A Conversation with Apollo Expert Andrew Chaikin

Andrew Chaikin is one of the world’s most respected space historians and space authors. His critically-acclaimed book, A Man on the Moon, a detailed account of the Apollo missions to the Moon through the eyes of the astronauts, formed the basis for “From the Earth to the Moon,” a 12-part miniseries that was produced by Tom Hanks. Another of his best-sellers, Voices from the Moon, featured his interviews with 23 of the 24 Apollo astronauts. With his unmatched knowledge of the Apollo era, Chaikin sat down and shared some of his thoughts on the impact and implications of what many call “mankind’s greatest adventure.”

Nasa Andrew Ingalls Source: NASA / Bill Ingals

What led to your fascination with space history?

I started out captivated by the idea of visiting other worlds, something that was still science fiction but was enticingly illustrated in my childhood astronomy books. Astronauts were just starting to go into space, and when I was in grade school the Gemini missions were flying. I saw those amazing photographs of Ed White walking in space and thought, “I want to be him." Of course I was eagerly anticipating the Apollo missions to the moon, which happened when I was in junior high and high school. I was glued to the TV for every one of them. My plan was to study planetary science and apply for the astronaut program, but partway through college I realized NASA would never pick me; I didn’t have the perfect medical record they required. At the same time I was realizing that as much as I love planetary science it wasn’t what I wanted to do for a living. It took a few years for me to figure out what I did want to do, and that turned out to be writing about space exploration. The eight years I spent writing A Man on the Moon turned me into a space historian, and the opportunity to spend hours and hours talking to not only the astronauts but the flight controllers, engineers, and scientists of Apollo was just a fantastic experience.

The Apollo 8 astronauts talk about the telegram they received from a citizen after their mission around the moon, which said, “Thank you for saving 1968.” What did Apollo 11’s success mean to America in 1969?

In some ways, I think, America’s reaction to Apollo 11 was profoundly mixed. People were amazed by the event, and many saw it as a moment of triumph for the nation, but others were feeling that the money should have been spent in other ways—to help the poor, for example. Still others viewed it through the lens of the Vietnam War, another expensive government activity, but one which was drawing a great deal of protest. Nevertheless, Apollo 11 was an American triumph, and it showed off the country’s talent, ingenuity, and boldness. That was very exciting and impressive to the world, and it seemed to foster a spirit of unity. I've heard stories of NASA people who went abroad during that time and heard people say, “We did it”—not “You did it,” but “We did it.”

George Low - NASA Source: Penguin Books

Of all the NASA leaders and administrators you have studied and written about, was there one who truly influenced or impacted the eventual success of Apollo 11?

George Low, without a doubt. After the tragic fire that killed the three Apollo 1 astronauts during a practice countdown, he took over the development of the Apollo spacecraft. Low realized that the fire was a wakeup call for NASA, a message that they had to step up to a new level of rigor. Space exploration is unforgiving and complacency can be fatal. You simply cannot have schedule pressure affect critical things like quality and safety. He was a brilliant engineer and to me he was the ideal program manager: Someone who balances ego and humility, who understands that you can never take anything for granted, and who is absolutely passionate about painstaking attention to detail. Without George Low’s leadership and disciplined approach, I don’t know if the program would have been able to get back on track in time to reach the moon by the end of the decade.

How close did the tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire come to endangering the moon program? Was Congress considering shutting it down?

I don’t know. There were some at NASA who worried Congress might shut them down, but that didn’t happen, and I don't know that it was a real possibility. Everyone understood that the program could not afford another tragedy. And even though the fire delayed the first piloted Apollo mission by 20 months, many Apollo veterans feel that the fire was actually the reason NASA was able to finally accomplish its mission. There were so many things that needed fixing before the fire, but had not been taken care of because NASA was pushing so hard to meet JFK’s deadline. The fire created an opportunity to fix the problems, and as I say, it forced NASA to get its act together, to rise to the unforgiving demands of spaceflight.

What does Wernher von Braun’s legacy mean to Apollo?

Wernher von Braun - NASA Source: NASA

Well, the V-2 missile created by von Braun’s and his team during World War 2 certainly kick-started our country’s rocket technology. And of course it was von Braun’s Jupiter C rocket that launched the first U.S. satellite in 1958, which put him and his team in the position to carry out their ambitions of building much larger rockets. Their crowning creation was the Saturn V booster for the Apollo missions. It represented the realization of von Braun’s cherished dream, which went back decades before NASA, of sending humans to other worlds. Without it, the entire goal of landing on the Moon in the 1960s would have been impossible.

Had the costly Vietnam War not dragged on, would that have enabled more moon missions, or at least the initially planned ones, to continue?

NASA had originally planned to fly missions at least through Apollo 20. But the Apollo program put an enormous strain on the budget. People tend to forget that Kennedy was not particularly interested in space, and he said as much to NASA Administrator Jim Webb in November 1962. Winning the battle for hearts and minds around the world in the context of the Cold War was his goal. After Kennedy was assassinated, President Johnson had to contend with the cost of the escalating Vietnam War, which far exceeded NASA’s budget. And so, the NASA budget actually peaked in 1966, more than two years before Apollo 11. By the time Apollo 11 happened, NASA was worried about conserving its diminishing resources, and the agency made the decision to cancel the last three Apollo landings. Also at that time, NASA’s ambitious plans for post-Apollo space efforts were being rejected by Congress and the White House. The Vietnam War was a factor, but the reality was that funding NASA at Apollo levels simply was not economically feasible.

What is your view of space exploration shifting toward more private, commercial companies like SpaceX?

Space X - NASA Source: SpaceX

Well, there’s an important distinction to be made. Private companies like SpaceX are working toward the capability to reach low Earth orbit with people. So far, at least, there are no concrete plans for any private missions beyond low Earth orbit, so what I would call exploration is still NASA’s domain, at least in the immediate future. Having said that, I’m very impressed with what SpaceX has accomplished with their Dragon spacecraft and Falcon booster—especially the ability to return the Falcon first stage to Earth with a powered landing. Jeff Bezos’s company, Blue Origin, is doing remarkable work. The startup cultures exemplified by companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin has allowed them to start with a blank piece of paper and design new ways to “do space.” Equally important, they have allowed themselves to fail in order to learn, innovate, and improve. That’s something that NASA simply hasn’t had the freedom to do very much since the early days of the space program.

Will we ever see another space project like Apollo that truly inspired, motivated and excited the nation and the world?

Apollo will remain as one of the greatest scientific and engineering achievements in human history. It’s not an overstatement to say that it was a turning point in human evolution. But Apollo was a “historical fluke” in that the geo-political conditions of the 1950’s and 1960’s between the West and the Soviet Union set the stage for the space race. Those conditions won’t likely be replicated again. But of course, great challenges and great achievements in space—and in other arenas—will continue to inspire whoever is alive to witness them.

Will we see a manned Mars mission in our lifetime?

To me, sending humans to Mars is the Mount Everest of human space exploration. There is an enormous number of problems that need to be solved, including medical hazards, reliability of the spacecraft and its systems, and of course the massive cost. We are seeing incremental advances, but a human mission to Mars is not going to happen as rapidly as Apollo. I believe it will happen, but not in the near future. I was 13 when Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the Moon, and I hope I live to see humans return to the moon, and if possible, to see them walk on Mars.