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By George Weigel, First Things, July 31, 2019
Fifty years ago this week, the crew of Apollo 11, the world’s latest heroes, were doing decidedly unheroic things: napping, drinking beer, playing cards, reading magazines, and otherwise killing time in the Manned Spacecraft Center’s “Lunar Receiving Facility,” where they were quarantined to ensure that no lethal bugs had been brought back from the Moon’s surface by Neil Armstrong (who saved the mission by taking personal control of Eagle and landing it safely after overflying a vast field of lunar boulders), Buzz Aldrin (who memorably described the moonscape as one of “magnificent desolation”), and Michael Collins (who, orbiting the Moon in Columbia while Armstrong and Aldrin were on its surface, was more alone than any human being since Genesis 2:22). The Lab was perhaps the least glamorous (and, as things turned out, least necessary) of NASA’s Apollonian inventions. For as Charles Fishman vividly illustrates in One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon (Simon and Schuster), just about everything involved in effecting that “one small step….[and] one giant leap” had to be imagined, and then fabricated, from scratch.
When President John F. Kennedy verbally committed the country in April 1961 to “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth” before the decade was out, no one knew how to do that. No one. NASA chief James Webb, who hadn’t been given advance warning of Kennedy’s pledge, asked his senior staff whether we can “do this.” An uncomfortable silence followed. No one knew for sure.
About what? About everything.
No one knew the appropriate mission architecture: One enormous spacecraft that would go out and back? Or a “stack” of different spacecraft that would do different jobs—en route to the Moon, while there, and on the way home? ….