To the moon: How we built the technologies

To the moon: How we built the technologies

Summary: While many of the proud Americans who were involved in the Apollo project are no longer with us 45 years later, the technologies they built live on, will be further refined, and will return us to that lonely world and beyond.


Our commitment to space exploration began with a wake-up call over five decades ago with a beeping sound.

Not with a clock radio, but with a transponder signal that could be tuned into by any ham radio enthusiast — the launching and ever present chirping of the Soviet Sputnik 1 satellite in 1957, the first artificial satellite. Shortly after that, the Soviets sent a dog into space aboard Sputnik 2. Several other Sputniks followed, then in 1961 they sent a man, Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, into orbit aboard Vostok 1

Each of these milestones in space exploration was accompanied by the Soviets proclaiming their technical and moral superiority over the capitalist and imperialist United States, which was fumbling with its own space program and could barely get their own satellite and manned rocket off the ground.

Provocation from the Communists was all we needed to get our collective act in gear, and our President was ready to meet the challenge, even though our country wasn't at the time.

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

John F. Kennedy's historic 1962 speech at Rice University which reaffirmed our nation's commitment to space exploration, thumbed our noses at the "Reds," and provoked and stiffened our resolve rings as true and is as moving today as the day he uttered it.

July 20th, 2014 marks the 45th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, a historic event that was the realization of over two decades of dedicated contributions from hundreds of companies.

The engineering of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space vehicles and supporting systems involved not just large companies, but thousands of smaller subcontractors and hundreds of thousands of technology and aerospace workers.

All of these people worked tirelessly through all-nighters to solve tremendously complicated engineering problems for what many Americans felt was an insurmountable task that needed to be accomplished in less than a decade from when President Kennedy made his historic speech.

Forty-five years after Apollo 11, many of the larger companies that built the support systems and actual space technology no longer exist, or have been absorbed into others.

Most of the key people who led the projects have passed on, or are entering their later years. But remarkably, some of the important firms that made some of the most significant contributions remain, and many of the technologies they built are still in use and will continue to be used as we enter the next era of space exploration.

In a series that I wrote originally in 2009, I profiled the key companies and the projects that made Apollo 11 a reality — the firms that performed the systems integration, built and designed the avionics components, engineered and manufactured the powerful rocket engines that hurtled the mighty Saturn V into space, and created the legendary spacecraft that made history. 

Certain things have changed about our space program in the five years since I wrote those articles, particularly as it relates to our nation's priorities relating to returning to the moon, and not all of it is for the better. However, it doesn't diminish what our country, NASA and over 400,000 people employed by the aerospace industry accomplished nearly half a century ago.

Which companies and individuals do you think made the most significant contributions to the Apollo program? Who needs to be remembered?

Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Innovation, Nasa / Space


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Westinghouse

    Westinghouse over came a ton of problems to build a video camera that met the power and weight restrictions NASA placed on them.

    At the time, most inviloved with the program pretty much thought of the camera as a nicity but wasn't all that important. Little did anyone understand how those crude images would change the entire world.
    • Westinghouse in name only.

      Toshiba now owns what is left of Westinghouse.
    • How Apollo project crashed Dollar in 1971

      Dollar was supposed to be backed by gold. 1 ounce gold = 35 dollars, which was the deal USA stroke w/ the rest of the world and made Dollar the world reserved currency after World War II.

      But then Lyndon Johnson got too complacent. He wanted it all so he had a "guns & butter" madness of Vietnam war, Apollo project and Great Society. 3 money sucking black holes were happening at the same time during his presidency.

      To finance the massive bill, Federal Reserve printed a lot of money and the rest of the world started to worry about the Dollar's soundness. At first, US government denied there's any problem w/ Dollar. Foreign nations didn't buy that and started exchange their Dollar for gold, "Since you said there's no problem, great, here's 35 Dollars and give me back 1 ounce gold please. I'll keep the gold and you'll keep the note."

      Quickly things got out of control and turned into a run on the US gold. Finally in 1971 Nixon had to step in and shut the Dollar to gold window, "Ok, Ok, Ok. You guys have caught us cheating, fine, but guess what? I'm gonna default on that 1 to 35 thing and shut the gold window. You guys don't like it? Bite me then." Started from 1971, Dollar turned into a fiat currency disaster that was destined to collapse.

      It seems Americans in general don't care about history, which makes them prone to repeating past mistakes. And sure enough, here we go w/ G W Bush whose Iraq war plus real estate debacle looked awfully similar to Lyndon Johnson's "Guns and Butter". And now we have Obama whose class warrior policies make you wanna say "Jimmy Carter 2.0" The entire 1970s were in a recession plus inflation as the result, and the 2010s appear to head the same direction.

      The writings are on the wall for 2010s, and it says "depression + hyperinflation banana republic". Fasten your seat belt folks, gonna be a hell of ride.
      • Dollar Crash in 1971 - Fiat currency paralleled today

        Couldn't agree more. Does anyone even remember the term "stagflation"? The hallmark of the Jimmy Carter incompetence years? Jimmy, by the way, has spent the rest of his life traipsing the globe trying to divert attention away from his failed presidency.

        Stagflation = stagnant economy with no growth + inflation out of control

        A bitter pill and everyone better get used to the taste. Jimmy Carter's folly will look like genius by the time the Obamanauts finish their run - spending like drunken sailors, borrowing from the Chinese, hiking taxes, multiplying government regulation, getting government as far into your lost privacy as possible to create a "nanny state" that will make the "Great Society" look like a piker's dream.

        Is this the CHANGE you voted for???

        Like Willie Brown (former Mayor of San Francisco), the lifelong politician said, "No one wanted to know what Obama's policies would be - so they didn't ask him during the campaign!"

        So it is no surprise that he has hired all the Clintonite retreads and staffed the White House with lobbyists.
        • A lot of charges

          Jimmy Carter could have returned to Plains and enjoyed a very long, relaxed retirement (he could have even resumed his peanut business). Instead, he chose to continue in public service as a private citizen. I think he's done very good work over the years. If you disagree, then say so, and say why.

          It is customary for any US. President to rely heavily on veterans of the most recent administration of his own party. Obama started with a lot of Clinton Administration retreads, but his predecessor, George W. Bush relied just as much on people who had served his father (like Richard Cheney, for example) and Ronald Reagan. And Clinton relied heavily on Carter Administration retreads. And many of Reagan's people had served Nixon and Ford. This has been established practice since at least the 1890s and has been done by (as far as I can tell) every incoming President since William McKinley (at least).
          John L. Ries
          • Correction

            As far as I know, the only Twentieth Century US President who did not employ large numbers of "retreads" from the most recent administration of his own party was Dwight D. Eisenhower, but it had been 20 years since Herbert C. Hoover had left office and Hoover was still widely blamed for the Great Depression.

            I believe the most recent President to not do so before that was Grover Cleveland (1885-1889, 1893-1897).
            John L. Ries
        • Stagflation explained

          Classic "inflation" is too much money IN CIRCULATION chasing too few goods; whereas "deflation" is too little money chasing too many goods (i.e. more goods than people need or are willing to pay for). How is it possible to have both? When a product that is under MONOPOLY control is a vital INPUT to most of the other goods and services in an economy, that product is totally non-perishable so that the monopolist can hold onto it forever if necessary, and the monopolist chooses to hold the entire economy hostage to that product. This happened in 1974, BEFORE Jimmy Carter even THOUGHT of running for President, with the Arab (OPEC) oil embargo. For months, the supply of petroleum at ANY price was insufficient (for those too young to remember, there were even-odd tag days to be allowed to TRY to buy gasoline, and high-income professionals HIRED people to drive their cars to gas stations and WAIT to buy gas for the cars' owners, rather than do their own waiting). When the supply was finally restored, the price had QUINTUPLED; 25 cents per gallon became $1.25 per gallon.

          This put the economy in a tailspin, but also raised prices, because every product and service included the increased price of petroleum fuel. The only way to use less fuel was to DO LESS or NOT KEEP WARM, until more efficient capital goods could be bought to replace the less efficient ones. Replacement cost businesses and households CREDIT and took TIME (we just bought this nice car, or this shiny new factory machine, so we cannot justify replacing it yet). Furthermore, CREDIT and TIME were needed to research HOW to make more efficient machinery, and for some products, such as autos, American manufacturers, who had never faced a DEMAND for efficiency before, lost market share to foreign auto makers who had been building for economies that had been very heavily taxed on fuel since World War II (thus, gasoline already cost a couple of dollars per gallon in their countries). So people who could not get enough gas to get to work, for less money than they were PAID, lost their jobs, hence less money in circulation. But less money did not bring about lower prices, as it did in the 1930s Depression, because the monopoly pricing of fuel made the PRODUCTION cost of the products too high. Therefore, stagflation.

          The only cure for stagflation, in the absence of heavy New Deal style government spending (which Nixon, Ford, Reagan and even Carter would not push, because the public had been misled by conservatives already), is TIME. It took an 8 year cycle of R&D to improve efficiency, depreciation of business property, and tight credit to get past this bottleneck. Jimmy Carter took office about 2 years into the 8 year cycle, Reagan took office 4 years later, then 2 years into Reagan's term, the cycle finally ended, and the public gave Reagan credit for the "recovery" that had been in progress throughout Carter's term. Then conservatives rewrote history (one radio host flatly STATED that the oil embargo of 1974 had been CAUSED by the President who took office in early 1977) and blamed stagflation on "liberal spending" rather than the real culprit: monopoly control of the price of an essential INPUT to almost every product produced in our economy.
          • The cure was painful

            It involved dramatically raising interest rates, which Paul Volcker did as Federal Reserve Chairman in the closing years of the Carter Administration. The Fed had followed easy money policies despite the post-Vietnam inflation up until Volcker's appointment. I find it interesting that two of Carter's least popular appointments may have been his best ones (Griffin Bell as Attorney General and Paul Volcker as Fed Chairman).
            John L. Ries
          • The oil embargo made the existing problem worse...

            ...But both Nixon and Ford struggled with inflation throughout their administrations. It certainly wasn't caused by anything Mr. Carter did (wartime spending had a much larger role).
            John L. Ries
          • Yep

            Carter got a bad rap. He inherited a bad situation. When he was honest with the people about where we stood, they blamed the messenger.
  • Misunderstanding history

    The space race was about a clash of civilizations. Would
    the world embrace freedom or would it fall to
    totalitarianism? You see, capitalism is based in the most
    fundamental freedom: the freedom to risk, while
    communism, and it's stepson, socialism, promises safety.

    We won't be going back to the moon because 53% of
    Americans gladly and joyously sold their freedom for
    security, and a mindset that wants to be safe above all else
    does not have the moral strength or courage to dare great
    • Wasn't it Jefferson who said:

      "Those who would give up liberty for security deserve neither?"

      That's not a slam against either party... I refuse to play the Democrat vs. Republican game... they're all crooks.
      • Five years I would have disagreed with you

        but not today.

        What I find totally hilarious is that JFK would be excoriated today as a
        right-wing nut. He was a hard-line cold warrior, soviet
        confrontationalist and aggressive tax-cutter.
        • How hard line did Kennedy have to be to ...

          ..decide that nuclear bombs ready to launch from Cuba was a very bad idea. GET REAL. Kennedy wasn't a hardliner anything, he was presented with an incredibly nasty set of circumstances in a far different time and he took the sane route, the only smart route. That in itself has nothing to do with being hardline, just the logical sensible approach.
          • Kennedy's anti-Communism extended far beyond

            the Cuba missile crisis.
          • True

            Kennedy was a Cold War liberal in the cast of Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Henry Jackson. That brand of liberalism became unpopular during the Vietnam years and has been a minority view within the Democratic Party ever since. But make no mistake, he still believed in activist government as a means of pursuing the public interest; which was anathema to the New Right that sprung up largely as a reaction to the policies of his and previous administrations going back to FDR's. And the New Right has become the mainstream of the Republican Party over the last 35 years.
            John L. Ries
      • Franklin

        "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." - B. Franklin, 1775

        As for paying for social programs to deal with poverty, rather than investing in technological industry which has created the **common** labor-saving, luxuries of the last two centuries, recall the words of the Rabbi Joshua ben Joseph: "You shall always have the poor with you."

        JJ Brannon
        • Quoted out of context!

          The context was whether the woman was right to anoint his body for burial with the expensive cream, rather than sell it to buy bread to feed the poor. The word "always" in this context meant that the disciples would have the rest of their lives to do good deeds for the poor after Jesus was gone from them, but this woman only had the one chance to show her love and devotion, since he would die the next day.

          And even in the more "universal" understanding, while it is true that there will always be those who are RELATIVELY poor in comparison to others, just as even the smartest class of students will have SOMEONE graduate in last place, a more prosperous society ought to be ashamed if the poorest among them are EXTREMELY poor, unable even to get the basics of life, much less the tools to advance themselves. In America today, poverty is not bad luck, it is a POLICY CHOICE by those who want everyone else to be in their power. The fact that some of those poor people are ALSO lacking in character does not mean that ALL of them are so lacking.
      • There are honest and dishonest politicians in both major parties

        The secret to proper voting is therefore to vote for individuals rather than parties; and to always choose an honest fool over a competent crook (honest fools can be educated a lot more easily than competent crooks can be reformed).
        John L. Ries
        • I see some truth in your statement.

          The problem arises partly because a political leader who disagrees with his/her party on SOME issues can be forced, by a fanatical partisan voter base, to govern according to party ideology rather than common sense. Democratic voters of the more radical anti-war flavors forced LBJ out of office but did not have the votes to get their nominee elected. But a greater danger today is that ANYONE who is elected with an (R) after his/her name, if not him/herself a Tea Party or Christian Taliban fanatic (or both), must not deviate from those ideologies in the slightest, or face a MORE fanatical challenger from the right, supported by unlimited dark money.

          I would also point out that there is generally a difference between Democratic crooks (when they are crooks) and Republican crooks. Democratic crooks START programs that help the poor and middle class, then take a cut off the top, but those programs STILL HELP people. Republican crooks STOP such programs, do not bother to replace them with more efficient ones, turn middle class taxpayers' money over to the super rich, and steal EVEN MORE than Democratic crooks, while helping NOBODY except those who need no help at all.