Last week we went to see “Apollo 11, an Immersive Live Experience,” which is just starting its worldwide tour. Lucky for us, it’s playing at the Rose Bowl. (https://apollo11show.com/about/) The show tells a unique, human side to the American achievement that put a man on the moon 50 years ago.
I’m not a huge space or history buff. I went because I’m hoping the engineer spark might rub off on my daughter, as my engineer father’s trade magazines rubbed off on me.
As usual, there was a bigger lesson to be learned.
I was a month old when astronauts lost their lives in Apollo 1. Ten Apollo missions and under two years later we had astronauts on the moon and safely back, thanks to “more than 400,000 Americans” as the show and historians point out.
The show wasn’t so much about history as it was about teamwork. Told by an engineer grandfather who had worked on the mission to his cell-phone-obsessed granddaughter, it really was about the people and the time. People took leaps of faith and wanted to work on something, together.
At the time of the Apollo missions,
NASA’s budget peaked at $46.9 billion in 2019 dollars.
Today, it’s $21.5 billion, according to the Office of Management and Budget and the L.A. Times.
America was committed to a goal. People were committed to a goal.
“During the 1960s, more than 410,000 Americans worked on the Apollo missions – more than fought in Vietnam for three years of the war,” according to Charles Fishman, author of “One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew Us to the Moon.”
Many of us know the story of the amazing black women working on the space program behind the scenes, from the movie “Hidden Figures.” Fishman points out other details like the hand-sewn 27-layer spacesuits made by workers at Playtex, the parachutes that were allowed to be folded by only three trusted humans, and the hand-woven circuits made by women at Raytheon.
This was more than a mission of astronauts or engineers. It was a mission of the American people.
My daughter is a wiz at math, but also loves to read, draw, swim, and wants to play the saxophone right now. Not quite “I’m dying to be an engineer.” But neither was I. Nor was the protagonist in the Apollo 11 show who only became an engineer after washing out of flight school.
The show manages to interest even the only slightly interested by focusing on the time. The political underpinnings. The family challenges. The real risk of death to the astronauts. The pressure that had people around the world hoping for the best but knowing tragedy was equally likely.
The Apollo missions needed not only astronauts and engineers but also politicians, voters, seamstresses, mechanics, mathematicians, inventors, businesspeople, teachers, journalists, supportive parents, spouses and children and more.
The Apollo 11 show was compelling to me, unlike a historical tale in text or video, because it was designed to draw you in and make you think. As the rocket took off, the audience felt the same tension as others must feel watching launches.
As the lunar module got closer and closer to the moon’s surface while the seconds of remaining fuel are announced repeatedly, we all likewise tensed up only to feel overwhelming relief when it landed. To get these kinds of reactions took not only technical and historical knowledge but also art and design. It indeed took a team to put on a show that was entertaining and thought-provoking to a broad audience.
Imagine if we shared a bold vision today. What if there were a handful of key goals that the whole country could embrace? Ideas would be pursued with a generous budget despite high risks because of even higher potential rewards.
Imagine if hundreds of thousands of us participated in ways large and small, and the rest of the world watched, hoping for our success.
What would it take to make the magic happen again?
Maria Gutzeit is a chemical engineer, business owner, elected official, and mom living in Santa Clarita. “Democratic Voices” appears Tuesday and rotates among several local Democrats.