The Current

Behind the scenes of the moon landing: NASA did incredible work, but almost forgot the flag, says author

Author Charles Fishman recounts the amazing behind-the-scenes efforts to get Apollo 11 to the moon 50 years ago. His new book, One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon, takes a look back on that achievement.

Hundreds of thousands of people involved in getting Apollo 11 to the moon

Buzz Aldrin poses for a photograph beside the U.S. flag deployed on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969. In a new book, Charles Fishman writes that NASA almost didn't even send a flag. (NASA/Associated Press)

Read Story Transcript

Fifty years ago, the world watched in awe as the first humans set foot on the moon.

But while just two people took that small step for man, hundreds of thousands had worked to get them there in a gargantuan effort that took almost a decade.

Charles Fishman has written about that behind-the-scenes effort in his new book One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon.

He spoke to The Current's guest host David Common about the work NASA did — and the things they almost forgot.

Here is part of their conversation.

We've heard about how July 20, 1969 was the day in which everything just stood still, everyone in the world, paying attention to this. But what did it take to get to that moment?

It took 410,000 people back on Earth to send just 11 Apollo missions into space. That's more people than were fighting for the United States in Vietnam for three years of the war. It was the largest undertaking in human history that was not a war. It was really an extraordinary effort.

Celebrations at the control centre in Houston on July 24, 1969, when the crew of Apollo 11 safely returned to Earth. (NASA/Associated Press)

And all of these people were working on their various component parts, on the science, and on, I guess, making sure that theirs wasn't the thing that failed when these guys are up there?

Well, to start, they were working on inventing space travel. In 1961, there was no rocket big enough to go to the moon. There was no spaceship that could land on the moon, no computer small enough or fast enough to do the maths necessary to fly to the moon — no computer anywhere in the world. No spacesuits, no space food. So in the early years, people were furiously doing the engineering and technology development to make it possible to fly in space.

Their work actually had to be perfect … The spacesuits were sewed by hand, every single stitch was counted and inspected. Because a single stitch misdone in the spacesuit could put the astronauts and the whole mission at risk.

Armstrong's immortal words: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." 2:28

Of course there was the speech that was never read, the one written for the president in case the lunar lander couldn't take off again.

This is such an odd little corner of the Apollo history. Somebody at NASA warned the White House that even inside NASA, they weren't completely confident that everything was going to go perfectly. Of course not. They knew what could go wrong. And they suggested that the president be ready, in case something went wrong.

And so Richard Nixon's very talented, very well-known speechwriter William Safire sat down and wrote a speech in advance … in case Armstrong and Aldrin ended up trapped on the moon.

It's a beautifully written speech … and of course it's all the more beautiful because it never had to be given.

So they got down to the moon, they got off the moon in spite of all the challenges. But one of those iconic moments, perhaps the iconic moment is planting the American flag — Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin doing that. But that also is a moment that almost didn't happen?

At no point — right into the middle of 1969 — had anybody at NASA paused and thought about how to celebrate landing on the moon. Somebody at headquarters actually called NASA in Houston and said: "You've got to do something about this, we're gonna have to celebrate somehow." And NASA created the Committee for Celebrations of the First Lunar Landing on the Surface — it sounds like a NASA committee.

A guy named Jack Kinzler, who was a senior technical manager in Houston, came to the meeting with this plan for a flag. He said we've got to plant a flag, you don't go to the moon and not plant a flag. And in order to make it fly on the moon, with no air, and no atmosphere at all, we're going to have to have a vertical flagpole, and ... hinged to it at the top, a horizontal flagpole. And then we're just going to slide the flag out, like a curtain.

And the senior officials who were on the committee ... said: "Jack, that's a great idea. You go make that flag." 

They bought off-the-shelf flags. It's pretty clear they bought those flags at Sears.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin plant the U.S. flag on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969. ((NASA/Associated Press))

The astronauts had checklists of what they were supposed to do ... on the surface of the moon. Plant the flag, erect the flag, is not on Armstrong or Aldrin's checklists, on their spacesuit gloves, because it happened too late.

That picture of Armstrong and Aldrin alongside the flag that was literally on half the front pages of newspapers around the world, [it's] amazing that they weren't thinking about that in advance. 

Here we are 50 years on. What's the legacy?

When Kennedy said let's do this in 1961, it was literally impossible ... eight years later it was happening. 

I think one of the most important lessons is to take a step back and say, if you ask people to rally to a cause and you explain to them what the urgency of that cause is — they will do it, even if it seems impossible.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Howard Goldenthal. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.