When we remember the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, which launched 50 years ago on Tuesday and landed a half-century ago on Saturday, the first people we generally think of are the astronauts — Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, who walked on the moon, and Michael Collins, who orbited above.

But they were at the top of a pyramid that was built over eight years with the labor of more than 400,000 people, and author Charles Fishman celebrates that Earth-bound effort in his latest book, “One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon.” He spoke with WTOP about his book, the stories behind the mission and the importance of the flight to the moon.

“The 50th anniversary,” Fishman said, “is a great moment to go back and say, ‘How did we do this?’”

‘We had nothing’

The project to reach the moon started in May 1961, when President John F. Kennedy told Congress the U.S. “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

“Literally eight years later, not even 100 months later, we were walking on the moon,” Fishman said. “You can hardly get a bridge replaced in eight years.”

That said, after four years of research, Fishman said, “What I came away with was not a sense of pessimism about America today compared to America in the 1960s — just the opposite. I came away reminded of what Americans will do when we are asked to.”

It’s no accident that the word “impossible” is in the subtitle of Fishman’s book. “We had nothing we needed to do the job in May 1961,” he said.

In eight years, Fishman said the U.S. literally invented space travel — and a lot of the items in modern life that get taken for granted. That took a lot of people — more Americans worked on the Apollo program than were in Vietnam — and it took an attitude.

“We love rising to the occasion as a country; we love being told something’s impossible, like going to the moon, and then turning around and saying, ‘Yeah? You thought it was impossible? We’re going to show you it isn’t quite impossible after all.’”

Will it sink?

When Kennedy challenged the country to go to the moon, scientists didn’t even know what they didn’t know about what it would entail, and what the effects would be.

It’s hard to remember now, Fishman said, how much had to be worked out: What is the moon made of? Would a spaceship sink into the surface? Would moon dust explode if it were exposed to air?

Even some more basic problems had to be worked out, Fishman said: In 1961, “There was a serious argument inside NASA about whether you would be able to think in space — whether human brains would work correctly in zero gravity.”

It’s not as dumb as it sounds: “There are all kinds of impacts from zero gravity: Zero gravity reshapes your eyeballs, and so astronauts going to space now for months at a time take eyeglasses that have been specifically designed to correct their eyesight after it deteriorates. So this question of whether our brains would work was a really legitimate question. … In May 1961, we really knew nothing. We had absolutely no clue.”

Beyond Velcro and Tang

To this day, some people don’t see the importance of traveling to space and the moon, Fishman said, and one of the wiseacre responses, he said, is “‘Yeah, we went to the moon; what’d we get from that? I guess we got Tang and Velcro, huh?’”

Fishman’s Twitter feed includes a well-researched, cranky response to that stereotype, and it has gotten to the point where NASA keeps a page on their website to address the misconception.

For one thing, Fishman pointed out, Tang was invented in 1958; Velcro, in Switzerland in the 1940s. For another, “The astronauts didn’t particularly like Tang,” he said. They could have taken it to the moon if they wanted, but they didn’t.

All kidding aside, Fishman said, “We got something really, really important from going to the moon — we got the world we live in now. In fact, the computer development and the computer advancement, the miniaturization that Apollo required, laid the foundation for the digital revolution.”

In 1961, computers were about three times the size of a refrigerator; the computers on Apollo 11 were the size of a briefcase. They contained the first integrated circuits and, for the first time, human lives were dependent on computers. And the moon mission changed the way people thought about computers.

“Technology was something associated with weapons — really, with atomic weapons,” Fishman said. “By the end of the decade, we had spent 10 years watching people sitting at computer consoles. They weren’t wearing uniforms; they were wearing white shirts, and they were doing the hardest thing you could imagine doing — they were using computers to fly to the moon.”

“And so, at the end of the decade, people [saw] how computers can be useful. And also [that] they’re dependable. You can trust them, because we put the lives of our astronauts in their hands, and it all worked out fine. So, it must be OK to use computers to analyze advertising data or run the elevators in your skyscraper. … It’s become all too common to sort of follow the Silicon Valley version of where computers came from, but in fact, going to the moon was hugely important to the world we live in.”

But more than anything, Fishman’s goal with his book was to pay tribute to the hundreds of thousands at NASA and private contractors who made the moon mission possible. And he said the astronauts wanted the same.

“The astronauts are the first people to say, ‘We got to ride to the moon, but back on Earth, there were people who made it possible.'”

And the story of the impossible mission resonates today: “It’s a remarkable story, and it said a lot about who we were, and you know, we’re arguing about who we are. I think it’s great that the anniversary is coming along and that we’re talking about this.”

Did you know?

It’s not surprising that, in his research, Fishman came up with some great stories. Check out some of the fun — and impressive — facts below, from Fishman’s conversation with WTOP and from his book, “One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon.”

The spacesuits for the first moon landing were made by the bra company Playtex. When the astronauts landed on the moon, that was the beginning of the celebrations for the public, but for Sonny Reihm, the guy in charge of making the suits, it was the beginning of the agita.

While the astronauts cavorted on the moon’s surface, Reihm watched on TV, terrified that someone would fall, rip their suit and suffer an unpleasant death on worldwide TV — in a Playtex product.

What happens if you fart on the moon?

In a 1966 report, a panel of Apollo scientists covered topics including astronaut flatulence. “The astronaut spacesuits leaked a little bit of material all the time,” Fishman said. “But the only samples we could get from the moon were from astronauts picking them up. And so, what if moon rocks ended up with organic molecules on them from the leaking of the spacesuits, and then some scientists three years later said, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s evidence of life on the moon!’”

More conventionally, the scientists also pondered the problem of polluting the moon with rocket fuel from the thrusters and messing up the samples.

“It’s an incredible report in its ability to sort of look ahead and think ahead,” Fishman said.

It seems like a no-brainer: How are you going to climb down out of the lunar module onto the surface of the moon? With a ladder, of course.

But NASA wasn’t so sure. At first, they were going to use a rope.

Like so many of their mistakes, Fishman said it’s not as dumb as it sounds. No one knew how hard the module would land, or how deep the sandy surface of the moon would be. Any number of factors could have left the astronauts stuck on the surface of the moon to die, or to have to leave without getting out, which would be less tragic but way more stupid.

So, a rope it was. Astronaut Ed White tried it out on Earth and wasn’t impressed: “I think we can afford a ladder.”

So Grumman, which designed the module, simply made the ladder really short, to give a margin for error.

“There’s a big leap from the bottom rung of the ladder to the foot pad at the bottom of the lunar module [and then] to the surface,” Fishman said. “And the point of that was, ‘We don’t want to hurt the ladder.’”

It’s not easy to draw a map of someplace you’ve never been, and that was even more true in 1969.

When Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon, NASA couldn’t figure out exactly where they were — mainly because they winged it.

“The original landing place turned out to be a crater 60-feet deep,” Fishman said. “And Armstrong said, ‘You know what? That’s not a good place to set down.’ And so they picked a new landing spot. And the moon was so poorly mapped, and we had no satellites going around the moon at that time, that in the end, NASA didn’t know exactly where Armstrong and Aldrin had landed.”

When the astronauts splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, their descent was slowed by huge orange-and-white parachutes. Well, someone had to fold those chutes — indeed, all parachutes are folded by FAA-licensed folders — and only three people had been trained to fold the massive chutes needed for the Apollo mission.

The two men and one woman were forbidden by NASA to ride in the same car, in case they were in an accident.

The Apollo astronauts were, and are, held out as heroes, and rightly so, but Fishman writes that the idea that the whole country was united behind the Apollo mission is a myth: “… [T]wo American presidents hauled the space program all the way to the moon with not even half of Americans saying they thought it was worthwhile.”

NASA had already given up on the idea of astronauts on the moon driving a car, so the lunar rover used in later moon missions was the work of Sam Romano and Ferris Pollock, two engineers at General Motors.

They designed its distinctive folding shape and made a remote-controlled 24-inch model, with a G.I. Joe astronaut action figure in the driver’s seat, as a proof of their concept. The two men’s design went up for the last two moon missions.

Americans got used to lunar exploration fast: The 1969 moon landing was watched by an estimated 94% of American households; the last landing, in 1972, was out-rated by that week’s “All in the Family.”

“The moon landings were a success,” Fishman said. “And you didn’t need to watch them, because Apollo 16 appeared to be very similar to Apollo 15.”

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

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