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To Touch the Moon

In honor of Neil Armstrong, we reflect upon the engineers of the 1960s in awe of their accomplishments

On July 20th, 1969, at a mere 5 years old, I was given the special treat of staying up well past my bedtime to watch the blurry image of a man dressed in white with a enormous box strapped to his back walk down a short ladder on a world other than our own, and step into history. In my romantization of my childhood, this event, which I remember with great clarity, marks for me the beginning of my fascination with astronomy in particular, and science in general.

Within a year, my parents had granted my wish for a telescope, and over the next several years my incessant quest for understanding the many objects even this small imperfect instrument brought to my eye led me steadily to my career as a physicist and mathematician.

News came this weekend that Neil Armstrong, that man in the blurry image stepping on to the Sea of Tranquility of the Moon, has died at age 82. The story of Neil Armstrong is the story of a true American hero, which will be written by countless pens this week in his memory. I would like to take a few moments to reflect on the importance of the successful multiyear mission to reach the Moon, and the culture and philosophy of the men who achieved this incredible accomplishment in a mere 8 years of effort.

On April 21, 1961, Americans were shocked by the news that the Soviet Union had succeeded in launching Yuri Gagarin into orbit about Earth. In response, President Kennedy, in May of that year, put forth his challenge that America should place a man on the moon (and return him safely to Earth) before the end of the decade. The challenge was enthusiastically accepted by a massive team of engineers working throughout American industry and the Government.

From 1961 through 1969, in a mere 8 years, American industry developed manned spaceflight. The six Mercury missions launched one man at a time into orbit, starting in 1961, ending in 1963. The ten Gemini missions, all launched between 1965 and 1966, with two astronauts in each spacecraft, practiced the techniques and studied the effects of prolonged spaceflight. Finally, the 11 Apollo missions accomplished the goal of reaching the moon 9 times, with 6 landings bringing 12 men to the surface of another world.

What is truly amazing to me, as an engineer, is the pace of the development of human spaceflight. Each mission involved facing the unknown, dramatically  expanding our understanding of the mechanics, environments, and biological effects of spaceflight. The ability to design, build, test, and successfully launch these increasingly complex spacecraft in a cycle time measured in months instead of years, or decades, was an astounding accomplishment, never again equaled in modern history.

The sheer magnitude of the effort involved in reaching into space to the moon cannot be realized without recalling the lack of technology that today we take for granted. There is more processing power in your wireless phone than there was in all of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft combined! Computers were used on the ground for only the most complex calculations, and these were physically huge machines requiring specialized teams to run them, none of which was more
powerful than the laptops of today.

Every detail of the spacecraft, the tools used to build its parts, down to the bolts and fasteners holding it together were first drawn - by hand - and revised without the benefit of mice, screens and delete keys. Teams of artists were employed by most companies to paint depictions of the spacecraft, including scenes of the various phases of the mission. These paintings were not created for nostalgia or marketing, but to help the engineers visualize their creations before the first models were built.

Everyday calculations were performed by hand, or with slide rules. Memos and reports were written by hand, then reproduced on a typewriter and  mimeographed. Even schedules were pieces of art, often drawn by draftsmen to make them large enough to be legible. No CAD models, no ERP systems, no PCs on every desk, no email, lots and lots of paper. The inefficiency is almost unimaginable to today's office worker.

And yet, arguably the greatest human accomplishment was achieved in a mere 8 years! Yes, it was an expensive undertaking - about $150 billion in today's money, but compare this to the Afghanistan war ($530 billion over about the same time period), and the space program looks like a bargain!

I could, as I'm sure you can imagine, go on forever revelling in the  accomplishments of the space program in the 1960s, but let me leave you with one example that simply seems incredulous to my 21st century aerospace mind.

In the summer of 1968, no Apollo manned mission had flown - Apollo 7, which was an Earth orbit test flight of the command module that would eventually
host the crews on the lunar missions, was to launch in October. The next planned mission, Apollo 8, was to test the lunar landing module in Earth orbit; however, the company producing the first lunar lander was running late.

In August, NASA made a momentous decision to change the Apollo 8 mission from an Earth orbital test, to a flight to the moon itself and back! Apollo 8 launched only 4 months later, the first manned test flight of the Saturn V rocket (Apollo 7 had used the smaller Saturn IIB rocket), and the first manned spacecraft to leave Earth's orbit and head into interplanetary space.

Imagine the amount of effort required to re-design this mission! In modern engineering practice, this would have required at least a year of constant
effort, massive cost growth, scores of unplanned tests and unending hand wringing over the uncertainties. It would never be attempted unless a national emergency were at hand. In 1968, this was done because it could be done, and was launched three months ahead of schedule, placing the astronauts in orbit around the moon on Christmas Eve.

As we look back upon the history of the space program, in honor of Neil Armstrong and all that he personally accomplished, we should spend more than a moment trying to grasp the differences in culture and mentality that enabled these rapid advancements using what are now seen as primitive tools, when compared to today's pace of technological evolution. I will leave that, for tonight, as an exercise for the reader.

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Dave Adametz August 30, 2012 at 06:17 PM
Farewell, Commander Armstrong, and we thank you.
MAC September 05, 2012 at 05:49 PM
Obama's failures are losing him the popular vote, as highlighted by the fact the convention has made a face-saving cancellation of the Bank of America Stadium venue for his Thursday speech. He is so unpopular now that they can't even find enough students and black church members to bus in from hundreds of miles away, to fill the stadium! People voted for him in 2008 in great part knowing next to nothing about him, except that it would be a historic good thing for Americans to be able to say they had elected a half-black man as POTUS. We used to have an 'aspirational' presidency, as exemplified in this poignant article about the marvelous accomplishments of our former space program. Pres. BHO downsized NASA to having a "mission" of "reaching out to the Muslim world." Now Americans are realizing that electing someone with no executive experience, who also wants to diminish and "downsize" ** America and the prosperity of its citizens rather than upholding our sovereignty and 'American Exceptionalism,' was a HUGE MISTAKE!!! ** See the movie "2016: Obama's America," or read one of Dinesh D'Souza's books about Obama to understand why Obama's ideology and goals are anti-American.
Jeff September 05, 2012 at 06:21 PM
MAC, leave it up to you (and your angry, out-of-touch conservative friends who I guarantee will oozo out of the woodwork) to blow a tribute to Neil Armstrong. A true American hero. Rest in piece Mr. Armstrong! Go away MAC!

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