Cel­e­brat­ing first steps on an­other world

The Reporter (Lansdale, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Mar­cia Dunn


A half-cen­tury ago, in the mid­dle of a mean year of war, famine, vi­o­lence in the streets and the widen­ing of the gen­er­a­tion gap, men from planet Earth stepped onto an­other world for the first time, unit­ing peo­ple around the globe in a way not seen be­fore or since.

Hun­dreds of mil­lions tuned in to ra­dios or watched the grainy blackand-white images on TV as Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, in one of humanity’s most glo­ri­ous tech­no­log­i­cal achieve­ments.

As­tro­naut Michael Collins, who or­bited the moon alone in the mother ship while Armstrong pro­claimed for the ages, “That’s one small step for man, one gi­ant leap for mankind,” was struck by the band­ing to­gether of Earth’s in­hab­i­tants.

“It was a won­der­ful achieve­ment in the sense that peo­ple ev­ery­where around the planet ap­plauded it: north, south, east, west, rich, poor, Com­mu­nist, what­ever,” Collins, now 88, told The As­so­ci­ated Press in a re­cent in­ter­view.

That sense of unity did not last long. But 50 years later, Apollo 11 — the cul­mi­na­tion of eight years of break­neck la­bor in­volv­ing a work­force of 400,000 and a price tag in the bil­lions, all aimed at win­ning the space race and beat­ing the Soviet Union to the moon — con­tin­ues to thrill.

For the golden an­niver­sary, NASA, towns, mu­se­ums and other in­sti­tu­tions

are hold­ing cer­e­monies, pa­rades and par­ties, in­clud­ing the si­mul­ta­ne­ous launch of 5,000 model rock­ets out­side the in­stal­la­tion in Huntsville, Alabama, where the be­he­moth Saturn V moon rock­ets were born. Apollo 11K and Saturn 5K runs are “go” at NASA’s Kennedy Space Cen­ter.

Armstrong, who ex­pertly steered the lunar mod­ule Ea­gle to a smooth land­ing with just sec­onds of fuel left, died in 2012 at 82. Aldrin, 89, who fol­lowed him onto the gray, dusty sur­face, was em­broiled re­cently in a now-dropped le­gal dis­pute in which two of his chil­dren tried to have him de­clared men­tally in­com­pe­tent. He has kept an un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally low pro­file in the run-up to the an­niver­sary.

Back in 1961, NASA had barely 15 min­utes of hu­man sub­or­bital flight un­der its belt — Alan Shepard’s his­tory-mak­ing flight — when Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy is­sued the Cold War-era chal­lenge of land­ing a man on the moon by decade’s end and re­turn­ing him safely.

At the time, the So­vi­ets were beat­ing Amer­ica at ev­ery turn in the space race, with the first satel­lite, Sput­nik, and the first space­man, Yuri Ga­garin.

Kennedy’s chal­lenge struck John Tribe, one of Cape Canaveral’s orig­i­nal rocket sci­en­tists, as im­pos­si­ble.

“We were in the rocket busi­ness, so we were do­ing some weird and won­der­ful things back in those days. But, yes, it was an un­be­liev­able an­nounce­ment at that time,” he said. “It took a lot of guts.”

NASA’s Project Mer­cury gave way to the two-man Gemini flights, then the three-man Apollo pro­gram, dealt a dev­as­tat­ing set­back when three as­tro­nauts were killed in a fire dur­ing a 1967 test on the launch pad. The pace was re­lent­less amid fears the So­vi­ets would get to the moon first.

Cape Canaveral’s Bill Wal­dron re­mem­bers work­ing “seven days a week, 12 hours a day, six months at a clip” on the lunar mod­ules.

The pres­sure was so in­tense lead­ing up to the flight that Collins de­vel­oped tics in both eyes.

Launch day — Wed­nes­day, July 16, 1969 — dawned with an es­ti­mated 1 mil­lion peo­ple lin­ing the swel­ter­ing beaches and roads of what had been re­named Cape Kennedy in mem­ory of the slain pres­i­dent.

At 9:32 a.m. EDT, the 363-foot Saturn V rocket roared off Pad 39A, its as­tro­nauts hurtling to­ward their des­ti­na­tion and destiny 240,000 miles (386,000 kilo­me­ters) away. The com­mand mod­ule, Columbia, and the at­tached lunar mod­ule reached the moon three days later. The next day, July 20, Armstrong and Aldrin de­scended to the sur­face in the lunar mod­ule.

Collins wasn’t overly con­cerned about Armstrong and Aldrin get­ting down to the moon. Rather, he wor­ried about them get­ting off the moon and back to the mother ship. He kept his fears to him­self.

“If it was un­think­able, it was un­sayable also,” Collins told the AP. “We never dis­cussed or hinted at their get­ting stranded on the moon. I mean, we were not fools, and we knew darn well that a lot of things had to go ex­actly right for them to as­cend as they were sup­posed to do.”

Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon even had a speech pre­pared in case of dis­as­ter: “Fate has or­dained that the men who went to the moon to ex­plore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.”

As it turned out, de­scent proved more alarm­ing than as­cent.

With min­utes re­main­ing to touchdown, the Ea­gle was rat­tled by one com­puter alarm then an­other. Cau­tion lights flashed. But flight con­trollers had re­hearsed that very sce­nario right be­fore the flight, and the mis­sion pressed on.

Then a boulder-strewn crater ap­peared at the tar­get land­ing site, and Armstrong had to keep fly­ing, look­ing for some­where safe to put down.

Fi­nally came word from Armstrong: “Hous­ton, Tran­quil­ity Base here. The Ea­gle has landed.”

The time was 4:17 p.m. “You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breath­ing again,” Mis­sion Con­trol ra­dioed back.

Armstrong de­scended the nine-rung lad­der first, touch­ing the lunar sur­face at 10:56 p.m. Aldrin fol­lowed him out 18 min­utes later.

Work­ing in one-sixth Earth’s grav­ity, they gath­ered rocks, set up ex­per­i­ments and planted an Amer­i­can flag stiff­ened with wires to make it look as if it were wav­ing in the wind­less vac­uum.

Five more mis­sions would take men to the sur­face of the moon — Apollo 13 had to be aborted be­cause of an ex­plo­sion — be­fore Project Apollo came to a pre­ma­ture end, the last three flights on the sched­ule scrapped.

The first lunar land­ing, at least, lifted Amer­ica’s spir­its — in­deed, the planet’s — when it needed it.

“The Viet­nam War, civil strife, ra­cial strife, all kinds of stuff go­ing on that was bad, which I wasn’t pay­ing much at­ten­tion to be­cause I was work­ing so hard in the space world. The Cold War and all of that,” said Jo Ann Mor­gan, Apollo 11’s lone fe­male launch con­troller. “It was such a demon­stra­tion of the power and the pas­sion of our coun­try.”

She added: “I mean, lit­er­ally, we did ex­actly what JFK said we would do.”


In this photo made avail­able by NASA, as­tro­naut Buzz Aldrin, lunar mod­ule pi­lot, walks on the sur­face of the moon dur­ing the Apollo 11 ex­trave­hic­u­lar ac­tiv­ity.


This photo made avail­able by NASA shows the Earth as the Apollo 11 mis­sion heads to the moon.


In this photo made avail­able by NASA, the 363-feet Saturn V rocket car­ry­ing the Apollo 11 crew, launches from Pad A, Launch Com­plex 39, at the Kennedy Space Cen­ter in Florida.


From right, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin walk to the van that will take the crew to the launch­pad at Kennedy Space Cen­ter on Mer­ritt Is­land, Florida.


Andy Aldrin, 10, sits on a pile of cord­wood in the back­yard of his home in Hous­ton while other mem­bers of his fam­ily lis­ten to the re­ports of the progress of the Apollo II lunar mod­ule car­ry­ing his fa­ther, Col. Buzz Aldrin, and fel­low as­tro­naut Neil Armstrong to a land­ing on the moon.


Peo­ple watch the Apollo 11 Saturn V rocket launch on tele­vi­sions at a Sears depart­ment store in White Plains, N.Y.

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