The Moon

So profound the moon missions were, that since then, we even refer to enormous leaps of science and technology as “Moonshots.” Companies, like Google, create “Moonshot Factory” divisions where the most impactful research is done. Today, when we dare to aim for almost-too-hard to achieve, we call it a Moonshot. When in 2016 the White House of the USA announced its vision to cure cancer, they called it the “Cancer Moonshot.” Hard to think of a better case of what happens when a country decides to go full steam with science, technology, and research into a concrete goal. Like the Americans did with the atomic bomb. All types of scientists and engineers worked full steam ahead for a single, concrete, and very challenging goal. In the case of the moon, there were also very concrete strategic and political goals.

We went to the moon not because it was easy, nor because it was a good scientific and technological milestone. We went to the moon as part of the so-called “Space Race,” a time where the Soviet Union and the USA had political and strategic pressure to show off technological progress. The Second World War was just over. The alliance to beat the Nazis was over. The Soviet Union on one side, and the USA on the other. This left two superpowers with strong political, economic, and social differences diplomatically, militarily, and socially confronted. Meanwhile, both nations were armed with increasingly more powerful nuclear weapons and long-range missiles that could destroy their respective nations. This period, called “Cold War,” lasted from around 1947 to 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. The pressure to secretly improve their technological military capabilities, but openly signal their strength, was a strategic priority. A nation capable of launching a civilian or scientific research satellite could also use it for military uses if the need arose. The backdrop of this geopolitical struggle was a very destructive and increasingly worsened worst-case scenario. And the fuel of that progress was science and technology.

Space was the next frontier. Militarily, space could become a much quicker starting line for the new missiles; moreover, putting any technology in space meant a very high degree of technological progress. In 1955 the USA president announced plans to launch the first satellite as part of the scientific conference of the 1957 International Geophysical Year. In response, the Soviet Union decided to create a commission to beat the Americans. This was the start of the Space Race that peaked on the manned lunar landing in 1969. In general, the Soviets decided to keep secret and classified all programs, tests and launches, and only announce successes. Americans, who also had several space-grade military rocket programs, decided to create a more civilian public track—with a science, technology, and research agenda—but with clear political, military, and strategic underpinnings.

Many key scientists and engineers that helped both contenders to the Space Race were recruited Germans, some even members of the Nazi party. The so-called “Operation Paperclip” immigrated 1,600 scientists (all men). This includes Wernher von Braun, technical director of the Nazi V2 rocket (the first long-range missile). Von Braun is considered the father of rocket science in the USA and inventor of the Saturn V, the rocket that went to the moon, and that still is the most powerful rocket. In the Soviet Union, similar programs existed (like Operation Osoaviakhim, or Operation Alsos) which immigrated around 2,000 people (some at gunpoint).

The Space Race is a very complex chapter of history, but the main point here is to distill the structure and strategy to make it happen. We want to help figure out how essential science and engineering was managed so that today we refer to the Moonshot as a synonym of success. It was very clear from the beginning that there was a rush to move forward on the Space Race. At first there was no lunar goal, so the strategy was to “be first” and move the goal a bit further to be first again quickly. The first goal of the race was putting the first satellite in space, an announcement the USA made in 1955 to be in space by 1957. This “first” was Soviet on October 4th, 1957, the Sputnik, which was rushed to beat the Americans by one day, on rumors that Americans would do it on October 5th. A month later the Soviets got another first, sending the first dog, Laika. The first communication satellite, starting a whole industry, was the American Civilian Project SCORE in 1958. First civilian weather satellite, and first military image from space were the American Vanguard-2 and Explorer-6 in 1959. Also, the same year, Soviets were the first lunar spacecraft and first lunar (crash) landing, the Luna-1 and Luna-2. The first human in space was the Soviet Yuri Gagarin in 1961. Likewise, Soviet was in 1961 the first robotic fly-by on Venus, Venera-1. The first woman in space was Soviet Valentina Tereshkova in 1963. The first spacewalk was also Soviet in 1965. First soft landing in the moon was Soviet, in 1966. Eventually, first humans on the moon, the American Apollo 11 in 1969. There were many more firsts, missions and whole industries started in the process of the “race to first” of the Space Race. For our impact science scope, let’s look at the administration, management, and character of some of the key scientists that made it possible.

The Soviet space program was mostly classified and done directly by the military. Launches were unannounced, and only successful missions given names and publicized. Names of key people were kept secret and only released after their death. Although the Soviet Space Race started around 1955, many of the fundamentals and rocket science theory were laid by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky who died 1935.

Tsiolkovsky was a self-taught, home-schooled, hard-of-hearing, log-house dweller, reclusive genius who worked most of his life as a teacher. Some of his papers described in detail the equations and designs used decades later in space rockets, although he never built any. Both American and Soviet leading rocket engineers used may of the crucial lessons described in his papers. He also conceptualized and built prototypes of planes, dirigibles, and hovercrafts, but didn´t get much attention at the time. His pioneering work started around 1880, and he retired in 1920 as a high school math teacher. Only in 1931 did he begin to receive popularized recognition and died in 1935. Years and decades later many tributes would be made, including statues, the naming of museums or lunar craters, and even the renaming of a city in 2015.

The Soviets had several design groups competing among themselves, and with the political pressure that also sent many to prisons or Gulags (forced labor camps). For most of the Soviet Space, Sergei Korolev was the leading figure. Few colleagues knew his name and he was officially referred until his death as “Chief Designer.” He was trained as a carpenter but always liked gliders and aeronautics. He did increasingly focused studies on the topic and finally graduated as an aircraft engineer in 1929, aged twenty-two. After graduation he worked on developing rockets, eventually being Chief Engineer of the main rocket research institute in the Soviet Union. He was considered very hard working, demanding, and with a strong discipline. He was a project manager who looked at every detail. In 1938, in the middle of the “Great Purge” where people considered dissenters of the Soviet Union or Lenin were prosecuted or killed, he was arrested and some of his colleagues killed. He spent a year in a gulag on a gold mine, where he sustained many injuries and lost most of his teeth. He was later moved to a sharaskha (a type of gulag where scientists are forced to do research). During this phase he developed key rocket technologies. He was released in 1944 and commissioned as a colonel in the Red Army. He flew to Germany to help bring the German scientists and engineers that, together with the Soviet ones, were placed on a fenced island under military control where their work accelerated under his good management and the absorption of the Nazi technology.

When the Space Race started in 1955 Korolev was fully rehabilitated, recognized, and a very effective science manager. It was under his command that the Soviets got most of their “firsts” we mentioned before. The actual Soviet agenda was more to advance rocket technology as weapons, and not space explorations. As the Soviets kept winning an increasingly publicized Space Race, the strategic and propaganda value of the Space Race increased, and he received more funding, resources, and pressure to keep ahead of the Americans.

He was considered the highest authority, while also an extremely demanding boss. He committed to training young graduates and to the long-term vision and impact of space. Like the Americans, he had political pressure to win the Space Race, but the experience in the gulag, and the fear of the potential consequences of losing the race kept him pushing and demanding more. These mounting pressures probably affected his health and contributed to his (not completely clarified) death in 1960, before the American flagship “first” of the manned landing on the moon.

The American Space Race was more civilian led, more transparent, and more centralized into a stream of increasingly complex projects. After the Cold War, the US president decided to separate the civilian Space Race rockets from the military ones. They also pushed to legally establish that 100 km above ground (the “Karman line”) as the end of national control, and where space begins. When Soviets launched Sputnik I and II, Americans saw on live TV the first American attempt explode on the launch pad. As Soviets gained lead with more “firsts,” winning this Space Race gained political relevance and national pride, which also meant more pressure, but also more budget. It was partly this drive that led to the strategy of creating a civilian agency to direct non-military space activities, NASA. John F. Kennedy had campaigned for US president criticizing too much government spending, while promising leadership in space. He hesitated once in office by the expensive cost of NASA proposals. After the Soviets put the first man in space, the already by then American president felt the patriotic embarrassment of the Soviet lead in space. On top of that, this coincided with the defeat at the Cuban Bay of Pigs failed invasion. Kennedy asked his vice president to write up a report about their leadership in space. That report included that the USA was “neither making maximum effort nor achieving results necessary if this country is to reach a position of leadership.” It also included that setting a commitment to go to the moon could recoup the loses, while being far enough that there was time to catch up to the Soviets, if given very high priority and funding. The president’s scientific advisor, Jerome Wiesner, recommended against manned space exploration, and going instead with robotics. Landing robots did not carry the same patriotic value to the President, and in 1961 he went to the USA Congress to deliver his famous speech of committing to land humans on the moon and returning before the end of the decade. This commitment meant an extra budget of ~25$ billion (~220 billion adjusted for inflation), employing 400,000 staff and the support of 20,000 universities, contractors and companies. NASA, an agency born in 1958 inheriting assets and personnel from the Army and Navy among others, was to take the goal of the moon landing. The head of NASA then was James Webb, a former lieutenant and pilot from the Marine Corps. Webb hired George Muller to head the manned missions, including the Moonshot.

George Muller, born in Missouri in 1918, was the son of a stay-at-home mother and an electrician father. Muller studied electrical engineering and one of his first jobs was to help build a television transmitter. He then worked at Bell Labs, which saved him from being drafted to the military. During the war he worked on airborne radars. He realized he needed a PhD to move up the hierarchy, so he enrolled at Princeton where he took morning classes while keeping his full-time job at Bell. He got a PhD in Physics at Ohio University, and later became manager of TRW, an electronics company. While there, he started using an “all-up” testing management: test whole systems, not piece by piece. He carried this method all the way to the Apollo and the Saturn-V rocket. While in the private sector, NASA’s James Webb sought him for a top job, which he only agreed to after he could substantially restructure the department. Webb appointed Muller to lead the NASA Human Space program in 1963, which halved his previous salary in the private sector. He continued pressuring the ongoing program management to get on track to win more “firsts” and lower the cost overruns. With his leadership, management style, and bold attitude, he kept pressuring the Apollo to move forward, faster. He called technical decisions, sometimes against the advice of key figures like Von Braun. When he felt he had trouble finding the right managers or skills, Muller brought up mid and junior managers from the Air Force. More than 400 military officers in total during the ’60s. He was known for being an extremely good, brilliant, and fearless manager. Under his directorate, Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July 20th, 1969. He was also very involved on other famous space NASA programs beyond the Moonshot landing, like the Space Shuttle. He resigned from the administration the same year of the Moon landing, citing low salary as one of his reasons, and went back to the private sector. He died in 2015, aged ninety-seven.

From the Soviet Tsiolkovsky, Korolev, or the Americans Muller or Von Braun, we have only explored some of the key figures of the Moonshot mindset, but we can already see a pattern of tenacity despite struggles and hardship, moving forward by passion on scientific discovery, but also ruthless outcome-based management, even militaristic style and personnel. A Moonshot mindset emerges from lofty goals, clearly identified and without margins of distraction. From big budgets on political or patriotic grounds, but also relentless focus to deliver the promise. From competition, and from the interplay of academia, the private sector, politics, and military. The price of the Moonshot was high, the cost of not getting it even higher. The Moonshot stands on the shoulders of imprisoned scientists, forced labor, very tight schedules, challenging decisions, unacceptable compromises to unplanned exploration, exceptional budgets on ideological grounds, unknown heroes, exceptional milestones that succeeded but didn’t count because they didn’t succeed first. There is no doubt we, humankind, did the almost impossible. That achieving the moon landing pulled science and technology decades ahead than if we had not had a Space Race. It raised the baseline of human progress. But it also stretched the system so that we could achieve the goal. After the last manned Apollo landings in 1972, we have not yet returned to the moon. The average age of NASA staff during the Apollo was twenty-eight years, today it’s forty-seven. The Saturn-V rocket is still unmatched, neither is the funding NASA had that lifted our science, and humans, to other planets.

Today we have a renewed interest in Space, this time coming from the private sector. We have Space X, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, … Still, the same approach applies, with tightly managed science and engineering, deep pockets and a focus on relentless forward progress and achieving “firsts”.

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Version: V.8.9 © 2017-2023 Bruno Sánchez-Andrade Nuño. This work is licensed under a 'Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License'.