It’s hard to imagine how primitive computer technology was in 1969. Mission Control’s total computing power was the equivalent of an old laptop and the lunar module’s computing capability was equivalent to a digital watch with a calculator. Couple analog technology with human errors and mechanical failures and it is a miracle that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin ever made it back alive. The White House had prepared a speech honoring the deaths of the astronauts during lunar insertion.
Apollo 11 was four minutes into its landing sequence when the terse words of its commander, Neil Armstrong, came from the speaker in Mission Control:
“Program alarm.” Error code “1202” Controllers in Houston scanned their notes trying to figure out what the heck the problem was. But time was running short. Aldrin had adjusted the antenna, and Mission Control had done what they could on their end, but the radio connection just kept fading in and out. The next alarm was a code “1201”. If it got much worse, Kranz would have to order an abort.
To make matters worse, Apollo 11’s lunar module was running off course by a faster than planned descent, so the lunar module overshot the landing site by 4 miles into an inhospitable lunar terrain with boulders the size of trucks. Armstrong leveled off at 400 feet. According to astronaut Duke monitoring events from Houston, “the LEM was whizzing across the surface … It was far from what we had trained for and seen in the simulations. So I started getting a little nervous, and they weren’t telling us what was wrong. It was just that they were flying this strange trajectory.” In fact, they were flying for their lives.
You can’t hear it in Armstrong’s voice but he was flying the craft manually to find a less hazardous alternative site and came within seconds of exhausting the module’s fuel and crashing. After an accident that far away there would be no AAA tow truck or rescue attempt. Neil’s voice was calm, confident, most of all clear: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
Initially the door would not open because the internal atmosphere would not completely vent. There was a danger that forcing the door would rupture it beyond the astronauts ability to re-establish a seal. While exiting the craft for the first time Neil’s bulky suit broke off the ascent arming switch to leave the moon. Buzz Aldrin revealed how a pen saved him and Armstrong from a lonely death stranded on the moon. When someone asked me why the Omega watch Armstrong was wearing was not technically the first watch on the moon it is because he had to leave it in the module when the on board clock failed.
When the two astronauts were finally able to see their home: a distant blue marble, the weight of this accomplishment came down on their shoulders as the representatives of all mankind. They were standing on the Earth’s only natural satellite which had been orbiting the earth since before the dawn of civilization. There was the awe and mystery of being on an alien world and the realization of how small and frail man is compared to the cosmos.
Everybody thinks they know about Apollo missions, but never stop to think just how complicated those trips to the moon actually were. For a group of pioneering men armed with experimental 1960′s technology, Apollo 11 was a triumph against the odds that came close to ending in disaster.
I would like to thank the people like Doug Parker and others who corrected my abysmal spelling and basically proof read this entry. Just because it was written on a holiday is no excuse for sloppy writing. Thanks guys! To all of the people who have upvoted this post and took the trouble to comment, it is humbling. I am reminded that the astronauts elected not to have their names added to the mission patch so that all the men and women in the program could share in the symbolic nature of this effort.
When Neil Armstrong died, I wrote that I was honoured to be on the same world he was in, and at the same time too!
I still am.
But, I’d also like to thank God for bringing Armstrong to his inspirational destiny, showing that men, working together, can truly achieve something.
Intelligence, commitment, sacrifice, daring, teamwork… we must have this, to gain the goal.
But, no matter what we do, there is this element of contingency, serendipity,
luck providence that cannot be controlled. Too many unknowns, too many ways to fall, and only one way to stand.
If the Apollo 11 team didn’t give their all, they wouldn’t have stood a chance. But even after they gave their all, there is still this gap between their reach and their grasp. But at the critical moment, they got the insight they needed… and acted on it.
I am grateful, to the men who dared and fought against the cold and dark – and WON – and to God who placed light above darkness, bravery over cowardliness, knowledge over ignorance, life over death.