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On the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11: How did the space race influence today’s tech?

On the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11: How did the space race influence today’s tech?

Jul 8, 2019
Jed Kim talks to Robert Stone, the filmmaker behind "Chasing the Moon."
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This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 crew landing on the moon. PBS is releasing a six-hour documentary series about it, “Chasing the Moon.”

Marketplace’s Jed Kim watched the whole series and calls it thrilling, even though we all know how it ends, right? A big part of the appeal is the footage the filmmakers pulled from more than 100 archives. It brings you back into the political, international and racial tensions of the 1960s.

Technology of course plays a major role in the Apollo 11 story, though the engineering and machines that got man to the moon and back seem wildly clunky compared to today’s tech. Kim spoke about this and more with the filmmaker Robert Stone. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Robert Stone: The computing power of the onboard computer in Apollo 11 was the equivalent of one of those electronic greeting cards. It’s kind of incredible. I spoke to Poppy Northcutt, who was a software engineer at NASA. She was developing and writing the code, and she said, “You just had to be really, really efficient in how you wrote code in those days, and you could do it.” The other interesting thing to note about this is the Russian rocket that put Yuri Gagarin into space. That rocket really is relatively unchanged to what they’re using so successfully to bring people up to the space station today.

Jed Kim: The entire Apollo program was a triumph of human technology, but then the Apollo program, which got us to the moon, was shuttered just years after we made it there. In your film, you make the point that a lot of people from that program went on to work in computing. How foundational was the space race in forming the modern-day tech industry?

“I don’t think you can draw a direct point or line between Apollo and my iPhone, but close.”

Robert Stone

Stone: I think it’s critical to it. Maybe it would have happened eventually, but who knows when. Global satellite communications were a direct outgrowth of the Apollo program. In fact, the final link to the global satellite communications network was put in place about two weeks before Apollo 11, which is why that moment is such a huge part of our history, because it was televised live all over the world. And then the process of having to miniaturize everything — miniaturizing a television camera, which in those days was like a big as a refrigerator. I don’t think you can draw a direct point or line between Apollo and my iPhone, but close.

Kim: I feel like today we’re hearing a lot about sending people to Mars, and a lot of that talk is coming from tech billionaires. Is this the new version of the space race? And if so, where does NASA fit in?

Stone: I think NASA’s main role is going to be earth science and robotic exploration and scientific exploration of the outer planets. But the human exploration certainly is being spearheaded by private enterprise, as it should. It’s a wonderful thing, and I’d love to see it. But I don’t think it should be the national priority goal of the United States.

Kim: With the film, you made some interesting choices. There is no narration, which is kind of phenomenal because you take us through the entire space race. Also, we never saw the people who you were interviewing. What drove those decisions?

Stone: I hate narration. I’ve never used narration in any of my documentaries. It’s too much like going to school for me. The decision not to use talking heads was one of the first decisions I made in the film. I’d seen other documentaries about the space race, and you’re off floating around in space and then seconds later you cut to some guy in his living room, and it kind of blows the whole moment. I wanted this to be fully immersive. I wanted the audience to experience everybody when they’re young. They’re in the prime of their lives, and everything’s unfolding before their eyes without the benefit of hindsight of knowing where it’s all going to end up. I didn’t want this seesaw back and forth between past and present and just to fully immerse the audience in the moment. So, it unfolds like a Hollywood movie. You just don’t know what’s going to come next.

Kim: Which is remarkable, because we all know how it ended.

Stone: But also, by using so much contemporaneous news accounts, we were able to really take the audience back and show how many various directions the project could have gone at any moment. It could have been canceled. We could have maybe done a joint ridden mission to the moon with the Russians that Kennedy wanted to do. We could have had an African American astronaut on the moon. All these kinds of things were on the table and could very well have happened and we explore all those. And it’s fascinating to follow this history without knowing if it was going to turn out the way it did.

Kim: There was so much footage in the documentary. I felt like I had seen everything that there was to see about Apollo 11, but I was clearly wrong. How did you get access to all of this?

Stone: Most other documentaries that have explored this have stuck close to the NASA collection. And while we use a lot of NASA footage — including a lot of NASA footage that hasn’t been seen before — we went way beyond that. We sourced nearly 100 different archives in the six-hour series. We really pulled from a broad spectrum of sources to tell a much bigger story than just the nuts and bolts of what NASA accomplished.

Kim: Yes, the U.S. was the first to put men on the moon. Does that mean that we won the space race? I hear this all the time, that the U.S. won the space race. But I think about Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin and so many more firsts that the Soviets beat us to. Can we claim that we won the space race?

Stone: Well, we won the space race as we defined it. Another thing that we reveal in the film is that the Russians really had no plan to go to the moon until 1965 after Khrushchev was overthrown. They started throwing a lot of money at it. But in the early days, it was an incredible string of successes. But they weren’t coordinated in a planned building upon one lesson than upon another lesson. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were racing against ourselves.

Kim: What was it about the moon that was so important?

Stone: It was important to Kennedy because we were being beaten by the Russians with these space spectaculars, and we’re looking to the rest of the world like we were a second-rate power. This is the height of the Cold War, where the developing world was throwing off the shackles of colonialism and saying: Is the totalitarian Soviet communism — is that the wave of the future? Or is liberal democracy represented by the United States the way the future? Which side are we going to follow?

Kennedy was told by Wernher von Braun, the German rocket scientist who was spearheading the space program: “If you want to beat the Russians you got to cheat. You got to move the goalposts. You got to do something so bold and audacious that both the United States and the Russians are going to have to build a whole new series of rockets and all new kinds of technology to do. And then we can probably win because we are an advanced country.” And he said, “You have me.”

So that’s when Kennedy said: “Well, what should we do? Well, let’s go to the moon. Say we’re going to go to the moon. How soon can we go to the moon? I think we could do it by 1970.” So that’s what he did. But within six weeks of proposing this, Kennedy goes and meets with Soviet Premier Khrushchev and suggests they do a joint mission, because he has doubts about the costs and the duplication of effort. As we reveal in the film, Khrushchev initially turned him down, but three years later, in the fall of 1963, Kennedy proposed it again and Khrushchev accepted and said, “Yeah let’s do it.” And of course, Kennedy was killed on Nov. 22, and Khrushchev was overthrown nine months later. But it’s one of the great what-ifs of the Cold War.

Kim: There would be two flags on the moon.

Stone: Or no flag. Maybe the United Nations flag. Who knows?

Related links: more insight from Jed Kim

If you want to catch up on a lot of the history and context behind the space race, but you don’t want to devote six hours to it, National Geographic has a site filled with factoids, like a list of the weird things astronauts took with them into space. Also, you can see what’s currently planned for missions to the moon and beyond.

Want to know more about the push to go to Mars? So did some hackers. WeLiveSecurity wrote a recent report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General. Someone took advantage of an unsecure Raspberry Pi, a tiny, cheap computer that exists on a circuit board. They got into NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and snooped around for 10 months. Among the stuff they accessed? Details about Curiosity.

Finally, if what you really want is to think about the stuff we’re calling moonshots today — that is, big goals that may seem impossible but that may only take science and determination — you might like reading up on the various initiatives at X Prize.

The team

Molly Wood Host
Eve Troeh Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer