The American Scholar

Our Fate Is in the Stars

THE APOLLO MOONWALKERS marveled at the golden glow of the lunar mountains, at the green rocks, white crystals, orange soil, brown patina—a palette of colors so surprising that the astronauts kept lifting their sun visors to make sure it was real. From lunar orbit, the landscape basked in the soft bluish glow of earthlight. Dust and airlessness played tricks on the eye. Bright halos ringed the astronauts’ shadows, distant hills seemed right at hand, the horizon was shrunken. Gene Cernan of Apollo 17 said, “You just stand out there and say, I don’t believe what I’m looking at!

Almost as unfathomable was the scale of the backroom effort. In documentaries such as Moonwalk One and the recently released Apollo 11, camera footage carries you past row upon row of engineers sitting at launch-control consoles wearing ties and chain-smoking. Some 400,000 people worked on the Apollo program. Corporate giants from General Motors to Playtex, motivated less by profit than by pride, asked to join in. What is striking about President Kennedy’s lunar mission speeches is how unhyped they were. Rather than offer easy choices, he played up the difficulty and the expense—not unlike how Winston Churchill had rallied his nation.

The guidance computer alone was a major industrial project. Its program memory was a kind of handwoven fabric or chain mail, today’s laptops and phones are descendants of Apollo.

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