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400,000: Total Apollo workforce

Neil Armstrong was one of Nasa’s most accomplished pilots. As he descended towards the lunar surface on 20 July 1969, the success or failure of the first Moon landing depended on the skills, reactions and expertise of this one man. With a boulder field ahead of him, alarms sounding and fuel running low, he guided the spacecraft to the ground.

But in the few talks and interviews Armstrong gave about the landing, he was always modest about the achievement. He pointed instead to the thousands of people who had made the mission possible.

At its height, Nasa estimates that a total of 400,000 men and women across the United States were involved in the Apollo programme. The number includes everyone from astronauts to mission controllers, contractors to caterers, engineers, scientists, nurses, doctors, mathematicians and programmers.

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To see how Nasa arrived at that figure, consider a single aspect of Apollo 11 – the lunar landing itself. Armstrong’s right hand man was Buzz Aldrin. On the ground, there was a room full of mission controllers. Behind this core team of 20-30 (per shift) were hundreds of engineers in Houston and a team at MIT in Boston advising on the computer alarms.

Hundreds of thousands of people worked in order that a handful of astronauts could walk on the lunar surface (Credit: Nasa)

Mission Control was supported by communications ground stations around the world, the engineering team at the Grumman Corporation that built the lander, and all their subcontractors. Add in support staff – from senior managers to the people selling the coffee – and already there are thousands involved. Multiply that by all the different components of the endeavour – from rockets to spacesuits, communications to fuel, design to training, launch to splashdown…and 400,000 seems an almost modest figure.

400,000 people supporting the actions of just one man.

38: Average age of Apollo astronauts

Armstrong was not specially selected to pilot the first Moon landing, his crew was next-up in flight rotation. If Apollo 11 had been unable to land, then the commander of Apollo 12, Pete Conrad would most likely have been the first man instead. In fact, although they represented all of humanity, the astronauts of Apollo were remarkably similar in age, background, training and ability.

“I think it’s important to remember what a unique and select group of people were able to participate in Project Apollo,” says Teasel Muir-Harmony, Apollo Spacecraft Curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. “Each of the [Apollo 11] crew members was born in 1930, they all have military experience, they're all pilots and I believe they're all Christian – so they fit a very narrow set of criteria that was required at the time to be an astronaut.”

Many of the Apollo astronauts were similar in age and had very similar backgrounds (Credit: Nasa)

At 38, Armstrong was the joint youngest Apollo commander (with Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan). Charlie Duke, the 36-year-old Apollo 16 lunar lander pilot, was the youngest Moonwalker. The oldest man to walk on the Moon was America’s first astronaut, Alan Shepard. By the time of his Apollo 14 mission in 1971, he was 47.

The record for the oldest man in space is held by the same astronaut who was the first American to orbit the Earth. John Glenn was 77 when he took part in a nine-day mission on space shuttle Discovery in 1998.

12: Walkers (and drivers) on the Moon

Thirty three men flew 11 Apollo missions. Of these, 27 men reached the Moon, 24 orbited the Moon – but only 12 walked on the surface. They represented “mankind” and had the challenge of conveying the experience to a global audience.

No-one knew what Neil Armstrong was going to say when he stepped down onto the lunar surface. He’d not discussed it with anyone, although his words: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” could not have been more poetic or appropriate if they had been conceived by a committee of speech writers.

But what do you say when you’re the second man on the Moon? Buzz Aldrin summed-up the view of the barren lunar landscape perfectly in just two words: “magnificent desolation.”

Only 12 humans have walked - or driven - on the lunar surface (Credit: Nasa)

The third man on the Moon and one of the shorter astronauts, Pete Conrad, went for a gag. “Whoopie!” said Conrad. “Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that's a long one for me.”

Conrad sets the tone for future missions. Whereas transcripts of Armstrong and Aldrin’s landing are relatively staid, as the missions progressed, the Moonwalkers became ever more exuberant. When Charlie Duke stepped down onto the Moon during Apollo 16, he couldn’t contain his excitement. “Hot dog…this is great!” Throughout the mission, the enthusiasm of Duke and commander John Young is unconstrained.

Gene Cernan’s marriage broke-up and Buzz Aldrin had to deal with depression and alcoholism

But on his return – like many of the Moonwalkers – Duke and his family found it difficult to adapt. What do you do next after you’ve walked on the Moon?

“We realised after Apollo was over, our marriage was really in trouble,” Duke tells me. “We were close to divorce.” The astronaut found new purpose in God (you can hear more in this BBC radio programme).

Others faced similar struggles. Gene Cernan’s marriage broke-up and Buzz Aldrin had to deal with depression and alcoholism. Alan Bean interpreted his experiences in art, Ed Mitchell experimented with mysticism.

It’s little wonder the Moon changed these 12 men. In the history of humankind, they are unique. 

8: Nasa astronauts who died during Apollo

Before the first three-man crew of Apollo 7 took off in October 1968, eight Apollo astronauts had already lost their lives. The first to die, in 1964, was Theodore Freeman, when his aircraft – a T-38 training jet – got hit by a bird, shattering the canopy and stalling the engine. Although he ejected, he was too close to the ground and died on impact.

On 28 February 1966, the prime crew for Gemini 9, Elliot See and Charles Bassett were preparing to land their T-38 in St Louis. With low cloud shrouding the runway, See misjudged a turn and crashed into the building where their spacecraft was being built. The pilots were killed instantly but, remarkably, no-one else was badly injured.

Three astronauts – Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee – died when their command module caught fire during a ground test (Credit: Nasa)

The accident bumped Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan up to the prime crew for the Gemini mission, which eventually lead to Cernan commanding Apollo 17 and becoming the last man on the Moon.

In 1967, Nasa prepared to fly its first Apollo mission. But the spacecraft was plagued with problems and its commander, Gus Grissom, knew it. In disgust, he hung a lemon outside the Apollo simulator at Cape Canaveral.

On 27 January 1967, the crew – Grissom, Ed White (the first American to spacewalk) and Roger Chaffee, lay in their couches on the launchpad for a full test of the spacecraft. They were sealed behind a complex multi-part hatch, and the spacecraft was filled with oxygen – as it would be in orbit.

The test was going badly, there was a bad smell in the capsule and the crew had difficulty talking to mission control. “Jesus Christ,” Grissom exclaimed. "How are we going to get to the Moon if we can't talk between two or three buildings?"

Then, over the intercom: “Fire, I smell fire.”

  All eight astronauts – along with six Soviet cosmonauts – are commemorated with a plaque left on the Moon by the crew of Apollo 15

Within seconds the crew was consumed by flames. They had no chance of getting out alive.

The tragedy lead to a complete rethink of the Apollo programme and a much-improved spacecraft. The astronauts’ deaths were not in vain. (You can read more on the story of Apollo 1 here.)

Later the same year, Clifton Williams was killed in another T-38 crash and Edward Givens died in a road accident.

All eight astronauts – along with six Soviet cosmonauts – are commemorated with a plaque left on the Moon by the crew of Apollo 15.

There is, however, one astronaut that wasn’t listed. Robert Lawrence should have been the first African American astronaut. Assigned to a secret military space station project, he was killed in December 1967 while instructing another pilot practicing landing techniques. These were later used in the Space Shuttle program.

1: Women in Apollo 11 launch control room

Looking at the coverage of Apollo, you might be forgiven for thinking it was a solely (white) male endeavour. The astronauts were all men, the mission controllers were all men, even the TV anchors were male. The only women seen on TV were the astronauts’ wives.

However, as we now know, there were thousands of women behind the scenes supporting Apollo and essential to its success. There were secretaries and nurses, mathematicians and programmers; women sewed together the spacesuits and wound the wires for the Apollo guidance computers.

Can you spot JoAnn Morgan in this picture of Launch Control (you can increase the size of the image) (Credit: Nasa)

Instrumentation controller, JoAnn Morgan, was the only woman in Apollo 11 launch control at Cape Canaveral. An engineer, she was responsible for 21 channels of communications and the health and welfare of all the monitoring systems for the Saturn 5 rocket.

Launch is a controlled explosion,” she says. “You always have some apprehension about that but you're watching for it.”

As one of the few women working in a senior position she had to deal with sexism on a regular basis, particularly when she first started.

“I got obscene phone calls, some comments said in the elevator and some pushing in the cafeteria,” she says. “After a while most of it quit because people realised I was a serious worker.”

Even so, the space programme wasn’t geared-up for women.

Even when they built new buildings they forgot there were going to be more and more women as workers,” says Morgan. “The first building I worked in only had one ladies room in the whole three-storey building - they had to convert a men's room on each floor to a ladies’ room…so we had ladies’ rooms with urinals.”

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