Our SpaceFlight Heritage: Apollo 11’s fading light
Forty-six years ago today on July 20, 1969, history was made – men walked on the surface of another world. Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the first to do so when their Apollo 11 Lunar Module (LEM) Eagle descended onto the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility. The duo touched down on what was to become known as Tranquility Base on the surface of the Moon, fulfilling half of Kennedy’s goal set back in 1961. With almost a half century since the first landing, key elements of the mission are gone or at risk.
Neil Armstrong, the man who first stepped outside of the Eagle, passed away in 2012 from complications following heart surgery. His spacesuit, which was not designed to last an extensive period, is the focus of a campaign hosted by the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum to preserve the historic artifact.
Dubbed “Reboot the Suit: Bring Back Neil Armstrong’s Spacesuit”, the crowdsourcing campaign is being held so as to generate $500,000 to help renovate the spacesuit – this comes from a report appearing in the Associated Press’ James Eng.
If left untouched, many elements of the first lunar landing will likely remain in place on the Moon for some time. However, the U.S. flag that was planted during the mission is no longer Red, White, and Blue; those colors have likely faded away to white due to radiation exposure – this according to a report appearing in Gizmodo.
The Apollo 11 lunar landing was perhaps the most significant event in human history – the landing itself was watched the world over.
“It was as if everything in Neil’s life as a flier led to confronting this supreme challenge […],” said historian James Hansen in his book “First Man“. Descent Orbit Insertion occurred at 3:58 p.m. EDT to lower the LEM’s orbit to approximately 50,000 feet (15,240 meters). A minute and a half later, they were given the “go” for powered descent. The crew was now less than 30 minutes away from landing.
Just three minutes into the descent, Armstrong noticed that their landmarks were coming a few seconds earlier than expected. This situation meant they were running “long”. Though they were descending only 30 feet per second at that time, a fast elevator ride in comparison, their velocity was great enough that every second traveled was equal to a mile in distance.
At first, Armstrong was not that concerned and proceeded to place the LM in an upright position so they could use the Doppler radar. This position gave the crew an accurate reading concerning their altitude, placing them at 33,500 feet (10,211 meters) and descending.
At 4:10 p.m. EDT, the LM computer began emitting a 1202 alarm. Armstrong called out the alarm to Mission Control and within 15 seconds CAPCOM, manned by astronaut Charlie Duke, told them they could ignore the warning and continue the descent.
Within a minute, several more 1202 alarms and a 1201 alarm went off. The alarms meant that the computer was getting overloaded with tasks and was now only doing high priority tasks. Mission Control had gone through a similar scenario during training simulation just a few days before launch and had failed. After debriefing, they were put through four more hours of program alarm situations and understood how to handle the problem. Ironically, Armstrong and Aldrin had not been part of that training simulation and were unaware that they did not need to be concerned.
Armstrong had studied extensively the landing site but found that many of the landmarks he was seeing were not what he remembered studying. He was not that concerned and later said, “From an objective point of view, I didn’t particularly care where we landed as long as it was a decent area that wasn’t dangerous.”
What concerned him were the large boulders and one large crater at the upcoming landing site. Some of the boulders were the size of cars. With 500 feet (152 meters) to go and low fuel, Armstrong took control of the LM from the autopilot and flew it past the crater to find a safer landing site.
With 25 seconds of fuel left, the Eagle touched down on the surface of the Moon at 4:17 p.m. EDT (20:17 GMT). Shortly afterward, Armstrong called out the immortal words, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
Two and half hours later, the two astronauts ate their dinner, and Aldrin took private communion on board Eagle, and then, based on the Apollo 11 crew’s recommendation, mission managers allowed them to skip their sleep period to prepare for EVA.
After hours of preparation, Armstrong left the LEM first and climbed down the ladder. At 10:56 p.m. EDT (02:56 GMT on 21 July), Armstrong stepped onto the Moon and uttered the now famous words, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The duo went about collecting samples and setting up experiments. Pictures were taken, though very few of Armstrong by Aldrin, and the flag was displayed. After two hours, thirty-one minutes, and forty seconds, the hatch was closed on man’s first walk on another world. The entire extra-vehicular activity lasted less than an average football game.
Upon seeing the first step on the Moon, Walter Cronkite of CBS News rubbed tears from his eyes and declared, “Armstrong is on the Moon! Neil Armstrong, a thirty-eight-year-old American, standing on the surface of the Moon!” President Nixon, using the telephone from the Oval Office, spoke with Armstrong and Aldrin, saying: “[…] this most certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made.” It is estimated that more than 600 million people the world over watched the event. It is quite probably the most shared experience by the human race.
Gregory N. Cecil is the only Florida State Certified Educator and Nationally Certified Aerospace Technician in the nation. He holds a Masters in Aeronautical Science: Space Operations Management from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and worked on the Space Shuttle Program. He is a science teacher and has taught in both public and private schools. Gregory has written over 50 articles relating to the space program and continues to contribute to the promotion of space.