At Tyler Cowen’s recommendation, I bought One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew Us to the Moon,by Charles Fishman. I recommend it, with reservations.

I had known very little of the moon landing. When it happened, on July 20, 1969, I didn’t have access to a television. I was working in a nickel mine at Soab Lake, 40 miles south of Thompson, Manitoba, and all we had was radio. A number of us sat around listening to it on radio and then went to bed. I still remember the question asked by my 38-year-old roommate in our 12 by 8 room, after we turned out the lights. “Do you think God will be mad at us for going to the moon?” he asked. Not wanting to wear my atheism on my sleeve, I answered, “No, I don’t think he will be.”

What I liked about One Giant Leap

It’s an excellent discussion of the development of the technology and of the various challenges. I hadn’t realized the incredible challenges that had to be met or how touch and go the whole thing was.

One of the highlights is the story of Bill Tindall, who knocked heads at MIT to get the programmers there to be focused on throwing out inessential programs and keeping only what mattered.  A great line that starts the chapter “The Man Who Saved Apollo” is Tindall’s statement to the MIT engineers: “You sit at the very center of the success or failure of this extremely important program. You’re behind. Get it through your head: You are f**king this thing up.”

Another highlight is the story of how John Houbolt insisted to Robert Seamans, the second in command at NASA and way up the organizational chain from Houbolt, that the only way to make it work was to have a lunar orbit rendezvous rather than having the whole thing land on the moon and take off. Houbolt prevailed.

Another is the story of how close they came to running out of fuel as the lunar module descended to the moon. Astronaut Neil Armstrong used valuable fuel trying to find a find a good place to land on the uneven moonscape. Also, because the computer kept sending out alarms as the module was landing, one young MIT programmer, Don Eyles admitted, “If it were in my hands I would call an abort.” This was with the lunar module only feet above the moon.


What I didn’t like about One Giant Leap

Fishman’s section on John F. Kennedy’s going back and forth about whether a moon landing was a good idea and why it was a good idea is way too lengthy. Fishman tells every little quiver of thought JFK had in each direction. I would bet that most readers would be like me, finding it interesting that JFK was ambivalent, but not needing to know each little switch in his thinking.

Related to that, the book should have been at least 50 pages shorter. There’s a lot of verbosity.

The other main thing I didn’t like was Fishman’s lengthy final chapter, “How Apollo Really Did Change the World.” In it, Fishman tries to justify the approximately $20 billion, in that decade’s dollars, expenditure on Apollo. He doesn’t succeed. He does tell us how the Apollo demand for integrated circuits sped up the computer revolution and that’s probably his best case. But other things would have sped it up. Counterfactuals are hard but he doesn’t even try.