‘Neil Arm­strong took con­trol’

Buzz Al­dren re­veals how dis­as­ter al­most struck the Apollo 11 mis­sion


Apollo 12 al­most be­came the mis­sion to land men on the Moon, rather than Apollo 11. What hap­pened?

Orig­i­nally it was sched­uled for Apollo 11 to be the first lu­nar land­ing, then ev­i­dently with­out no­ti­fy­ing the na­tion and the crew, it slipped to be­ing Apollo 12 be­cause of the over­weight con­di­tion in Apollo 11′s orig­i­nal de­sign.

It needed to be light enough to land, so they kept kind of work­ing on it and not dis­clos­ing un­til a fi­nal de­ci­sion was made. And so his­tory was gonna play out a dif­fer­ent way. And that again had a ma­jor im­pact on my life and ca­reer, and Neil Arm­strong’s ca­reer, if it had re­mained too heavy to make a land­ing at­tempt.

You and Arm­strong ran into some prob­lems dur­ing the Apollo 11 mis­sion, could you tell us more about that?

About four min­utes into the land­ing se­quence of Apollo 11, the dis­play on the com­puter read 1201 and 1202.

They were er­ror codes, the num­ber of the alarm, and what­ever in­for­ma­tion was dis­played be­fore – whether it was ve­loc­ity or move­ment over the ground – was not there any more.

Were you wor­ried?

These codes were dis­turb­ing and dis­tract­ing, but Mis­sion Con­trol didn’t know what the alarms meant ei­ther. Neil Arm­strong, who was pay­ing more at­ten­tion than I was since he was look­ing out of the win­dow, took man­ual con­trol. There were craters drift­ing by, but not many of them were iden­ti­fi­able. Neil said he thought we may be a lit­tle long – the Ea­gle had over­shot its planned land­ing site.

The fuel tank was run­ning low and Neil un­der­stood this. By ex­pe­ri­ence, there were two min­utes of fuel re­main­ing and ahead was a crater that looked dan­ger­ous with gi­ant rocks around it.

The eas­i­est thing to do was just slow the rate of de­scent and fly over what­ever it was, but that would take longer and burn more fuel and make fuel quan­tity at touch­down a lit­tle less. We were just over 30 me­tres (100 feet) from the sur­face, and Neil had to land some­where.

What hap­pened next?

I could see the shadow get­ting big­ger be­cause the Sun was be­hind us, and we were get­ting closer and closer to the shadow of the lander.

The dust be­gan kick­ing up and, with­out try­ing to dis­turb Neil’s con­cen­tra­tion, I gave him a lit­tle body lan­guage to get on the ground as soon as pos­si­ble. And then it hap­pened. We touched down safely in the Sea of Tran­quil­lity. There had been just 15 sec­onds of fuel spare.

Were there any other teething trou­bles?

We then had a prob­lem with the hatch. The pres­sure in­side had to be low, but when we tried to pull the hatch down it wouldn’t come open.

I bent the door back and equalised the pres­sure. I watched out the win­dow to see Neil go down the lad­der. When it was my turn to back out, I re­mem­ber the check­list said to reach back care­fully and close the hatch, be­ing care­ful not to lock it. It would have been very dif­fi­cult to open it from the out­side if I had.

The Moon’s sur­face can be best de­scribed as ut­ter deso­la­tion, with no signs of life what­so­ever. There were a few hours to col­lect pre­cious rock sam­ples and carry out ex­per­i­ments.

Once we were ready, I looked around at some of the lu­nar dust on the ground and saw the bro­ken end of a cir­cuit breaker. One of the space­suits had knocked it out, but it was needed to start the en­gine and get us back home. The bro­ken parts that were still on the in­side had to be pushed in, and only two peo­ple could fix this.

So, in the count­down pro­ce­dure, I used a pen to push the cir­cuit breaker in. This worked and the en­gine started. We could go home.

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