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Science Behind the Fiction: The true cost of putting the First Man on the moon

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Oct 17, 2018, 1:05 PM EDT

Human history is littered with boundaries and horizons identified and later crossed. In the relatively short cosmic timescales since our birth, our enterprising species has crossed landmasses and vast oceans. We’ve populated all but the most extreme of earthly environments, and we’ve strived to understand the world around us and our place within it.

And so it comes as no surprise that we have penned and filmed countless stories — both true and wholly aspirational — that catalog our obsession with the stars. The latest comes in the form of Damien Chazelle's First Man, a biopic detailing NASA's fraught early years and American Space Race anxiety through the lens of its namesake: Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11's commander and the first man to walk on the moon, played by Ryan Gosling. But while Apollo 11 and Armstrong went down in history, many paid an unthinkable price to get them there.

Space exploration represents that all too human desire to, after having seen a new horizon, touch it and see what’s on the other side. You might say our journey to space began with the Wright Brothers, or with the Chinese advent of hot air balloons, or the designs of da Vinci. Certainly, humans hungered for the skies earlier still; the tale of Icarus and Daedalus explores that innate desire and warns of the risks of hubris.

In the modern sense, our journey to the stars, at least in the United States, began in earnest in 1958 with the signing of the National Aeronautics and Space Act by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, spurred on by the Soviet Union's successful launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957.

This sparked what became known as the Sputnik Crisis, a period of public unrest and uncertainty at the notion of a technologically superior Soviet Union. That early rocket may have succeeded in launching a satellite into orbit, but its greater achievement was in launching the race to the Moon.

At one point in First Man, when Armstrong is sent to schmooze with politicians, acting as the face of the Apollo program, he’s confronted by questions of its cost in both lives and taxpayer dollars. He responds that flight had only been achieved roughly 60 years prior and that, when taken in that context, NASA's progress was incredible. The sentiment fails to win over the politician, who cares only of the economic context, but Armstrong makes a good point. The progress of the Apollo program, from conception to the landing of the Eagle at the Sea of Tranquility, was remarkable even by modern standards.

Conceived in 1960 by the Eisenhower administration as a natural next step after Project Mercury, Apollo was built — more or less from the ground up — and achieved in less than a decade. The Cold War presented an ideal incubator for growing a fledgling space program. We had the resources and the national desire and focus to accomplish the mission, things that seem in shorter supply today.

Over the course of the program, from 1960 to 1973, NASA spent nearly $24 billion to send 12 men to the surface of the Moon and return them safely home. But the cost of a trip the Moon can’t be measured purely in dollars and cents. An untold number of men and women gave of their time and energies to accomplish the goal, and some gave their lives in pursuit of that distant horizon.

The Lunar plaque left on the Moon during Apollo 11 is inscribed thusly: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” That final sentiment comes from NASA’s original declaration of policy and purpose which states, in part, “The Congress hereby declares that it is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind.”

With that in mind, it is clear that the achievement of putting a man on the Moon, though accomplished by citizens of the United States, was a global moment achieved through the collective efforts of individuals across geopolitical boundaries. To that end, respect and honor are granted to individuals both American and Russian who paid the greatest price so humanity could touch the stars. We detail some of their stories here,


The early '60s were defined by early tests for both the Soviets and the United States. Before sending astronauts and cosmonauts to space, both entities needed to be sure human beings could survive the unique environments they might be exposed to.

One such test took place at the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow where Valentin Bondarenko, a 24-year-old cosmonaut, underwent a 15-day endurance test looking at the effects of exposure to low pressure. The incident is outlined in Chapter 10 of Uncovering Soviet Disasters by James Oberg.

On the tenth day, when all work had been completed, Bondarenko removed biomedical sensors used to monitor his reactions to the low-pressure environment and used alcohol-soaked wool to clean himself off. Afterward, Bondarenko discarded the cleaning implement. It landed on a hot plate and caught fire. The chamber in which he was living was oxygen-rich and a fire spread quickly. His suit caught fire and he suffered burns over vast portions of his body.

Due to the pressurization of the chamber, the doctor on duty was not able to get to Bondarenko right away. He was alive at the time of retrieval but died from his wounds some hours later.

Bondarenko was visited in the hospital by Yuri Gagarin, who would go on to become the first human being in space just a few weeks after the incident.

Valentin Bondarenko was the victim of the first documented space-related fatality. The International Astronomical Union named a crater on the far side of the Moon after Bondarenko in 1991.


Freeman was part of the third group of astronauts selected by NASA for space travel alongside Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins (both of whom were a part of the Apollo 11 crew), Alan L. Bean (lunar module pilot for Apollo 12), and 10 other men. Of the 14 members of Group Three, four were killed in training missions. The remaining 10 all flew in Apollo missions. Of the men in Group Three, Freeman is the only member not to have been selected for a mission.

Freeman was a test pilot and, on the morning of October 31, 1964, was flying a T-38A Talon through fog on his way to Ellington Air Force Base when a goose made contact with the plane, moving through an air intake, and causing a crash. Freeman attempted to land the craft and ultimately ejected. His parachute did not deploy in time and he died upon impact with the ground. Freeman was the first American astronaut to give his life for the program.


Project Gemini was the second of NASA’s programs, following Project Mercury. It utilized crews of two to carry out missions in low Earth orbit. Its mission was to provide proof of concept for methods and procedures vital to the success of the Apollo Program.

Gemini 9 was the seventh manned flight of the program with planned objectives including docking with the Agena, an EVA, and medical experiments on the participating astronauts.

The original crew was comprised of Elliot See, a member of NASA’s second group of astronauts, and Charles Basset, one of the four members of Group Three to perish.

The duo was flying a T-38 on their way to training for Gemini 9 on February 28, 1966. Poor weather conditions and low visibility caused See to fly too low and a subsequent collision with McDonnell Aircraft Building 101 claimed the lives of both men. Elliot See and Charles Basset's names are inscribed on the Fallen Astronaut memorial plaque placed on the Moon by Apollo 15.


Apollo 1 was slated to be the first manned mission of the Apollo program. The mission's intention was to be the first low Earth orbit test with a crew and was planned for February 21, 1967.

During a pre-mission test on January 27, 1967, all three members of the crew — Virgile I. “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger B. Chaffee — were killed in a cabin fire while sealed in the capsule. A subsequent investigation determined an electrical problem to be the source and the flames spread quickly in the oxygen-rich environment. Due to the pressurization of the cabin, rescue attempts were unsuccessful.

Manned missions of the Apollo program were suspended for 20 months while the program was assessed for safety.

This incident marked the beginning of a deadly year among the Apollo program, being the first of four fatal events for American astronauts.

The names of the Apollo 1 crew were memorialized on the Apollo 15 Fallen Astronaut plaque. In addition, an Apollo 1 mission patch was left on the surface by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren.


Williams was the final member of Group Three to meet an untimely end. He was slated as backup pilot for Gemini 10 but, sadly, never made his way to space.

Williams was assigned to be the Lunar Module pilot for a mission that later became Apollo 12, a position that was later taken up by Alan Bean. Had he lived, Williams would likely have been the fourth person to walk on the Moon.

On a trip to visit his parents in Florida on October 05, 1967, Williams experienced a mechanical failure of his T-38, causing the plane to fall into an uncontrollable roll and crash. Williams ejected but the plane was flying too low and too fast for him to land safely.

A star was included on the Apollo 12 patch, in addition to the three members of the crew, to commemorate Clifton Williams. His aviator wings were also laid to rest on the surface of the Moon.

X-15 FLIGHT 3-65-97

The X-15 was a hypersonic rocket-powered plane capable of reaching the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere, defined as an altitude of 50 miles. Eight pilots of the X-15 exceeded that line, qualifying them to join the ranks of astronauts.

One of these pilots was Michael J. Adams who, on November 15, 1967, flew the X-15 to an altitude of 266,000 feet. The mission was monitored by NASA but, after reaching maximum altitude, was found to be 15 degrees off planned heading. Upon reentry, the aircraft fell into a Mach-5 spin.

Adams recovered from the spin at an altitude of 118,000 feet but the X-15 was still in a rapid dive and broke up over Johannesburg. Adams was posthumously given astronaut wings for the flight and his name was added to the Space Mirror Memorial at the John F. Kennedy Space Center.


Lawrence joined the airforce at the age of 21 and in June of 1967 was selected by the Air Force as an astronaut in its Manned Orbital Laboratory. He is recognized as the first astronaut of African descent.

On December 8, 1967, he was engaged in a training mission with another pilot as the instructor. The trainee made an error that resulted in the craft coming in too low and they ejected, but Lawrence was killed due to a built-in delay in the second seat ejection system.

Had he survived, he likely would have been a part of NASA’s seventh astronaut group and flown a shuttle mission.

His name was added to the Space Mirror Memorial in 1997.


Vladimir Mikhaylovich Komarov commanded Voskhod 1, a mission with a number of spaceflight firsts including the first mission to have more than one crew member and the first flight without space suits. It also set an altitude record of 209 miles.

Komarov later became the first cosmonaut to fly in space twice when he was selected as the pilot for Soyuz 1.

The mission launched on April 23, 1967, and quickly experienced problems.

A solar panel malfunctioned, triggering issues with the power supply. Shortly, the stabilization system cut out. Thunderstorms further complicated the mission, but after 18 orbits of Earth, the craft began its return to the surface. When the main parachute failed to unfold properly, Komarov deployed a backup chute that tangled with the primary chute. The craft fell to the ground at approximately 40 meters per second.

Komarov’s name is included in the Fallen Astronaut plaque left by Apollo 15.


The intervening years leading up to Apollo 11's landing at the Sea of Tranquility experienced no further deaths on either the American or Soviet side. But the cost of human life had already been heavily paid to get there.

The astronauts and cosmonauts of both programs knew the inherent risks in traveling beyond the safety of the Earth’s surface and willingly took on those risks in search of a cosmic perspective.

At the 30-year anniversary of Apollo 11, Armstrong was asked his opinion on the lasting legacy of Apollo. He responded, “I think these guys might speak more eloquently about that than I. I have heard each of them do so in the past. In my own view, the important achievement of Apollo was a demonstration that humanity is not forever chained to this planet, and our visions go rather further than that, and our opportunities are unlimited.”

That vision and those opportunities are open to us, but they come at a cost to those who would pursue them. Since that first landing on the Moon, tragedy has struck several times, on Soyuz 11, on the shuttle missions Columbia and Challenger. Those who would seek to peer over the horizon have given their lives so that the rest of us might see, through their eyes, what lies beyond.

There is a heavy toll, levied at unpredictable intervals upon those brave enough to travel uncommon roads, so that all of humanity might benefit from the journey.

We must, all of us, be grateful for those courageous few willing to pay the price.

First Man is now in theaters.