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 do remember, quite clearly, Wiesner saying that he thought, yes, all kinds of indirect benefits might well result. I remember him turning to me and saying, “Even the secrets of the universe itself. The origin of human beings.” That convinced me.
CHRIS KRAFT was the flight director of NASA’s first manned space mission. He lives in Houston. Initially the experts’ response to the idea of landing a man on the moon was that it would be possible but that it would be a very difficult technological program, as well as very costly. But the president persisted.
SORENSEN: I was sitting there on the floor of the House when Kennedy made the speech. You can usually tell how something’s going over, and I think the initial response of all the Congress and senators sitting there was “Huh?” Kennedy, I think, sensed that there was skepticism and departed from his prepared text to tell Congress that it had to play its part and provide the money and the authority and not get too easily discouraged if things didn’t go swiftly. At no other time did he depart from his text.
KRAFT: I was asked to brief the president when he came through Houston on how we were going to go to the moon. I didn’t know a damned thing about how we were going to go to the moon. But I got with my people, like [engineers] John Mayer and Bill Tindall, and when the meeting time came, I stood up in front of Kennedy and gave him a picture of what we were gonna do.
Two years after Kennedy’s speech, the Manned Spacecraft Center opened about 25 miles from downtown Houston, near Clear Lake City, at the site of a former ranch. There, a small group of engineers and researchers would figure out the nuts and bolts of how to put a man on the moon. It was a modest location for such an ambitious project. In the years that followed, the prairies were developed, but in 1969 the population of Clear Lake City was still only about four thousand. In 1963 Kraft had been named the director of flight operations at Mission Control. One of the original members of the 1958 Space Task Group, he had helped design and manage Project Mercury, the first U.S. human spaceflight program, which had succeeded in 1962 in its goal of putting an American into orbit around the earth. Mission Control grew under Kraft, who would ultimately oversee the four flight