‘The Eagle has landed’: A space geek remembers the Moon shot

Armstrong later said it was the computer glitch that kept him from dealing
with a much more serious problem: when the descent had begun, before they
rolled so they were face up, the Apollo 11 astronauts had noticed they were
passing landmarks four seconds early. After the lunar module rocked forward,
to point the engine nozzle straight down to feather their descent, they
should have been able to see their smooth, flat landing site in the Sea of
Tranquillity below. But Armstrong recognised nothing when he looked out of
his window; the autopilot had taken them four miles beyond their target. “We
were landing just short of a large crater with very large rocks covering a
high percentage of the surface,” he recalled.

Ten minutes after beginning their descent from orbit, at an altitude of 500ft,
Armstrong switched to manual control. His heart rate leapt from 77bpm to
156bpm as he set the engine to hover and sought a safe place to touch down.
To his right, Aldrin called out their altitude, rate of descent and forward
speed, his hand never far from the button that would explosively abort the
landing. Then he added a number: “90 seconds” ? the time until
their landing fuel ran out. Finally, among the rubble ejected from the
crater by a meteor impact millions of years ago, the mission commander saw a
gap. Tilting the lunar module, they drifted to port.

At Mission Control, Gene Kranz, the flight director, turned to Charlie Duke,
the astronaut charged with communicating with the crew. “Better remind
them there ain’t no damn gas stations on the Moon,” he said. Duke’s
warning was more concise: “30 seconds.” Aldrin’s tense voice
crackled back: “Light’s on,” referring to the low fuel signal. “Thirty
feet… Kicking up some dust… Faint shadow… Contact light.” They
were down, with just enough fuel left for 16 seconds of flight ? less than
the time it took you to read this paragraph.

For a 10-year-old boy, nervously fidgeting around his living-room,
confirmation came from Armstrong: “Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The
Eagle has landed.” It was 8.17pm GMT on 20 July 1969. I remember
whooping and jumping on and off the sofa in a scene much like the one at
Mission Control. The 12-minute descent had been an agony of suspense. There
had been no pictures of the descent to watch, and between the distortion of
the communications and the technical jargon, the astronaut’s funny accents
had conveyed no meaning.

I knew nothing then about how close my heroes had come to disaster. The
computer alarm was later blamed on a radar dish which had been left switched
on, overloading the tiny computer. (Your mobile phone is about a million
times more powerful.) The navigational error was caused by “masscons”
? the Moon, like the Earth, is less than perfectly spherical, so its gravity
fluctuates as you fly over it. Mass concentrations had pulled the Eagle into
a slightly lower orbit, speeding it up, and it was already going at more
than one mile a second.

What I did know about Apollo 11 was still pretty impressive for a 10-year-old.
I knew, for example, that the 363ft Saturn V rocket was one foot shorter
than the dome on St Paul’s Cathedral. I knew the velocity required to escape
the Earth’s gravity (seven miles per second), the distance to the Moon
(239,000 miles) and the time lag as radio signals travelled there and back
(three seconds). Years before the word was invented, I was a geek ? a space
geek. I knew that the age I was growing up in was neither Modern nor Atomic,
nor Post-War. It was the Space Age, and the arrival of men on the Moon, even
if they were, disappointingly, not British, was its defining moment. By the
time I was an adult, I knew lunar trips would be as routine as taking a
jumbo jet from London to New York.

So the past 40 years have been a bit of a letdown, a point I tactfully made to
David Scott, commander of Apollo 15, when he visited London last month to
open a new ride at the Science Museum. Where was Moon Base One, I demanded.
Why couldn’t I just buy a ticket on the internet for a discount break on a
space station? “We made it look too easy,” said Scott, the seventh
of 12 men to walk on the Moon. “Put it in perspective,” he said,
comparing the Apollo missions to the gradual discovery of the Americas. “Columbus
has just returned but Cabot and Magellan have not yet made their voyages.
And Cook hasn’t even been born.” He’s right about Captain James Cook,
but John Cabot and Ferdinand Magellan both sailed within 40 years of
Columbus.

I’m not about to argue. Aged 77, Scott is still a commanding figure, tall with
a distinguished head of grey hair. He flew with Armstrong in Gemini 8 and
was the command module pilot in Apollo 9. On his lapel he wears a gold
astronaut’s pin, a shooting star rising to orbit on three streaks. He must
have heard the same questions 1,000 times, yet he answers patiently. Moon
rocks feel as though they’re made from Styrofoam, he tells one young lad. To
me, he describes flying the lunar module as “like trying to run on an
ice-covered pond and turn without skates. It’s more difficult than any plane
I ever flew,” he says. “You ‘zone’ like an Olympic athlete. You’re
totally focused.” Then the former test pilot thinks of a better
metaphor: “It’s like riding a pogo stick on a trampoline.”

Our nearest neighbour was hurtling around Earth once every 27 days, seven
hours and 43 minutes long before man evolved. It governs the tides,
illuminates the night and provides a convenient measure of time between the
day and the year. The Greeks believed in Hecate, a three-faced goddess who
transformed into Artemis as the satellite waxed and then into Selene when it
was full. Plutarch told of cave-dwelling Moon demons. Johannes Kepler wrote
that its craters were built by Moon creatures. And as recently as the 1920s,
the American astronomer William Pickering thought it might have insects. The
superstitious believed sleeping in moonbeams would drive one crazy and
werewolves transformed from men into monsters by its light. In A Midsummer
Night’s Dream, Shakespeare called the crescent moon “a silver bow
new-bent in heaven”; Shelley described it in “The Cloud” as “that
orbed maiden with white fire laden”. So enamoured were poets and
lyricists, particularly bad ones, that by the early 20th century, rhymes
with “spoon” and “June” were the worst of clichés.

The first recorded story of a trip to the Moon was a satirical piece by the
Syrian writer Lucian of Samosata during the 2nd century AD, who had his hero
sucked up in a water spout. In the 1600s, Cyrano de Bergerac imagined being
lifted to the Moon by bottles of dew. Two centuries later, Jules Verne fired
his crew off from a huge cannon, while in 1901 HG Wells invented
anti-gravity. And in 1950, Hergé, Tintin’s author, launched the young
reporter and Captain Haddock in a ship that looked suspiciously like a
German V2 rocket. They were all wrong ? but Hergé came closest.

Wernher von Braun conducted his first rocket experiment in 1924 by attaching
fireworks to his sister’s red wagon and setting it off in a busy Berlin
street. The police arrested him. By the time he reached university, his love
of astronomy and things that go bang was firmly established. He joined the
Verein für Raumschiffahrt, an amateur spaceflight society, and was writing
his doctorate when the Nazis came to power in 1933.

Von Braun’s connection with the Nazis is controversial. He built weapons for
Hitler, notably the V2, joined the SS and employed slave labourers at his
factories. (More people died building the V2s than were killed when they
landed on London.) But he was also suspected of being a Communist and was
arrested for defeatism. He was one of those obsessed people who believe
their work is more important than anything around them. His comment when the
first V2 exploded in London is revealing: “The rocket worked perfectly
except for landing on the wrong planet.”

At the end of the Second World War, Von Braun and his team arranged to be
captured by the Americans and were sent to the US under Operation Paperclip.
Eventually, he would build every major US rocket up to the Saturn V. But at
first, Washington was uninterested. Then the Soviet space programme scored a
series of triumphs: the first artificial satellite (1957), the first animal
in space (1957), the first unmanned Moon mission (1959), the first man in
space (1961) and the first woman (1963). The space race had begun, and
America was losing.

It doesn’t take a cynic to appreciate the significance of Cold War politics on
the Apollo programme. The ascendancy of the free market is clear now, but in
the 1960s, central planning still seemed viable. The space race looked like
a reasonable way to determine which system, capitalist or Communist, was
superior, though so many factors were involved, including blind luck, that
it could have gone either way.

President Dwight Eisenhower had been caught napping by Sputnik, a fact John
Kennedy used in his 1960 campaign. But once in power, Kennedy seemed
distracted by the Communist threat. Influential advisers argued that the US
should cede space to the Soviets and get on with earthly business. Many
space scientists wanted to concentrate on unmanned exploration, which
offered richer rewards at lower cost. Yet Kennedy’s hand was forced by the
April 1961 flight of Yuri Gagarin in Vostok 1 and the Bay of Pigs fiasco
five days later. The president had promised an army of Cuban exiles air
support for their invasion, but failed to deliver. Survivors bitterly
denounced his treachery, and his standing with the American public hit a
record low. Desperate for a distraction, he called on vice president Lyndon
Johnson. “Do we have a chance of beating the Soviets by putting up a
laboratory in space?” he asked. “Or by a trip around the Moon, or
by a rocket to go to the Moon and back with a man?” The mission didn’t
matter; all that counted was beating the Russians. In a speech to Congress a
month later, Kennedy announced: “This nation should commit itself to
achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon
and returning him back safely to the Earth.” America was back in the
running.

‘Apollo 1’ sat atop a Saturn 1B rocket at Cape Kennedy on 27 January 1967
while its three member-crew went through a tedious five-hour systems check.
The atmosphere inside the command module was pressurised pure oxygen.
Political pressure was also high; president Johnson wanted an Apollo success
to boost his re-election chances. But the command module had been plagued by
20,000 failures, and condemned as “sloppy and unsafe” by a
quality-control inspector. Early in the test, the astronauts complained of a
sour odour, and static was breaking into their communications. At 6.31pm,
something sparked. “I’ve got a fire in the cockpit,” reported
mission commander Gus Grissom. “Fire!” shouted Roger Chafee. Then
came a garbled, “Get us out!” possibly from Ed White.

In the pure-oxygen atmosphere, almost everything was inflammable. Metal pipes
bubbled and dripped, joints melted, cooling lines burst, spraying burning
fluid like a blowtorch. The foam cushions on the floor burst into a wall of
flame between the crew and the exit. The hatch took 90 seconds to open in
ideal circumstances. The crew of Apollo 1 died in 8.5 seconds.

The fatal fire could have brought the programme to a halt, or slowed it so
much that the Soviets won. For the first time, public debate turned to
whether the huge sums ($25bn in 1965 dollars, about £100bn today) being
spent on a Moon shot were worthwhile. An internal investigation was never
able to find the point of ignition, listing 10 possible sources. Poor
management, carelessness, negligence and failure to consider safety were
highlighted. Management at Nasa and the command-module contractor, North
American, now part of Boeing, were overhauled. Half-a-billion dollars was
spent on redesigning Apollo. Chris Kraft, one of the flight directors, said
later: “It was unforgiveable that we allowed that accident to happen.
[But] had it not happened, we probably would not have got to the Moon when
we did.”

The Russians had not been idle meanwhile, but they had been unlucky. Their
first plan was to launch a “direct ascent” mission, with a single
vehicle going all the way to the Moon and back. But their massive N-1 rocket
was delayed. Under a second plan, “Earth orbit rendezvous”,
several smaller rockets would dock in orbit, then head to the Moon. But the
first ship in the flotilla, Soyuz 1, crashed, killing cosmonaut Vladimir
Komarov. A compromise mission, Zond, was devised to send a reduced crew to
orbit the Moon and return without landing. Moscow dithered, however, and
Nasa swapped its mission plans for Apollos 8 and 9, getting a crew into
lunar orbit first. In 1968, Americans were treated to a Christmas Eve
broadcast from the Moon. Mission commander Frank Borman looked back at the
Earth, calling it “a grand oasis in the vastness of space”.

Nasa’s plan was to employ a technique known as “lunar orbit rendezvous”,
in which a two-part lunar module goes to the surface, and the top section
blasts off to rejoin the orbiting command module, transferring the
astronauts and samples. The command module then heads for Earth. After
Apollo 9 practised docking manoeuvres between lander and command module
above the Earth, Apollo 10 returned to the Moon, dropping its lander to
within nine miles of the surface. (That command module is in the Science
Museum in London.)

In February 1969, the Soviet N-1 rocket was at last ready, but it exploded on
its first unmanned flight. The Russians were all but beaten. They made one
last attempt ? a smaller, unmanned mission that would return rock samples to
Earth ? but it, too, crashed. Only the Americans were left in the race.

Half-a-million people crowded the roads and waterways around Cape Kennedy to
watch the launch on 16 July of Apollo 11 and an estimated half-a-billion saw
it on television. “It was awe-inspiring,” recalls Dr Allan
Needell, curator of the space-history division at the Smithsonian’s National
Air and Space Museum in Washington. “There was a lot of tension in the
US over civil rights and the war in Vietnam back then. Apollo 11 overcame
some of that strife and conflict. There was a great sense of human
accomplishment.” Even a small band of protesters who felt Nasa’s money
could be better spent reducing poverty ended up appreciating Nasa’s point of
view after being given ringside seats to the launch of Armstrong, Aldrin and
the command-module pilot, Michael Collins.

Neil Armstrong never quite matched the image of the first man to walk on the
Moon. “How long must it take,” he demanded in 1976, “before I
cease to be known as a spaceman?” Unlike many other astronauts, he
never jumped on Nasa’s publicity bandwagon. “He was a bit of a recluse
even before the mission,” says Dr Needell. “He’s a respected
member of the astronaut corps, very knowledgeable. But he has never readily
accepted the role of public icon.”

If Armstrong were to be remembered for anything else, it would be as an
aeronautical engineer. The son of a state civil servant posted to
Wapakoneta, Ohio, he enrolled in the Navy to fund his education at Purdue
University. His experience as a pilot in the Korean War helped further his
understanding of aircraft, but only after he graduated did he think of
becoming a test pilot, and from there of joining the astronaut programme.

Nasa is said to have been divided about whether Armstrong or Aldrin should be
the first to set foot on the Moon. In the end, the mission commander got the
honour… then flubbed his lines. He intended to say, “One small step
for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” but left out the definite
article, turning it into a tautology. Aldrin’s most memorable quote came
shortly after he joined Armstrong on the surface: “Magnificent
desolation.”

For the two spacemen, the point of the mission was to get to the Moon and
return safely. Science was not their top priority, nor was putting up flags
or taking pictures. But they did collect samples, and more were added on the
five subsequent missions. In all, some 382kg of Moon rocks were returned to
Earth. Two fragments are housed in the Natural History Museum in London: a
blackened chunk of anorthosite breccia, a calcium-rich feldspar, brought
back by Apollo 16, and a volcanic basalt gathered by the Apollo 17
astronauts.

What started out as a political, Cold War race ended up adding substantially
to human knowledge, says Tom Watters, senior scientist at the Center for
Earth and Planetary Studies at the National Air and Space Museum. Before
Apollo, the Moon was thought to have originated either as a passing
planetoid captured by Earth’s gravity or by condensing out of the same
primordial dust cloud as the Earth. Thanks to evidence including the Apollo
rocks, the consensus today is that a Mars-size planet slammed into the early
Earth, throwing up a cloud of debris that coalesced into the Moon.

A new space race is shaping up, though the competition will be far less
intense than it was 40 years ago. The US plans a return to the Moon, while
China, India and Japan are each preparing for manned missions. If they
succeed, they will add substantially to our knowledge. Dr Watters is
hopeful, for example, that additional seismometers will help locate the
sources of the small quakes detected by instruments left by the Apollo
missions. It is not yet clear whether these are from unseen impacts or
tectonic processes. And little is known about the far side of the Moon.

For the 10-year-old space geek in me, this flurry of activity also holds out
hope. One day, probably too late for me admittedly, someone will build a
permanent Moon Base One. And then the Space Age will really start to reach
for the stars.

Buzz Aldrin’s memoir ‘Magnificent Desolation’ (Bloomsbury, £16.99) is out
now. The British Film Institute (www.bfi.org.uk) and Science Museum
(www.sciencemuseum.org.uk) are holding One Giant Leap, a series of feature
films, documentaries and artworks this month, including the exhibition
Gravity Sucks

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