It was much happier on this day, exactly 44 years ago, a Sunday, July 20, 1969, at 20:18 UTC, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first touched down at the Sea of Tranquility on the moon. I was in the Navy, stationed on board the U.S.S. Vulcan. I had duty that weekend, so I was on the ship. I remember watching on the big color TV in the Electronics Shop. The mobile canteen or “Roach Coach” had just driven up on the pier and I went out to get a sandwich and a soda. A guy was fishing from the pier. I asked him, “Do you know what’s happening?” He replied, “Sure, they’re really biting.” I remember that part better than the actual landing.
This concluded the “space race” set in motion by JFK less than ten years previously when he challenged the U.S. to put a man on the moon during the decade. It was a race against the Russians who had a substantial lead having put the first satellite, Sputnik, into orbit and the first Cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, up there too.
It wasn’t really about conquering space. I mean, that made a nice, uplifting theme. But, no, the race was really about missiles and ICBMs. Each country, with its own captured rocket scientists from Nazi Germany, was racing to put atomic bombs on the tops of missiles and win the race that really mattered to the national leaders.
Make no doubt about it. The Russians were ahead. Through our faulty reconnaissance and spying (remember the U-2), we thought they had hundreds of missiles when they really only had less than a dozen. Plus, and this was completely unknown to us, they had not figured out reentry. Any Soviet atomic warhead descending from outer space would have burned up in the atmosphere. We actually had the lead there since we had invented the heat shield.
Because our missiles had limited range, we put some in Turkey, on the Russian doorstep. Russia responded by putting their missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida. Kennedy inherited the bay of pigs plan, and then executed it very poorly. After that national disgrace and the following missile crisis where we came the closest ever to testing just how well those atomic missiles would work, Kennedy was searching for something to restore his and the United State’s reputation. After all, we were the leader of the free world and no Commies were going to beat us at technology. Why we the country of Microsoft and Apple and … wait, that’s later.
So the U.S. embarked on a noble undertaking, funded by the cold war fear of the Russians. It is a wonder, both technological and political that we did make it and the real heroes are all those people at NASA and the contractors that accomplished the impossible, the untested, the unbelievable, the incredible, moon landing.
Kennedy actually offered to partner with Russia, several times, and make the great race one of cooperation. However, the Soviets refused. The whole deadline and race idea was because we were pretty certain that Russia was about to land on the moon too. They had landed an unmanned probe, Luna 2, on January 4, 1959; so it wasn’t a baseless fear.
It was a wonder of technology and even the navigation was untried. After successfully circumnavigating the moon with Apollo 8, the U.S. had a couple more dress rehearsals before Apollo 11 did the landing. But testing the exact navigation and landing capability was done in real time on that Sunday.
What we didn’t realize was that there were serious gravitational variations on the moon’s surface that caused the LEM (Lunar Lander) to miss the planned landing space by a mile. Instead, the lander was coming down on a field of boulders, many larger than a car.
At that point a lot was going wrong. There were problems with communications causing the team to relay transmissions via Michael Collins in the lunar orbiter, adding seconds to key telemetry and instructions from ground control in Houston. The Sperry Rand computers which had magnetic core memory … that’s little tiny doughnuts made out of iron fillings with several wires threaded through the center, each one storing one bit of information: a zero or a one, was giving off an error code: “12 01” that indicated that data was arriving faster than the processor could handle it, so the software was resetting and staring over in its calculations.
If they had decided to abort, they would have to fire the assent engine, jettisoning the lower part of the lander with the descent engine … a procedure that had never been tested.
So, Neil Armstrong, experienced fighter pilot, grabbed the stick and started scooting across the lunar surface looking for a place to land safely. No one was even sure how much fuel he had left since the telemetry was interrupted. In Houston they started a countdown until empty. On the lander several warning lights came on and Buzz was counting down the minutes and then seconds of fuel remaining. Sixty seconds, forty-five seconds. Still the lander was scooting across the lunar sky at a horizontal velocity of 30 feet per second, not what you wanted when you touched down.
His nose and throat dry and cold from Eagle’s tanked air, Armstrong finally saw a clear spot and righted his ship into a vertical landing position. The flight surgeon noted that Armstrong’s heart rate was 156 and Aldrin’s was 125. The craft shuddered from its thrusters firing to maintain trajectory. The descent kicked up so much dust that, at thirty feet, the ground below was a roiling cloud.
GET 102:45:41 Kranz: “Carlton was just ready to say, ‘Fifteen seconds,’ and then we hear the crew saying, ‘Contact.’ We have a three-foot-long probe stick underneath each of the landing pads. When one of those touches the lunar surface, it turns on a blue light in the cockpit, and when it turns on the blue light, that’s lunar contact, their job is to shut the engine down, and they literally fall the last three feet to the surface of the moon. So you hear the ‘lunar contact,’ and then you hear, ‘ACA (Attitude Control Assembly) out of Detent (out of center position).’ “
Neil Armstrong: “I was absolutely dumbfounded when I shut the rocket engine off and the particles that were going out radially from the bottom of the engine fell all the way out over the horizon, they just raced out over the horizon and instantaneously disappeared, you know, just like it had been shut off for a week. That was remarkable. I’d never seen that. I’d never seen anything like that. And logic says, yes, that’s the way it out to be there, but I hadn’t thought about it and I was surprised."
Aldrin immediately turned off the engine’s power and keyed “413” into the computer, to store the ship’s location of 0.71 degrees North, 23.63 degrees East.
GET 102:45:58 (July 20, 1969, 3:17 PM CST): Armstrong: “Engine arm is off. (Pause) Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” In NASA history, filled with so many great moments, this was the greatest of them all.
That was 44 years ago today. At 4:17 PM, local time in Norfolk, Virginia, the race was over … with fifteen seconds of fuel left they had touchdown! After centuries of observing the cool circle over our planet, man was about to set foot on a celestial orb.