On a bright Florida morning, a cylinder of thin ice the size of a grain silo is hanging 50 feet above the ground. The frost had started forming in the middle of the floodlit night, when the technicians at Cape Kennedy had started to fill the great tank at the top of the first stage of the Saturn V rocket with liquid oxygen—more than a million liters of it (260,000 gallons), at a temperature of minus 183°C (nearly 300 degrees Fahrenheit below zero). The wall of the tank and the skin of the rocket were one and the same, so water vapor from the humid Atlantic air had immediately started to freeze to the painfully cold metal.
As the oxygen was pumped in, some of it boiled off; vents at the top of the tank let the vapor out so that pressure within would not get too high. At 09:30, the vents were closed. Helium was pumped into the small space at the top of the tank. The pressure started to rise.
Below the oxygen tank was a slightly smaller tank filled with highly refined kerosene. Below that, arranged like the dots on the five face of a die, were the F-1 engines on which the success of the whole moon-project rested: exquisitely engineered, cunningly contrived, ludicrously powerful.
Two minutes after the vents were sealed, a valve at the bottom of the upper tank opened, and oxygen began to flow down into the F-1s. It took two different routes. Some of it went into gas generators which were linked to turbines which drove pumps. In the generators, it was mixed with kerosene and sparked alight. There was too much kerosene for the not-yet-full flow of oxygen to consume it all; the hot exhaust that the generators passed to the turbines was dirty black with part-burnt fuel. That didn’t stop it from spinning them up and bringing the engines’ pumps to life.
The rest of the oxygen went into the combustion chambers proper. There it met the kerosene-rich exhaust coming out of the turbines, and the mixture was set alight all over again. Black smoke began to billow from the bottom of the F-1s’ nozzles. The rocket began to shake. The pumps increased the flow of fuel and oxygen down into the fires below.
A carefully choreographed dance of temperature and energy was now under way. The turbo pumps used energy from the fuel burned in the generators to get ever more fuel into the combustion chambers, but they sent it there by way of a spiraling detour through tubes wrapped around the engines’ nozzles. This cooled the nozzles, which otherwise could not have borne the heat they were subjected to. It also warmed the fuel, which thus burned even better when, at last, it reached the combustion chamber. The fuel was also the lubricant for many of the engines’ moving parts—and the soot produced early on gave the lower section of the nozzle more protection from the heat of the growing flame within.
The pumps spun harder; the dance sped up. Five seconds after ignition, the fuel valves were fully open, and within a second or so the engines were close to full thrust. The central engine came to full power first, then the four outer ones. The fuel mix was now richer in oxygen, the burn cleaner and less sooty, more powerful. For a second or two after the last engine came up, the rocket was held down by mighty clamps. Then it was released.
All the rockets weight—almost 3,000 tonnes (about 3,300 tons) in all—now rested on the engines. They shouldered their burden and began to lift. The five arms from the tower that steadied and fed the rocket swung back. The shell of ice that had clung to the supercool metal fell in shattered sheets into the inferno below.
The fires on which it rose were not the fire that leaps or licks or plays, the fire of brasier or boiler. They were the focused fire of the metalworker’s torch, given life at a scale to cut worlds apart or weld them together. The temperature in the chambers was over 3,000°C (more than 5,000°F). The pressure was over 60 atmospheres. And still the pumps, their turbines spinning 90 times a second, were powerful enough to cram more and more oxygen and fuel into the inferno. The flames slammed into the fire pits below at six times the speed of sound. For a couple of minutes, the five F-1s generated almost 60 gigawatts of power. That is equivalent to the typical output of all Britain’s electric-power plants put together.
It took 10 seconds for the rocket to clear the tower. It took a further 10 seconds for the roar of its engines, louder than any noise humans had made before, to reach the VIP stands almost 4 miles away. Sixty ambassadors, half of Congress, and about a quarter of America’s governors, watching with awe, shaken by “a sound that became your body,” as the artist Robert Rauschenberg put it.
The roar lasted less than three minutes. But by the time the F-1s fell silent, the rocket was traveling at close to 5,000 miles per hour and was almost 400 miles from Cape Kennedy. Apollo 11 was on its way to the moon.
The capacity to build a rocket as powerful as the Saturn V was not just crucial to Apollo’s success; it was the idea that the whole project was built on. In 1961, when Kennedy committed his country to a moon landing, the Soviet Union was well ahead in the space race; it had launched the first satellite and the first person into orbit. But the rockets that it used to do so, like America’s rockets at the time, were basically souped-up intercontinental ballistic missiles. Though they had been adapted to spaceflight better and quicker than America’s they were not adequate to the task of going to the moon. That would require a rocket designed to lift things far larger than single capsules or nuclear warheads into orbit. If the challenge chosen as a measure of superpower mettle was one that required an entirely new generation of rockets, the Soviet advantage would be minimized. Both superpowers would be competing from a standing start.
The rocket engine that America was betting on was the mighty F-1. The question was how many to use. At one point there was talk of a rocket called Nova that would have had eight of the beasts on its first stage and might have launched a spacecraft heavy enough to land on the moon and then come back. The smaller Saturn V required a more subtle mission architecture. One possibility was launching a moon craft capable of landing on the moon and coming back in parts and putting those parts together in orbit. The other was to have two different spacecraft, one for landing on the moon and another for coming back that would travel out together. That reduced the amount of mass that had to go down to the moon and, crucially, the amount that had to be brought back up.
It was this lunar-orbit-rendezvous architecture that won out. Its advantage was that each mission could be accomplished with just a single Saturn V launch. Its disadvantage was that it did not establish procedures, or any infrastructure, for assembling things in orbit. Before Apollo became a pell-mell rush, those planning what they saw as the “conquest of space” imagined that the first step would be a space station at which spacecraft would be assembled to travel further. The Earth-orbit rendezvous version of Apollo did not require such a thing. But it would have established the sort of procedures and infrastructure that might have led to one. But with lunar-orbit rendezvous every Apollo mission would be a single shot. Once they were over, it would be in terms of hardware—even, to a degree, in terms of expertise—as if they had never happened.
The coming-back bit of the lunar-orbit-rendezvous architecture was the command module–a conical three-person capsule. It was bigger and more sophisticated than previous space capsules, and its heat shield was a lot more capable, because things falling back into the atmosphere from the moon do so a lot quicker than things falling back from low earth orbit. But it was still basically a capsule. The landing-on-the-moon bit was the two-person lunar module (the LM, pronounced “lem”). that would take two of the three-man crew down to the surface and back up. It was more complicated than direct ascent, because there were two maneuvers needed in orbit.
Kennedy sold Apollo as “serving to measure and organize the best of America’s skills”. The measure it provided was immense. By 1967 it employed some 400,000 people working through thousands of commercial and governmental entities. It was taking 4 percent of government spending (and this was while there was a war on). It was stretching the best minds in American aerospace to their limits and necessitating new ways of thinking and working across the continent—across the world, when you considered the telecommunications infrastructure required to keep track of the spacecraft.
But it was also intimate. Part of making lunar-orbit rendezvous work was making the spacecraft that actually went down to the moon, the LM, as light as possible. In the original specification it was to weigh just 10 tonnes (11 tons). During development, it put on weight, despite furious attempts first to arrest and then to reverse the process. But it remained pretty tiny. And thanks to the need to carry fuel, oxidizer, life support, batteries, computers and more besides, the LM was noticeably smaller on the inside than the outside. The two astronauts had 4.7m3 (about 165 cubic feet) of pressurized volume between them. That is roughly twice the volume of one of London’s red telephone boxes.
Tiny. Also, a world. Or, at least, a fully functioning pinched-off little bleb of one. The LM gave the astronauts food and water; it kept their temperature stable; it protected them from meteorites. Its guidance computer mapped out their future. Once the LM was separated from the command module, it was all of Mother Earth they had left to them, save for voices on the radio: a microcosmic two-man planet.
A tiny world. But a fully functioning spacecraft, too—engines, guidance, communications, the lot. And one like none before it. Everything else on Apollo had, to some extent, been tried out at a smaller scale. There had been rockets fired by kerosene (in the first stage) and liquid hydrogen (in the second). There had been space capsules with heat shields for re-entry. But there had never been anything like the LM, something designed to come down from space and land under its own power rather than under a parachute. To land by its commander’s hand and eye in a place where nothing had landed before.
And, although designed to land, also designed to be always in space. Previous spacecraft had had to carry their crews up through the buffeting atmosphere and bring them back down through it wreathed in fire. The LM’s only duties with regard to atmosphere were to keep a very small one, composed of pure oxygen, contained within its tissue-thin aluminum walls (they flexed in and out as the air pressure inside them changed). The LM needed no streamlining, and when the first LM pilot, Rusty Schweickart, undocked the Apollo 9 LM, Spider, from the command module, Gumdrop, he was acutely aware of being in the first spacecraft ever to have been built with no heat shield. Dock again, or die.
The LM embodied a new off-kilter modernism—a form that followed function without compromise, however lopsided and implausible that made it look. The bottom half, to be fair, was fairly straightforward.
It was a platform with an engine and legs—three in early designs, then five, then four. Octagonal, flat sided, its two fuel tanks and two oxidizer tanks arranged symmetrically around its central axis. Its job was to rob the LM of the velocity it would have when orbiting the moon, allowing it to fall down to the surface, and to curtail that fall in such a way as to land at the designated site. Once on the moon it was just a platform and a storage space with an all-important ladder running down one leg.
It was at the top of the ladder that function became complex and form became weird. The ascent stage had started off as a sphere, then been whittled down, then been added to. The result had a stubby, circular face like that of a somewhat satanic Thomas the Tank Engine: flattened nose, square eye sockets with deep-set triangular eyes, a round, shouty mouth. A fuel tank hung precariously off to the left like a goiter. Faceted like origami, aerials pointed in various directions, much of it was wrapped in gold foil to deal with thermal issues, obscuring its hard-to-follow lines yet further. There was just one concession to foursquare order; at each corner, there were four rocket nozzles to steer with, one pointing up, one down, one forward or back, one to the side; x, y and z axes, as strictly Cartesian as the on-board computer required.
Inside, no seats. Room only for them to stand, side by side, looking out of the strange inset downward-canted windows, a throttle and joystick in front of each of them. A skylight over the commander—rank hath its privileges—and a small telescope, too. The hatch that led to the moon knee-high between them, the inside of that angry mouth. No airlock. When they leave the LM, the whole thing is depressurized. Above the hatch, the DSKY—the guidance computer display and keyboard (numbers only—no qwerty). Above that, three more control panels. Spread around the rest of the walls, a dozen further control panels. One, in a rare stab at humour, is called ORDEAL: Orbital Rate Display, Earth and Lunar.
They stand in a well. At waist level the cabin opens out behind them in a raised alcove. At the top is the second hatch—the one that will let them back into the command module once they regain orbit.
When they stand in the well, their helmets are in the alcove; when one of them needs to move around, he puts his helmet in the well. The personal life support systems that make their spacesuits self-contained—make the suits into leg-propelled spacecraft in their own right—are
stowed to the side. So is the Environmental Control Atmosphere Revitalization Section which replenishes them, and which looks as if a madman had lashed drums of paint, plumbing valves, small fans and vessels for which there is no name into a framework of pipes and then applied a hydraulic vice to the whole assembly in every direction. Cram the flows and cycles necessary for life into the smallest possible volume and they have neither elegance nor any visual logic.
In the middle of the alcove is a squat cylinder like the continental tire cubby on the back of a pre-war Oldsmobile, though not as wide across. It is the engine. In all the earlier spacecraft, the engine was somewhere else—strapped over the heat shield in the Mercury capsule, in its own separate chamber on the Geminis, the Vostoks and Soyuzes, the Apollo service module. In the LM it is right there in the middle of the crew space, tube-fed with fuel and oxidizer that are both toxic and explosive. There is a story that a LM fuel tank unwisely tapped with a ball-point pen during outdoor testing resulted in that pen being embedded in a fence post some way away, along with some of the unwise tapping finger.
During development, the fuel and oxidizer lines will not stop leaking. When Grumman ships the first purportedly flight-ready LM down to Cape Kennedy, it is rejected as not fit for the launch pad let alone for space: “Junk. Garbage.” Trying to solve the problems makes the third LM so late to the Cape that there is not enough time to ready it for its scheduled flight.* What was expected to be a routine vacuum test for the fifth LM goes catastrophically wrong when one of the windows explodes.
*That was why Apollo 8, originally intended to be a mission to Earth orbit using both the LM and the command module, became a command-module-only mission that went all the way to the moon, and Rusty Schweickart and James McDivitt were the first to fly the LM on Apollo 9, an Earth-orbit shakedown cruise.
The windows are crucial. There is a much-told tale that the first design for the Mercury capsules had no windows: the engineers saw no need for the astronauts to be able to see out, because they were basically just payload. Landing on the moon, though, is not something that can be left to Ground Control—among other things, it takes radio waves just over a second to get there and just as long to get back.
As Jack Myers, a life-support researcher at the University of Texas, put it at the time, “The human goes into space, not as a passenger, but as an essential part of the instrumentation needed for a particular mission.” The windows let the mission commander and the LM pilot, both of whom can land the craft, see what they are doing—they also connect them to the computer which turns the adjustments they make to joystick and throttle into digital instructions for the engines and thrusters. Born to give substance to science fiction’s fascination with spaceflight in the context of a world reshaped by the arrival of science-fictional superweapons, Apollo added new depth to a third of the genre’s concerns: new manifestations of intelligence and control in a world of thinking machines. The computer’s requirements shaped the astronauts’ world.
For example: engraved on the inside and outside of the window glass is a sort of reticule. By holding his head so that the engravings on both sides of the glass line up with each other, the commander knows he is looking exactly where the computer thinks he is looking. That matters.
The computer can respond to its human only if that “essential part of the instrumentation” is precisely aligned. Computers on the ground also help with the windows’ design. But this is the exception, not the rule; computer-aided-design software is not remotely up to handling the whole job as yet.
All the LM’s complexities are drawn out by hand, and many are built by hand, too. The aluminum is so thin that it cannot be stamped into shape; it must be crafted. But computers are crucial, not just within the LM, but in the process of its creation. It organizes. It measures. Software called PERT is used to schedule the development program at Grumman, and most of the rest of the Apollo program too, churning out new schedules every day, seeing what things that need to be done have not been done, what has to be done elsewhere so the next thing can be done here, marshaling an army of workers according to the planning procedures its programmers laid out for it.
Computers are the manifestation of the future that makes the future possible. They also make it visible, synthesizing experiences for which there is no prior experience. Flight simulators have been around since the early 1930s, when an enterprising young man called Edwin Link realized that the pneumatic systems his family used in their church-organ business could adjust the attitude of a pseudo cockpit as if it were in flight. Having become widespread in the Second World War, this technology reaches its pinnacle in the Apollo simulators. Nothing has ever been simulated in advance remotely as thoroughly as the Apollo missions: the hours of simulator training run into thousands. In the LM simulators, computers coordinate instructions from the throttle and joystick with the movement of tiny fibre-optic cameras over plaster models of the lunar surface that would have made James Nasmyth deeply envious, thus showing the pilots the relevant bits of the moon as they learn how to control their strange new craft under all conditions.
The need for such simulation pushes the computers into new virtual realms. The flight hardware needs to be re-created in ground-based software so that the simulators respond just as the real craft will. Virtual machines that exist only as lines of code run programs designed for real machines just as the real machines would—or so it is hoped. No one has made machines of pure logic before. As the program goes on, some of the pilot’s experience becomes purely virtual, too. The LEM Spaceflight Visual Simulator, created by General Electric in 1964, responds to the pilot’s commands simply by moving pixels around a screen. In doing so it creates the first virtual landscape: no animated drawings, no plaster models, just zeroes and ones. At first it is purely geometric; with time it develops relief and shading. The technique starts to be used to explore different sorts of places, other sorts of travel. What would someday become cyberspace, and after that just the way that all images are created, starts off as a new way of showing the moon to those about to walk on it.
The prospect of an unprecedented physical experience brings forth a new virtual one.
Within these new directions of abstraction, though, intimacy remains—nowhere more than in the suit. Preconceptions suggested that the suit would be hard cased, with articulated arms—that it would make a man look like a robot. It is not. It is made of soft fabrics sewn together by women working with Singer sewing machines not unlike those found in half the houses of America, working not for a defense contractor but for the International Latex Corporation, makers of Playtex bras and girdles.
The spacesuit is the world shrunk skin-tight, the world three times removed. From the warm air of Florida to the command module; from the command module into the LM; from the LM into the suit. Sealed away airtight each time, and at the end of it all the breathable world is just in a bowl around the head and a pack on the back. The suits are better fitted to the wearers than any garment ever, sewn to an accuracy defined with aerospace exactitude, no stitch to be further than 1/64th of an inch—two-fifths of a millimeter—from the defined line of the seam. Not all the 21 layers are sewn; 16 of them, latex and Mylar, Dacron and Kapton, are glued together, no wrinkling allowed, the top layer almost indiscernibly larger than the bottom one, since what is outside must always be bigger than what is inside. Undergarments are webbed with water-filled tubes to cool the skin; in the bright Sun with no flow of outside air to carry heat away there is always the risk of overheating. But warmth can be provided, too, as required. A different tube takes water to the mouth; another grips the cock to drain it away. That tube eventually comes in three sizes: large, extra-large and extra-extra-large; the first run, in small, medium and large, unaccountably saw some astronauts fitted with the wrong size.
As that shows, the suits, made by women, are for men. Astronauts were test pilots, and test pilots were men. Women could pass the same tests—and did, when they were applied privately and not by NASA—but they were not test pilots nor fighter pilots, and astronauts were.
Some questioned this. Not many, though, and not high up. When Kennedy had said “a man on the moon” it was not shorthand for a human of either gender. Such things were what men did.
As well as being men, the astronauts were white, too, white as the spacesuits.* That was not quite such a done deal. The White House knew that a black astronaut could be a big win, at home and abroad; it edged NASA in that direction, ensuring that there should be a black candidate in the next class of Air Force test pilots. The politicians did not, though, push the point when he was not selected for astronaut training. The first African American astronaut flew in only 1983, the same year as the first female American astronaut—who headed to space in the shuttle 20 years and two days after Valentina Tereshkova took off in Vostok 6.
*As part of an art practice that interrogates notions of fantasy, modernity and that which it is to be African, Yinka Shonibare has made various spacesuit sculptures from the colorful patterned batik fabrics widely associated with West Africa. A black British security guard at London’s Tate Modern who was spending a lot of time with those pieces once told my wife that he knew they were empty—but he felt a really strong urge to try to open their dark-glass visors and see if there was a face like his inside.
Backing out of the angry-mouth hatch and down the ladder, the cycles of their lives wrapped around them, the men of the LM step onto the moon. In a way they never reach it. Cocooned, drained and diapered, they are swaddled in the world they came from and return to. They do not feel the lunar temperature—they have their own. They do not breathe the moon, or pee on it, or truly touch it; the gauntlets are wonders of dexterity, given their thickness, but they cannot transmit the tactile. They can hear only themselves, and the voices of others, far away.
But for a few hours or days, depending on the mission, they inhabit it. They move back and forth across it, they jump above it and feel the light shock of landing in their knees as their muscles absorb their body’s momentum.
They feel time pass on it. Though the Sun hardly moves in the sky, their hearts are beating, their reserves depleting. They watch it respond to them; they see its surface pierced as they dig their trenches, and what they see matches what their muscles feel. They see its soft contours, pocked surface, hard-to-judge distances and near horizons in the way you see places that you may or may not go to while visiting nearby, not as you see things to possess, not as you see representations, or illusions, or other people’s points of view.
It does not see them. And they do not see each other, at least not their faces. The sun-screening gold of the helmets’ faceplates means no expressions make it out of the suit. Looking at each other, they see in the faceplates only pictures of the moon, just as we do in the pictures they take of each other and bring back. They see what moon watchers have always seen: reflections. They see themselves.
They only experience the moon in the flesh after regaining the LM. They bring its dust and grit in with them on their suits. They smell it in their air when the tiny volume of the LM repressurizes and the helmets come off—it smells like gunpowder, or ashes doused with water. Sharp, electric sensations from reactions that could never take place in the vacuum outside catalyzed in the air within.
The fine moon stuff that coats the interior is dirt. It is pollution, in the way that the anthropologist Mary Douglas defined the word: matter out of place. Matter from the unworld in a new world.
In the LM, before he walks out into the dust, Buzz Aldrin takes Communion with bread and wine consecrated on another planet. “‘I am the vine’,” he says, “‘You are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing.’” It is not the only lunar sacrament. In her book “The Planets” (2005), Dava Sobel recalls hearing that her friend Carolyn, on being presented with a speck of moondust by a planetary scientist boyfriend, impulsively ate it.
The Apollo astronauts ingest it without choosing to. In their dust-dirtied LM tiny particles move through the alveoli of their lungs and across the microvilli of their guts into their blood, tissues and cells. They bring the moon home incorporated. They bring themselves home changed.
Adapted from The Moon: A History for the Future, by Oliver Morton, published in June 2019 by Economist Books in association with PublicAffairs, a division of the Hachette Book Group.
When you buy something using the retail links in our stories, we may earn a small affiliate commission. Read more about how this works .
- My glorious, boring, almost-disconnected walk in Japan
- What do Amazon's star ratings really mean?
- Drugs that boost circadian rhythms could save our lives
- The 4 best password managers to secure your digital life
- What tech companies pay employees in 2019
- 🏃🏽♀️ Want the best tools to get healthy? Check out our Gear team's picks for the best fitness trackers , running gear (including shoes and socks ), and best headphones .
- 📩 Get even more of our inside scoops with our weekly Backchannel newsletter