Astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin Jr. is near the moon module during the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969.
NASA / Getty Images
NASA / Getty Images
Astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin Jr. goes near the moon module during the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969.
NASA / Getty Images
In 1961, when President John F. Kennedy announced a goal of "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth" before the end of the decade, the mission seemed anything but impossible.
"[The U.S.] did not have a spaceship capable of flying to the moon," noted journalist Charles Fishman. "We didn't have a rocket that could launch to the moon. We didn't have a computer small enough or powerful enough to make the navigation necessary to get people to the moon. We didn't have room food."  There were also some disagreements about whether people could think in gravity.
Still, the race to the moon was underway – especially after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to pave the earth on April 12, 1961. Fishman's new book, One Giant Leap, tells the story of the common people who mobilized behind the Apollo program to pull off the most extraordinary human achievement: July 20, 1969, target landing.  How do you keep the story on the moon? “/>
Fishman notes that 410,000 men and women of about 20,000 different companies contributed to the effort. They designed, built and tested the spacecraft and equipment the astronauts used – often work by hand.
"It was a huge business," he says. "It's 10 times the effort to build the Panama Canal. Three times the size of the Manhattan project. … Apollo was the largest non-military operation in the history of human civilization."
Interview Highlights  On which computers were like in the early 60s and how far they had to come to space
It is difficult to appreciate now, but 1961 In 1962, 1963, computers had the opposite reputation of reputation they have now. Most computers could not go more than a few hours without breaking down. Even on John Glenn's famous orbital flight – the first US orbital flight – the computers ended up in mission control to work for three minutes [out] in four hours. Well, it's only three minutes [out] in four hours, but it was the most important computer in the world during the four hours and they couldn't keep it going during John Glins entire orbit.
So they needed computers that were small, light, fast and completely reliable, and the computers that were available then – even the compact computers – were the size of two or three refrigerators next to each other, and so this was a huge technical development company for Apollo .
On the sleep stamps that woven the computer memory by hand
There was no computer memory of the kind we are thinking of now on computer chips. The memory was essentially woven … on modules and the only way to get the wires exactly right was to get people to use needles, and instead of wire thread woven the computer program. …
The Apollo computers had a total of 73 [kilobytes] memory. If you receive an email with the morning headlines from your local newspaper, it takes more than 73 [kilobytes]. … They employed sisters. … Every thread must be right. Because if you got the [it] error, the computer program did not work. They hired women, and it took eight weeks to make the memory for a single Apollo flight computer and that eight weeks of manufacturing literally put in sophisticated looms, one wire at a time.
On Apollo parachutes that moved the module back to earth
announced the parachutes were made of high-tech fabric, and yet they were sewn by hand kind of wonderful detail: There were only three people across the country who were certified to throw and pack Apollo parachutes. The three people packed the parachutes for all Apollo missions, and they had to rely on the FAA every six months to acknowledge that they knew what they were doing. And they were considered so valuable to NASA that they were forbidden to ride in the same car at the same time, for fear that that car would be in a car accident and that NASA would be without packing their Apollo parachutes.
On the team that designed the space rocks
There is a video of a man named Sonny Reihm who was responsible for creating the space rocks. The room series was Playtex, the Cross Your Heart Bra people, which in itself is a remarkable moment in NASA's life, that they turned to Playtex to build space rocks. And there is a video by Sonny Reihm and a couple of his colleagues talk about how nervous they were, for Buzz Aldrin, who had the slightly larger personality of the first two lunar researchers … decided to see what limits to his ability to gallivant around the moon was – and perhaps what the limit of his space color was.
[Aldrin] began to compete from one side of the landing site to the other, the rabbit jumping, doing the kind of NFL backpacks that way and so and Sonny Reihm, who is in charge of space rocks, was in mission control in Houston … with one group of space shuttle if something went wrong. He just describes being petrified … so nervous that Buzz Aldrin would do something that would cause the spacecraft to fail, and there is the TV camera and there are 600 million people worldwide and Buzz Aldrin will crack his spacesuit openly in some way and die. …
It just reminded me that each of these missions was pioneering, and NASA pushed the boundaries each time until you came to the later missions.
On the heat shield on the command module
The command module returns through the atmosphere, it enters the atmosphere of 25,000 miles per hour. So NASA and the researchers and engineers needed to come up with, literally, a brand new substance to protect the canister from heat that was at the solar surface. And then they could come up with this material, this heat shield pox, but then they had to think of a way to get it on the back of the canister. …
They came up with a honeycomb, where the cells in the honeycomb would be filled with this heat shield material. But how do you get the heat shield material in the honeycomb? It turned out that the technology they used was old-fashioned: they used the equivalent of caulk guns, and the people who filled the honeycomb were called gunners. There were 370,000 cells in that honeycomb structure on the back of the command module; each of these cells was filled by a person who used some sort of sophisticated caulk gun; and filling these cells was considered so important – it had to be done so perfectly – that it took two weeks to train someone to fill the cells properly with the sophisticated caulk gun, all done by hand.
On the American flag planted on the moon surface
The very interesting thing is that it did not even arrive until a few weeks before [Neil] Armstrong and Aldrin took off. There was no NASA effort to think about how to celebrate this moment on the landing on the moon, not as a technical achievement but as a human achievement? …
A guy named Jack Kinzler, who worked at the manned aerospace hub in Houston, proposed two things. He suggested the plate that stopped attaching to the leg of the lunar module and he suggested the flag. And he said he had actually thought of a way to make the flag fly. He said he was inspired by his mother's own work when he was a child who made curtains, and that's what the flag is. The Apollo flag turns out to be a kind of sophisticated curtain rod rig. …
It is amazing that it is the iconic photo both from Apollo 11 and from many of the later missions: the flag flying and an astronaut holding it or standing next to it. It is one of the pictures we associate with the moon landing. It is very un-NASA-who actually forgot to plan something that is important in advance.
At human's first meeting with moon dust
NASA and the researchers supporting NASA and the astronauts were all aware of and worried about moon dust. The moon's dust had been in vacuum for millions, if not billions of years, and it was a concern that when you took it back … into the spaceship over your space color and sealed the cabin and pressurized it with oxygen, with an atmosphere it could react, it can melt or even catch fire or explode.
Armstrong and Aldrin had actually been instructed to do a small experiment. They had a small bag of lunar dirt and they put it on the engine gear on the stub motor, which was in the middle module cabin. And then they slowly pushed the cottage to make sure it didn't fire and it didn't. …
The smell turns out to be the smell of the fireplace, or as Buzz Aldrin put it, the smell of the air after a fireworks display. This was one of the small but kind of wonderful surprises about flying to the moon.
Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it to the web.