Destination Moon

Scott McLemee reviews Charles Pappas's One Giant Leap: Iconic and Inspiring Space Race Inventions That Shaped History.

August 9, 2019
 
 

The semicentennial of the Apollo 11 mission is one of those anniversaries that involves a good deal of forgetfulness. Public memory of the space program is concentrated into video images of astronauts moving in low gravity and a pronouncement by Neil Armstrong that was profound in intention, though a non sequitur as delivered.

But scarcely anything else from the lunar program has left a trace. The lone exception would be Apollo 13, the subject of a blockbuster feature film from the mid-1990s that effectively reinforced every triskaidekaphobe’s fears.

Subsequent missions went without incident, and by the last one, Apollo 17, the public’s indifference was complete. Mission accomplished: landing astronauts on the moon -- and returning all of them to Earth, alive and well -- fulfilled the pledge John F. Kennedy made near the start of his administration. Apollo 11's live transmission to a global audience was a landmark event in mass-media history. (Or the high point in Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic career, according to a more conspiratorial vision of things.) But what was there to show for all of it but a growing collection of rocks?

Those of us of the age and temperament to be full-on space-exploration nerds at the time remember things a little differently. We were the kids able to explain who the Goddard Space Center was named after -- and who insisted on doing so. We consumed Space Food Sticks and had lunar globes. We were amused that people once feared that the surface of the moon was an ocean of dust particles, so that a landing module would sink, astronauts and all. And we learned the sequence of previous American space programs: Mercury, with one astronaut per mission; then Gemini, with two; then Apollo, with three. This implicitly raised a question of what the name and crew size for the Mars program would be.

NASA’s budget shrank as Apollo wound down, but its publicity office continued to proselytize in the elementary school science classroom. Educational packets explained that it was a mistake to complain that tax money spent bringing back rocks from the moon should have been directed to solve social problems, since technological spin-offs would improve life for everyone in the future.

Among those space nerds, by his own account, was Charles Pappas, who has done the guild proud with One Giant Leap: Iconic and Inspiring Space Race Inventions That Shaped History (Rowman and Littlefield). The high tide of space exploration generated not just images and sound bites but stuff: some of it awesomely huge and powerful, such as the Saturn rocket, but also innovations that had fairly unpredictable consequences, such as “open-cell, polymeric foam material with viscoelastic properties,” now usually called memory foam.

Pappas is an award-winning science reporter, and a number of chapters are in the genre of inventor profiles or product biographies. But they open up into sketches of how the technical problems and innovations involved in the moon mission linked up with (mainly) American trends in Cold War-era political and consumer culture. Popular technophilia took a different path once home computers became available, making Pappas’s book a sort of guided tour of a lost world.

The chapters are digressive but fairly self-contained, and James Spiller (a professor of history at State University of New York at Brockport) writes in his foreword that they “whirl with greater energy than standard historical accounts.” Their sequence is not noticeably linear. But at the risk of imagining patterns where none was intended, I notice two aspects of Pappas's space-race narrative that made an impression. One concerns the most basic problems involved in getting a mammal into outer space and keeping it alive for the duration -- the need, in short, to deal with both ends of the alimentary canal. The other is in regard to the Cold War.

Like many people, I grew up under the impression that NASA invented Tang during the Apollo program, making it one of those commercially viable spin-off products later available to the public. In fact, it was created at General Foods Corporation in 1957 by the same chemist who came up with Cool Whip, Pop Rocks and other minimally nutritional flavor-delivery systems. It was not a big hit, at least until John Glenn used it during his five hours in orbit in 1962.

“Thanks to an ongoing chemical reaction of the Mercury program’s onboard life-support system,” Pappas writes, “the water acquired an off-putting, if harmless, metallic taste.” To make the water more palatable, Glenn injected it “into a vacuum-sealed bag” containing what NASA referred to generically as “orange drink” or “xylose sugar tablets,” then shook the concoction and drank it through a straw: “It was, in other words, our first juice box in space.” He also “snacked on applesauce and then pureed beef and vegetable by squeezing them from an aluminum tube, like toothpaste.”

Progress is not always appetizing. But Glenn’s meal was important for “prov[ing] conclusively that peristalsis -- the wave-like muscle contractions that move food through our digestive and urinary tracts -- worked just as well in the much reduced gravity of space as it did on earth.” During the Apollo 11 mission, astronauts “had their pick of sausage patties, pork with scalloped potatoes and chicken,” among other options. But not Tang, although by that point, General Foods had branded it quite effectively through its “For Spacemen and Earth Families” ad campaign.

Consumption is only half the process, of course, although that aspect of space flight was not so well publicized. “While Neil Armstrong was the first human to talk on the moon,” Pappas notes for the record, “Buzz Aldrin was the first to urinate on it. When he made a longer-than-expected jump from the lunar module, the Eagle, to the moon’s jagged surface, his urine collector tore open on impact. Later on, when he relieved himself, the discharge spilled from the burst bag and filled one of his boots.” I will spare you details of NASA’s “fecal containment system,” apart from the fact that using it “sometimes consumed 45 minutes to an hour” and that “once the bag was sealed, the astronauts were stuck with it.”

Conditions aboard the International Space Station these days are quite luxurious now with regard to dining and otherwise. At the height of the space race, its very name would have suggested that humanity was on course for achieving a higher stage of civilization, in fulfillment of the promise on the plaque that Apollo 11 left behind: “We came in peace for all mankind.”

But Pappas’s historical collage shows those words to be ironic at best. The space race was a front in the Cold War, with each side prone to denying or minimizing the other’s accomplishments. Insofar as technological development was taken as an index of social superiority, it’s not too surprising that Pravda gave only cursory notice of Apollo 11. But that also accounts for why so many of the Soviet “firsts” -- first man in space, first woman in space, first spacecraft to land on the moon, first to land on another planet and so forth -- were downplayed or simply ignored on the U.S. side. Not to say that American space nerds were the victims of totalitarian brainwashing, but NASA's classroom materials were propaganda, by any standard.

One Giant Leap does not reduce space exploration to its nationalistic uses; if anything, Pappas is almost contagiously enthusiastic about his material. But it's probably a sign of the times that the one space-race innovation from those days we're used to seeing in the news is Mylar, handed out to refugees as protection from the elements.

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