One Giant Leap is a nuts-and-bolts, boots-on-the-ground look at how the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) put a man on the moon. It recounts the historical space race, crisscrossing the country from Houston to Cambridge and spanning presidential terms from Eisenhower to Nixon. Forgoing the usual narrative of astronauts, journalist Charles Fishman gives a biography of an institution that takes us into the laboratories, meeting rooms, and offices of the Capitol full those the men and women – well, mostly men – responsible for this achievement. Fishman takes us on this journey using a NASA-centric viewfinder to learn political, scientific, and historical behind-the-scenes elements of the organization.
In May 1961, with a declaration from President Kennedy in a political effort to beat the Soviet Union in the space race, a scientific and industrial community rallied behind a singular purpose: to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth. Within a decade, hundreds of never-before-answered questions were solved, theoretical situations actualized, and technologies created to fulfill that edict. Their efforts culminated in a 30-inch leap from a spaceship ladder to the surface of the moon when Apollo 11 accomplished its mission and proved testament to boundless ingenuity.
Throughout the book Fishman clearly explains the technological advances in manned and unmanned spaceflight from the Mercury, Gemini, and eventually the Apollo program. The star of this show, to me, is Charles Stark “Doc” Draper, the trailblazer who created the actual tools that were necessary to achieve liftoff. He studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then worked on weapons grade gyroscopes for the war effort. Later, he would direct MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory, where he cultivated a productive environment that applied advanced sciences and technology with real-world problem solving that later infused NASA’s work culture. Draper is probably most known for creating the Apollo Guidance computer. Comprised of the computational and electronic interfaces for guidance, navigation, and control, this hard- and software made the moon landing possible.
Other issues, including space rendezvous, and the physics, engineering, mathematics, and pre-planning required are all detailed through to Apollo 11, where what seemed like the most daunting task to the scientists was the lunar module: Eagle. I learned it was never test-flown on Earth; that the first and last time it took flight was simultaneously its initiation and swan song.
Some of the most interesting parts in the book are about the rapidly changing world outside NASA. The billions of dollars required for these missions was a constant point of contention between Congress, the public, and NASA. In the face of a raging battle in Vietnam, and through protest of the disenfranchised who felt the money would be better suited to fixing the increasing racial tension of the Civil Rights Movement and the rampant financial inequities, NASA remained the orderly, quiet, scientific, and buttoned-up organization intent on fulfilling its assignment. President Kennedy’s use of the Apollo missions to sculpt foreign policy was never so blatantly clear as when I read this book, of how the decision to support him was a choice for freedom and therefore a negation of communism: that global influence could be determined only by who reached the moon first.
At times, this reads like a business work, a how-to on leadership, company structure, and organization. At other times it is like a history book, chronicling how ordinary Americans proved extraordinary. Sometimes it is a lesson in inspiration, of how to create, fail, build, and explore. There is a lot of information in this book – and I will be the first to admit I’m not one for numbers – so my eyes glazed over some of the data, but the wealth and breadth is astounding. One Giant Leap gave me a new appreciation for one of my most favorite things on the planet to read about: space travel.