always engaged, and I think we mentioned it a while ago, but the movie First Man, it was released this past year. I think it really captures that because Jim Hansen, the author of the book First Man, to me he really does a great job summing up who this enigma character is. Somebody who is all about the mission. He’s not about the self. He’s all about doing the right thing, as an X-15 pilot, doing something as a test pilot that was very difficult, that was very risky. So he lived his life with risks and so Apollo was no different to him, and I think really as the mission plays out, as the Apollo 11 mission plays out, you see Neil responding to things that I don’t believe I could have responded to, and I don’t believe many other people could have.
Just this idea that he is willing to take control. He sees what’s happening as he’s landing in the Lunar Module. He sees a problem. He sees that he’s going to land, if he does what he’s supposed to, he’s going to land in basically a crater the size of a football field that’s filled with boulders, and he says, I’m going to push forward and the whole time these alarms are going off telling them something is wrong, that 12:01 and 12:02, which if you listen to the landing, you hear those alarms going off, and what that is the computer on the lander was working overtime and it was getting too much information, and I won’t go into detail of it, but one of the problems was while it was looking, the computer was trying to see where the ground was, they’d forgotten to turn off the switch that was looking to see where the actually the command module was, and so the poor little computer is trying to find out where it is in relation to two different things at the same time.
But Neil Armstrong, he’s heard this before. He’s been in the simulator. The people back at Johnson Space Flight Center, they know what’s going on and they’re responding to it as they should, and Neil finally does deliver that vehicle. His heart rate gets quite high, but he’s steely nerved, the guy that he is, he does the job. I think Neil is somebody who, and there’s a reason people see Neil as this ultimate hero, because one of the things about being shy from a public relations standpoint is he wasn’t enigmatic. People could see, but you can see yourself in someone like that. He holds a lot to the vest about who he was and so people could kind of see themselves in him. They could see him as someone who’s quiet, reserved and just what they thought he was, so he could be anything to everybody. He was just an amazing character.
Mat: Did you think that movie First Man portrayed, well not just Neil Armstrong but also the Apollo program in an accurate way from your position as a historian? Did it give an accurate impression of what this whole adventure was about?
Brian: Asking any historian what a movie does, there are these elements, right? They get dramatization and it is done for effect to pull in other folks, and if you’re willing to look past those things, which I definitely am, I think it’s a great movie because I mean, it really summed up that character and what the program did. One of the things about the Apollo program that people forget is the impact that it had on families, and not just Neil Armstrong’s family. You talk to people who worked these 80 hour work weeks. The engineers behind the scenes just working to solve these huge problems and bringing the problems home with them, and you’re thinking about how am I going to solve this? And that’s what they do. They do that 24 hours a day basically. They dream about this. They delay family vacations. They miss family events, baseball games, dance recitals to make sure the schedule is going, and it does have a profound impact on them. The divorce rate was very high among these people, and so the sacrifices that they made to fulfil that goal, just incredible.
So I think First Man, to me, the movie really did it. It got to that in a way that you could replace Neil Armstrong with an engineer who’s going through that. He goes to work every day and they do what they do and it was this type of program, and the other thing is just the beauty of that film is another thing too, the visualization of it, because if NASA is anything, it’s an image-heavy institution. When people think NASA, they think about these iconic images and that videography for that, it was just incredible. They portrayed that very well. Some of their launch footage, and one of the things that the producers of that movie actually did was they worked with NASA very closely. They worked with James Hanson on that, but we supplied them with a lot of this footage that hadn’t been seen before – 70 millimetre high-quality footage that allowed them to tell that story a little more visually appealing and they did a fantastic job with it.
Mat: The family breakdowns, the strain on the families that you illustrated there I think is a really important aspect that we shouldn’t overlook because I spoke to one of the NASA engineers who worked on the Apollo program and he said it was the proudest thing that he did in his life and he would never want to go through it ever again. Talk to me about that collective effort behind the scenes. I think I was reading that, I think it was 400,000 people were involved in this program by the time it was completed. Talk to me about the importance of that collective effort at every level, not just the men who would be up on the moon, but at every level from engineers to people behind the scenes on this program. How important was that coming together of people?
Brian: Exactly. I mean, you think about over 400,000 people working across the country, developing over five and a half million parts that all have to come together to produce one launch vehicle, that all of those parts have to be…the quality control on every piece. It only takes one thing to fail, right? I mean, all of these things have to work, but only one of them has to have a critical failure, and it doesn’t, and the pride that people took in their work. That’s one of the things about NASA today even is that the people take so much pride in the work that they do and the attention to detail because it’s so important, especially when you’re thinking about something that’s going to be in space. It has to work, not even from launch vehicles.
When you talk about things like Chandra X-ray Observatory that Marshall manages. All of those pieces have to come together and it takes a huge amount of effort behind the scenes. So yeah, Apollo wasn’t any different. I mean, the Apollo was really a super version of that because logistically getting all those pieces together, you have to have people moving one thing to another place and bringing things to the Cape, testing engines. So yeah, I mean it’s just incredible, and one of the things, again, going back to the social issues we talked about the Hidden Figures moments, not just for African Americans, but for women of all stretch and that participated in this that like we said just decades before had been basically discriminated from these jobs, particularly African Americans had been basically barred from these types of jobs in the south. There was never going to be… if you’re a young African American in Alabama, your professions are limited before you, but the Apollo program comes along and because of Civil Rights Act and a lot of different legislation that comes out of the civil rights movement, now these careers are open to you. It’s amazing.
Mat: Looking back after 50 years, I mean, it’s hard to believe it’s been 50 years, but just looking back on this incredible achievement, when I spoke to one of the astronauts, his position was that his expectation was people would view this as a great American achievement, and the thing that heartened him deeply is that people overseas said, we did this. We walked on the moon, and so there was a great coming together of people. It wasn’t seen just as an American achievement. It was seen as something that mankind had done. From your position, talk to me about the legacy of Apollo and walking on the moon. Why was it important we went to the moon, and what does it mean for us as human beings 50 years down the track?
Brian: I think you’re definitely right. I mean, from an international perspective, the world was watching. It wasn’t just America. This was something that while American may have led the way on this, it was something that the world looked at with great interest. What is possible? How has technology changed over the decades that has gotten us to this point where mankind coming together can solve problems like this, and I think, there’s something in the spirit of humanity that sits at the seat of all of us. That’s why it inspires us. What’s possible, and that’s something, again, that’s something that space program, NASA space programs around the world continue to do, and they continue to inspire the next generation of people because big space programs are the work of generations, and it is inspiring people to go down very difficult career paths. It’s inspiring people to do the hard work to prepare themselves for a job as an engineer, as a scientist, to contribute to one of these programs. Knowing that you could be the person that is going to solve something that we haven’t done before and be part of something that’s never been done. Gravitational Wave Detection, something like that, and we still don’t even understand. It’s still a difficult topic, but black holes, dark energy, dark matter. People can see the work that NASA is doing today, and see the work that space programs around the world are doing and be inspired by that and go down career paths that are incredibly rewarding.
And again, that’s one of the things right now. NASA is engaged in the next big mission. I mean, we’re going to go back to the moon by 2024. The vehicle that we’re being on like where we had the Saturn V during Apollo, today we have the space launch system and that’s a huge vehicle, the largest vehicle in development today that’s gonna take us back to the moon and beyond on to Mars, but that work, ,the world is watching that as well, and the world will participate in that because whereas Apollo was in a Cold War context, if we’re going to do these hard things and sustain them going forward, it’s going to take that international community. It’s gonna take everyone participating, and the greatest example of that is the International Space Station today. People participate in terms of the hardware that was developed for that, in terms of operations for that, and in terms of the science that goes on that every day. It’s an international thing that everyone in the world can take pride in, and that’s important.
Mat: Brian, thank you so much for your time to discuss this because I can imagine how busy you are at this stage with the 50th anniversary coming up, but it’s just been wonderful and your insights and the way you’re able to articulate the importance of this program, it’s just been absolutely fascinating. So thank so much for joining us. We’ll get you back on the show on a future episode. Just thank you for your time. It’s been really wonderful.
Brian: Hey, you got it, Mat. Anytime you need anything from me, let me know. I enjoy doing this. That’s one of the things about working for NASA is that there’s something that’s just always incredibly interesting and diverse.