Op-Ed: 50 years ago, thousands of everyday heroes made sure America won the race to the moon

Flight controllers at the Mission Operations Control Room at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston celebrate the successful conclusion of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission on July 24, 1969.
(NASA / Associated Press)

One of the marvels of the race to the moon in the 1960s were the Apollo spacesuits — blazing, iconic white on the outside and composed of 21 layers of nested fabric. Imagine putting on that many T-shirts and trying to do anything.

Those 21 layers were tough enough to stop a micrometeorite, but flexible enough to allow the astronauts to romp around on the moon and do the work that needed to get done.

For the record:

2:10 p.m. July 14, 2019An earlier version of this article said the first moon landing included a moon dune buggy. A dune buggy was not used until later missions.

Each spacesuit was a miniature spaceship, with room just for one.

They were designed and assembled by Playtex, the people who brought America the “Cross Your Heart” bra in the 1960s. Key parts of the spacesuits — where the fabric had to be snug but also flexible — were adapted directly from the fabrics and technology used to make Playtex bras and girdles.


During the 1960s, more than 410,000 Americans worked on the Apollo missions — more than fought in Vietnam for three years of the war.

Just as important, the 21 layers had to be meticulously assembled — every stitch of every layer had to be perfect if the suits were to perform in the moon’s unforgiving environment and keep the astronauts safe. The sewing was done in Delaware by highly skilled teams of women, many of whom moved over from sewing undergarments for Playtex to the industrial division that created the spacesuits.

That division of Playtex, now an independent company, still makes NASA’s spacesuits.

July 20 marks the 50th anniversary of one of humanity’s, and America’s, greatest accomplishments — putting the first people safely on the moon. We would visit five more times, and in the last three, we would ship a moon dune buggy along, to give the astronauts a way to explore with both ambition and exuberance. The story of the race to the moon is almost without exception told from the perspective of the astronauts — they were determined and bold and courageous. They provide a narrative that is both harrowing and adventurous.

But back on Earth, a vast battalion of ordinary Americans had made the moon landings possible. During the 1960s, more than 410,000 Americans worked on the Apollo missions — more than fought in Vietnam for three years of the war.

As Apollo has retreated into history, the role of those legions of everyday people has largely been forgotten.

We were able to send a car to the moon — the lunar rover — because of the determination of two General Motors engineers. In the mid-1960s, NASA canceled efforts to create a lunar rover. But GM’s Sam Romano and Ferenc Pavlics thought the astronauts should have a car and kept working on it using GM’s money. Their ingenious design — the lunar rover folded up like origami — was pitched just weeks before the first moon landing. NASA rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun was so captivated, he made sure three of those lunar rovers ultimately flew to the moon.


The Apollo missions often ended up being a surprising blend of cutting-edge technology combined with old-fashioned hand-craftsmanship.

A wholly new substance had to be created to protect the Apollo capsules as they came blazing home from the moon, entering Earth’s atmosphere going 25,000 mph — and creating temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The company Avco developed an epoxy that could protect the capsule and the astronauts. To keep it in place on the capsule a honeycomb framework was developed, with individual cells for the epoxy. Each of the 370,000 cells was filled, one at a time, by a worker using a sophisticated caulk gun in a factory in Lowell, Mass. Filling those cells was so demanding that each “gunner” trained for two weeks before being permitted to work on a spacecraft heat shield.

Apollo’s parachutes were sewn by hand at a Northrop factory in Newbury Park, then folded by hand. Only three people in the country were licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration to fold Apollo parachutes; the trio were considered so essential that NASA forbade them to ride in the same car together to avoid all three being injured in an accident.

The Apollo spaceships — both the command module and lunar module — each contained a flight computer that navigated and flew the astronauts to the moon. Those computers, designed and programmed by MIT, were pioneering marvels of the era — the smallest, fastest, most nimble computers created up to that point. They were the first computers given responsibility for safeguarding human lives.

But at the moment they were needed, our ability to make them was primitive. So their interior circuitry was woven by hand, by women, sitting at specially designed looms in a Raytheon factory in Waltham, Mass. Every single one and zero in the computers’ coding was the result of a wire being positioned, with absolute precision, by one of those women, many of whom were former textile workers. It took eight weeks to weave the programming for a single spaceship computer. Even a single wire misplaced could have caused disaster in space.


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The intensity of the work back on Earth is almost mythic. In researching the moon missions, I added up all of the hours of work required to get the astronauts to the moon.

There were 2,500 hours of Apollo spaceflights — the astronauts spent a little more than 100 days traveling to the moon, on the moon and coming home, across 11 flights between 1968 and 1972.

For each hour of Apollo spaceflight, a million hours of preparation and work was required on Earth.

What does a million hours of work look like?

The typical American works 100,000 hours in a lifetime.

So each hour of Apollo spaceflight required the equivalent work of 10 lifetimes back on Earth.

That’s a hard figure to absorb. So imagine being allowed to do something for an hour that 10 people had devoted their entire careers to — just so you could do it for one hour. And then, imagine that second hour, which had also required the entire lifetime’s work of 10 more people. And so on.


That’s what it took to send people to the moon.

As the heat shield gunners, spacesuit seamstresses and computer memory weavers knew, their all-but-invisible performance had to be perfect if the astronauts were going to make it the half-million miles to the moon and back. And it was.

Charles Fishman is a journalist and the author of “One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew Us to the Moon.”