This is the 16th in an exclusive series of 50 articles, one published each day until July 20, exploring the 50th anniversary of the first-ever Moon landing. You can check out 50 Days to the Moon here every day.
The notion that the Moon might be made of green cheese is part of storytelling, mythology, and children’s tales going back to the year 1000, found in the folklore of the Turks, the French, the Jews, and the English, among others. (Wikipedia has a remarkable accounting of fables involving the Moon being made of cheese from the last thousand years.)
The question of whether the Moon is made of green cheese came up during Apollo, and was settled definitively during the remarkable mission of the crew of Apollo 8, the first astronauts to reach the Moon. Over Christmas 1968, the Apollo 8 astronauts flew a capsule to the Moon. Because the lunar module wasn’t finished, they orbited the Moon but didn’t land.
Apollo 8 had been a joyous, triumphant end to a terrible year in the United States—the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, widespread urban riots, and the single deadliest year of the Vietnam War, with 16,899 American service people killed, almost 50 a day, every day of the year.
But Apollo 8 flew to the Moon and back flawlessly, and with Apollo 8, the United States had, unequivocally, beaten the Soviets to the Moon, as John F. Kennedy had vowed more than seven years earlier. The success of Apollo 8 also meant that NASA was likely to be able to land astronauts on the Moon in 1969.
The Apollo 8 capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on December 27, about 40 minutes before dawn. Helicopters from the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown hovered overhead, but Navy rules said the rescue swimmers couldn’t be dropped into the ocean and start helping the astronauts out of the capsule until sunrise.
The pilot of one of the helicopters, Commander Donald S. Jones, chatted with the astronauts in their capsule by radio while waiting to put his swimmers in the ocean. Jones asked whether the Moon was actually made of green cheese.
The Navy helicopter pilot’s antic question turned out to be pitch perfect. The resulting exchange between Jones and Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman made the front page—and even the headlines—in hundreds of papers across the country, including the Washington Post.
Jones asked, “Is the Moon made of green cheese?”
“It’s not made of green cheese at all,” Borman replied. “It’s made out of American cheese.”
Charles Fishman, who has written for Fast Company since its inception, has spent the last four years researching and writing One Giant Leap, a book about how it took 400,000 people, 20,000 companies, and one federal government to get 27 people to the Moon. (You can order it here.)
For each of the next 50 days, we’ll be posting a new story from Fishman—one you’ve likely never heard before—about the first effort to get to the Moon that illuminates both the historical effort and the current ones. New posts will appear here daily as well as be distributed via Fast Company’s social media. (Follow along at #50DaysToTheMoon).