Our Spaceflight Heritage: Apollo 11 then and now
Forty-seven years ago, the United States—and more importantly, the human race—did something extraordinary: We launched Apollo 11 and landed, on July 20, 1969, two men on the surface of the Moon. It was the culmination of a decade’s worth of hard work, dedication, ever-more-ambitious missions, the rapid development of new technologies, and costly failure.
On July 16, 1969, the massive Saturn V rocket launched from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It carried to orbit three 38-year-old astronauts—Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins, and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. Their mission: to land on the Moon and return safely to the Earth. Such a simple proposal turned out to be enormously complex.
After Trans-Lunar Injection (TLI), the maneuver that put the upper stage of the rocket on course for the Moon, the Command Module Columbia retracted the Lunar Module Eagle from the upper stage of the Saturn V, and the combined spacecraft set off for the Moon.
During the flight to the Moon, Aldrin noticed flashes of light, like sparks. To his amazement, the sparks remained even when he closed his eyes. These were later determined to be flashes caused by cosmic rays striking the interior of his eyes.
Apollo 11 was the most watched, most documented single event in human history. Every moment of the mission was recorded, monitored, filmed, or televised. Any error would be broadcast to the entire world, but Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin were three professional, intelligent, well-trained astronauts. They were not considered a particularly close crew, and there was a great deal of quiet time aboard the spacecraft, but they worked very well together. Collins went so far as to call them “amiable strangers”.
As the spacecraft approached the Moon, Aldrin noticed something strange: a light flashing in the distance in an extraordinarily regular, rhythmic pattern. Armstrong thought it might have been the S-IV-B, the discarded upper stage of the Saturn V rocket, but Mission Control discounted that possibility. The identity of the flashing light remains something of a mystery, but most experts agree that it was most likely one of the adapter panels off the upper stage, which were discarded in order to release the Lunar Module. That explanation has not satisfied UFO enthusiasts who insist that an alien spacecraft followed Apollo 11 all the way to the Moon, but it fits all the facts.
On July 20, Armstrong and Aldrin moved into Eagle, they then powered up and detached from Columbia. Collins told them, “I think you’ve got a fine-looking flying machine there, Eagle, in spite of the fact that you’re upside-down.”
“Somebody’s upside-down,” Armstrong replied.
After slowly rotating the LM so that Collins could verify that the landing legs were extended and locked into position, Armstrong fired the descent engine and took Eagle down toward the Moon’s Sea of Tranquillity (Mare Tranquillitatis).
But trouble arose almost at once. The Eagle’s thrusters began oscillating—far more violently than they ever had in simulations. Also, the communications antenna lost contact with Earth and had to be routed through Columbia’s antenna.
Then, after Armstrong pitched the LM over for final descent, the alarm began to blare. The screen signified that it was the 1202 program alarm.
No one in Mission Control knew what that meant, and engineers in the backroom pored through their mission rules to find the obscure warning. It turned out the computer was overloaded with data and kept shunting to the top of its program list. It was determined that the mission was still a go as long as the problem was intermittent.
As soon as Eagle had disconnected from Columbia, it was propelled faster than planned because of the residual oxygen expelled from the airlock. As a result, the LM overflew the planned landing site—and the computer was bringing the craft down directly into a field of sharp boulders. Armstrong took manual control and took off across the surface of the Moon.
At Mission Control, all flight director Gene Kranz knew was that in all the simulations, Eagle had touched down by this time. Armstrong was searching the lunar surface for a place to land—and fuel was running out.
Eventually, Armstrong spotted a flat area and slowly brought Eagle down as Aldrin counted off the range and velocity, and CapCom Charlie Duke counted down how many seconds of fuel remained.
Finally, a green light illuminated on Aldrin’s panel reading “LUNAR CONTACT”. Aldrin said, “Contact light.”
Armstrong, intent on the landing and confused by the torrent of lunar dust kicked up by the engine, didn’t even hear Aldrin. He was supposed to shut down the engine as soon as the probe on the LM’s footpad made contact with the lunar regolith, in order to avoid blasting any rocks up into the engine, but Eagle settled all the way to the surface before Armstrong shut off the engine.
After a moment of uncertainty, Duke said, “We copy you down, Eagle.”
Armstrong replied, “Houston, uh… Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed!”
Delighted, Charlie Duke stumbled over his words: “Roger, Twanq— Tranquillity, we copy you on the ground! You’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again! Thanks a lot!”
A rest period scheduled for just after the landing was scrapped and Armstrong climbed out onto the porch at 9:30 p.m. Houston time. Climbing down the ladder, he pulled a switch that swung open the door on the Modular Equipment Stowage Assembly (MESA), which contained the TV camera. Enthralled audiences all over the Earth got the fuzzy, black-and-white image of Armstrong’s ghostly form stepping onto a white surface against a black sky.
Before stepping off the footpad, Armstrong jumped up onto the ladder to verify that he could get back up. Then, cautiously, he placed his foot on the lunar soil and stepped off the pad, saying, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Still attached to the LM by a tether, Armstrong began his first walk on the Moon, checking the status of the spacecraft, the disturbance its engine had made in the lunar dust, and the topography of the land. His first task was to collect a contingency sample so that there would be an example of lunar regolith in case they had to abort immediately.
However, Armstrong evidently judged that Eagle was stable and secure because he immediately began snapping photos of the undisturbed lunar landscape. He had to be reminded three times to collect the contingency sample, but he insisted on taking the panoramic photos first—the last photos ever taken of the Sea of Tranquillity untouched by human hands.
“It has a stark beauty all its own,” Armstrong remarked. “It’s much like the high desert of the United States. It’s different, but it’s very pretty out here.”
Half an hour later, Aldrin climbed down the ladder. “Beautiful view,” he said.
“Isn’t that something?” Armstrong replied. “Magnificent sight out here.”
“Magnificent desolation,” Aldrin said.
Among their tasks on the lunar surface, Armstrong and Aldrin set up a solar wind experiment, a Laser Ranging Retroreflector (LRRR), a passive seismometer, and, of course, the American flag. After they had set up the flag, they received an unexpected call from an interested member of the audience: President Richard Nixon.
Curiously, Nixon did not mention President Kennedy during his message to the Apollo astronauts, even though the Apollo Program had been fulfilled largely in tribute to the slain President—and there is considerable evidence that if Kennedy had not been assassinated, we never would have landed on the Moon.
As Armstrong set up the various experiments, Aldrin demonstrated on-camera the different methods of walking in the Moon’s one-sixth gravity.
Because of uncertainty as to the nature of the lunar surface, and the geologists’ desire to see rocks in their original position before they were collected, Armstrong and Aldrin were ordered to remain within view of the television camera for the entire moonwalk. However, on one occasion, Armstrong ventured out of range of the camera, walking all the way to a nearby crater.
After climbing back into the LM, Armstrong and Aldrin had their rest period, and the following morning discarded all their extra weight and prepared to take off. In the process, Aldrin noted that a switch required to activate the ascent engine was broken. Armstrong used a pen to reach into the small hole and activate the switch.
Before liftoff, Aldrin quipped, “We’re number one on the runway.” Listeners in Mission Control must have been confused by the comment since Aldrin has never been known for his sense of humor.
As Eagle lifted off, Aldrin saw the flag knocked over by the rocket blast. As he maneuvered toward rendezvous with Columbia, Armstrong accidently rolled the LM too far, and the three gimbals controlling the spacecraft’s orientation lost their alignment. Collins, aboard Columbia, monitored the docking.
Apollo 11 was followed by six more Moon missions, five of them successful, between November 1969 and December 1972.
Apollo 11 is not only the most famous Moon landing mission but also the most famous space mission of all time. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, it is often referred to as “the Moon landing”—as if there were never any others. Nevertheless, it was a modest and comparatively uninteresting mission compared to the missions that were to follow. Armstrong walked on the Moon for about two-and-a-half hours. Aldrin was only on the surface for an hour and a half. The landing site was a flat, featureless plain. Paradoxically, each successive Moon landing mission garnered less and less public fascination, even as they grew more ambitious and more spectacular—with better and better television coverage.
Apollo 11 was a turning point in history. It was the first time a human being walked on another heavenly body. No matter what spectacular missions to amazing destinations may lie in the future, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin will forever be the first humans to have personally explored another world. It might also be mentioned that the LRRRs left on the Moon by all the Apollo missions are still used today.
The Apollo lunar rocks are still being studied—in fact, to this day, geologists have only gotten through about a fifth of the lunar samples brought back by the Apollo missions. As recently as 2008, analysis of the Apollo 15 rocks, collected in 1971, revealed the presence of liquid water on the Moon, which may be the key to setting up a lunar base.
However, even if nothing more ever comes of the Moon landings, Apollo 11 was a testament to human ingenuity. We are capable of coming together and doing great things. Our history is not all negative. Perhaps, for the only time in the history of the world, a major national project was mounted not to destroy or kill, but to explore in peace, to expand the boundaries of human knowledge, and to unite the world. Even if it was conceived in war, it was a mission of peace.
Today, NASA’s mission is still one of peace, but it lacks the precise goals and timelines that led to the six successful Moon landings. President Barack Obama expressed his desire to see a mission to Mars at some point in the future, but with no specific program, the space agency has floundered for a new direction in the post-Shuttle world.
NASA is currently partnered with Boeing and Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) to resupply the International Space Station (ISS), using Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon, and has announced plans to launch the first manned Dragon sometime in 2017.
Currently, NASA is developing the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) and the Space Launch System (SLS) to fly missions beyond LEO for the first time since 1972. However, at this time, those destinations are very uncertain. NASA was developing the Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM) to retrieve a boulder from an asteroid and place it in lunar orbit to be visited by astronauts in an Orion spacecraft, but Congress is increasingly hostile to the ARM.
As yet, any plans for a Mars mission are hazy.
It must be said that all current NASA activities could well be scrapped after the November elections. President Obama’s space policies have been less than popular, both among Democrats and Republicans, but what direction any changes may take is anyone’s guess at the present time.
The views expressed in this review are solely those of the author and do not, necessarily, reflect those of SpaceFlight Insider
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.
An excellent article, Collin. I learned certain details from your piece about Apollo 11 that I did not know before, even after all these years.
Given the state of material science and level of technology at the time of the 1960s, what would be the weight savings be IF substitutions were made with current materials and technology? Would the weigh savings be in the range of 10 to 20%? more?
It amazes me that it seems everyone is continually re-inventing the wheel. Is it really that difficult to take an old design, update it with better materials and modern technologies? IF the Apollo module and lunar lander were updated, what would it weigh? And how much more reliable would it be?
It seems that SpaceX is practicing that lesson.
The Soviets/Russians have known and done this for decades. They still use variants of their Vostok spacecraft for all sorts of satellite missions as just one example.
Well, just the use of J-2X (Isp) and F-1B (thrust) would probably have a massive impact on mission capability. Compound this with your weight savings. 😉 Regarding the computer, for example, 2x32kg would shrink to…well, two kilograms? I mean, it’s microcontroller-class capability these days.