The Apollo 11 crew was one-of-a-kind.
Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Mike Collins. For those of an age to remember, their epic trip to the moon, intrepid landing, words spoken, hours walking the surface, and safe return were defining. They defined an era, made us proud, changed history.
On the 52nd anniversary of that epic landing, mankind’s first to the moon, Buzz offered reflections. Perhaps surprising, he recalled details often forgotten. Neil and Mike are gone, but Buzz remains clear, focused, and grateful for a time and trip that also defined him.
Now 91, Dr. Aldrin remains engaged in pondering the future of humankind in space. He can be serious but also light, recalling the big steps they took on the moon and little details.
Of course, prior to heading for the moon, he finished West Point number three, flew combat missions over Korea, two shootdowns, completed a Ph.D. in astronautical engineering at MIT, and flew with Jim Lovell on Gemini 12, the last two-person flight before Apollo’s three-person crews.
Before talking about the moon, a question lingers around the Gemini 12 mission. Aldrin performed three spacewalks, the first roughly 2.5 hours, the second just over two hours, the third just under an hour. Curiously, his heart rate remained relatively low. Asked why, he mused for a moment, then admitted – after reflecting on the mission – he was having fun.
Something in a ground-bound admirer likes that, hearing that a former fighter pilot, Gemini astronaut on a pioneering mission, more than 150 miles above earth, moving at 18,000 miles an hour, working and taking photos from the end of an umbilical cord – keeping him tethered to a spacecraft floating in space – who admits to having fun.
As the crew prepared to head for the moon, where they would land on July 20, 1969, they sat atop the Saturn V rocket, taller than the Statue of Liberty, weighing more than 400 elephants, about to be pressed into space with a thrust that exceeded 85 Hoover dams. To break free of earth’s gravitational hold, Apollo 11 had to exceed seven miles a second.
What was the launch like? “Well, it was exciting … as countdown proceeded, we were glad we didn’t have to start over,” he admits.
How about the feel of the launch? “Launch went very smoothly … nothing unexpected.” Could he feel the moment they left earth? Truth is, they “did not know exactly when we had left the ground, except from the instruments we were watching and voice communications.” That is smooth.
How smooth? “From the instruments, we could see our rate of climb and altitude changing, but we were comfortable in our seats.” So, here you are on your way to the moon, thoughts? “We sort of looked at each other and thought we must be on our way …so what’s next?” To everything, there seemed to be checklists, and the three each their jobs.
Orbiting the moon, Collins managed the command module Columbia, at which he was an unrivaled expert. Aldrin recently wrote that Collins was the one who got them there and back; he truly was the one “carrying the fire.” Armstrong and Aldrin separated in their lunar module (LM), Eagle. They descended to the moon, no atmosphere.
Without atmosphere, neither aerodynamics nor a thick module skin was necessary. In one-sixth gravity, they flew a module that looked more like an insect than an airplane, metallic skin roughly three thicknesses of tinfoil.
Aldrin called coordinates as Armstrong piloted the LM. The descent was a combination of moving forward and down, in effect swooshing across the surface, not a vertical drop. They encountered two novel alarms, suggesting computer overload, prompting a mission control call, which affirmed they could keep going – no abort. The guidance computer they worked with had roughly one-millionth of the power your iPhone has. With that, they pioneered onward. See, Your Mobile Phone vs. Apollo 11’s Guidance Computer.
Aldrin says they knew they were getting low on fuel, heard a 30-second warning, but had to navigate the unexpected. Armstrong had to avert boulders and a crater to finally set Eagle down in the Sea of Tranquility, blowing moon dust away as their four-leg pads met the surface. They smiled on landing, relieved – with about 650 million humans watching on television.
Did he give much thought to those watching, or to earth, while up there? Not really, as they had jobs to do and limited time to do them in. “While others thought about what we were doing, we were very concentrated on being on the moon.”
He mused, on return to earth, that the big event may have been humanity watching, so in a sense – being up there– they missed it all. In Aldrin, for all his seriousness, there is a touch of whimsy.
Armstrong spoke the first words from the surface, having stepped from the ladder, “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Buzz found the spectacle magnificent and the moon rather desolate, which he paired as “magnificent desolation.” As for his audience, “we really did not think much about that …we were focused on mission control, they were the people we had to think about most.” The three were trained to the nines, seasoned military pilots focused.
Placing experiments on the moon, they also placed the American flag. Buzz proudly saluted the flag after working into an inch or two of fine moon dust. Notably, if you visit Washington’s Air & Space Museum, two spacesuits are on display, one worn by an Apollo astronaut, other by a Soviet astronaut. Only the Apollo suit has moondust on the knees. Soviets never made it.
One small miracle attended their departure from the moon. A push-in-push-out “circuit breaker” controlling their ascent engine “snapped off” when they returned to the LM, casualty of narrow maneuvering room. Mission control promised a solution, said sleep, which Armstrong and Aldrin did. The next morning, no solution. Resourcefully, Aldrin thought about and rejected the use of a metal pen and his small finger, then used a felt-tip pen – which he had brought because he liked fat marks on checklists – to push the switch in, getting them off the moon. American ingenuity.
On reentry July 24, three parachutes deployed.
At splashdown, the capsule flipped in the water before being brought upright by balloons. To avoid possible contamination from unknown moon bacteria, they put on containment suits, were soon in quarantine.
Aldrin noted, “We certainly were glad to be back home …” and “even this many years later, it was a privilege to have been on that first manned mission to the lunar surface, an honor to have worked with so many good and dedicated people, and to have left our footprints there.”
Looking back pensively, he “marvels” at it all, “that we went to the moon,” adding “it is time for the next generation to set their eyes on Mars.” By all indications, Dr. Aldrin is serious. While some revel in nostalgia, he does not. He is interested in the next steps. He thinks Mars is waiting for human prints. Who would know better? The Apollo 11 crew was one-of-a-kind. So is America. Today is a great day to remember America’s can-do when destiny calls.