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What You Didn’t Know About the Apollo 11 Mission

“From JFK’s real motives to the Soviets’ secret plot to land on the Moon at the same time, a new behind-the-scenes view of an unlikely triumph 50 years ago,” writes schwit1 sharing a new article from Smithsonian magazine titled “What You Didn’t Know About the Apollo 11 Mission.”

It’s an excerpt from the recently-released book ONE GIANT LEAP: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon.
The Moon has a smell. It has no air, but it has a smell… All the astronauts who walked on the Moon noticed it, and many commented on it to Mission Control…. Cornell University astrophysicist Thomas Gold warned NASA that the dust had been isolated from oxygen for so long that it might well be highly chemically reactive. If too much dust was carried inside the lunar module’s cabin, the moment the astronauts repressurized it with air and the dust came into contact with oxygen, it might start burning, or even cause an explosion. (Gold, who correctly predicted early on that the Moon’s surface would be covered with powdery dust, also had warned NASA that the dust might be so deep that the lunar module and the astronauts themselves could sink irretrievably into it.) Among the thousands of things they were keeping in mind while flying to the Moon, Armstrong and Aldrin had been briefed about the very small possibility that the lunar dust could ignite….

The Apollo spacecraft ended up with what was, for its time, the smallest, fastest and most nimble computer in a single package anywhere in the world. That computer navigated through space and helped the astronauts operate the ship. But the astronauts also traveled to the Moon with paper star charts so they could use a sextant to take star sightings — like 18th-century explorers on the deck of a ship — and cross-check their computer’s navigation. The software of the computer was stitched together by women sitting at specialized looms — using wire instead of thread. In fact, an arresting amount of work across Apollo was done by hand: The heat shield was applied to the spaceship by hand with a fancy caulking gun; the parachutes were sewn by hand, and then folded by hand. The only three staff members in the country who were trained and licensed to fold and pack the Apollo parachutes were considered so indispensable that NASA officials forbade them to ever ride in the same car, to avoid their all being injured in a single accident. Despite its high-tech aura, we have lost sight of the extent to which the lunar mission was handmade…

The space program in the 1960s did two things to lay the foundation of the digital revolution. First, NASA used integrated circuits — the first computer chips — in the computers that flew the Apollo command module and the Apollo lunar module. Except for the U.S. Air Force, NASA was the first significant customer for integrated circuits. Microchips power the world now, of course, but in 1962 they were little more than three years old, and for Apollo they were a brilliant if controversial bet. Even IBM decided against using them in the company’s computers in the early 1960s. NASA’s demand for integrated circuits, and its insistence on their near-flawless manufacture, helped create the world market for the chips and helped cut the price by 90 percent in five years. NASA was the first organization of any kind — company or government agency — anywhere in the world to give computer chips responsibility for human life. If the chips could be depended on to fly astronauts safely to the Moon, they were probably good enough for computers that would run chemical plants or analyze advertising data.

The article also notes that three times as many people worked on Apollo as on the Manhattan Project to create the atomic bomb.


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