One small step for a man...

The Prince George Citizen - - Front Page - Joel ACHEN­BACH

“Fate has or­dained that the men who went to the moon to ex­plore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Ed­win Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their re­cov­ery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sac­ri­fice.”

– Re­marks pre­pared for Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon, in a memo from White House speech­writer Wil­liam Safire, July 18, 1969, under the head­ing “IN EVENT OF MOON DIS­AS­TER.”

Spoiler alert: They lived!

They walked on the moon, gath­ered rocks, planted a flag, rock­eted home to Earth and splashed down safely in the Pa­cific Ocean. Af­ter three weeks in quar­an­tine (to pre­vent a purely hy­po­thet­i­cal moon-germ contagion), the three Apollo 11 as­tro­nauts got their ticker-tape parade and eter­nal glory.

Why it worked – and why the U.S. beat the Soviet Union to the moon af­ter hav­ing been hu­mil­i­ated, re­peat­edly, dur­ing the early years of the space race – re­mains a com­pelling story of man­age­rial vi­sion, tech­no­log­i­cal ge­nius and astro­nau­ti­cal dash. But it was never as breezy as NASA made it look. The first land­ing on the moon could eas­ily have been the first crash­ing.

NASA’s strat­egy dur­ing the 1960s was built around in­cre­men­tal achieve­ments, with each mis­sion wring­ing out some of the risk.

Still, po­ten­tial dis­as­ter lurked ev­ery­where. Just two years be­fore Apollo 11, three as­tro­nauts died in a freak­ish fire dur­ing a cap­sule test at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

To put as­tro­nauts on the sur­face of the moon and bring them home safely, NASA had to do many things right, in suc­ces­sion, with mar­gins of er­ror rang­ing from small to nonex­is­tent.

“I con­sider a trip to the moon and back to be a long and very frag­ile daisy chain of events,” Michael Collins, the third mem­ber of the Apollo 11 crew, told The Wash­ing­ton Post re­cently.

“There were 23 crit­i­cal things that had to oc­cur per­fectly,” re­calls en­gi­neer JoAnn Mor­gan, who han­dled com­mu­ni­ca­tions in Launch Con­trol at the Kennedy Space Cen­ter.

One of those things was the land­ing on the moon, which ob­vi­ously couldn’t be prac­ticed under re­al­is­tic con­di­tions.

No one knew the na­ture of the moon’s sur­face. Hard? Soft? Pow­dery? Gooey?

The mis­sion plan­ners feared that the lu­nar mod­ule could be­come in­stantly mired, or just sink out of sight.

Equally nerve-rack­ing was the planned de­par­ture from the moon. The top half of the lu­nar lan­der, the as­cent mod­ule, re­lied on a sin­gle en­gine to blast the as­tro­nauts back to lu­nar or­bit. It had to work. If it didn’t, Nixon would have to pull out that memo.

Collins, who or­bited the moon in the mother ship while his crew­mates were on the sur­face, was keenly aware that fail­ure was an op­tion. In his mem­oir, ti­tled Car­ry­ing the Fire, he wrote: “My se­cret ter­ror for the last six months has been leav­ing them on the moon and re­turn­ing to Earth alone. ... If they fail to rise from the sur­face, or crash back into it, I am not go­ing to com­mit sui­cide; I am com­ing home, forth­with, but I will be a marked man for life and I know it.”

NASA has an in­sti­tu­tional in­stinct to pro­ject su­per­nat­u­ral com­pe­tence; it down­plays, or hides be­neath jar­gon, the uh-oh mo­ments in hu­man space­flight. If on July 20, 1969, a gi­ant man-eat­ing moon lizard had emerged from a lava tube and chased Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin back into the lu­nar lan­der, NASA would have de­scribed this as an off-nom­i­nal event re­quir­ing a con­tin­gency pro­ce­dure.

There’s a full-scale lu­nar lan­der on dis­play at the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum in Wash­ing­ton. It is of­fi­cially known as LM-2 – Lu­nar Mod­ule 2. Orig­i­nally called a Lu­nar Ex­cur­sion Mod­ule, the spi­dery space­craft was gen­er­ally called “the Lem” and nick­named “the bug.”

The dis­play ve­hi­cle at the mu­seum never went to space but was used in ground tests, in­clud­ing drop tests to see how it could han­dle a hard land­ing. The ex­te­rior has been mod­i­fied to make it look like the Apollo 11 lan­der – the Ea­gle.

It doesn’t look like a fly­ing ma­chine. Or maybe it looks like one that has been taken apart and then, af­ter a few cock­tails, put back to­gether in­cor­rectly. It has no curves and min­i­mal sym­me­try. It fea­tures oddly pro­trud­ing el­e­ments that seem to be tacked on ran­domly, in­clud­ing a fuel tank that the writer Oliver Mor­ton has de­scribed as pro­trud­ing like a goi­ter.

Di­rectly over­head, sus­pended by wires from the ceil­ing, is the Spirit of St. Louis, Charles Lind­bergh’s prim­i­tive plane, not much more than a metal box with pro­pel­lers. But at least it’s im­me­di­ately rec­og­niz­able as a plane. The lu­nar mod­ule is be­wil­der­ing. Where, ex­actly, do the as­tro­nauts sit? (Nowhere: There are no seats. They stand.)

“This is the first true space­ship,” says Paul Fjeld, an am­a­teur his­to­rian who seems to know ev­ery­thing about LM-2. Fjeld ex­plains that it didn’t have to fly in an at­mos­phere and thus didn’t have to be aero­dy­namic. Or even look good.

The de­sign­ers at Grum­man Air­craft had to fig­ure out the most ba­sic con­cepts, like how to get as­tro­nauts out of the crew cabin and down to the moon’s sur­face, roughly 10 feet be­low, notes Charles Fish­man in his book “One Gi­ant Leap.” The de­sign­ers ini­tially de­cided that the as­tro­nauts, who would be in bulky moon suits, should go down to the sur­face by climb­ing hand over hand on a knot­ted rope. They’d re­turn the same way, lug­ging moon rocks and get­ting an amaz­ing work­out.

Wisely, the de­sign­ers de­cided to go with a lad­der.

Though ev­ery­thing about the moon­shot was fraught with un­cer­tainty, it ben­e­fited from a clearly de­fined goal. In May 1961, Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy asked NASA to put a man on the moon and bring him safely back to Earth be­fore the decade was out.

The next year, in Septem­ber 1962, Kennedy gave his fa­mous “We choose to go to the moon” speech at Rice Uni­ver­sity in Hous­ton. He said the United States chooses to do these things in space “not be­cause they are easy, but be­cause they are hard...”

He noted that the moon is 240,000 miles away and that the mis­sion would re­quire “a gi­ant rocket more than 300 feet tall,” and that this rocket would be “made of new metal al­loys, some of which have not yet been in­vented.”

He would not live to see this hap­pen. But his mur­der made the moon pro­gram un­touch­able, some­thing that sim­ply had to be achieved, not only for geopo­lit­i­cal rea­sons but also to honor the mar­tyred pres­i­dent. The United States poured $20 bil­lion and 400,000 work­ers into the moon­shot.

Con­trary to pop­u­lar be­lief, NASA did not in­vent Te­flon, Vel­cro or Tang. But it did in­vent fly­ing to the moon. Nav­i­gat­ing to and around the moon was a com­put­ing challenge – one that re­quired the most ad­vanced com­put­ers at MIT as well as hu­man com­put­ers such as Kather­ine John­son, the NASA math­e­ma­ti­cian cel­e­brated in the book and movie Hid­den Fig­ures. NASA chose a mis­sion ar­chi­tec­ture for Apollo that saved pay­load weight and re­duced the size of the main rocket but re­quired as­tro­nauts to take a sep­a­rate craft, the lu­nar lan­der, to the moon’s sur­face and then ren­dezvous with the mother ship in lu­nar or­bit. That was a splen­did idea on pa­per but added risk and com­plex­ity.

Mean­while, the Soviet Union had its own moon pro­gram, but strug­gled to build a gi­ant rocket that could launch with­out blow­ing up. The Rus­sians had in­ter­nal dis­putes among their en­gi­neers.

A huge set­back came when the chief rocket de­signer, Sergei Korolev – a sur­vivor of the Gu­lag dur­ing the Stalin era – died dur­ing surgery in 1966.

The United States, mean­while, had Wern­her von Braun, the exNazi who led the pro­gram that de­vised the V-2 rock­ets that ter­ror­ized Bri­tain dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. Von Braun and other Ger­man sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers had been brought to the United States af­ter the war. Von Braun en­vi­sioned hu­man space­flight that in­cluded space sta­tions, space shut­tles and in­ter­plan­e­tary arks car­ry­ing hu­mans to Mars. The moon land­ing, for von Braun, was just one mile­stone in a much more am­bi­tious in­va­sion of space.

“In a sim­plis­tic way, we had von Braun, and he built a rocket ca­pa­ble of a lu­nar land­ing mis­sion. The Soviet Union could not build an equally ca­pa­ble rocket,” said John Logs­don, au­thor of mul­ti­ple books on the space race.

The Sovi­ets did build a moon rocket, the N1. It had 30 en­gines. Four times the Sovi­ets tried to launch it, and every time some­thing went wrong.

The sec­ond fail­ure was par­tic­u­larly spec­tac­u­lar. It hap­pened on July 3, 1969 – just 13 days be­fore the sched­uled launch of Apollo 11. The N1 rose above the launch tower, fell back to the pad and blew up in one of the big­gest non­mil­i­tary ex­plo­sions in his­tory.

One gi­ant leap

In De­cem­ber 1968 came the first gi­ant leap, when the three Apollo 8 as­tro­nauts flew all the way to the moon, or­bited it and flew home, a jour­ney that most hu­man be­ings ap­pro­pri­ately found amaz­ing.

Apollo 9 was a shake­down cruise in Earth or­bit, with the com­mand mod­ule and the lu­nar lan­der prac­tic­ing the or­bital ren­dezvous that would be nec­es­sary for the moon mis­sion.

Apollo 10 was like a com­bi­na­tion of the two pre­vi­ous mis­sions: a flight to the moon and sep­a­ra­tion of the lu­nar mod­ule and the com­mand mod­ule. The Lem de­scended to within 50,000 feet of the moon’s sur­face be­fore ig­nit­ing the as­cent en­gine to blast back to lu­nar or­bit.

So that left one more gi­ant leap. Not long be­fore his death in 2012, Neil Armstrong said in one of his rare in­ter­views that he had wished, back in July 1969, that they’d had an­other month to get ready for the moon-land­ing mis­sion. He cal­cu­lated only a 50 per cent chance of a suc­cess­ful land­ing. He fig­ured that there was a 90 per cent chance the crew would make it back to Earth alive.

On July 16, 1969, the Saturn V rocket with three Apollo 11 as­tro­nauts rid­ing on top blasted off from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Cen­ter.

“I could feel the shock wave vi­brate through my bones,” says en­gi­neer Mor­gan, who was at a con­sole in Launch Con­trol.

The trip to the moon took three days. Most of that time, the as­tro­nauts couldn’t see the Earth or the moon. The space­craft rolled like a chicken on a spit so that the sun would not heat only one side of the ve­hi­cle. Fi­nally the space­craft piv­oted, and the moon came into view. It filled the win­dow. It was not a flat, sil­ver disk, Collins re­called, but a three-di­men­sional ob­ject, bulging and a rough-look­ing place.

“It was just a to­tally dif­fer­ent moon than I had grown up with,” Collins said. “It was awe­some. It was cer­tainly not invit­ing.”

On July 20, Armstrong and Aldrin slipped into the Ea­gle and be­gan their de­scent to the lu­nar sur­face.

They hadn’t gone far be­fore the lan­der’s com­puter flashed an alarm.

“Pro­gram alarm. It’s a twelveoh-two,” Armstrong told Mis­sion Con­trol.

In Hous­ton, as­tro­naut Char­lie Duke served as the CapCom, the per­son in di­rect com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the Apollo crew. Duke had no idea what a 1202 alarm meant.

Af­ter 16 sec­onds of si­lence, Armstrong spoke again, this time with the kind of ur­gency you’d ex­pect from some­one who doesn’t know if he’s go­ing to land on the moon or be forced to abort the mis­sion: “Give us a read­ing on the 1202 pro­gram alarm.”

In Mis­sion Con­trol, en­gi­neer Steve Bales had a di­rect line to a 24-year-old col­league named Jack Gar­man who sat in a back­room. Gar­man kept the com­puter codes (such as “1202”) on a cheat sheet on his con­sole.

“It’s ex­ec­u­tive over­flow. If it does not oc­cur again, we’re fine,” Gar­man told Bales.

The Apollo Guid­ance Com­puter was a tri­umph of en­gi­neer­ing – com­pact, hard-wired to do lots of things at once – but it was over­loaded with radar data.

As a re­sult, it was do­ing ex­actly what it was sup­posed to do, which is dump lower-pri­or­ity pro­grams. But it was con­tin­u­ing to guide the Ea­gle to­ward the sur­face.

Bales re­layed that mes­sage: We’re still go for land­ing.

The Ea­gle, how­ever, had over­shot the in­tended land­ing area by sev­eral miles. The com­puter was guid­ing it to­ward a crater with steep sides and flanked by car-size boul­ders.

Armstrong took man­ual con­trol, slowed the de­scent, and be­gan fly­ing the Ea­gle like a he­li­copter, al­most par­al­lel to the sur­face.

He had trained tire­lessly on the Lu­nar Land­ing Train­ing Ve­hi­cle, an un­gainly con­trap­tion de­signed to sim­u­late how the Ea­gle would fly in the moon’s gen­tle grav­ity.

Armstrong was an ex­tra­or­di­nary pilot. He’d got­ten a stu­dent pilot’s li­cense on his 16th birth­day be­fore he knew how to drive a car, ac­cord­ing to James Donovan’s book Shoot For the Moon.

Not only could he fly any­thing, he could crash any­thing and emerge un­scathed. Armstrong had flown com­bat mis­sions in Ko­rea, and once had to eject from his plane just be­fore it crashed into the sea.

He’d pi­loted the ex­per­i­men­tal, rocket-pow­ered X-15 air­craft, at one point bounc­ing off the at­mos­phere ac­ci­den­tally (as dra­ma­tized in the open­ing scene of the movie First Man). Dur­ing the Gemini 8 mis­sion in 1966, a mal­func­tion­ing thruster put the space­craft into a ter­ri­fy­ing spin, but Armstrong, on the verge of pass­ing out, man­aged to get it under con­trol be­fore mak­ing an emer­gency splash­down in the Pa­cific. And in 1968, he’d lost con­trol of the Lu­nar Land­ing Train­ing Ve­hi­cle and had to eject just sec­onds be­fore it crashed.

As Armstrong searched for a level spot to land, fuel be­came an is­sue. The Ea­gle was sup­posed to be on the sur­face al­ready, and the fuel sup­ply had been care­fully cal­cu­lated. If they ran out of fuel, they’d have to abort the land­ing by fir­ing the as­cent en­gine. The only other op­tion was fall­ing the rest of the way to the sur­face in what they could only hope would be a kind of soft crash­ing.

“Sixty sec­onds,” Char­lie Duke said.

Aldrin called out the rate of de­scent and the lat­eral mo­tion.

Armstrong searched for a flat spot.

“Kick­ing up some dust,” Aldrin said.

“Thirty sec­onds,” Duke said. For nine sec­onds, no one said any­thing.

Armstrong’s heart rate hit 156. “Con­tact light,” Aldrin said. A rod ex­tend­ing from the bot­tom of one of the Ea­gle’s legs touched the sur­face. Armstrong killed the en­gine.

“Hous­ton, uh...”

He paused. “Tran­quil­ity Base here. The Ea­gle has landed.”

“Roger, Tran­quil­ity. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breath­ing again.”

‘When in doubt, land long’

That’s the fa­mous moon land­ing. It’s in all the books. It’s in the First Man movie. You can hear the radio trans­mis­sions with an easy search on­line. But even with all this doc­u­men­ta­tion, and even af­ter half a cen­tury, it’s a strangely thrilling, ter­ri­fy­ing mo­ment in hu­man his­tory.

One quirky fact of the land­ing is that no one knew where the Ea­gle was, ex­actly, ac­cord­ing to au­thor Fish­man. Collins, or­bit­ing the moon on its far side, missed the land­ing drama. When he came back around to the near side of the moon he used a tele­scope to search for his com­rades on the sur­face, but couldn’t spot them.

Nor could any­one else at NASA fig­ure out pre­cisely where this “Tran­quil­ity Base” was.

Collins told Armstrong that, from or­bit, the land­ing area “looked rough as a cob.”

Armstrong: “It re­ally was rough, Mike. Over the tar­geted land­ing area, it was ex­tremely rough, cratered, and large num­bers of rocks that were prob­a­bly some, many larger than five or 10 feet in size.”

Collins: “When in doubt, land long.”

Armstrong: “So we did.” Test pilot talk. When in doubt, land long (as if you’re in a jet air­craft in the Mo­jave Desert and not fly­ing an ex­per­i­men­tal space­ship and try­ing to avoid craters and boul­ders on the moon).

Armstrong and Aldrin were sup­posed to get some sleep but in­stead de­cided to get on with the moon­walk, which turned out to be in prime time for the U.S. tele­vi­sion audience.

Armstrong stepped onto the “porch” and pulled a han­dle that de­ployed a tele­vi­sion cam­era. His back­ward jour­ney on the lad­der was as in­cre­men­tal as the en­tire Apollo pro­gram. When he hit the foot­pad he jumped back up to the bot­tom rung of the lad­der, just to make sure he could do it.

Then he stepped onto the moon proper.

“That’s one small step for man..” He paused. Armstrong would later claim that he said “a man,” and not just “man.”

He said the miss­ing ar­ti­cle must have got­ten dropped from the radio trans­mis­sion.

“ gi­ant leap for mankind.” No one per­ceived it as a flubbed line. Ev­ery­one got the point.

Aldrin fol­lowed just 20 min­utes later, and as he looked around, he of­fered a per­fect de­scrip­tion: “Mag­nif­i­cent des­o­la­tion.”

Stars aligned

Why did it all work so splen­didly? The stars aligned.

In his new book American Moon­shot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race, his­to­rian Dou­glas Brink­ley writes, “(It) takes a rare com­bi­na­tion of lead­er­ship, luck, tim­ing and pub­lic will to pull off some­thing as sen­sa­tional as Kennedy’s Apollo moon­shot.”

Lead­er­ship. Luck. Tim­ing. Pub­lic will. Those are not line items in a fed­eral bud­get. They can’t be com­manded to ma­te­ri­al­ize.

The back­ers of Apollo may have made a fun­da­men­tal strate­gic er­ror: they framed the en­ter­prise as a race. They won it – and then didn’t know what to do next.

They never had a plan for an ex­tended moon pres­ence, such as a moon base. Most of the Apollo tech­nol­ogy proved of lim­ited use in fu­ture space projects.

Ev­ery­thing was moon-spe­cific, goal-spe­cific. As a re­sult, much of the Apollo in­fra­struc­ture was dis­as­sem­bled.

It was like break­ing down the set at the end of a film shoot.

“It was a Faus­tian bar­gain. The space cadets got the moon, but the price they paid for it was there wouldn’t be any­thing af­ter the moon,” says space his­to­rian Howard McCurdy of American Uni­ver­sity. “It’s not ad­van­ta­geous to tie your fu­ture to a moon­shot pro­gram.”

Space­flight is now in a pro­found tran­si­tion, no longer the ex­clu­sive en­ter­prise of huge government bu­reau­cra­cies. The com­mer­cial space in­dus­try is boom­ing. The economies of ad­vanced na­tions de­pend on satel­lites. Mil­i­tary of­fi­cials fear that their satel­lites are vul­ner­a­ble, and they say we must pre­pare for a new era of space warfight­ing.

U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump wants to cre­ate a Space Force as a sixth branch of the mil­i­tary.

Mean­while, the moon is prom­i­nent again. China re­cently landed a probe on its far side. In­dia has a lan­der and rover planned for the near fu­ture.

In March, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion or­dered NASA to land as­tro­nauts at the moon’s south pole no later than 2024.

Re­al­ity check: Go­ing to the moon isn’t as easy as plug­ging an ad­dress into Google Maps. But with enough pluck and gump­tion, plus money and ge­nius, it can be done.

That was the point of Apollo 11.


As­tro­naut Buzz Aldrin stands on the sur­face of the moon, in a pho­to­graph taken by Neil Armstrong dur­ing the Apollo 11 mis­sion on July 20, 1969.


In this July 20, 1969 file photo, Apollo 11 as­tro­naut Neil Armstrong trudges across the sur­face of the moon leav­ing behind foot­prints.

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