Just eight years after a young president committed to "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth" by the end of the 1960s, Neil Armstrong took humanity's first step on a foreign world.
When Apollo 11 touched down on the lunar surface 40 years ago, it seemed that the whole technological miracle — thundering rockets, tiny computers, Velcro, Teflon and Tang — had bloomed between John F. Kennedy's 1961 speech and Armstrong's "one giant leap for mankind."
But it hadn't.
Scientific work, vital to the flight's success, had long been going on at an obscure research outpost in the valley. There, a few "wind tunnel jockeys" had quietly been working since the early 1950s on perhaps the most difficult problem of any moon mission — the part about returning safely to Earth.
The searing heat of hitting the atmosphere at 25,000 mph on the way back from the moon would melt or vaporize any known material that could be flown in space. It was the insight of engineers and scientists working at what would become NASA's Ames Research Center that a spacecraft shaped more like a bucket than a bullet could survive re-entry.
"The blunt-body concept, I think, was our major contribution to Mercury, Gemini and Apollo," said Jack Boyd, who arrived in 1947 to what was then the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics' (NACA) Ames Research Center. Today, nearly 84, Boyd still clocks in a 5 a.m. every day as Ames' senior adviser to the center director and chief historian.
For those who remember being glued to the TV on July 20, 1969, when Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin walked on the moon, and for a beleaguered space agency hoping to recapture lunar glory, Monday's 40th anniversary of the first landing is a powerful historical beacon.
NASA was formed, incorporating Ames and NACA, in 1958. When Kennedy committed America to a do-or-die sprint with the Soviet Union to make sure "a banner of freedom" was planted on the moon instead of a Communist flag, life quickened at sleepy Moffett Field.
Suddenly, there was an influx of idealistic young scientists willing to work around the clock, secretaries with desk drawers stuffed with cash to instantly buy scientists whatever they needed, and powerful new instruments which sometimes exploded with enough force to saw buildings in half. Ideas soared. It was a dangerous and thrilling time.
Apollo's "major accomplishment was to show the world that democracy was a viable form of government," said Bill Borucki, a physicist who arrived at Ames in 1962 fresh from the University of Wisconsin to work on the critical Apollo heat shield. Today, at 70, Borucki is the lead scientist for Ames' recently launched Kepler probe to search for Earthlike planets circling other stars.
"At that time, a lot of people felt a centrally directed government — i.e., Russia — was the way to go. That was a vital argument back then, and countries were looking around back then and saying, 'Who do we follow?' " Borucki said. "We had to be the winner."
Contrary to popular belief, Teflon and Velcro were not invented in the space program, although Nike "Air" cushioned basketball shoes and cordless drills feature Apollo technology. But beyond politics and new technology, Apollo brought other benefits.
The Apollo 8 photograph of the blue Earth, isolated and fragile in the vast emptiness of space as it rose over the desolate moon, helped crystallize the environmental movement, said Andrew Chaikin, author of "A Man on the Moon" and a major Apollo program historian.
The moon landing was "nothing less than a turning point in human evolution," Chaikin said. "We didn't go to the moon for the sake of experimentation; we went because we wanted to beat the Russians. But what we got as a bonus was a whole new perspective on ourselves."
For some Americans, it was a wasteful, expensive sideshow to real-world problems. Conspiracy theorists still claim the Apollo missions were staged by NASA — to the consternation of the surviving 10 astronauts who walked on the moon.
But the world literally stopped to look as Armstrong and Aldrin became the first two humans to land on the moon on July 20, while astronaut Michael Collins orbited above in the Apollo 11 command module. More than 500 million people watched on television as Armstrong was the first to step off the module's ladder. The photograph of Armstrong's first boot print in the lunar dust is an iconic image of human history.
"I think the cultural significance of Apollo is absolutely profound," Chaikin said. "I think we don't see it day to day because we live in such an information overload, 24/7 world."
It might not have happened without the scientists at Ames.
As NASA prepared a plan to fly to the moon, "the concern at the time," said Borucki, "was we would get the astronauts safely to the moon, get them back and then they would burn up in the atmosphere."
The angle at which the returning spacecraft hit the Earth's atmosphere was critical. If it came in too shallow, the astronauts would bounce into outer space forever. And if it came in too steep, nothing but ashes would survive. Ames helped perfect that re-entry corridor.
But another insight was also critical: Ames scientists in the 1950s theorized that a blunt-faced spacecraft would do better than a streamlined shape at allowing the craft's heat shield to work. The bottom of a gumdrop-shaped capsule, they discovered, would produce a shock wave of superheated gases away from the vehicle, channeling much of the heat away. The shield would have sufficient insulating properties to protect the astronauts from the heat that remained, as it gradually vaporized during re-entry.
To design an actual working spacecraft, Ames had to build test instruments that could produce airspeeds 30 times the speed of sound and heat materials to 4,000 degrees as in the temperature of re-entry.
Like Borucki and Boyd, many of those same powerful instruments are still at work helping to design the Orion spacecraft NASA hopes to send to the moon in the next decade.
One recent morning, outside an arc jet bristling with hoses that uses a powerful electric current to heat air to thousands of degrees for heat shield tests, Boyd showed Borucki a keepsake of the heat shields they worked on back in the '60s. There were pieces of the heat shields from John Glenn's first orbital capsule, from the Gemini capsule that carried Gus Grissom and Ed White to the first American spacewalk, and from an Apollo capsule.
Borucki remembers the crazy pace — and the freedom to take risks — that were so much a part of life at Ames between 1961 and 1969.
"We were running 24 hours a day. Congress was giving us all kinds of money. When we said, 'We've got a problem,' the answer from the top was, 'Buy it,' " he said. "I miss those days. We got an awful lot done."
One of those instruments, a hypersonic wind tunnel, exploded in the mid-1960s, shooting pebbles heated to 3,000 degrees with such force they shot through the walls and roof of the building, igniting cars parked outside. Luckily, no one was hurt. Still, the Apollo 1 fire during a routine test that killed astronauts Grissom, White and Roger Chaffee showed NASA was not always so lucky.
For Boyd, whose office is filled with photos of himself with everyone from H-bomb physicist Edward Teller to William Shatner and Armstrong, one lesson of Apollo was what people can do if organization, national will, money and talent come together.
"Some people have said the Apollo challenge was as much a management success as a technological success," Boyd said. "One hundred years from now, it will be perceived as one of the most important events of the century. It depended on our political will, and the money we had to go with it."