After everyone else had finished speaking at the Caltech gathering, Neil Armstrong calmly rose and went to a chalkboard. He drew four bell-type curves, spaced slightly apart, and labeled them: Leadership, Threat, Economy, and Talent. And he said to the room, “My thought is, when you get all these lined up, you can’t stop something really big from happening.” Indeed, the early 1960s had it all: a bold (and in some ways, desperate) president; the threat of the Soviet Union; flush federal coffers; and an unprecedented number of college-educated youngsters. When the curves aligned, Armstrong suggested that an Apollo could rise. According to Gerry Griffin, engineer, flight director and eventual director of the Johnson Space Center, everyone in the room was nodding in agreement, as if to say “Of course, that’s it.”
The analysis of rarely aligned curves can help explain why we haven’t yet sent humans back into the cosmos. But four peaks fail to fully capture the miracle: 400,000 souls uniting in peacetime on a project so ambitious as to appear ludicrous. As humanity makes ample noise about restarting these journeys to other worlds, it’s worth looking under Apollo’s hood and asking the surviving engineers how they did it. Based on scores of recent interviews, their most frequent and fervent responses follow.
Earth, moon and the Apollo 11 lunar module, Eagle, in lunar orbit after return from the moon and before rendezvous with the command and service module Columbia. Mars is visible as the red dot on the right-hand side of Earth. It is often said that Michael Collins, who took this photo from the command module, is the only human in the world not in this picture.