This is the 17th 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 U.S. effort to land astronauts on the Moon in the 1960s was extraordinary by any measure.
In 1961, in the year when President Kennedy unleashed the race to the Moon, NASA spent $1 million on Apollo. Four years later, NASA was spending $1 million every three hours on Apollo, 24 hours a day. NASA went from being the federal agency with the 10th largest budget to the one with the 3rd largest (tied with Agriculture).
Apollo was 10 times the scale required to build the Panama Canal. It was three times the size of the Manhattan Project that created the first atomic bomb.
At its peak in 1965, more 410,000 Americans were working on getting astronauts to the Moon. For four years in a row—1964 to 1967—Apollo required more than 300,000 people and in three of those years, more people worked on the race to the Moon than fought in the Vietnam war.
Apollo was the largest peacetime project ever undertaken.
It wasn’t just the scale of the effort, though, it was the intensity. All those scientists, engineers, technicians, and factory workers were preparing what would be, in the end, just 11 Apollo missions.
Perhaps the best measure of the challenge and intensity of flying to the Moon required is a calculation I did as part of the research for my book One Giant Leap. One of the things NASA is good at is accumulating, tabulating, and releasing statistical data about its own operations.
NASA has a pair of books about the first decade of the space program called NASA Historical Data Book, 1958 to 1968—volume 1 and volume 2. Apollo itself has a dedicated statistical volume—an almanac, in fact—called Apollo By the Numbers, by Richard Orloff. Want to know what each astronaut weighed before his Apollo flight, and after? Want to know how much fuel a lunar module used flying to the Moon and back to orbit? Want to know the speed at which each Apollo capsule re-entered Earth’s atmosphere? It’s all in there: 333 pages of meticulously organized and tabulated data about flying to the Moon.
So we have tables showing staffing of NASA, every six months, and we have tables showing how much of NASA’s work was devoted to Apollo.
Which means we can calculate how many work-hours Apollo required. Let’s say that each person working on Apollo worked 2,000 hours a year, which comes to 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year. (That’s a conservative baseline because, for everyone from astronauts to frontline factory workers, 50- and 60-hour weeks were routine.)
The result: Flying to the Moon required 2.8 billion hours of work on Earth.
The Apollo astronauts, on those 11 missions, were in space 2,502 hours, slightly more than 100 days.
What that means is that for every hour the Apollo astronauts were walking on the Moon, for every hour they were in flight, 1 million hours of work had to be done back on Earth.
That’s a breathtaking number.
What is 1 million hours of work?
Well, an ordinary person works about 100,000 hours in a lifetime: 2,000 hours a year for 50 years.
So every hour of Apollo spaceflight required preparation equal to the entire work lives of 10 people back on Earth.
Imagine doing something for an hour that 10 people had invested their entire careers to get you ready to do, for that hour.
In terms of focused intensity of preparation, there isn’t another project in human history that comes close. By that measure at least, that first leap to the Moon was indeed the hardest thing human beings have ever done.
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).