What are the hidden tales of the Apollo program?

The Apollo program is well-known both inside and outside the space community. Its achievements are important benchmarks in humanity’s engagement with space. Much focus is put on a few key individuals – notably, the astronauts. But thousands of people were involved in the program. We spoke to Nancy Atkinson, who recently wrote a book detailing some of these people’s stories. In doing so, she provides a unique and valuable perspective on the Apollo program’s achievements.

How does your book contribute to understandings of the Apollo program?

Previous Apollo books (as well as movies and documentaries) usually focus on stories about the astronauts or people in mission control. In reality, Apollo encompassed so much more – it took the efforts of over 400,000 people to make it possible to reach the Moon. I wanted to tell stories about Apollo that hadn’t been told yet.

I knew I couldn’t talk to all 400,000 people, but “Eight Years to the Moon” tells the story of Apollo in the years 1962-1969 through the eyes and experiences of about 60 engineers and scientists. I conducted personal interviews with over 40 people and then incorporated oral histories from about 20 more. (Since this all took place over 50 year ago, some people have passed away). For many of the people I talked to, it was the first time anyone outside friends and family had ever asked them about their lives and experiences in the 1960s. These people, though, made important and sometimes pivotal contributions to the effort. The book shares personal details and some of the previously untold stories of the monumental challenges to try to reach the Moon in just eight years.

These people worked at NASA, or at contractor companies and factories, designing and building the spacecraft, the rockets, the computers, and all the various components. They were tasked with figuring out how to do so many things that had never been done before. They had to come up with many ideas from scratch in order to create a craft with the ability to maneuver in space with incredible precision. They needed to design unprecedented systems to keep the astronauts alive. They needed to come up with the technology to keep the astronauts in constant communication with Earth during the entire trip to the Moon, and then to send back live television broadcasts from 240,000 miles away. Apollo required myriad devices, mechanisms, and apparatuses, most of which had never been conceived of or considered before. The engineers and scientists encountered incredible hurdles along the way.

I feel fortunate to be able to tell the stories of two of the very few women engineers at NASA during those days. They were sort of “hidden figures” who worked behind the scenes. Dottie Lee worked on designing the heat shield. Cathy Osgood was a member of the team that figured out how to do rendezvous in space, which is figuring out how two spacecraft can meet up and come together in space. How to rendezvous in space was a complete unknown in the early 1960s.

Earle Kyle was one of the few African American engineers in the 1960s. He worked at Honeywell in Minneapolis, working on some of the components for steering and navigating the spacecraft. And of course, while the run-up to Apollo was happening in the mid-1960s, we also had so much else going on in our country – social justice issues and racial tensions – so Earle was right in the middle of all of that. He has a really unique story.

I heard someone once say that Apollo was handmade, and I think that’s a great way to put it. So many things were done by hand! The heat shield was meticulously caulked onto the surface of the command module by hand. The tiny wires for the computer memory were woven by women in a factory. Seamstresses sewed the spacesuits. Many of the nuts and bolts of the rockets and spacecraft were put together by hand. Almost all the technology that was needed just didn’t exist. It had to be invented and built. The engineers and scientists of Apollo had to be resourceful and inventive. I think their stories can teach us how we can be more resourceful and inventive in our lives today.

Through my research and interviews, I uncovered some little-known details about the Apollo program. There was, for instance, a potentially catastrophic event that took place during Apollo 11’s return to Earth that could have ended in disaster. It was a close call, but everything turned out OK. Once NASA engineers realized what had happened, they made changes for future missions in the way spacecraft came back through Earth’s atmosphere.

Why did you decide to write the book?

The easy answer is that my publisher asked me to write it! But after interviewing so many people, what really stood out to me – and what really established the framework for the book – is that the people who worked behind the scenes for Apollo worked incredibly hard and sacrificed a lot. They uprooted their families to move to Houston or to various installations around the country at the contractor companies. They worked agonizingly long hours during those eight years (60 to 70 hours a week and six to seven days a week were common). Marriages and family life suffered; many marriages failed.

But the multitudes who worked on Apollo were fully committed, resolving to reach the Moon. Each of them took it upon themselves to say, “If this thing fails, it won’t be because of me.” They gave their lives to the space program every bit as much as the astronauts did, only without any of the recognition. That’s why I’m so honored to tell their stories.

Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart wrote the forward for my book, and I think he put it best: Apollo was ordinary people coming together to accomplish something extraordinary. And because Apollo was such an important moment in history, it was a tremendous collective experience of discovery, creativity, and accomplishment.

For almost everyone living during that time, the Apollo experience was unforgettable.

Looking back at what was accomplished in such a short period of time with the technology that was available, Apollo is completely remarkable. It’s no wonder the Moon landings are considered the greatest achievement of the 20th century, if not of all time.

What advice do you have for other authors covering space history?

There are definitely more stories out there, just waiting to be told! While everyone has a story, the people who have been part of our “leaving the cradle” (as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky put it) have such unique stories and experiences about making it possible for us to reach for the stars. I think the general public is very intrigued by those unique stories.

No story in the endeavor of space exploration is too big or too small. Yes, some of it is technical and hard to understand. It is quite magical, though, when you can take facts, figures, and diagrams, and then take someone’s personal experience and put it all together into a narrative that tells the full story. It’s also a great responsibility to tell someone else’s story; it can feel daunting. But transport yourself (in my case, I needed to go back to the 1960s) and live through the time you are researching. Then encompass all the bits and pieces of people’s lives along with documents, pictures, and other information. Putting history, science, and technology together into one package is quite a creative process and can be incredibly rewarding!