The Political Machine Behind the Apollo Program

History in HD/Cape Canaveral, United States

We are at the dawn of a new era in space exploration. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket has succeeded in taking astronauts up to orbit, a feat that for nearly 60 years was the domain of nation-states. The new frontiers of commercial spaceflight are firing up spirits once again at the promise of human settlement of the heavenly bodies. SpaceX has rekindled the hopes of those who believed that the Apollo program, which landed six missions on the moon between 1969 and 1972, failed to kickstart the space age. In this context, it is important to revisit the missions that first put men on the moon. For those who watched it, it became a testament to the pioneering spirit of the United States and a vision of what ambition could accomplish. Apollo became a myth that moved the nation forward.

In One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us To The Moon, Charles Fishman, a veteran space reporter who got his start covering the failed Challenger mission in 1986, demonstrates the significance of those missions beyond the feats themselves. Apollo, by his telling, fails to get the credit it deserves for its contribution to American managerial and technological prowess. It created the very culture that allowed America to dominate later revolutions in information and communications.

Landing a man on the moon was impossible when Kennedy first announced in 1961 that they would accomplish such a goal by the end of the decade. And yet, it was accomplished. Apollo’s leaders could leverage the project’s difficulty for the necessary political backing. It was not an obstacle, but an asset. American institutions were not naturally constructed to manage such a feat. A deep dive into the history of Apollo demonstrates just how many political and institutional accomplishments undergirded the final launch and landing. Highly competent and functional institutions aren’t created in stasis. People create them to achieve goals. It’s unsurprising, then, that the abandonment of the space program, among other social goals that America set for itself in the mid-century, preceded the decline of its institutions.


The institutional fingerprints of Apollo can be found covering different aspects of American life. Its demanding goal required a culture of rigorous standards among American manufacturers, a management system that guided innovation instead of inhibiting it, and the creation of initial demand for untested technologies that allowed them to scale.

Apollo’s project was also one of social engineering. It needed to overcome the public perception that technology was linked to destruction, a social mood lingering from the Second World War. Instead, technology had to become perceived as a source of human accomplishment. Building the infrastructure to get Americans on the moon required mass mobilization.

The Apollo team and its backers achieved these goals thanks to a strikingly competent team that could break down the steps needed to put an American on the moon and build the institutions necessary to achieve it. While America’s 20th century space program failed to open up the cosmos and make humans a multi-planet species, it forever altered the landscape back here on Earth.

The World Apollo Made

The most significant contribution of One Giant Leap is in making the case that Apollo’s significance stretches beyond its direct accomplishment. Through concrete documentation of how Apollo happened, Fishman makes clear the long-term effects it had on society on a cultural, technological, and economic level.

While American households were getting used to the many innovations that increased convenience throughout the 1950s—from televisions to dishwashers to microwaves—none of these carried the label of technology as such. Rather, they were rather simply thought of as appliances. Technology, as a popular concept, referred to military technologies like the atomic bomb or the B-29 bomber. Popular culture mirrored this association; the violence wrought by technological advance was the common frame in literature, philosophy, and other areas at the start of the 1960s. Through Apollo’s enlistment of defense companies such as Grumman (known for its scalable production of military aircraft during WWII) in building the module that would allow for a lunar landing, the program spurred the belief that technology could be used for the benefit of all mankind. Apollo successfully engineered a profound technological optimism in a generation growing up with global industrial war fresh in memory.

Beyond technological consciousness, Apollo’s impact on American manufacturing enabled the information and communications technology revolution to occur both when it did and where it did. In the long tradition of state-backed demand for new technologies, Apollo was an essential early buyer of integrated circuits. The technology was still novel and untested when NASA signed a contract with Fairchild Semiconductor to purchase hundreds of thousands of units for the computer that MIT was building. The promise of integrated circuits to vastly increase computational power while decreasing the size of computers was apparent to the MIT Instrumentation Lab. When it was first tasked with building a computer reliable enough to get people to the moon and back, the lab was operating during an era when “does not compute” and regular malfunction was the common experience of computing.

To ensure rigorous quality, MIT ordered large batches of integrated circuits and pretested random samples. If any chip had a change in weight of 1/2000th of a gram, the entire batch was discarded. This was all before MIT even began testing each chip’s performance for over 30,000 hours. This sent a clear message to Fairchild about the low tolerance for failure and the precision required for MIT’s work. The reliability of integrated circuits skyrocketed over the 1960s, and their price dramatically declined from $1,000 in 1961 to $1.58 in 1969, enabling new applications to be discovered, and the penetration of computers to stretch beyond military applications. Gordon Moore, who coined the eponymous Moore’s Law, opined during his years at Fairchild that Apollo was the critical buyer for the technology that enabled the rise of computing power.

Computing memory was also revolutionized due to the clarity of the stakes. In the 1960s the “software” of code was still a hardware process, with each line needing to be hand sewn into computers by a team of “little old ladies” (computing factories were mostly staffed with women). An early failure in the Mariner program, aiming to fly by Venus, became a political humiliation for the United States. It was caused by a software transcription error of one line not being sewn in correctly. The culture of computing changed after that incident, at NASA’s direction. Where computing factories opened the decade with employees smoking as they worked and quality control being lackluster, they ended it with pristine conditions, disciplined assembly lines, and high investment. Fishman identifies regular visits by astronauts to computing factories as a source of investment, making workers highly attached to the mission they were supporting. He recounts how the women who worked on a memory module forcefully argued for it to be discarded even though it passed all safety checks because it “wasn’t too good [for] one of our boys.” The quality discipline of Apollo for the broader computing industry persisted far beyond the project itself.

The program successfully created a culture of excellence in manufacturing, commercial demand for advanced technologies, and captivated the imagination of an American public in which the space race was initially not at all popular. It’s hard to imagine that America was not always a technological leader, but before Apollo it was being out-competed in satellites and rockets by the Soviets, and only on par with them in military aircraft technologies. Fishman references a Gallup poll from 1960 which found that in all but two countries, the United States and United Kingdom, public sentiment expected the Soviet Union to be technologically superior by 1970.

Apollo transformed that view, boosting the perception of American technological prowess abroad and enabling it to keep that reputation through learning by doing at home. The Apollo program’s public status drew increasing amounts of American students into STEM. It managed to accomplish this through the ambitious approach to institution-building undertaken to accomplish its mission. This in turn built up American advanced technology capacity.

Building Domestic Capacity

The largest sections of the book chronicle the scientific, technological, and managerial feats that enabled Apollo to do the impossible. None of the essential capabilities needed to put a man on the moon existed in 1961. In eight years, the mission was accomplished before the eyes of tens of millions of live television viewers, who saw American technological achievements behind Neil Armstrong’s step onto the lunar surface. It is a testament to Fishman’s storytelling that he paints a picture of how NASA managed to accomplish such a feat through concrete examples that tie together in a singular narrative thread. Fishman paints the picture of NASA’s role in building up America’s technological capacity through three central figures: James “Jim” Webb, Charles Stark “Doc” Draper, and Howard Wilson “Bill” Tindall. Each serves to highlight the necessity of technical and managerial expertise coinciding within a single person in order to succeed in complex tasks.

Jim Webb was the 20th candidate to run NASA, the last post filled among the Kennedy Administration. Webb was a trained lawyer and experienced manager who oversaw the growth of the Sperry Corporation during WWII, one of the largest radar and navigation suppliers to the U.S. military. He had the technical acumen about aeronautics production combined with the managerial and political skills needed to lead NASA to success. In reflecting on his tenure, Webb recounted that as significant of an accomplishment as landing a man on the moon was, the managerial system that got us there was just as important—it proved that the American system could out-manage Soviet central planning on large projects.

The scale of this managerial project is hard to overstate. NASA went from 10,000 employees right before Webb took over to 33,000 in under four years. Apollo brought in 20,000 distinct contracting companies, hired from across all 50 U.S. states, with the manpower of over 400,000 people to assist in production. Compared to WWII, the required production was a “relatively small fleet: 15 Saturn V rockets, 14 lunar modules, 12 command and service module combinations.” This rigorous standards and collaborative spirit that Webb cultivated for Apollo was essential for creating skin in the game for everyone involved.

The book is filled with accounts of how Webb-era NASA created this management philosophy. Officials paid visits to the astronauts and to contracting factories. Their research strategy had rival factions publish reports detailing their opponents’ views to ensure knowledge dissemination. Their bottom-up requirement allowed distinct contractors to have their components fit together. All of these would have been impossible without a leadership that truly believed in their mission. When Kennedy mentioned to Webb that he wanted to provide a military cover for Apollo to protect NASA’s funding, Webb suggested that he be replaced with a “military man.” That commitment to the success of Apollo made him willing to sacrifice his own career.

Webb’s management approach ensured that Apollo would not be used for political graft or as a cash cow for contractors. What the history of Apollo emphasizes is that management philosophy needs to be combined with both managerial and technical competence. Outside of Silicon Valley, there are few Jim Webbs today who combine a rigorous understanding of their field with extreme managerial competency. Given that NASA itself is one of SpaceX’s major clients for simply launching people and goods into orbit, it’s hard to believe that this organization could put anyone on the moon today.

Zeroing in on Apollo’s greatest contributions, Fishman deals extensively with the Apollo computer, which he refers to as the “Fourth Crew Member.” It was the most significant advancements in computing capabilities at the time. Two pivotal figures shine through in this tale: Doc Draper, head of the MIT Instrumentation Lab, and Bill Tindall, who is given an entire chapter crediting him as “the man who saved Apollo.”

Doc Draper was a legendary MIT professor who had developed the inertial navigation systems that allowed the B-29 bomber to fly autonomously over long distances. He played an early role in trying to get the Kennedy brothers to support a mission to the moon, but with no avail. When the mission was a go, his Instrumentation Lab at MIT was tasked with building the most complicated computer the world had ever seen, compact enough to fit on the rocket and lunar module, and reliable enough to not fail over the eight day mission of Apollo 11. The book dedicates much space to the technical marvel of building the Apollo computer and the startup culture of the Instrumentation Lab, which brought in bright young minds to work on novel and exciting projects.

It is fascinating that a small academic lab with an exploratory culture was able to provide a key component to such a critical mission, when contracting with startups seems so difficult for government agencies even now. This was not an easy task for NASA, who had the view that MIT’s inability to meet deadlines would hold up the moon landing. Rather than move the contract to a more conventional manufacturer like IBM, NASA sent in Bill Tindall.

The story of Bill Tindall is amazing in and of itself. A veteran aerospace engineer and pioneer in orbital mechanics, he was responsible for disciplining the work at MIT and ensuring the quality of output met NASA’s expectations. The relationship management skills of Tindall and his approach to improving coordination between different contracting units should serve as an elementary case study for anyone attempting to plan ambitious and difficult projects. Fishman justly builds up the legacy of a forgotten, but crucial figure. One of Tindall’s most fascinating techniques was his use of widely circulated memos, referred to as Tindallgrams, which pointed out highly technical problems in an easy to digest matter. His clear and witty writing style guaranteed high readership, and through the Tindallgrams, everyone was on the same page about pressing issues and key tasks to be done. The legacy of this approach highlights the need for effective communication in management to ensure that a team meets its stated objectives and does not overlook its own failures.

There are countless other figures discussed in the books, and each is given treatment about the particular contribution they had to the Apollo project. These stories create a tapestry of the level of skill and competency needed to create an organization which could put a man on the moon and just how extraordinary the people who carried out that mission had to be. In any approach to industrial development, the capabilities and philosophies of all those involved need to mesh in such a way that even in working separately, they are working towards a unified vision. This vision was not provided by any single person at NASA, however, and it is a testament to the leadership of President John F. Kennedy that he was able to put the wheels in motion to get Apollo off the ground and onto the moon.

Ambition and the Politics of Apollo

At the start of the 1960s, America was behind in a space race that the White House denied even existed. The Soviet Union had shocked the world with the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and continued to assert its technological dominance. As Kennedy remarked in 1961 after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s successful space flight, the first man to leave Earth’s atmosphere, “the first country that placed its national emblem on the moon was Russia, not America. The first passengers to return safely from a trip through space were named Strelka and Belka, not Rover or Fido.” Eisenhower, who created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, was unimpressed with the prospect of space travel, and preferred to focus on U.S. military dominance. Nixon, while Vice President, saw the consumer marvels of American capitalism as superior to the ambitious projects carried out by despotic regimes. The humiliation was palatable, but the U.S. was doing little.

Superiority in space and the need to prove the technological capabilities of the capitalist system became a hallmark of Kennedy’s presidential campaign, though Fishman dedicates extended passages to show how little Kennedy himself was concerned with space travel as such. The decision to put a man on the moon was not made with the intention of opening up scientific opportunity or spurring national development. To Kennedy, it was entirely about beating the Soviets. If the Russians were to abandon their space program, then Kennedy would have had an excuse to pull back on the enormous swell NASA was having on his budgets. Fishman argues that it would be unlikely without Kennedy’s assassination—both creating the need to honor the man’s legacy, and putting the more genuinely pro-space Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House—that the U.S. would have reached the moon by the end of the decade.

The fascinating insight that comes through this telling of the story is how little the moon itself mattered to creating the drive to get there. The marvel of fundamental science, technological design, and quality manufacture needed to accomplish the mission in only eight years is wisely contextualized by Fishman within the political climate in which it occurred. Reaching the moon was not a matter of science, but of national pride and competitive spirit. The goal was created to be sufficiently ambitious to demonstrate American superiority to the Soviets. Its achievement is an honor to the legacy of the president that ensured the world recognized America as capable of beating its rival, something prior failures in space and the continued failure in Vietnam called into question. The specific target of putting a man on the moon, and with a clear deadline at the end of the decade, ensured that political graft would not jeopardize the project. It ensured clarity of vision.

It is also relevant to draw parallels between the 1960s and the present moment. Fishman colors the political background of Apollo with the tumult of the 1960s. The civil rights movement, Vietnam War protests, and the rise of feminism upended the quietness of the Eisenhower-era. A show of national strength was not in the interest of most Americans at that time, who would have rather had the billions of dollars a year in 1960s money spent on going to space redirected to alleviate problems at home. During the entire lifespan of the Apollo project, it never hit above 50% approval ratings. NASA acted in many ways to keep the spectacle of going to the moon in the public eye, and had extensive initiatives to try to boost its support, often to no avail. Apollo was as much a social engineering project as it was a material one. Even among the scientific community, manned space flight drew ire. Norbert Wiener, the godfather of cybernetics, coined the term “moondoggle” to describe the extravagant waste of sending a man to the moon. The editor of Science and senior scientific advisors in the White House viewed the project as a waste of money with little scientific value and a distraction from more pressing initiatives. There was no “scientific community” when it came to the space race, but the usual array of interests and factions vying for political patronage.

What is interesting about Kennedy’s approach to Apollo is that he neither reduced it to its science, nor allowed interest groups to get in the way. In public speeches, Kennedy built up the myth of Apollo, inspiring Americans to make them feel a part of this monumental project. If Kennedy is to be faulted for his approach, it would be that his desire to beat the Soviets created a need for spectacle at NASA, which led to subsequent boredom from the public. NASA has never really found a new purpose after Apollo ended—a focus on robotic exploration does not have the same myth-making component or groundbreaking value. There are many political lessons to learn from Apollo, but the fact that its energy could not be sustained cautions against replicating its approach exactly.

Fishman’s multifaceted account of the Apollo mission makes it one of the most captivating reads to come out recently and provides several lessons for anyone interested in recreating the magic of this grand accomplishment. First, clarity of purpose and a leadership capable of defining that purpose are fundamental to getting large projects off the ground. From the War on Poverty to the War on Terror, American leadership has often made its objectives nebulous, making momentum harder to sustain. Second, the right people with the right motivation can overcome insurmountable obstacles. The modern managerial and expert class often lacks the versatility of skills essential to this project, due to overspecialization. Third, the outcome of an ambitious project cannot and ought not be reduced to the objective itself. Great projects such as decarbonization and Mars colonization should not have to be justified only on account of their direct benefits. To do so would harm their ability to succeed.

Through all of these lessons, we see grandness as integral to a project’s success. The book opens with a quote from the speech William Safire prepared for Nixon in the event that the Apollo 11 astronauts met their peril: “In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.” Nothing captures more what Apollo did for the world, and what the grand ventures we might undertake today will require of us.

Ryan Khurana is an associate editor at Palladium Magazine. He tweets at @RyanKhurana.