Wow ... 40 years and I can still remember the whole thing happening like it was yesterday. I was just past my ninth birthday and my world was filled with the Space Race. All the Mercury and Gemini and Apollo 1-10 missions had brought us to this perfect point in time. It was the defining moment of Man, to set foot upon another world. The date was July 20th 1969. It was a Sunday. The television was non stop Apollo as Walter Cronkite (God rest his soul) reported the progress of these fine astronauts as they pressed on to be the first men to set foot on the Moon. But let's back up a bit and talk about the mission of Apollo 11. 9:30 AM, July 16th saw a flawless operation as the Saturn V rocket clawed its way through the atmosphere reaching nearly mach 1 in less than one minute. Astronauts Neil Armstrong commander, Michael Collins Command Module pilot, and Edwin E. Aldrin as Lunar Module pilot were on their way. All systems were go as they made there way through the booster stage. 1 and 1/2 orbits around good ole mother earth and it was time to say farewell to Earth's confines and on to seek the attention of our Moon. The LM extraction went without a hitch. So far so good as the crew raced on towards that final goal set forth by JFK in 1961.The crew was excited and loose. They would say things to Houston commenting that Aldrin had eaten 19 bowls of oatmeal already! I am guessing that “Buzz” Aldrin was trying to finagle an endorsement deal out of Quaker Oats. I was glued to the TV whenever the TV Guide said Apollo coverage. This was the coolest thing my little life had seen or would ever see for that matter.
July 19th saw the Command Module, Columbia with the Lunar Module, Eagle firmly attached fired its main engine to put the spacecraft into lunar orbit. The spacecraft orbited for 30 passes taking pictures of the landing site and getting ready for the duty of a lifetime. Funny about what you remember or what strikes you as memorable about an event. We had a black and white Curtis Mathis TV it was a good size one for the day. I remember the Neighbor lady next door she was so nice to us kids. She had been over to our apartment a time or two and knew we were watching the goings on of Apollo she asked us if we would like to watch it on color TV. How could we say no. I had watched Apollo everything in black and white. This is where fate is a bit cruel ... The camera inside the Command Module was in color so the crew did their shenanigans for the evening news in color which I got to see on Saturday the 19th when the 20th arrived the pictures were in B&W because they used a slow scan TV. Now here is some technology for you, the slow scan could not go over the regular air waves so at the screen of the receiving dish antennae in what ended up being Australia. A TV camera took shots of the low scan TV screen then broadcast it worldwide. Talk about LOW TECH!!! So the one evening of watching Astronauts do their thing on color TV was as good as it got for this poor southern boy. You remember me telling you about Apollo being everywhere in a previous post? My Aunt Sally had found a recipe from somewhere for Man on the Moon Cake with Lunar landing icing. Google it! It was sort of a spice cake with real apples in the cake and cream cheese icing. Well you know I had to have a piece or three of that! I digress a bit.
The 20th arrived with Armstrong and Aldrin climbing into the LM and making all the last calculations and checking off the lists of stuff to do before the moment of truth.It was afternoon by the time the LM crew separated from the Command Module Columbia. The Eagle spun slowly around so Michael Collins could examine the craft to check for any damage. The Eagle looked good and it was on to the Moon. For those that do not remember or were not born yet ,The following description of what happened could not have been scripted any better by Steven Spielberg. Please keep in mind that 600 million people were watching or listening to this event all over the world. Everyone was glued to the TV or listening to their radio. This was an epic event. The Eagle's decent was a little hot by 4 seconds which meant they would over shoot the landing area by a few miles. As they neared the the surface, Neil Armstrong noticed that the Nav Computer was going to set the Eagle down into a boulder field. He quickly grabbed the controls and guided the craft to safer soil. Two things occurred at this point. Two obscure alarms went off code 1201 and code 1202. The Astronauts had no idea what they were and radioed Houston in a panic as to what they were. Do they need to abort? Time was critical... Oh Crap the low fuel light came on the control panel. If the fuel ran out before they were on the ground it would be an uncontrolled landing which means in layman's terms : They gonna crash! Quickly an engineer at Houston's mission control came up with the code source. The problem was the computer could not process all the information in real time. The astronauts had been trained to turn on the radar to locate Columbia if they had to abort the mission in a hurry so this and the landing radar going were too much for the nav computer to handle all at once so it was telling the crew some data would be processed later. Whew! the alarm was no huge deal and the landing was a go assuming the fuel held out. The world held their breath as Armstrong found a spot and set the craft down at 4:17 PM on July the 20th, 1969. The craft had about 25 seconds left of fuel. Here is an interesting bit of trivia. Aldrin was the first to broadcast from the moon not Armstrong. He said to Houston / Armstrong ,"Contact light! OK, engine off. The world and Mission control could breath. The world lit up as the crowds celebrated the first Men to reach the Moon.
I can tell you where I ate my dinner that night. I was sitting in front of the TV with a TV dinner in front of me. I always got the beans and franks. I sat and listened to the recount of the landing and drank it all in. I felt as though I was with them every step of the way. 6 and a half hours later the event that blew away the world happened. Neil Armstrong exited the LM and stepped into history. He uttered the most familiar phrase of the era," One small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind " Notice the "a man" part? That is what Neil actually said but was slightly garbled and the "a" kind of got lost in the broadcast. He always stated he did say," a man". It was not until recently, sound techs discovered the missing "a" in the transmission. They picked through the sound bite after bite and yep, Houston we have an "a". Neil you are vindicated! I knew He did not lie about it. He was an Eagle scout for crying out loud!!! Neil went about the business at hand of getting equipment out TV cameras set taking picture of the LM oh and one very important item the contingency plan! plan "B" was scooping up some soil and rocks from the surface of the moon and putting them in a pocket on his space suit . that way if something were to happen and they had to abort quickly at least they would have a handful of dirt from the moon to experiment with.
Hey the folks of NASA were some purty smart fellars... Luckily the contingency plan was not needed as Buzz came down the ladder and remarked, " Magnificent desolation". That phrase summed up the Moon. Now there were some stolen moments by each and every astronaut that has ever been on the moon. The realization that holy crapola there is the earth right there and I am on the Moon! The freaking Moon!!! You can bet Neil and Buzz had them! They were to have 34 minutes to do their experiments collect rocks etc before getting back inside. Neil was getting his metabolic rate up a tad and was told to slow down a bit he did and the crew was granted 15 additional minutes of walking around time to complete all the work that was to be done.
The work was complete, the 160 or so pictures taken, the bag of essentials dropped, (in the bag was a Gold Olive branch a Apollo 1 mission patch and a silicon data disk containing all the names of congress NASA etc that ever had anything to do with the space mission as well as many leaders names from many different countries and two medals from Russia commemorating two of Russia's cosmonauts). So if you are ever up there on the moon you know what to look for. I am sure you could put it up on EBay for a pretty penny. The drama is hardly over. There was one more OH Crap! moment. When the two astronauts were lightening the load of the return vehicle Buzz accidentally broke the main breaker that operated the launch engine.I hope the mic was off when that happened. But the inventive and problem solving bunch rigged a felt tipped pen cap to take care of the breaker and all could relax and take a nap for about 7 hours till it was time to get back to Columbia. Yeah Right like those two could sleep. Neil did not sleep a wink as his resting place was on top of the engine. Buzz must have gotten dibs as his spot was on the floor. Alas Buzz managed just a couple of nodding events but that was it.The LM had alarms and voice going off at every moment. This was not a great environment to be sleeping in, plus they were on the Moon! who wants to sleep though that?
Ah yes of Michael Collins... His memories were of solitude not loneliness. When the Eagle had come back to the shore of Columbia (docked) he was a bit disappointed the moment of contemplated bliss was over. The flight back went with out a hitch as Apollo returned with it's 47lb cache of lunar rocks and soil for scientists to pour over for years to come. They did have to stay in an airstream trailer for three weeks as scientists sorted out whether or not pathogens might have been brought back to earth. After three weeks they were pronounced fit for duty and they left the trailer to a deafening applause. These three astronauts were as famous as you could be. You could have been in the dense jungle of New Guinea and ask the local head hunters who Neil Armstrong was and you might just get "Why he was the first man on the moon!" as an answer. Parades were everywhere. A 25 country tour ensued with heads of state coming to call on the astronauts that had done the impossible,touch the face of the moon and come back to tell about it. I hope you have enjoyed this series on Apollo. I hope you will take some time and share your recollections of these events with your children It was a great time to be living in and a great moment for Mankind.
Clear skies and great seeing too