Things were changing at a dazzling, unbelievable rate. Less than ten years after the end of the Second World War, which had been fought with propeller-driven planes, well-heeled civilians were already flying around the globe in jet airliners: the de Havilland Comet had entered service in 1952. Two years later, in 1954, engineers began designing a supersonic airliner, Concorde.
Figure 4.5-1. A British Hawker Hurricane propeller-driven fighter used during World War II, photographed in 2005. Source: Wikipedia.
Figure 4.5-2. A British de Havilland Comet jet airliner at Entebbe airport, in Uganda, in 1952. Photo TR6113, UK Ministry of Information/Imperial War Museum.
Figure 4.5-3. A Concorde supersonic airliner flying at twice the speed of sound (approximately 2200 km/h or 1360 mph), photographed by military pilot Adrian Meredith in 1985. Concorde made its first flight in 1969.
Moreover, until Apollo 8 flew around the Moon in 1968, no human flight had ever gone beyond low Earth orbit. Going to the Moon meant flying suddenly three hundred times farther than any other crewed mission – the previous record belonged to Gemini 11, which had attained an altitude of 1,374 kilometers (854 miles) – and reaching a highly symbolic destination.
In other words, it should not be a surprise that the Moon missions were met with some disbelief. Considering that all subsequent human spaceflights, even Shuttle and Soyuz missions to the International Space Station or to service the Hubble Space Telescope, have never climbed more than 600 kilometers (372 miles) away from the Earth’s surface, it’s almost understandable that there is still some doubt about the Apollo flights, which reached a distance of four hundred thousand kilometers (nearly a quarter of a million miles).
Such vast distances are hard to visualize. Consider that if you shrunk the Earth to a 40-centimeter (16-inch) ball, the Moon would be 10 centimeters (4 inches) in diameter and the Earth-Moon distance would be 11 meters (36 feet). At this scale, a flight to the International Space Station would rise above the Earth by a single centimeter (less than half an inch).
Disbelief is also partly justified because astonishment was, in a way, part of the intent of the Apollo program: president Kennedy’s 1961 speech before a joint session of Congress made it very clear that “No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind”. Going to the Moon was unbelievable by design.