One Giant Leap: Apollo 11 Forty Years On, Piers Bizony

Last year was the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. You would have thought an achievement so important would have resulted in more of a celebration than actually took place (I did my bit). Neil Armstrong was the first human being to set foot on another world. The fact that no one has been back since the last Apollo mission in 1972 – thirty-eight years ago – only makes the achievement more astonishing.

However, a number of authors and publishers were happy to celebrate Apollo 11’s anniversary. I listed the books on the subject that were published last year on this blog here. One Giant Leap: Apollo 11 Forty Years On by Piers Bizony is one of those books. It is a large and copiously-illustrated coffee-table book intended to be, according to Bizony’s introduction, “a celebration of Apollo 11”. It also “gathers together more images of Apollo 11 than any mass-market publication has attempted before”.

However, One Giant Leap is not simply a collection of photographs. In five chapters, Bizony comments on the Apollo programme, making some excellent points as he does so. Forty years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, airliners were carrying people all over the world. Forty years after the transistor was invented, computers were embedded in everything from hand-held games to cars; and we had the Web too. Forty years after Apollo… and astronauts and cosmonauts are still strapped to the tops of cylinders full of highly explosive fuels and blasted into space. The benefits of the Apollo programme were spread across many areas of modern life, they’re not immediately obvious. Which makes it hard to see exactly what technological progress the programme was actually responsible for.

Bizony is also keen to place much of the credit for Apollo at the feet of James Webb, NASA’s administrator from 1961 to 1968. It was Webb’s leadership of NASA, and the way he set up the entire programme, which led to its success. And, ultimately, its cancellation. Because it was not the cost of Apollo which closed the programme down. The US government was spending more money on a mismanaged and ill-considered war in Vietnam. It has been calculated that NASA’s budget during the 1960s was “less than two dollars a month from each American citizen”. Nor was it a lack of achievement – NASA had met every goal it had been set. But Webb was on old-school Democrat, and believed that the “bounty” of Apollo should spread far and wide across the US, to create jobs and bring wealth to as many different areas as possible. That’s why the launch pads were in Florida, Mission Control in Texas, the spacecraft built in California and New York, and so on. But when the Republicans got into power, they scaled back Apollo as a response to “what they perceived as the over-reaching intrusion of the government into the nation’s affairs”.

One chapter of One Giant Leap is dedicated to Project Constellation, which was cancelled earlier this year. But the chapter makes the important point that a return to the Moon would be just as difficult today as it was in 1969. Yes, there has been much progress in many areas – such as computing. But launch vehicles are not much different, and not much safer, than they were forty years ago. The problems Apollo solved to get the Moon also remain the same, and their solutions were elegant and reliable. Any solutions Constellation might have come up with were likely to resemble Apollo’s – as the Orion Crew Module resembled the Apollo Command Module.

One Giant Leap is an excellent retrospective of Apollo 11. Not only does it contains a huge number of photographs, many of which have never been seen before in a book, but it also make a series of interesting and insightful points about the programme. Highly recommended.

One Giant Leap: Apollo 11 Forty Years On, Piers Bizony (2009, Aurum Press, ISBN 978-1-84513-422-8, 157pp + bibliography)

6 Responses to “One Giant Leap: Apollo 11 Forty Years On, Piers Bizony”

  1. Cliff Burns Says:

    Good overview of a book I would KILL to add to my collection.

    Those Apollo boys were smart crackers, weren’t they? I mean the ones that didn’t work and starve people to death at Peenemunde. A number of their “elegant solutions”, the products of ingenuity and necessity, are still state of the art today. Amazing…

  2. Ryan Crierie Says:

    “Which makes it hard to see exactly what technological progress the programme was actually responsible for.”

    Apollo drove a lot of the integrated circuit industry in the United States in the 1960s – at one point I believe virtually ALL the ICs made in the US were going into either the Apollo guidance computers or the Minuteman guidance computers.

    This impetus let ICs become cheaper much faster than they would have; and helped drive the IC boom of the the 1970s which continues to this day.

    “Forty years after Apollo… and astronauts and cosmonauts are still strapped to the tops of cylinders full of highly explosive fuels and blasted into space.”

    The problem is, unless someone invents some sort of anti-gravity field that allows us to raise things into orbit for their nominal energy price (about a gallon of gasoline for each pound IIRC), we’ll still be using cryogenic fuels to get to orbit, whether it’s by rockets or scramjets.

    What is a great tragedy is how the Saturn V died off — there were all sorts of proposals, such as Saturn Vs with strap on solid rocket boosters to put even heavier unmanned payloads into orbit — cheaper S-IVB stages, toroidal aerospike engines, etc.

    Then there’s NASA’s aimless wandering since Apollo. The shuttle is a great engineering marvel; it’s just that Nixon cut the final total cost of the shuttle that would be allowed in half, and then demanded something like 200% greater performance improvement.

    This meant that flyback first stage boosters (something von Braun had foreseen) had to go; and we had to use droppable solid rocket boosters and external tanks. Also, we had to drop the ideas for a ‘hot’ internal structure for the shuttle orbiter using titanium etc — which while weighing more than the aluminum structure eventually picked; would have been lighter overall; because not as much thermal protection tiling etc would have been needed.

    But the big killer is that we never built more than a couple Block I Shuttles. There was never any follow on of Block II shuttles to bring the fleet up to ten or more orbiters — the shuttle ground organization needs the same amount of manpower to ready and launch the shuttle, whether you have ten orbiters or just one.

    • iansales Says:

      Yes, kick-starting the microchip industry is certainly something that Apollo did, but how many people actually know that? That, I think, is the point Bizony was making in the book – that Wright’s Flyer and transistors are the obvious progenitors of jet airliners and computers, and that the progress is clear and easily-mapped. That’s not the case for anything Apollo did.

      There have been plenty of imaginative – and feasible – ways of throwing payloads into LEO invented, going right back to before WWII. But only a handful have ever made it off the drawing-board. What we have works… but it’s expensive, and changing it would be even more expensive. Cruise liners and warships still float, just like they did in the Age of Sail. But every now and again something a little more sophisticated comes along… and does a “Dreadnaught”. That doesn’t seem to happen with launch vehicles.

      The Space Shuttle was a compromise design. Bizony is plainly not a fan of the spacecraft, judging by his remarks in One Giant Leap. It’s true the Shuttle doesn’t seem to have achieved all that much over the last 30 years – especially when you consider what could have been achieved if the Apollo Applications Program had not been cancelled…

  3. Apollo: The Epic Journey to the Moon, David West Reynolds « A Space About Books About Space Says:

    […] books available. Piers Bizony’s One Giant Leap – Apollo 11 Forty Years On is one (see here), but it was published only last year as part of the fortieth celebration of the first lunar […]

  4. Readings & Watchings 4 « It Doesn't Have To Be Right… Says:

    […] One Giant Leap, Piers Bizony (2009), was a birthday present from my sister, and it’s excellent. I reviewed it on my Space Books blog here. […]

  5. That was the year that was « It Doesn't Have To Be Right… Says:

    […] Leap, Piers Bizony (the best of the books celebrating the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11; my review here); Yellow Blue Tibia, Adam Roberts (loved the first half, but not so keen on the second); Surface […]

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