‘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.