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Sixty years after the Wright Brothers put man in the air, scientists and engineers were grappling with the next major challenge: putting a man in space - and keeping him alive there.

As an engineering challenge, it was the most extreme imaginable. Their solution was a rocket and the most complicated piece of personal protection equipment man has ever known: the space suit.

The design challenge was handed to a small team inside NASA - Crew Systems. The leader of their team was Matthew Radnofsky, known as "the Mad Russian" - an eccentric second-generation Jewish immigrant with a can-do attitude and a broad Boston accent. He was also Caroline Radnofsky's grandfather. 

She barely knew him - he died when she was three years old - but she grew up with stories of the Apollo 11 mission and the famous space suit.

For her, the story of the space race is not just about the men who risked their lives to travel into the unknown, but the ones who held those lives in their hands.

Al Jazeera's Caroline Radnofsky set out to explore the legacy of her grandfather, the man behind the iconic Apollo 11 space suits.

Caroline and her grandfather Matthew Radnofsky in 1992 [Radnofsky Family / Al Jazeera]


By Caroline Radnofsky

Six months ago, I found myself writing a Facebook message to a man who has walked on the moon.

"My name is Caroline Radnofsky. My grandfather was Matt Radnofsky, whom I think you may remember from your NASA days when he worked as Head of Crew Systems."

The weirdness was not lost on me.

As a journalist, I spend a lot of time tracking people down and asking them for interviews, so I'm used to emailing, calling and even tweeting to ask if they'll meet me. On the other hand, the Apollo astronauts are legends the world over, so to be sending one an instant message and watching the little ellipses as he wrote back to me felt... almost impertinent.

And let's not even get started on the fact that his reply, "Sure I do!" acknowledged that not only was this astronaut willing to meet me, but he had recognised my surname because he remembered working with my grandfather.

Captain Jim Lovell flew into space three times before his final and most famous mission, Apollo 13 in 1970 [Mark Kensett / Al Jazeera]

But if there's one thing I learnt from this project - spoiler: I actually learnt hundreds of things - it's that the people involved in the space race weren't all geniuses, or even all heroes. Most of them were ordinary folks who were extremely clever and often very brave.

And crucially, they were dedicated in the face of the almost outlandish goal that President Kennedy set in 1962, when he told the US – and the world: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

Throughout the making of this film, I constantly asked people the same question: "Was there any point when you just thought, 'Screw it, this'll never work'?"

I interviewed the engineers who designed the spacesuit, the men who tested it, and the astronauts who wore it. Their answers to my question never made the final cut of the film because they were all the same, whether they had worried about making a deadline or coming back to earth safely: "We just got on with it, one step at a time."

Gloves worn by astronauts travelling aboard the Russian Sokhol spacecraft to the International Space Station (from Chris Hadfield's personal collection) [Mark Kensett / Al Jazeera]

Although my grandfather was a NASA engineer, my own skills definitely aren't in science and technology. Growing up, my fascination with space mainly stemmed from fear.

After the Columbia Shuttle disaster of 2003, spaceflight seemed like a particularly terrifying endeavour. I was unnerved by the simultaneously claustrophobic and agoraphobic idea of sheltering in a spacecraft or spacesuit while surrounded by a vast vacuum to which accidental exposure meant instant death. My attitude towards astronauts was mostly awe at their courage - or maybe their foolhardiness.

So I approached this project with a little trepidation: how could I tell the story of the spacesuit when I didn't fully understand it myself?

Thankfully, the film's director Jonathan Richards happens to also be a former British Aerospace engineer: he reads Apollo mission logs in bed for fun.

With the help of some fantastic books and Jonathan's enthusiasm for all things spaceflight, I found that the technology involved in the spacesuit's development was easier to understand than I'd expected. I think one of the film's great strengths is the fact that we have managed to make it accessible for the audience, too.

Homer Reihm, retired CEO of ILC Dover, oversaw the design and manufacturing of the Apollo space suit [Mark Kensett / Al Jazeera]

Putting Man on the Moon gave me the opportunity to tell a story about my family that I've been grasping at for years, but have lacked sufficient information or understanding to express.

After 18 separate interviews, I felt like I knew Grandpa best not through the glowing endorsements, but through the anecdotes that were sometimes least flattering: how he'd get so excited about an idea that he'd call his colleagues in the middle of the night, or burst in on meetings. How when he got frustrated, he'd hack away with a survival machete at a block of wood he kept in his office. (That part was strange, but still quite endearing.) I've even begun to see a small part of Grandpa reflected in myself (hopefully minus the machete).

Ultimately, what I'd like viewers to take away from our film is that the space programme showed how the pursuit of a common goal can bring out the best in people. This shone through in every person I interviewed: they all possessed the enthusiasm, calmness in the face of adversity, and ambition that it takes to put a man on the moon.



Source: Al Jazeera