Podcast: James Donovan on the Space Race and the Apollo Moon Landing
Charles M. Duke Jr/Associated Press
James Donovan is author of “Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11”
On this edition of the Nixon Now podcast, we discuss the origins of the Space Race, and the behind the scenes story of America meeting the challenge to go to the Moon. Our guest is James Donovan, author of the newly released, “Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11.” Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins says it’s the best Apollo book he’s ever read.
Jonathan Movroydis: You are listening to the “Nixon Now Podcast,” I’m Jonathan Movroydis, this is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation, we’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter @nixonfoundation or at nixonfoundation.org.
This July will mark the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. To commemorate that anniversary, the Nixon library has a new interactive special exhibit that includes artifacts from the actual moon landing. It opens Monday, April 29th, and runs through the year. It’s called “Apollo 11: One Giant Leap for Mankind.” Here with us to talk about the history of how it all happened is James Donovan. He’s a best-selling author and has just published his newest book “Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11.” Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Cohen says it’s the best Apollo book he’s ever read. James Donovan, welcome.
James Donovan: Thanks, Jonathan.
Jonathan Movroydis: Just to kind of start off, why did you decide to write this book?
James Donovan: Well, I had done two previous books on events that happened in the 19th century, the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Battle of the Alamo, 1836, 1876. I wanted to do something in the 20th century, and an editor I know suggested it, and I thought, you know, tons of books have been written on that, I’m not gonna do that. But it stuck in my head and it wouldn’t go away. And at some point, I realized, you know what, that means something. So I looked around and looked at what was out there, and I didn’t see the book that I wanted to read about this great event.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you tell us a little about the writing and research process behind the book?
James Donovan: Yeah, well, I’m sure every nonfiction writer has his own or her own method, or process. But mine is when I take a subject on I read as much as I can, I start generally reading lots of general books on the subject, on the era. So I get a feel for, you know, everything in the context, which I think is very important. And then I start taking notes and I start living in the bibliographies, and the end notes, and footnotes, and making long, long lists of everything I need to see and read. That includes, in this case, lots of books, lots of reports, official reports, NASA, government, interviews.
And of course, this was one of the most reported and recorded events in history if you think about it. So there was plenty of material, there’s no dearth of that, but nevertheless, I wanted to do some original interviews with some of the people because they were still around some of them. Two of the crew members on Apollo 11, who I talked to, and many other astronauts, flight controllers, engineers, flight planners, flight simulators, things like that. Just you know, to get as much as I could and more to, you know, help fill out. You don’t want a book that’s all summary and not scene, and I like to write scenes and people will like to read about scenes.
But for scenes you need color, you need details, and it’s hard to find that in general history. So that’s why you talk to people and interview them. And you know, ask them silly questions like, what color was that blanket you laid on in the backyard of your house when you’re a kid looking up at the stars, anyway. And I do that for two, three years until at some point, I get the feeling, you know what, I think it’s about time to start writing.
And by that time, I’ve got like a general idea of the narrative arc I wanna cover. In this case, I wanted to talk about what I see is the most dramatic and important arc of the story from Sputnik in 1957 when the space race more or less everybody agrees officially began to 1969 July 20th the landing of Apollo 11, lunar landing, men landing on the moon and returning them back safely.
After that, everything sort of cooled off and died down and the space race was pretty much over by then. So you know, start writing that and go chapter by chapter and get all my materials and just read them again, and write whatever is gonna work in that chapter and then move on to the next.
Jonathan Movroydis: You write about theme, and context, and scenes. One of the things that are interesting about this book is that the Apollo 11, the lunar landing, it’s not an isolated incident. The subtitle of your book includes space race. In 1957, the Soviets launched the first satellite into space, you mentioned Sputnik. How did this change the way American leaders and America in general thought about space?
James Donovan: And then before I answer that, that’s a good point you started with, because I always like to place the events, the major events in context. I think it really helps it resonate and really gives a lot better understanding of why it did what it did, what it meant for the world and the country. 1957 October 4th, the Soviet sent up Sputnik 1, a little beach ball-sized sphere, silver sphere with four antenna that couldn’t do really much more than send out a radio signal, beep, beep, beep.
But it was in space, the first artificial satellite and it actually created a sensation, a frenzy in this country, particularly. You know, since at least the end of World War I, this was only 12 years later, we were locked, of course, in a Cold War and this was the height of the Cold War. And a lot of people either are old enough right now, today, or forgotten how serious that was, and you know, how tense the situation was. Some people thought World War III was gonna start anytime.
So when, you know, our enemy sent up a satellite that was, you know, going right a few hundred miles right over our country several times a day, it just created a frenzy. And people were worried what’s next, dropping nuclear bombs on us. Soviet space, you know, stations revolving around the earth or something on the moon. So instantly, Congress jumped into the breach and
everybody agreed something had to be done. So NASA was started and space race was on.
Jonathan Movroydis: What was the charter mission of NASA? I mean, even before NASA, did America have any sort of idea of what a space program look like? Or do we have any sort of space program in place at the Pentagon or somewhere else?
James Donovan: Well, no, we did not have what I’d call a space program. We had some places all three of the military branches at that time, Army, Navy, and Air Force had missile programs. Of course, some of them were involved with, you know, carrying nuclear warheads, but not all of them. They had sounding rockets, they had their own programs in place that were…and some of them were involved maybe in, you know, getting a man into space at some point. But it was very disorganized and competitive. And none of them were high priority, so they had a hard time getting budgeting for all this.
So NASA was created out of the longtime National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which was a research and development branch in Virginia that helped a lot. Especially it was created in World War I to improve our air superiority and played a huge part in World War II.
But it didn’t really have much to do with anything in space. Although a few people there were doing some research on it, so they were kind of ready to go. NACA as it was called, was unfolded, it became the basis for NASA in 1958. NASA inherited all its employees, several thousand employees. And took on lots more and got plenty of funding because this was a high priority emergency problem, you know, catching up to the Soviets who went from one triumph to another. First satellite in space and then four years later 1961 first human in space with Yuri Gagarin, you know, it just went on and on.
Jonathan Movroydis: What was the scope of NASA’s mission?
James Donovan: Well, originally, it was just to get a man…first, of course, satellite in space and then a man in space. Because that was clear from just 32 days after Sputnik 1 which happened October 4th, 32 days later, the Soviet shut up a much larger Sputnik called Sputnik 2 which carried a dog Laika which perished a few hours after it got up there. But it was very clear the only reason that anybody would send a dog up into space was because they were planning on…the thought was and probably accurately that they were hoping to at some point send a man into space. So it was very clear that that had to be our end game at the very beginning.
And Mercury program was begun soon after NASA was organized. And in 1959, they picked the seven Mercury astronauts, the first seven men picked to be astronauts and they were instant celebrities even though they hadn’t done anything yet.
Jonathan Movroydis: Did they eventually do something, that Mercury seven?
James Donovan: Yeah, Mercury seven, the whole plan…the intent of Mercury was at least just to get men up into space at first, and then at least orbiting the moon, because the Soviets were already doing that. The first man in space Yuri Gagarin orbited the moon. A few months after he went up, we sent up Alan Shepard who spent about 15 minutes in his capsule actually 9 or 10 minutes actually in space. He just went up about 100 miles or so and landed in the Pacific a few hundred miles downrange. We did another one Gus Grissom, pretty much similar. And number three was John Glenn who was gonna be the first man at least the plan was to orbit the Earth. And he did, he orbited it three times.
And three more Mercury missions, by that time, you know, in 1961, if you remember May,
Kennedy gave his moon speech in which he challenged America to send a man to the moon and return him safely. And so they had already started planning Apollo, which was the moon landing program, but they needed something in the middle to go from Mercury to Apollo, they had to have a program in which they could perfect and practice techniques that they would need in Apollo without doing it on that major scale. So that was Gemini, a two-man program with Gemini capsules.
Jonathan Movroydis: At the time, was the United States and the Soviet Union at parity in the space program or were the Soviets still ahead?
James Donovan: Well, until about halfway through Gemini, the Soviets were ahead. And they made a big deal of this. They like to do it on national holidays. And they understood the importance of this because…again, to get back to, it’s little understood today, and even at the time not many people understood that. One of the two aims of our space program at the very beginning was not just national security, but it was national prestige, a politician’s word which meant your global standing, national reputation, if you see what I mean.
And, again, this was, you know, the height of the Cold War. And at the time, you know, this was, you know, a free world led by the United States against authoritarian communism led by the Soviet Union. And at that time, the weaknesses and defects of communism weren’t as well known. They had had some triumphs in agriculture nationally. And at the time, there were dozens of underlined smaller nations that, you know, hadn’t made up their mind which side of this global tug of war they were gonna, you know, pitch in on. They wanted some sign who was gonna be the leader because, of course, they wanted to be on the winning side. The winning side, being better for them in several ways.
So that’s why Kennedy decided, what can we do, we were getting soundly beaten in those early years by the Soviets in space, and what could we do to show that, you know, we were superior to them technologically speaking. And they finally came up with several projects, but the one that he liked the best and probably would do the best job was landing a man on the moon and returning him. So that was the big reason why they decided on that and not just any other kind of project.
Jonathan Movroydis: Well, did the Russians at all…did they have any desire to go to the moon at that point or they were just content with orbiting other than launching in space?
James Donovan: Yeah, that’s a good question, because at that time they were just sending men to the moon, they had sent more than one man on a mission. They actually sent two spacecraft up and had men space walk back and forth. And they had all these triumphs in the first four, five years, wasn’t clear what kind of aim they had towards the moon. But a group of people that were consulted by Lyndon Johnson who was asked by Kennedy to explore this possible program, told him that we think that’s such a large achievement and a major undertaking that would put us on equal ground, they don’t have anything.
Because it would take…to do that, get men on the moon would take a major, major booster rocket spacecraft. And it was clear, we didn’t have it, and we were pretty sure they didn’t have it. So, you know, we would be starting at the same point on the starting line, if you see what I mean in this space Olympics. And Kennedy and Johnson and his advisors were confident that if we committed to this fully, that we could win that race before the end of the decade was out, and he was correct.
Jonathan Movroydis: Were there any…you speak about Kennedy, you speak about Johnson, was there any domestic political considerations or domestic political wrangling between parties, or separate interests that, you know, could have put the moon landing in jeopardy?
James Donovan: Well, in the beginning, everybody on both sides of the aisle agreed more or less that we had to do something, it had to be high priority, it had to be done quickly. So funding for NASA, you know, was very quick. But later on, the next few years, various things popped up, for instance, you know, NASA’s headquarters were in Houston, Texas. And of course, it’s not a coincidence I don’t think that Albert Thomas, democrat who was the head of the House Appropriations Committee, which oversaw NASA’s budget, his hometown was Houston, in his district.
It was quid pro quo for that to happen there. But other NASA centers were apportioned around the country and contracts given because there were 400,000 people or more at the height of Apollo working on…and contractors, sub-contractors, laboratories, universities, probably 10,000 for subcontractors making parts, of course, to get this all done very quickly. So there’s not much your inter-party wrangling at the time, you know, everybody saw that this was necessary. You know, the nation had to pull together to do this, so not really early on, not at all.
Jonathan Movroydis: Jim, you talked a little bit about the Command Center in Houston, and there’s also the launch site at Cape Canaveral. Can you take us through the operational structure of NASA’s missions to space?
James Donovan: Sure. Well, I mean, you know, we were starting from scratch basically, at the very beginning. And NASA was originally part of the NACA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. But it was very clear as their budgets rose and they were hiring people by the thousands. You know, young engineers right out of college, other people that they’d need a much larger center. And they had to work in conjunction with, for instance, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Cleveland, the Ames Center. All these NASA centers that, you know, kind of specialized in different areas that would be necessary for space travel, manned spaceflight.
So those gradually grew and the funding was there at one point, I think in mid-‘60s at some point, ‘65, ‘66 the NASA budget was 4.2% of the entire national budget, which of course is just truly amazing and mind-boggling. The entire Apollo budget probably was around…it’s been estimated $25, $26 billion, of course that’s in ‘60s dollars a lot more money now. So then, about 1962 they moved the headquarters from Langley because they were bursting at the seams, to Houston massive Manned Spacecraft Center, MSC, which now is the Johnson Space Center.
And at first, you know, they had the Mercury astronauts were just sitting on these relatively short, you know, 50, 60-foot high rockets that were originally planned to be ICBMs and, you know, carry nuclear warheads. And you know, they designed a small capsule up there to fit on top of it. And people in America were just aghast these men were agreeing to, you know, be strapped on top of these massive rockets, which at the time were blowing up with regularity, as they…you know, various experiments. They hadn’t perfected it yet.
But fortunately, NASA decided on safety standards that were just, you know, above and beyond anything, something like 999 out of 1,000, things had to work that frequently. And everything was started from scratch, you know, what we call mission control. At first was just a bunker at Cape Canaveral, you know, several hundred yards from the launch pad. Well, the larger and larger rocket boosters we used, that was way too close, pretty soon it was…ended up in Apollo three miles away, a massive, you know, center with hundreds and hundreds of people there.
It was just a matter of learning very quickly and I think it’s clearly the greatest technological achievement of all time. Only rivaled by the splitting of the atom, maybe 25…you know, during World War II, 25 years ago, but I personally think it’s a greater technological achievement myself.
Jonathan Movroydis: You write that in 1968 America was ready to go to the moon, could you tell us a little bit about what the spacecrafts look like? There were a couple of different modules, am I correct?
James Donovan: Yeah, what they finally determined…at first, you know, in the early ‘60s, you know,
when they started, they didn’t know exactly how they were gonna get there, how they were gonna get people down onto the surface and back. I mean, they had several theories. One was just build this massive booster rocket and zoom it up there and land it on the moon, and let it take off. Of course, that would have required so much fuel to do that, and the thing would have been massive. Can you imagine trying to maneuver backwards, you know, rear first this massive rocket onto the surface.
Anyway, they realized that logistically that was gonna be very difficult. So, they came up with
what they call lunar orbit rendezvous where they sent, you know, a smaller module, the command module which housed three men, and also was connected to the lunar module, which only a small spider like thing that held two men, and they would go into orbit around the Earth… I mean, around run the moon. And then the lunar module which was extremely small was about as large as, you know, a janitor’s closet. These two men stood next to each other in their suits and there wasn’t room for just about anything else besides all their controls because of weight restrictions.
And then after about a half a day they had a good night’s sleep, they separated from the command module, and started coming down. There’s one sixth gravity and no atmosphere on the moon. So it was a very, very different. This was actually…the lunar module was actually the first true spacecraft since it was only meant to navigate in space and not in any atmosphere. Is far too fragile actually to navigate where there was gravity and heavy atmosphere.
Jonathan Movroydis: There were two principal missions before Apollo 11, Apollo 8, and Apollo 10, what happened on each of these missions?
James Donovan: Well, Apollo 8 originally was supposed to…that was in December 1968. And originally, it was supposed to be kind of a shakedown cruise. In other words, you know, you just see if everything’s ship shape and everything works, for the command module and also the lunar module. But at the time, the lunar module was running behind because they had run into all sorts of problems. So instead of just sending it up, which they’d already done with Apollo 7, and orbiting the Earth for several days, somebody came up with the brilliant idea of, why don’t we see if we can send it around the moon?
Now, we have never done that before, sent anybody above what they call low Earth orbit, which is anywhere from about 100 miles to 1,200 miles orbit, low Earth orbit. It was a major undertaking, and you know, they had to figure out…you know, you can’t just shoot a rocket and a spacecraft towards the moon. You have to shoot it to a point where it’s going to be, you know, three days from now. And that engineering…you know, that is so difficult. But you know, flight planning, they figure it out, they did it. Send it to the moon, everything went fine. They orbited the moon a few times and returned.
So that was a major undertaking, of course that was…they got to the moon, I think on December 24th, 1968, and read parts of Genesis. It was a powerful moment. And then they actually rang some little bells and said, “Wait, we see something, what is that out there?” They rang these little bells they had brought along. And “Oh, it’s a reindeer and a guy in a red suit.” Anyway, everybody got a kick out of that on December 24th. Now, Apollo 10…
Jonathan Movroydis: I was gonna say that was when that Earthrise photo was taken by astronaut, William Anders.
James Donovan: Exactly, maybe the most powerful image ever taken from space, and it was the first… I mean, taken by a human Bill Anders, one of the portholes showing the earth as this small thing out there. This beautiful, you know, blue and green things, some white clouds rising over the moon. That was quite something quite different, nobody had ever seen something like that before. And it really, I think changed the way we look at each other.
I mean we look at the Earth and we look at ourselves, more than one person has said, “You know we went into space and what we found was ourselves” something like that. Yeah, that was
Earthrise. And Apollo 10… then they sent Apollo 9 up about a few months later, and Apollo 9, the lunar module was ready by then, so that just stayed in Earth’s orbit. And they separated the lunar module from the command module, the larger command module and let it go, you know, few hundred miles away, come back. So they knew they could do those things logistically speaking.
Then in…I believe it was April or May 1969, they sent Apollo 10, this is kind of a dress rehearsal for Apollo 11. They went to the moon, they orbited it, they actually separated the lunar module with two men in it. And it went down to about 5 miles above the surface, went around the moon once. And then went back in joined the command module and returned to Earth. At that time… I mean, there was talk of why didn’t they just do it then, but they weren’t quite ready. There were too many unknowns, and the lunar module itself actually wasn’t…it was still too heavy, they had to shave a few more pounds off it to be able to actually descend to the lunar surface and get back the next day, so didn’t do that.
So the stage was set, July 1969, for Apollo 11. The first mission planned to land on the moon. Although most astronauts I talked to thought at the time that something would come up, there were still too many unknowns, something would come up and they wouldn’t quite make it. And most of them thought it would be Apollo 12 or 13 that would actually do the landing.
Jonathan Movroydis: Let’s talk a little bit about the lead up to Apollo 11, the three astronauts Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong. How were they selected? Had any of these men been into space yet?
James Donovan: All three had been in space. All three of them in the Gemini program, there were 10 Gemini missions, two men each, two seats each in the Gemini capsule spacecraft. So 24 men had been up there a couple of them had done some repeat missions. But all three of them had been on an Apollo mission, I mean, not Apollo mission Gemini mission I’m sorry. And the man who was in charge of choosing the crews for the space missions, Deke Slayton, who had been a Mercury astronaut at one point, he always said that, you know, “All these men are trained, they can all do the same job.” But really in private, he didn’t quite believe that and you can tell from the way he chose astronauts.
Usually an astronaut would become on a backup crew for a mission, and then three missions later, he would be the prime crew, the actual crew. And that held for the most part. Fred Haise, who was an astronaut, who went on a later Apollo mission, was originally part of Armstrong’s crew, Neil Armstrong’s crew, backup crew for Apollo 8, but Mike Collins, who was very well thought of as a pilot for the command module, and he had some back problems, had those fixed and Deke Slayton inserted him into Armstrong’s crew with Aldrin and Armstrong. So that’s how they were chosen.
And you know, it seems like it was just their turn, but Neil Armstrong had this peculiar knack, besides being a brilliant engineer and a crack pilot, you know, he was the only one of the early Apollo astronauts that had ever flown the X-15. And only, you know about a dozen men ever flew that, they were the top pilots in the world. He had this knack of somehow call it luck or whatever it was of avoiding tragedy in crisis situations. He had flown 86 I think missions in the Korean War. And once had been on a bombing mission in a valley in North Korea, and cable across the valley, it stripped most of one of his wings. And somehow, he nursed his plane back to friendly territory and bailed out.
Then later on when he was a test pilot, he was flying a B-25 and one of the propellers sheared off and just missed the cockpit, and it just went off into the air. And he lost two other of the four
engines, and somehow nursed that plane back and actually landed it. In about a year in May 1968 when he was practicing on this strange contraption they nicknamed the flying bedstead, that was supposed to give the astronaut who was flying the lunar module some kind of approximation of what would be like. It was a bunch of heavy aluminum struts and a rocket engine underneath and a seat and some directional rocket thrusters.
And they approximated one-sixth gravity of the moon and he’d bring it up several hundred feet above the ground and then kind of practice landing it using these directional thrusters. And he was up there once in May 1968 when the one…this lunar landing training vehicle started going haywire, sideways, and it was diving right into the ground. And he ejected about two seconds before it crashed into the ground.
So whether you call it luck or whatever, I have to think that his ability, his penchant to think coolly, you know, grace under pressure, coolness under pressure, in an emergency in a dire situation had something to do with him being the commander of Apollo 11. And the man who would actually land the lunar module on the surface of the moon.
Jonathan Movroydis: How about the other two gentlemen, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins?
James Donovan: Buzz Aldrin was brilliant. He was the most brilliant of the early Apollo astronauts, 50 or so Apollo astronauts. He had done his…he got a master’s in science at MIT with his thesis, it was called “Line of Sight Guidance Techniques for Manned Orbital Rendezvous.” And it was so brilliant, it had so much good material, groundbreaking pioneering material in there, that NASA’s scientists and engineers actually used parts of it for their, you know, programs.
But he was a kind of…he was brilliant but he kind of lacked the knack to make small talk. And he wasn’t much of a team player. And he admitted that he was kind of, you know, marched to a different drummer. But he was brilliant at what they needed him to do as the second man in the lunar module. And that was even though nobody…they had deemed early on that none of these pilots or astronauts would ever be called a co-pilot. So, he was called the lunar module pilot even though he never piloted the lunar module, and it was never expected or planned that he would.
So he acted more as a co-pilot, kind of a navigator systems engineer, and did a superb job keeping Armstrong apprised of things like velocity, altitude, speed, things like that, while Armstrong was trying to land this strange contraption on the moon. You know, contraption that nobody had ever landed before. Because how could you…you couldn’t approximate the conditions of the moon, one-sixth gravity in a vacuum.
Mike Collins, very well respected, but he was more of a…he was an open kind of guy and the months preceding Apollo 11, you know, they’d had press conferences, and the press loved him because he was self-deprecating. He freely admitted he wasn’t the engineer the other two men were, and he’d make jokes about himself. And in that time, these Apollo astronauts, almost all of them were former or at the time still current Air Force, or army, or Navy officers.
And they were mostly, you know, meat and potatoes kind of guys, beer and bourbon, but he had grown up in a military family where his father was a general. And if you know anything about the military, they don’t get paid a whole bunch more, these generals officers, but they are treated very well, wherever they are. And Collins knew his way around a French wine cellar or a French menu, and a very sophisticated like poetry. He’s the only man I have ever sent poems to, by the way, and I still do occasionally, because we share a love of poetry.
But he was very capable, and you know, they figured at the end that if anybody could land this lunar module on the surface of the moon and get it back, it was Neil Armstrong. If something went wrong, if anybody could figure out, you know, if mission control couldn’t, he could. It was Buzz Aldrin. And Mike Collins was orbiting the moon and you know, he was the right pilot there just in case something went wrong. And fortunately, nothing went wrong.
Although one little thing did as they were leaving the lunar module, their suits were pressurized in a very large in a small space. Probably it was Buzz Aldrin when they went back in about two and a half hours later, after they, you know, went on the surface of the moon, he noticed this little black piece of plastic on the floor. And it was a circuit breaker for a system that had to be turned on for the engine, their ascent engine to work the next day. Well, they told mission control and they said, “Well, we’ll try to figure out what we can do.” And they thought there was a workaround, he’d have to get out and maybe do some work outside somewhere.
But he said, “I’ve got this plastic pen, what if I use this and put the pen inside, you know, the opening of a circuit breaker, and that might arm it.” And it did. So that was the only thing that went wrong, that was a semi emergency at the time. Although the landing, of course, was a bit more dangerous and hairier than anybody expected.
Jonathan Movroydis: Just backing up for a second, could you describe July 16th, 1969, the launch in Cape Canaveral, Florida?
James Donovan: Well, it went fine. I mean it started…it was at 9:32 a.m., 9:35 a.m., they were, you know, million the…estimated that there were a million people who had driven down from all over the country to see this thing. And all the beaches and the whole area of Cape Kennedy, the name was changed, of course after Kennedy’s assassination. Millions of people watching it, there’s a new documentary that started about a month ago called Apollo 11, which is just absolutely superb and shows a lot of that.
And they had VIP dignitaries’ area about three miles away next to the Vehicle Assembly Building, where there were a few thousand, I think, people set up like ex-President Johnson and his wife, and many, many dignitaries. And people connected with this, lots of senators, things like that Johnny Carson was there. And it went off without a hitch, which doesn’t always happen, something pops up…they had to tighten some bolts at some point. But went up in a…partly cloudy, it was already very warm, by 9:32 people were sweating, so it was quite warm. Went up, started turning sideways and kind of disappeared behind some clouds.
And three days later, they reached the moon, orbited the moon for, you know, a little less than a day. And next day separated the lunar module, went down and they spent a night there, slept in the next day came back and about three days later returned.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you describe the moment that Neil Armstrong became the first man to touch upon the moon?
James Donovan: Well, they were originally supposed to sleep for about six hours after they landed and decided that they could stay safely. But they quickly realized they were not ready to sleep and not sleepy in the least. So they asked permission…and this had been kind of discussed that it might happen earlier in planning stages, because no event in the world has ever been more choreographed and planned than that first landing. Every single thing, every second of their time was planned.
They asked permission to leave the lunar module and step out, they were granted permission. They pressurized their suits, depressurized the interior of the lunar module. Armstrong… the compartment of the lunar module was so small but he has actually get on his hands and knees, turn around and back out a small door underneath that was probably…it wasn’t even 3 feet high, it was maybe less than 3 feet by 3 feet, you know. And he backed out onto a small porch outside, porch makes it sound like much larger than it is, just a small area about as large as somebody standing on their hands and knees. And backed out, dropped down this thing that held the camera from which we saw Armstrong.
It was pointed at Armstrong at the bottom of the landing, so it flipped down and started. Then he started going down the ladder one by one, dropped down on to the bottom of one of the feet, it was kind of a cup-like foot. And stood there and then stepped off very gingerly, tentatively, because even though we were almost sure the surface was very hard, hard enough to support a man, we had sent up some probes and it had landed there and taken photos.
Despite that there was a Cornell scientist who insisted that the surface of the moon was full of dust, and in that went down for maybe dozens or hundreds of feet. And anything that landed on it would just…surface would dissolve and they would disappear and possibly never emerge. So he actually later said he felt a sigh of relief when he put his boot down and touched solid Earth and stood off completely and said. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Now, of course, he meant to say that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” otherwise kind of man and mankind are the same thing. But he kind of did admit later that he maybe just forgot to say “a.” Other people’s thought maybe just got garbled and was missing in the transmission, but he probably just forgot it. I think that’s the conclusion everybody has come to now. And occasionally you’ll see in history books or anywhere the word “a” in parentheses in that phrase makes more sense logically for that, grammatically.
He spent about two and a half hours out there, Aldrin came down about 20 minutes later. And they were very busy, they didn’t have much time, for just sightseeing they had several experiments to set up like reflector which is still up there. They actually reflect lasers off it and they still can, and other experiments. And then climbed back in two and a half hours later, they left a few little things on the moon like coin in commemoration of the men who had died in the Apollo 1 fire, and also one commemorating, well, the cosmonauts who had died that we know of.
So that was fairly nice, I think.
And climbed back in, got a night’s sleep in slings, in this small surface in little slings and then returned. Fortunately, the ascent engine, which was different from the decent engine, if the ascent engine hadn’t worked, they probably would have had enough air and oxygen for maybe another 24 hours. And they would have been stranded there, would have been no way to rescue them because the command module could not land at all.
So fortunately, the ascent engine worked, did what it was supposed to do, and got them up high enough that they could get into orbit around the moon and join up with the command module and return to Earth safely.
Jonathan Movroydis: You said earlier in this interview that the story arc started with Sputnik and ended with the moon landing on July 20th, 1969. Why do you feel the space race ended at this point?
James Donovan: Well, there were two major reasons and I think I mentioned them earlier to enter into the space race, one was national security. And you know, make sure we had at least equal or better
control of space. I think Lyndon Johnson, they were having hearings about whether we should, you know, start NASA and you know, start space probe. And he said, “Whoever controls space controls the world.” And maybe that sounds a bit grandiose, but I think there’s something to it. And I’m certainly much happier that the Soviets are not the only country, you know, that have something in space.
But by that time, by 1969, the Soviet Union not only didn’t seem its faults…the faults and defects of communism were more apparent to us. And also, some of you know, the bloom had left the rose for communism. And also, we weren’t quite as worried about a World War. And that was the goal Apollo 11, getting a man to the moon, landing a man on the moon, humans on the moon and return them. And once we did that, several Apollo missions followed most of them more science oriented, because Apollo level was just like an exploration mission, if you see what I mean. It’s just getting it done, getting there and coming back.
But they spent more time on subsequent missions including either, you know, basically a lunar rover, you know, look like something on a beach. But the American public once we had done that and clearly shown our superiority to the Soviet Union in space, kind of lost interest in subsequent missions. And they were originally two or three more. We put up six more Apollo missions 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17. We know Apollo 13 had a problem and we barely got it back. But the other five landed on the moon, everything went well.
NASA got so good at it and so smooth that it seemed like a walk in the park and people just didn’t care that much anymore, didn’t seem like it was absolutely necessary for this to happen. Funding had already started from its peak for NASA in the middle ‘60s. And the last three Apollo missions, 18, 19, and 20 were cancelled, budgetary reasons. And that was it for manned space exploration above low Earth orbit. No human has left low Earth orbit since 1972 when Apollo 17 reached the moon and came back almost 50 years.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is James Donovan, author of “Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11.” Jim, thank you so much for joining us.
James Donovan: Oh, my pleasure.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org or on your favorite podcast app. This is Jonathan Movroydis in Yorba Linda.