When Neil Armstrong took his fateful 'one small step' almost exactly 50 years ago, it was the culmination of an extraordinary effort that had begun back in 1961 when President Kennedy vowed that America would land a man on the moon before the decade was out.
At the time, he made the commitment in Congress – shortly after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to journey into space – a majority of Americans were opposed to the idea.
The sceptics had a point. Some years ago, Nasa – the organisation set up to run the Apollo programme – estimated that its total cost was around $200bn (€177.4bn) in today’s money. Many question whether the US really got value from the outlay.
Nasa’s funding actually accounted for 4.4% of the Federal budget at its peak in 1966 before gradually falling back. Over the period 1975 to 2000, Nasa’s budget accounted for – on average – 1% of the national budget.
It is, of course, hard to measure the immeasurable. The moon landing remains a monument to the optimism of an earlier era, though by the time Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bounced weightlessly along the surface of the moon, America’s belief in itself had dissipated following the Kennedy and King killings, amid the deadly fallout from the Vietnam war and the erosion of the once commanding presence of the US in the global economy.
The moon landing was the product of a mix of motives, extraordinary individual acts of courage and a level of managerial co-operation and self sacrifice, which would be unthinkable in today’s individualistic age.
The three astronauts who blasted off on the Apollo 11 craft, were unusual characters to say the least.
Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins – the man who remained behind in the Apollo 11 ship - were fighter pilots. Collins’ uncle, Lawton Collins, was a leading World War Two General. Armstrong was shot down during the Korean War – he was lucky to survive. Aldrin had a doctorate in science, viewed by many as a mercurial genius. Armstrong was a reticent person, but also provided the glue that held the team together.
Aldrin was a fitness freak. Armstrong considered strenuous exercise a waste of time.
Behind them – and not just the figures in Mission Control back in Houston – were a remarkable team of managers who had to build from scratch arguably the most impressive project of the 20th Century - the Normandy invasion bests it for sheer importance.
They were nearly all males. Most had fought in a war, returning to fill up the ranks of middle management afterwards. This was an era in which managers wore thin ties and single buttoned grey suits. Their hair usually tightly cropped. Many – if not most- were engineers.
They were made of the right stuff, products of the era of President Eisenhower when the economy boomed and the suburbs exploded while large concrete highways – adapted for use by fighter planes – soon linked the continental country as the railroad had done two generations previously.
In the early 1950s, Chuck Yeager flew faster than the speed of sound and the jet plane emerged along with the thermo nuclear age. The US – its price buffeted by the Soviet successes in space – decided to launch towards a complete new frontier.
In 1960, 10,000 people were employed directly by Nasa – this had risen to 36,000 by 1966. The number employed by outside contractors on the Programme jumped from 36,500 in 1960 to a staggering 376,500 by 1965. The management team, numbered in thousands, had to go where no one had gone before when it came to surmounting complex challenges.
The chief architect of Apollo, Wernher von Braun, commented ruefully: "We can lick gravity, but sometimes paperwork is overwhelming."
They had to operate to nearly impossible time schedules – Kennedy having given them just eight years in which to complete the mission.
Most were very young. The average age of the operatives in 1969 was 26. Nasa typically hired engineers with five to ten years’ experience while recruiting operations personnel straight out of college.
A key figure was George Mueller, charged with overseeing completion of Project Apollo. As he later recalled, the political climate was right. Apollo was viewed as JFK’s monument.
The team was backed by a political insider, James Webb. He had lobbied for President Johnson’s civil rights bill and Johnson returned the favour.
A terrible setback occurred during testing for a flight in 1967 when three astronauts, Grissom, White and Chaffee were burned alive inside the craft following an explosion. The loss of the three men forced everyone to think again. The Apollo 11 landing was at the end of a long process. Apollo 8 travelled a quarter million miles to the moon going around it. The trio landed safely back in the Pacific.
Mueller was a believer in all-round testing – testing as many systems as possible at one time. The key was to design the risk out of the processes.
Another key figure was Major General Samuel Philips who joined Nasa having run the ICBM missile programme. He set up a programme office with centralised authority over design, engineering, procurement, testing, construction, spare parts, logistics, training and operations.
Three critical factors were identified: Cost. Scheduling. Reliability.
People competed like crazy for resources. As Nasa’s history notes, the two most identifiable groups within the Project were the engineers and the scientists.
The engineers worked in teams to build the hardware to carry out the various missions. They focused on building vehicles that could function reliably. The scientists were interested in designing experiments that would expand our knowledge of the moon and of space.
They tended to be individualists, unaccustomed to regimentation. They viewed the engineers and bureaucrats as outsiders. Most of the nitty gritty work was done away from Houston, Texas; Cape Kennedy, Florida and Huntsville, Alabama; the main Nasa centres of operation. But, oversight over contractors had to be tight - and was.
The Apollo programme certainly left a national, a spiritual and arguably, an environmental legacy. Astronauts quoted from the bible as they commented in the course of their journeys. Viewers - from President Nixon on down the power chain - were enthralled back in 1969. Yet, as the economy began to hit the buffers the funds began to dry up and ultimately, the momentum stalled.
It is only in the past couple of years that a sense of vision about inter-planetary exploration has revived led by entrepreneurs such as Tesla founder Elon Musk and Richard Branson. These days, the privately-funded space exploration budgets are - comparatively speaking - a pittance.
As threats facing Planet Earth mount, the whole moon landing dream can appear like an expensive folly. The technological legacy is contested.
Among these are the following: pioneering research into integrated circuits/computer chips, the use of heat resistant materials and freeze drying. Such spending could have been committed towards mass education and population control and towards measures to boost environmental recovery.
But then, the Apollo project involved a far better use of resources than the invasions of the Middle East, or the futile military campaign in Vietnam.
As climate change takes hold, we may once again have to fall back on a great army of experts – engineers, managers, friendly politicians, environmentalists – as we wage a last great war to save our own planet.
The achievements of people like Neil Armstrong and George Mueller, two very different kinds of heroes, could serve to inspire a new civilian army engaged on a huge mission that could run into decades.
In a sense, the moon landing was the great trip to the Prom, to the 'end of school' party, for a generation that was educated the hard way on the battle fields of World War Two and Korea. A revival of the spirit and ingenuity of such people "with the right stuff" is arguably long overdue.