Every Harrowing Second of the Apollo 11 Landing Revisited in a New NASA Video: It Took Place 50 Years Ago Today (July 20, 1969)

The idea that human beings might not only fly to the moon, but land on its puck­ered sur­face and walk around, seemed like an absolute fan­ta­sy for near­ly all of human his­to­ry. In the exact­ly fifty years since that that very thing hap­pened, “moon shot” has become an almost com­mon­place ref­er­ence for grand, his­toric ges­tures. “Fifty years after Neil Arm­strong walked on the moon, plant­ed an Amer­i­can flag, and flew home,” writes Alex Davies at Wired, “the term moon shot has become short­hand for try­ing to do some­thing that’s real­ly hard and maybe a bit crazy.”

The prob­lem with this, Davies argues, is that the all-eggs-in-one-bas­ket approach does not apply today’s most press­ing, yet most neb­u­lous and glob­al, prob­lems. A “moon shot” cli­mate ini­tia­tive suf­fers from a lack of speci­fici­ty. What exact­ly would it tar­get? How would it mea­sure suc­cess or fail­ure in an unam­bigu­ous way when the prob­lem per­me­ates the econ­o­my, ener­gy, agri­cul­ture, man­u­fac­tur­ing, gov­ern­ment…? A very dif­fer­ent kind of think­ing is required.

Maybe the dualisms of the Cold War made some things sim­pler, in a way. In 1961, John F. Kennedy’s famous artic­u­la­tion of “the goal,” as he put it, could not have been more clear: “land­ing a man on the moon and return­ing him safe­ly to Earth.” You either achieve this, or you don’t. There are no half-mea­sures, and no con­fu­sion about what con­sti­tutes suc­cess. Which brings us to anoth­er prob­lem with turn­ing “moon shot” into a cliché for doing some­thing hard. We for­get just how damned hard it actu­al­ly was.

Land­ing Neil Arm­strong, Buzz Aldrin, and pilot Michael Collins on the moon required an expen­di­ture unthink­able today: “NASA spent $25 bil­lion on the Apol­lo pro­gram,” Davies points out, “more than $150 bil­lion in today’s dol­lars.” The U.S. may spend almost sev­en times that on its mil­i­tary in a year, but it’s unthink­able that this nation, or any oth­er, would invest Apol­lo dol­lars in a com­plete­ly unsure thing, with no imme­di­ate poten­tial for con­trol or exploita­tion.

The same might be said of major cor­po­ra­tions. The space­far­ing ambi­tions of today’s titans seem con­ser­v­a­tive by 1961 stan­dards: “More than 400,000 Amer­i­cans worked on [Apol­lo 11] in some capac­i­ty, near­ly all of them in pri­vate indus­try,” writes Davies. The project absolute­ly depend­ed on this coor­di­nat­ed, col­lec­tive lev­el of human inge­nu­ity and exper­tise because the total com­put­ing pow­er of NASA was sev­er­al mil­lions of times less than that of a smart­phone.

From the human “com­put­ers” who plot­ted Apol­lo 11’s course, to the astro­nauts who flew the craft, humans not only designed, mon­i­tored, and exe­cut­ed the mis­sion, but they also had to impro­vise when things went wrong. And they did, in some ter­ri­fy­ing, life-threat­en­ing ways. “The prob­lems began imme­di­ate­ly upon sep­a­ra­tion from the Com­mand Mod­ule in which Arm­strong, Aldrin and Michael Collins had rid­den to the moon,” explains Rod Pyle at Space.com—but, so too did the prob­lem-solv­ing.

To get a bet­ter sense of why the endeav­or was so earth­shak­ing, and how it almost didn’t hap­pen, watch the video above, “Apol­lo 11: The Com­plete Descent.” Part of NASA’s Apol­lo Flight Jour­nal col­lec­tion, the 20-minute nar­rat­ed doc­u­men­tary of the descent and land­ing pro­vides a “detailed account of every sec­ond of the Apol­lo 11 descent and land­ing.” It “com­bines data from the onboard com­put­er for alti­tude and pitch angle, 16mm film that was shot through­out the descent at 6 frames per sec­ond,” and audio trans­mis­sions from the astro­nauts and mis­sion con­trol.

“Most peo­ple knew that going to the moon was risky,” Pyle writes, “but few, very few, knew the scope of the dan­gers that the crew faced.” Fifty years lat­er, we can almost—with only the devices in our pockets—see and hear the orig­i­nal moon shot the way those first few did.

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Apol­lo 11 in Real Time: A New Web Site Lets You Take a Real-Time Jour­ney Through First Land­ing on the Moon

NASA Dig­i­tizes 20,000 Hours of Audio from the His­toric Apol­lo 11 Mis­sion: Stream Them Free Online

David Bowie’s “Space Odd­i­ty” and the Apol­lo 11 Moon Land­ing Turn 50 This Month: Cel­e­brate Two Giant Leaps That Took Place 9 Days Apart

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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