24 - During Apollo liftoffs, NASA VIPs sat 3.5 miles away from the pad, since if the rocket exploded, it would do so with 4/5ths the power of an atomic bomb, meaning 100-pound shrapnel thrown a radius of 3 miles. Neil Armstrong recently commented that today, Americans are shocked when the Shuttle doesn’t work every time, but during Apollo, NASA employees were always surprised when the Saturn did.
23 - The threat of pad catastrophe was so imminent that NASA engineered a number of methods to rescue the crew. There was an entirely separate three-rocket assembly attached to the nose cone of the capsule, ready to launch the men off their booster, deploy the chutes, and drift into an Atlantic splashdown. There were 600-feet-per-minute high-speed elevators which would be met by armored personnel carriers, and a cable car attached to a slide wire which could carry all three men 2500 feet at 50 mph away from the immolating missile to a rubber-walled below-ground bunker.
22 - There was one prayer at the start of every NASA mission shared by astronaut crew and ground control engineers alike: “Dear Lord, please don’t let me [screw] up.”
21 - During countdown, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins sat in absolute silence for thirty minutes.
20 - As his rocket rose into the sky, Saturn V overseer Wernher von Braun recited, aloud, the Lord’s Prayer with tears in his eyes. He then turned to a colleague and offered, “You give me $10 billion and ten years and I’ll have a man on Mars.”
19 - The computers aboard each of the Apollo 11 spaceships had less power than today’s cellphones.
18 - Those who believed American astronauts were daredevil cowboys would be surprised by what Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made sure to bring with them on this mission: Slide rules.
17 - Instead of watching his dad on television during the flight, Mike Collins only wanted to play with his pet bunny, Snowball; after ignoring almost everything about Apollo 11, Marky Armstrong looked up from what he was doing at one point, realized that it was his dad who was on the TV screen, and ran over to hug it.
16 - Much of the heroics needed by astronauts went into enduring what was arguably the world’s worst camping trip. Drinking water was a fuel-cell by-product, but Apollo 11’s hydrogen gas filters didn’t work, making every drink so bubbly that some believe the bravest man on the mission was the Navy frogman who opened the hatch after splashdown. NASA meals were vacuum-sealed in plastic. Cubes of cereal and cookies were eaten straight out of the bag, while freeze-dried entrees (a process that combined flash-freezing with vacuum-sucking to remove all moisture) needed to be rehydrated through a nozzle with either hot or cold (and gassy) water and kneaded into a mash, which was then squeezed out like toothpaste and was as delicious as it sounds. Of the 2500 calories they were supposed to eat each day, an Apollo crewman averaged 1400. Urinating and defecating in zero gravity, meanwhile, were never successfully addressed by any NASA engineering triumph; the latter was so troublesome that agency doctors prescribed foods that produced as little waste as possible, and more than one astronaut spent their entire mission on lomotil to avoid the procedure entirely.
15 - As Aldrin and Armstrong monitored the landscape of their landing path, it became clear that something was off, that they were going to overshoot NASA’s carefully-plotted landing site by about four miles. Instead of a computer-controlled touchdown, Armstrong would have to land on the moon himself. During one of his lunar lander training sessions, however, he’d almost died, with 3/5ths of a second to spare. In the Apollo 11 touchdown, he would almost wholly run out of fuel. Astronaut Don Lind: “At the end, all we knew was that the LM was descending at one foot per second and scooting across the surface at forty-seven feet per second, with only about sixty seconds’ worth of descent fuel left. My heart was pounding so hard I was afraid they’d kick me out of the Astronaut Corps.”
14 - NASA’s simulator training worked so well that many astronauts would calm themselves during real-world crises by thinking, “This is just like a simulation.”
13 - In case of disaster, William Safire prepared a speech which President Nixon would have given as the astronauts lived out their final hours. It began: Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. And it concluded: For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.
12 - The “one small step for man” wasn’t actually that small. The commander had set his ship down so gently that the legs’ shock absorbers hadn’t deployed, and the bottom of the ladder was 3.5 feet away from the Moon’s surface. Armstrong first stepped onto one of Eagle’s footpads and hoisted himself back onto the ladder to make sure he could get back to his ship before taking the ’small step,’ and then warned Aldrin about how big a drop it actually was.
11 - Armstrong’s first assignment was to immediately grab a rock just in case there was an emergency abort. Instead, he became so engrossed in taking pictures that Mission Control had to nag him three times about the sample. Aldrin, meanwhile, had to remember not to lock the door after exiting the LM, since there was no outside handle. When it was his turn with the Hasselblad, Aldrin took very few pictures of Armstrong, all of them a small figure in a vast panorama featuring the Lunar Module. There is today only one good photograph of Neil Armstrong on the moon — one he took himself, reflected in Aldrin’s gold visor.
10 - Armstrong later confessed to astronaut Alan Bean that their next task was the most difficult and frightening one of all: planting the American flag. It turned out that, contrary to many geologists’ conjecture, the moon’s surface (at least in the Sea of Tranquility where Eagle had landed) was a thin sweep of dust covering hard, dense, impenetrable rock. After pounding and sweating away at the task for much too long, Aldrin and Armstrong could only get their flagpole in a few inches. Both were convinced that, live on television with billions watching, they would step back from the flag — which was torsoed with wires to always wave erect in the vacuum of the moon — only to see it topple over into the dust. Amstrong tried patting a mound of dirt at the base to stabilize it, but the situation was so dicey that he and Aldrin spent the rest of their moonwalk carefully avoiding it. NASA had kept secret the manufacturer of the moon flag, insisting that they were bought anonymously. But the president of flag-maker Annin uncovered that it had come Sears, an exclusively Annin retailer. He begged the agency’s Public Affairs Office to publicly acknowledge this, but NASA refused. They said, “We don’t want another Tang.”
9 - Returning to the LM, Aldrin and Armstrong had now worked for over twenty-four hours nonstop, and needed to sleep. But there was a constant racket from the interior system pumps and the micrometeorites exploding like hail on the LM’s mylar skin. Aldrin: “It was very chilly in there. After about three hours it became unbearable. We could have raised the window shades and let the light in to warm us, but that would have destroyed any remaining possibility of sleeping.” Armstrong found that his hammock put him directly in the line of sight of the craft’s telescope, which at that moment was focused on the Earth. For the exhausted but restless flyer, it seemed as if a huge, unblinking blue eye was staring down at him.
8 - Orbiting overhead in the mothership Columbia, Mike Collins, meanwhile, had spent countless hours peering through the sextant trying to determine his crewmates’ landing spot, but he still didn’t know where Eagle was, exactly … and Houston didn’t know, either. The next morning, Collins radioed, “You’ve given up looking for the LM, right?” and Houston replied, “Affirmative.”
7 - Astronaut Nurse Dolores “Dee” O’Hara: The astronauts “have something, yes, that something that men have for whom death is a toy to play with, or who have seen something you haven’t seen. The ones who have been up, especially. They have something, a sort of wild look, I would say, as if they had fallen in love with a mystery up there, sort of as if they haven’t got their feet back on the ground, as if they regret having come back to us … a rage at having come back to earth. As if up there they’re not only freed from weight, from the force of gravity, but from desires, affections, passions, ambitions, from the body. Did you know that for months John [Glenn] and Wally [Schirra] and Scott [Carpenter] went around looking at the sky? You could speak to them and they didn’t answer, you could touch them on the shoulder and they didn’t notice; their only contact with the world was a dazed, absent, happy smile. They smiled at everything and everybody, and they were always tripping over things. They kept tripping over things because they never had their eyes on the ground.”
6 - In the wake of Apollo 11, the speaker at one NASA scientific banquet was British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, who had predicted in 1948 that, once a picture of the earth from space had been made, a whole new way of thinking would result. He told the attendees: “You have noticed how, quite suddenly, everybody has become seriously concerned to protect the natural environment. It happened almost overnight, and one can understand how one can ask the question, ‘Where did this idea come from?’ You could say, of course, from biologists, from conservationists, from ecologists, but after all, they’ve really been saying these things for many years past, and previously they’ve never even got on base. Something new has happened to create a worldwide awareness of our planet as a unique and precious place. It seems to me more than a coincidence that this awareness should have happened at exactly the moment man took his first step into space.”
5 - Though JFK had publicly announced, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do these other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills,” privately, he would ask, “Can you fellows invent some other race here on earth that will do some good?” and commented about getting a man on the moon: “The cost, that’s what gets me.” Twice, Kennedy would propose to Khrushchev that the two merge their efforts in a join US-USSR mission to the moon, but the Russians, not wanting the West to see the limits of their military technology, declined.
4 - Lyndon Johnson’s budget director informed the president, in great detail, the vast amount of money that would be saved by not going to the Moon before 1970. But Johnson demurred, insisting he owed it to John Kennedy to make that deadline.
3 - Soon after President Kennedy’s assassination, his widow sat down with Teddy White for an interview which remained unpublished until 1995, a year after her death. Jackie commented on the various memorial plans that, “I’ve got everything I want; I have that flame in Arlington National Cemetery and I have the Cape. I don’t care what people say. I want that flame, and I wanted his name on just that one booster, the one that would put us ahead of the Russians . . . that’s all I wanted.”
2 - Fearing a public relations calamity, NASA never allowed Armstrong, Aldrin, or Collins to ever fly again.
1 - Since 1981, the Pentagon’s annual space budget has been bigger than NASA’s.