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