The death of Neil Armstrong at the age of 82 has made the world pause and reflect on one of the greatest landmark achievements in the evolution of the human species – the ability to rise above our animal origins, pilot ourselves away from the gravitational pull of our planet and land on the Moon; and, importantly, to return safely home – while allowing millions on Earth to witness it all live on television.
It remains an astonishing scientific and technical feat which will only be surpassed when human beings walk on the surface of Mars. Given that this is not predicted to occur until at least the 2030s, the Apollo 11 Moon landing on 20 July 1969 really was decades ahead of it’s time. It’s easy to forget just how fraught with danger the whole mission was, particularly as the technology which achieved it seems so primitive now. The microprocessor had yet to be invented; the computers controlling the Apollo spacecraft comprised transistors and integrated circuits with less processing power than a modern mobile phone.
The riskiest parts of the mission were the landing of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s Lunar Module (Eagle) on the lunar surface, and it’s subsequent lift-off and re-docking with Apollo’s Command Module (Columbia) piloted by Michael Collins in orbit 60 miles above the Moon. Armstrong himself rated their chances of success as no better than 50/50.
And there were problems.
When the Eagle initially separated from Columbia, it’s cabin wasn’t fully depressurised, resulting in a burst of gas which was to eventually throw the Module’s landing 4 miles off target. With no space for seats in the wardrobe-sized cabin, Armstrong and Aldrin were sealed inside their pressure suits and strapped in the standing position for 2 hours as they guided their craft’s descent to the Sea of Tranquillity.
At 33,000 feet warning lights suddenly started flashing, and alarms went off. Mission Control confirmed that their onboard computer was handling more data than it could cope with, and was having to prioritise on tasks related specifically to landing the craft.
At 5,000 feet Armstrong took manual control of the Eagle as planned, but noticed that the craft’s automatic navigation system was carrying them towards a boulder strewn crater about the size of a football pitch. A landing there could have fatally damaged the Eagle, so Armstrong was forced to manually over-ride the system and search for a clear landing site. This consumed more fuel than their simulations had bargained for and they were running very low. Also, the Eagle’s thrusters were kicking up sheets of dust like a layer of ground fog which obscured Armstrong’s vision.
Despite worries at Mission Control that the Eagle would crash, Armstrong achieved touchdown with the historic words, “Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.” They had landed 4 miles downrange of their predicted touchdown point and 37 seconds later than predicted. They had around 30 seconds of fuel remaining. This was a source of relief to one Apollo engineer, whose tests had shown that there was a small chance the exhaust could shoot back into the engine as it landed and ignite the remaining propellant.
The first thing Armstrong and Aldrin did was prepare the Eagle for launching for a quick getaway. They had a 3 minute window for an emergency re-launch and rendezvous with Columbia if they did not like the look of things on the moon’s surface, and then 2 hourly opportunities for escape after that. The mission schedule allowed for a 5 hour sleep period, but Armstrong and Aldrin decided they were too excited to sleep and begin early preparations for their moon walk instead.
Over 6 hours after landing, Armstrong opened the hatch to go outside. However, he had difficulties squeezing through the hatch with his Portable Life Support System (PLSS) backpack. A redesign of the hatch to make it smaller had not been followed by a redesign of the backpack, and some of the Apollo astronauts’ highest heart rates were recorded while they were climbing in and out of the Eagle’s hatch. Finally, after pulling a D-ring to deploy stowed equipment and activate a TV camera, Armstrong stepped off the Eagle’s 9-rung ladder and placed his left foot on the surface of the Moon with the immortal words, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind”. His “one small step” was actually a 3½ foot hop from the bottom rung to the surface, because the Eagle’s shock absorbers hadn’t fully compressed. Armstrong was joined by Buzz Aldrin on the surface a few minutes later. While Aldrin made his memorable soundbite, “Magnificent desolation”, he had to make sure not to lock the Eagle’s hatch because there was no outer handle.
Armstrong and Aldrin spent less than 2½ hours outside the Eagle, setting up scientific equipment, taking (now iconic) images of the lunar surface, and collecting rock and soil samples. The furthest they strayed from the Eagle was 120 metres (390 ft) when Armstrong went off to take photos at the rim of a crater which had caught his interest.
Among their ‘ceremonial’ duties was the planting of a specially designed US flag. Expecting a soft, deep layer of lunar soil to plant the Stars and Stripes in, Armstrong and Aldrin actually found that the landing site was composed of a thin layer of dust over hard rock. They managed to drive the flagpole just a few inches into the ground in front of the TV camera. They also took a telephone-radio call from the US President, Richard Nixon from the Oval Room in the White House, who described it as “the most historic telephone call ever made.” He talked of the pride in their immense achievement and of the prayers for their safe return to Earth. Armstrong replied that it was a great honour and privilege for them to be there.
As they eventually headed back into the Eagle laden with 2 sample boxes containing 22 kg (49 lb) of lunar surface material, they lightened their load by leaving behind over 100 items, including their PLSS backpacks, lunar overshoes, empty food bags and full containers of faeces and urine. They then pressurised the Eagle and went through the laborious process of removing the outer layers of their space suits. After a meal in the cramped cabin, they settled down for a sleep – Armstrong in a hammock slung over the base of the engine – Aldrin curled up on the floor.
After 7 hours of rest, they were awoken by Houston to prepare for the return flight. While moving around in the cabin, Aldrin accidentally broke the circuit breaker that would arm the main engine for lift off. There was concern that this would stop the engine firing, leaving them stranded on the Moon. Luckily a felt-tip pen was enough to activate the switch.
The Eagle finally lifted off 2½ hours later, it’s engine exhaust knocking over the carefully planted US flag. After a 3¾ hour ascent, the Eagle successfully rejoined Columbia with Michael Collins aboard. The Eagle was jettisoned into lunar orbit and some months later crashed into the Moon, by which time Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins had returned to worldwide acclaim and their place in history.
Armstrong later said, “I was elated, ecstatic and extremely surprised that we were successful.”
They were fully prepared for the risk that it could have all gone wrong – and so was Nixon. Failure in the descent could have sent Armstrong and Aldrin crashing into the Moon. Failure in the ascent could have left them stranded on the surface without hope of rescue and, at best, a couple of days’ oxygen left. Collins, orbiting 60 miles above them, would have been powerless to help and would have been ordered to return to Earth as the sole survivor of the Apollo 11 mission. President Nixon would have broken the news to the widows-to-be, Janet Armstrong and Joan Aldrin, and would then have read the following statement to the world, prepared by his speech writer Bill Safire a couple of days earlier:
NASA would probably have stayed in contact with Armstrong and Aldrin, and perhaps given them the opportunity to say some final goodbyes. When the time would have come for NASA to finally end communication with the stranded astronauts, a clergyman would have taken over the broadcast and carried out the service for a burial at sea, commending their souls to the deep and ending with the Lord’s Prayer.
What impact this would have had on subsequent missions to the Moon is hard to say, but would probably have led to a redoubling of NASA’s efforts to land men on the lunar surface and bring them home safely; public sentiment may even have led to a mission to bring the bodies home.
Luckily this scenario never played out and the astronauts went on to live long lives – if not always happy ones. In Armstrong’s case, he was deeply uneasy about the fame he acquired as the first man on the moon and avoided publicity. His wife Janet, who divorced him in 1994, said, “Everyone gives Neil the greatest credit for not trying to take advantage of his fame, not like other astronauts have done. But look what it’s done to him inside. He feels guilty that he got all the acclaim for an effort of tens of thousands of people.”
Armstrong himself said, “I don’t want to be a living memorial,” preferring to “bask in obscurity.”
However, in 2010, aged 80, Armstrong publicly said that he would still willingly serve as commander on a mission to Mars if he were asked!