Great historical achievements are often taken for granted. Forty years ago, for example, on July 20, 1969, folks gathered around televisions and radios as Neil Armstrong stepped down onto the moon; they wept in public and in private; they never forgot the particulars of their experience on that day. But most people born after 1969 view the achievement as a foregone conclusion. They may never stop to consider in amazement the idea of a man in a space suit standing on the surface of the planetary satellite that humans had been staring at in wonder for tens of thousands of years. Certainly, they rarely contemplate the astounding journey that led to that first step.
On April 12, 1961, only three months after President John F. Kennedy came into office, the Russian Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the earth. In response, Kennedy declared it his intention, in a speech before Congress, that the U.S. land a man on the moon before the decade was out. “No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind,” the president declared, “or more important for the long-range exploration of space.” The benefits wouldn’t only be political. “We needed this first moon landing to be a success,” writes astronaut Buzz Aldrin in his new book, Magnificent Desolation, “to reaffirm that the American dream was still possible in the midst of turmoil.”
The effort to realize Kennedy’s vision took eight years, about $24 billion, and 400,000 employees at some 20,000 industrial firms and universities. Wernher von Braun and his team at the Marshall Space Flight Center, in Alabama, developed the Saturn rocket and propulsion systems used in the liftoff; researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology worked on the guidance and navigation computer systems; and under Kurt H. Debus, the Launch Operations Center (now the Kennedy Space Center), in Cape Canaveral, Florida, tested spacecraft and launched men into space.
At the Manned Spacecraft Center (now the Johnson Space Center), in southeast Houston, a small group of engineers with skinny ties and pocket protectors played a crucial role. They were the ones who planned, coordinated, and monitored the first lunar landing. The group was composed of mostly young men, many of whom were blessed with just enough inexperience to assume they could achieve the impossible. Their work was a triumph for Houston and all of Texas, a continuation of the frontier legacy. They are as much a part of the fabric of our story as wildcatting and ranching. It was their ingenuity that resulted in those glorious, bizarre images of Armstrong and Aldrin bounding on the lunar surface. This is their story.
On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy delivered a speech before a joint session of Congress, saying, “I believe that this nation 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.” Acknowledging the difficulty of this charge, he added that no other space project “will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.” He was right.
TED SORENSEN was special counsel and adviser to Kennedy. He lives in New York City. I had met with Jerome Wiesner, who was chairman of a transition task force that President-elect Kennedy had appointed to help advise him on what he should do about the space program. At that point there was no talk about a lunar landing, and I was skeptical whether the enormous amount of money for space exploration could be justified. But I