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Shoot for the Moon
The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11
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Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.
François de La Rochefoucauld
Cape Kennedy, July 16, 1969, 4:15 a.m.
The beast—what some early missile men called a rocket—stood on the launchpad, dozens of spotlights bathing its milky-white skin, hissing, groaning, gurgling, thick umbilical hoses pumping fuel into it, sheets of ice sliding down its sides from the super-chilled liquid oxygen inside, some of it boiling off in thick white clouds of breath, and looking as if it might shake off the arms of its gantry, rip itself from its moorings, and stalk off down the Florida coast.
Eight miles away, on the third floor of Kennedy Space Center’s Building 24, Deke Slayton walked down the hall of the crew quarters and rapped on three doors. With each knock, he said cheerily, “It’s a beautiful day,” and he meant it.
Raised on a farm, the unpretentious Slayton was fiercely protective of his charges—part den mother, part dictator—while at the same time envious of every one of them. A former World War II bomber pilot and test pilot and an original Mercury Seven astronaut, he’d been made chief of NASA’s astronaut office when a minor heart problem grounded him before he had a chance to fly a mission into space. Slayton understood better than anyone that to a certain extent, the men’s fates were in his hands, since he selected the crew for each mission and could make or break their careers. He was scrupulously fair in his choices—for the most part.
The men behind the three doors were astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins. They constituted the crew of the Apollo 11 scheduled for launch that morning. In three hours, they would climb into a small chamber atop the 363-foot, three-stage Saturn V, the most powerful machine ever built, and blast off into space. A few days later, two of them would attempt to do something that had never been done before: pilot a small, fragile craft down to another world, 239,000 miles from Earth, and walk on its surface.
These three men and others, most of them culled from the ranks of the nation’s top test and fighter pilots, had committed their lives to this goal and worked tirelessly toward this moment.
When the American space program began, in 1958, no human had journeyed into the hostile environment of space—an airless, low-gravity vacuum with temperatures of extreme cold and intense heat that no living being could withstand. Without an artificial life-support system, a man would die instantly. Even with one, he might die; the effects of weightlessness, radiation, meteors, and the enormous forces accompanying launch and reentry were largely unknown. Each astronaut had trained for years to overcome these dangers and others.
Along the way they also spent thousands of hours learning how to use the machines that would carry them into space, machines far more sophisticated and complex than any previously invented, machines designed by a cadre of visionary scientists and engineers united by a dream of space travel, an insatiable curiosity, and the determination to make that dream come true. They all worked insanely long hours, often at the expense of their personal lives and relationships. Along with the four hundred thousand other men and women who actually built the machines, the astronauts devoted themselves to helping their country triumph against the Communist threat. At stake was not just supremacy in space but quite possibly America’s survival as a democracy.
They had not reached this point without major setbacks and great tragedies. Rockets exploded. Systems malfunctioned. Men died. The murder of a visionary president whose bold challenge had fired the program only reaffirmed their dedication to finishing the job.
But in October 1957, still flying high just a dozen years after their victory in World War II, Americans had no idea how a small metallic ball with a radio transmitter would change the world.
Cossacks in Space
Our aim from the beginning was to reach infinite space.
Major-General Walter Dornberger,
coordinator of Germany’s V-2 program
One Saturday morning in October 1957, a fourteen-year-old boy in the small farming town of Fremont, Iowa, woke up to find the world a different place. The Soviet Union had launched a beach-ball-size silver sphere into orbit around the Earth. They called it Sputnik—literally, “fellow traveler.” The Russians, those steppe-riding, vodka-swilling Cossacks who were widely seen as a second-rate technological power, had beaten the United States into space.
The boy’s name was Steve Bales, and he was of average height with thick brown hair and glasses. His mother worked in a beauty parlor, and his father, who at the age of thirty-nine had been drafted into the U.S. Army and served with the 102nd Infantry Division in World War II, owned a hardware store. Steve told his parents, his three younger brothers, and anyone else who’d listen how angry he was that America hadn’t launched a satellite first. He’d been interested in space ever since he was ten, when he and his father and brothers spent many a summer night sleeping outside on well-worn gray blankets in the field behind their house on the edge of town. As darkness fell, their dad would point out the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, and other constellations, and nothing seemed as wonderful as the universe and its mysteries. That excitement spiked when the boy watched a 1955 Walt Disney TV special that featured an intense rocket scientist with a slight German accent describing how one day man would reach the moon.
Now there was an artificial satellite, and it belonged to the Soviets—the enemy in this Cold War. But it was only a matter of time, the boy knew, before the United States would launch its own, and there would be more space exploration. And he wanted to be a part of it.
Lyndon Johnson, Senate majority leader, was relaxing with some friends at his family ranch in the Texas Hill Country that Saturday, October 5, when he heard about Sputnik. After dinner, they took a walk down a dark road, and everyone looked up at the sky. “In some new way,” Johnson remembered, “the sky seemed almost alien.” He spent most of that evening calling aides and colleagues, mobilizing them to begin an inquiry into the nation’s satellite and missile programs. Johnson knew more about this new frontier than any other elected official in Washington—he had been spearheading congressional hearings and inquiries into America’s space programs since the late 1940s—and he didn’t like the feeling of being second to America’s greatest enemy. He wanted to respond immediately to the Soviet challenge, and he began plans to chair a Senate Preparedness Subcommittee. It was clear to him that a comprehensive space program was necessary. That the Eisenhower administration’s ineptitude in space provided an opportunity for political gain—so much the better.
In the dozen years since the end of World War II, America’s onetime ally had become its greatest enemy. Some 418,000 Americans had lost their lives in the war, but that number paled in comparison to the twenty-seven million Russians who had died. While the United States emerged from the struggle as the world’s most powerful nation, a wary USSR viewed America’s constant meddling in the affairs of other countries—some overt, but much of it covert—as imperialism and believed the Western powers might finish off what the Nazis had started: their country’s conquest. (After all, in 1941, Senator Harry S. Truman had publicly equated Nazi Germany with Stalinist Russia.) Increasing the tension between the two countries was the fact that the long-term goal of the totalitarian form of Communism, as frequently enunciated, was the elimination of the Western capitalist system. The Soviets’ espoused desire for world domination (albeit preferably by a series of national revolutions, “small wars of liberation”), their nuclear and ICBM capability, and their frequent saber-rattling (for instance, in 1956 they threatened England, France, and Israel with hydrogen bombs if those countries did not end their war against Egypt, a Soviet ally) created a constant state of paranoia in the United States. That mentality was reflected and refracted in a burgeoning wave of science fiction and fact concerning rocketry and space travel in movies, TV shows, books, and magazines. All this was magnified by the realization that nuclear bombs were completely capable of annihilating mankind.
And there was most certainly a war going on, regardless of temperature, and the stakes involved were serious. Most Americans expected smaller countries around the world to gradually succumb, one by one, to the creeping menace of Communism. In November 1956, at a party at the Polish embassy in Moscow, Nikita Khrushchev, the tough, blustery Soviet premier, told Western ambassadors, “We will bury you,” and while the phrase as translated might not have represented his precise meaning, it was accurate as to his intent. That declaration jibed with his publicly stated prediction that President Dwight Eisenhower’s grandchildren would live under socialism, since capitalism was in its death throes. And the Soviets weren’t the only ones rattling their nukes. In 1953, Eisenhower had threatened to use a hydrogen bomb against China, and U.S. senators had often called publicly for an atomic bomb to be dropped on Russia.
Soon after the Soviet Union had detonated its own nuclear device, the two superpowers had begun to coexist under an unwritten but clearly understood doctrine known as “mutually assured destruction,” meaning that everyone was aware that the full-scale use of nuclear weapons would cause the almost complete annihilation of both the attacker and the defender. This knowledge—and each country’s fear of a massive, preemptive nuclear strike from the other—was all that kept the Cold War from becoming hot. Both developed massive forces of nuclear weapons and long-range bombers and missiles, more than a thousand on each side, though the Russian Tu-4 bomber, a direct copy of the American B-29, was inferior to most of the U.S. fleet.
Americans had always taken comfort in the fact that their country was superior to Russia in every way, including in the realm of science and technology. It was Americans, after all, who had split the atom and created the nuclear monster that had ended the war—even if the Russians had developed their own A-bomb in 1949 and then a much more powerful hydrogen bomb in 1953, a year after the United States.
So when Americans awoke on October 5, 1957, to the news that a shiny, 184-pound steel ball with four trailing antennas and two radio transmitters was beep-beep-beeping its way around the world and that this Russian moon was traveling right over the United States, hundreds of miles above their heads, seven times a day, most people in the country were aghast.
But leaders of the U.S. satellite program were not surprised by the announcement. In 1955 both Russia and the United States had announced their intention to launch a satellite during the International Geophysical Year, a multinational agreement to share scientific information that would run from July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958, and involve sixty-seven nations in various earth-science projects. And just weeks before the launch, the Soviets had gone so far as to provide the frequencies at which Sputnik’s telemetry—its electronic data transmission—could be monitored.
Not all of America’s military leaders were intimidated by the satellite; one U.S. admiral called Sputnik a “hunk of iron almost anyone could launch.” A few others, including President Eisenhower, tried to play down its significance, a position somewhat weakened two days later when the United States offered the United Nations “a plan to control outer-space arms.” Ike had no intention of entering into an expensive space race, especially when it appeared that the Soviets were so far in front. And Sputnik, it was noted, was not large enough to carry a nuclear weapon.
But the press, Johnson, and Johnson’s Democratic colleagues, sensing an opportunity to do damage to the opposition, disagreed. “The Soviet has taken a giant leap into space,” proclaimed the New York Times, and Senator Henry M. Jackson, a Democrat from Washington, called the launching “a devastating blow to the United States’ scientific, industrial, and technical prestige in the world.” The industry monthly Missiles and Rockets made it even more Manichaean: “The nation that controls space will control the world. The choice is democracy or slavery.” The magazine also revealed Soviet plans to land a small tank on the moon that would constantly move about, film the Earth, and relay the images back to Russia. Over six weeks, Johnson’s Senate Preparedness Subcommittee hearings paraded an impressive array of aviation, military, and rocketry experts before the public. Each one emphasized the dangers of ignoring the Sputnik achievement and what it portended. When the committee finished the hearings on January 8, Johnson’s no-holds-barred summary statement threw down the gauntlet. “Control of space means control of the world,” declared Johnson, echoing the Missiles and Rockets editorial. He linked the fate of the free world to it and virtually dared anyone to argue cost—“bookkeeping concerns of fiscal officers,” he made clear, were “irrelevant.”
Prestige—a code word for political strength and one that would pop up frequently in speeches and reports—was something statesmen worried about. In the global tug-of-war between the democratic free world, led by the United States, and the Communist countries, headed by the USSR, dozens of less advanced, recently decolonized nations were still undecided as to which side of the ideological rope they would grab onto; in a sense, they were waiting to see which team had the advantage. Neither superpower knew exactly what would persuade them, though, clearly, superiority in science—particularly its military applications—would play a large part. So advances in these crucial areas were trumpeted loudly, with Western Europe a rapt audience. If America’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies could be shaken loose from that coalition, the Soviets felt, Sputnik and its descendants would be worth every ruble.
Until Sputnik launched—an event that followed the Russian announcement six weeks earlier that a Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile had been fired a great distance—the United States had appeared comfortably in the lead. “The Soviet Union is thought to be making a conscious effort to persuade people, especially in Asia and Africa, that Moscow has taken over world leadership in science,” warned the New York Times on its front page in October 1957, and another op-ed in the paper was even bleaker: “The neutral nations may come to believe the wave of the future is Russian; even our friends and allies may slough away.” The struggle for the undecideds’ hearts and minds—and pocketbooks, since another worry was the international market for American goods and tools—was a very real part of the Cold War. A top secret government report just a week after Sputnik launched seemed to agree; it concluded that American prestige had suffered a severe blow and cited several examples of how the satellite had enhanced the Soviet Union’s prestige and damaged America’s. Another reported that “within weeks there was a perceptible decline in enthusiasm among the public in West Germany, France and Italy for ‘siding with the west’ and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”
But if prestige was a politician’s word, it was also a politician’s worry. The average American was more concerned about survival than prestige, and Johnson’s statements hit a nerve. Clearly the United States was no longer safe from nuclear attacks. What was next? Soviet military bases on the moon or orbiting the Earth? A 1956 article in Collier’s magazine had vividly suggested just that, with color illustrations of New York City being firebombed from above. Yes, that might be next, and it seemed even more likely after the Soviets launched Sputnik 2 just thirty-two days after its predecessor. That satellite carried a small mongrel dog named Laika into space, though she died from overheating after only a few hours in orbit. (At the time, the Soviets claimed that she survived for a week; the truth would not be revealed for decades.) Sputnik 2’s 1,121-pound payload—heavier than a Soviet nuclear warhead—made it abundantly clear that the Soviets could now reach America with an A-bomb. And there was only one reason to send a dog into orbit around the Earth. It was just a matter of time before there were Russians in space—and that meant right above America.
After a few more weeks of teeth-gnashing by Democrats in DC and nonstop fear-stoking by the press—“Why is the U.S. still lagging in a race that may decide whether freedom has any future?” asked Time magazine—even those Americans initially unimpressed by Sputnik were whipped into near hysteria. The United States trailed the leader in a race that could end in the destruction of the American way of life…or destruction, period. Paranoia increased; not surprisingly, UFO sightings quadrupled immediately after Sputnik. Martians? Russians? Both were postulated.
How could these primitive Cossacks have accomplished such a thing? Much ink was spilled and time spent lamenting how soft America had become in the little more than a decade since the end of World War II. While op-ed writers bemoaned an “education gap,” and a government report showed that Soviet children took far more science and math in high school than the fun-loving, sock-hopping American kids, who were getting dumber every day, it was clear that Soviet triumphs would continue. All this self-recrimination would result in the National Defense Education Act, signed into law by Eisenhower in September 1958, which was designed to kick-start the U.S. educational system with grants, low-interest loans, and the like. Eisenhower, in a press conference a few days after Sputnik 1 launched, insisted that it wasn’t the Russians who had built the satellite—it was “all of the German scientists” they had captured at the end of the war.
This could not have been further from the truth. Almost all the top German rocket scientists and engineers had been captured and co-opted not by the Soviets but by the United States under the auspices of a secret project, and they had been living in America since 1945. Their leader, Wernher von Braun, was a handsome, charming ex-SS officer who had been the chief architect of an ambitious rocket program that had killed thousands during the war—and who now spread the gospel of space exploration to Americans in Walt Disney TV specials.
This group of so-called Nazi scientists—a misnomer, since less than half of them had been members of the Nazi Party and all but a few were engineers and technicians, not scientists—were capable enough; their forty-six-foot-long V-2 rocket, a tremendous feat of science and engineering, had been the first man-made object to enter space. The trouble was, its creators had been virtually handcuffed by their American superiors for almost a decade, despite the best efforts of their persuasive director, and relegated to low-priority upper-atmosphere experiments, since the military saw long-distance bombers, not rockets, as superior weapons. Von Braun had striven for permission to construct a satellite and launch it before the Soviets did their own, and he had grandiose plans for an orbiting space platform that would work as either a refueling stop halfway to the moon or a battle station from which to rain down nuclear missiles. The satellite project was denied due to budget restrictions, and the space-platform idea wasn’t even considered. In the late 1940s, anybody who talked of going anywhere in space was considered a crackpot. Von Braun was determined to change that thinking, but it wouldn’t happen overnight.
Wernher was born into German nobility (which accounted for the von in his name) in 1912; his father served as minister of agriculture during the Weimar Republic of the 1920s, and his mother could trace her ancestry to medieval kings in four countries. Von Braun began dreaming of traveling to other heavenly bodies during his pampered childhood. His mother, an amateur astronomer, gave him a telescope for his confirmation instead of his first pair of long pants, which was the standard gift for Lutheran boys, and he devoured the space-travel novels of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. In his teens he became familiar with the writings of the great early theoreticians of rocketry—an obscure Russian schoolteacher, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky; the German mathematician Hermann Oberth; and the American physicist and inventor Robert Goddard—and graduated from fireworks to his own inventions and plans, not only for rockets, but for spaceships and their pilots. At sixteen, he organized an astronomy club at school and managed to acquire funds to buy a good-size refractor telescope. A German spaceflight movement was growing in the 1920s, and von Braun became a part of it. He was soon working with Oberth and other leading figures in German rocketry. By the time he entered university, the tall, blue-eyed, dark-haired young man was a science and math prodigy committed to a career in rockets and determined to pursue his dream of journeying to the moon and the planets.
He graduated at twenty from the Berlin Institute of Technology with a degree in mechanical engineering and began postgraduate work in physics at the University of Berlin, but his studies were curtailed by larger forces. In the summer of 1932, some months before the Nazi Party came to power, the German army was casting about for some sort of long-range weaponry not banned by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which had severely restricted the country’s war-making abilities. They were not unaware of the destructive potential of a large, long-range rocket and asked von Braun to participate in secret research for military applications. He was initially impressed with the Nazis’ leader, Adolf Hitler, because of his nationalist ideas and his “astounding intellectual capabilities.” Above all, von Braun was an opportunist, and the idea of war seemed highly unlikely at the time. The army did not share his dream of spaceflight, but if they could help him build rockets, he would build rockets for them—a tempting prospect, considering the cost of the rockets he envisioned, and somewhat inevitable, since civilian rocket activity was soon banned. He accepted the offer and became the army’s top civilian specialist at their new (and only) rocket station, an artillery range hidden in a pine forest near Kummersdorf, sixty miles south of Berlin. His laboratory was half a concrete pit, his staff a single mechanic. But he continued his studies, and by the end of 1934, he was awarded a doctorate in physics in aerospace engineering, though his full dissertation was kept classified by the army. By that time, his group, which had grown to include several men who would work closely with him over the next decade and beyond, had successfully launched two small liquid-fueled rockets. The director of the program was only twenty-two.
Over the next several years, his greatest talent would emerge—the managing of massive engineering projects. Few visionaries could mesh their dreams with the practical realities of administration on a grand scale; von Braun had a genius for it. His blend of charisma, enthusiasm, and knowledge inspired loyalty and hard work, and he became a superb leader of a large group of scientists, engineers, and technicians. In 1937 he was made technical director of the German army’s long-range ballistic missile program after it moved to Peenemünde, a facility on an island off the coast of northern Germany. Three years later, with World War II in full swing, he led a staff of more than a thousand. In the spring of 1940, he was pressured by Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler to join the SS, the elite paramilitary organization in charge of enforcing Nazi racial policies and, by extension, policing and intelligence. After some deliberation, von Braun joined, since not doing so might have damaged his career and his rocket work; he was given the rank of lieutenant. He participated in very few SS activities besides the monthly meetings, and even those he attended only half the time.
By 1942, the Peenemünde team had developed the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile, the forty-six-foot A-4 (soon renamed the V-2, the V for vengeance). It was a monster of a rocket, unlike anything ever seen before, and a huge leap forward in technology, from its powerful engine to its advanced guidance system. The V-2 could carry a 2,200-pound payload of explosives two hundred miles and do it fairly accurately, or at least it could toward the end of the war, after its guidance system was improved. The missile reached a speed of thirty-five hundred miles an hour, making it virtually impossible to shoot down—when it didn’t explode during liftoff.
- One of Publishers Weekly's Best Books of 2019
- "If you're looking for telling of the manned space program's story, you should start with James Donovan's Shoot for the Moon."—NPR
- "Donovan's narrative is a well-crafted one...one of the best in print."—Science Magazine
- "Vividly readable"—Christian Science Monitor
- "Donovan combines his masterful research skills and narrative gifts in recounting the full story of the most famous Apollo trip...Donovan's history is a powerfully written and irresistible celebration of the Apollo missions."—Booklist (starred review)
- "Exceptionally researched, this exciting, sometimes harrowing book highlights the work not only of the pioneering astronauts but also of thousands of technicians and engineers. This is a perfect volume to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing and all that led up to it."— Publishers Weekly (starred)
- "This account reads like an adventure story."—The Columbus Dispatch
- "Donovan's account of Apollo 11 is a breath-stopping page-turner."— Michael Barnes, Austin-American Statesman
- "Shoot for the Moon is a gripping account of the dangers, the challenges, and the sheer determination that defined not only Apollo 11, but also the Mercury and Gemini missions that came before it."—BookPeople
- "Its breadth and detail will give you a new appreciation for just how complex and dangerous this mission was. You'll come away marveling that, against all odds, we put people on the motherf**in' moon!"—Austin Chronicle
- "This is the best book on Apollo that I have read. Extensively researched and meticulously accurate, it successfully traces not only the technical highlights of the program but also the contributions of the extraordinary people who made it possible."—Mike Collins, Command module pilot, Apollo 11
- "A gripping yet wonderfully detailed account of one of humanity's greatest achievements. Shoot for the Moon gives a fascinating insight into the golden age of space exploration."—Tim Peake
"It was one of humankind's greatest achievements, and here, perhaps for the first time, is the whole story, fastidiously reported and elegantly told. With Shoot For the Moon, James Donovan captures it all-the science, the engineering, the clashing egos, the Cold War politics. But what's even more impressive, he does it without depriving us of the essential magic that was Apollo, this Promethean program that dared to aim as high and as far as man could go."
—Hampton Sides, author Ghost Soldiers, In theKingdom of Ice, and On Desperate Ground
- "With a brilliant eye for detail and an elegant sense of historical narrative, Donovan's Shoot the Moon is sure to be a space race classic."
—Annie Jacobsen, bestselling author & Pulitzer Prize finalist
- On Sale
- Mar 24, 2020
- Page Count
- 464 pages
- Back Bay Books