And that they did it with the technology they had - which is elementary compared to what we have now - is doubly amazing.
Now consider that, with all the technology and knowledge we have today, NASA says it will take twice as long and cost four times as much to go back. That is merely indicative of the technological and imaginative sclerosis that afflicts the Space Agency, and one reason why I believe the operational side of the space program should be privatized, with NASA reduced to a science and technology agency along the lines of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA, the predecessor of NASA).
If in 1960, you asked anyone in the field how we should proceed to a manned landing on the moon, you would have been told that first we would learn to send a man into low earth orbit, then we would develop reusable spacecraft to do so cheaply and reliably, then we would build space stations in earth orbit where we would assemble vehicles in which we would go to the moon. It was the logical and sustainable way to do it, and everyone from von Braun down to the lowliest slip-stick jockey knew it.
The came Sputnik, and space exploration became a substitute for military competition between the superpowers (the Olympics fulfilled a similar role). Now the emphasis was on getting there fast, not on getting there right, so the program changed from one focused on lunar transfer from earth orbit to direct ascent--i.e., from earth to the moon with no intermediate stops.
To do so, we built the largest, most powerful rocket the world has ever seen, the Saturn V, 365 feet tall, with a gross weight of 6.7 million pounds and first stage engines generating 7.65 million pounds of thrust. All that, to deliver just 100,000 lbs of payload into lunar orbit. Just half of that would descend to the lunar surface, and only the Apollo command module, about 13 feet tall, 10 feet in diameter and weighing just 12,000 lbs would return to the earth.
It worked, but in winning the race we also sacrificed the possibility of a sustained presence on the moon. We went for a stunt, instead of carefully considered program. We invested in the wrong technologies, as a result of which we never got a fully reusable space shuttle, and are still using the same disintegrating totem poles to put stuff in orbit as we did back in 1963. What are the three principal space boosters in service today? The Atlas V, evolutionary development of the original Atlas that sent John Glenn into orbit; the Delta V, a development of the original Thor intermediate range ballistic missile; and the Titan III, an improved version of the booster used in the Gemini program. The Russians are no better off, using basically the same booster today that put Yuri Gagarin into orbit more than four decades ago.
Our next step in space will actually be retrograde. We are abandoning even the pretense of a reusable manned space vehicle and returning to a space capsule, an evolutionary improvement on the Apollo capsule, mounted on top of a multi-stage expendable booster. Instead of flying back from orbit and landing on a runway, our brave astronauts will revert to being "spam in a can", delivered by parachute to a landing zone in the ocean somewhere. After forty years, we are back where we started. A very typical government program that provides a generation of employment for NASA engineers and their contractors, but which also ensures that space travel will never be practical or affordable.
We're building improved Wright Flyers, when we should be building a space-going DC-3. Government is never going to get that done, just as it was incapable of building a practical airliner. Only the private sector, duly incentivized by the profit motive, will provide the breakthroughs needed for mankind to break free from the earth's gravity well to begin to colonize and exploit the resources of the solar system. If the exploration of the New World had been run by NASA, we would still be living in Europe, and everything we know about the New World would be provided by unmanned seagoing probes that, at great cost and with great difficulty, manage to bring us back some samples from the beach at Cape Cod.