A Way to Talk to God
Following the announcement of Apollo 11’s launch date, a great swarm headed for Cocoa Beach, the seaside town directly south of Cape Canaveral’s eighty-eight-thousand acre Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island. Even by NASA shot standards, the Apollo 11 draw was a crushing flood — over one million spectators, hoping for a glimpse of history, descended on the narrow barrier islands southeast of Orlando in central Florida. Wernher von Braun and his wife alighted from a helicopter on a nearby golf course; in time, they were joined by Spiro Agnew, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, Sargent Shriver, Jack Benny, Cardinal Cooke, Daniel Patrick Monynihan, Barry Goldwater, Johnny Carson, Gianni Agnelli, Prince Napoleon of Paris, 400 foreign ministers, 275 corporate executives, 19 governors, 40 mayors, half of Congress, 1,000 cops and state troopers, 3,000 boats anchored in local waters, 3,497 journalists, and an exaltation of Supreme Court justices.
Neil Armstrong’s wife and kids, joined by astronaut Dave Scott and Life magazine reporter Dodie Hamblin, were part of a North American Aviation yacht party on the Banana River. This was unusual, for the great majority of astronaut families avoided attending launches, worried about their children, and the media assault, in the event of a disaster. “I remember that we did not go to the Cape to watch the launch. I found out later it was because, #1, they could not afford it (money was always tight with five kids and a military salary) and, #2, my dad did not want us all out in the grand stands in case the rocket exploded during the launch,” Gayle Anders said after Apollo 8. Neil Armstrong, in fact, had told Jan they shouldn’t come, but she insisted. Before she could fly to the Cape and enjoy the day with her family, her friends, and Dodie Hamblin, however, Mrs. Armstrong — a synchronized swimming coach and “as strong as horseradish,” according to college friend Gene Cernan — stood atop a screaming-pink dais erected in front of the family’s El Lago, Texas home, and endured another press conference:
“Will you let the children stay up and watch the moon walk?”
“I don’t care for what they do.”
“Is this the greatest moment of your life?”
“No sir. When I was married, it was the greatest moment of my life.”
“Are you pleased with the Sea of Tranquility as a place to land?”
“What are you having for dinner tonight? Space food?”
The astronaut wives were so flabbergasted by the absurdity of their press questions that they even had developed a skit parodying the entire process:
“We’re here in front of the trim, modest suburban home of Squarely Stable, the famous astronaut who has just completed his historic mission, and we have with us his attractive wife, Primly Stable. Primly Stable, you must be happy, proud, and thankful at this moment.”
“Yes, Nancy, that’s true. I’m happy, proud, and thankful at this moment.”
“Tell us, Primly, tell us what you felt during the blast-off, at the very moment when your husband’s rocket began to rise from the earth and take him on this historic journey.”
“To tell you the truth, Nancy, I missed that part of it. I’d sort of dozed off, because I got up so early this morning and I’d been rushing around a lot taping the shades shut, so the TV people wouldn’t come in the windows.”
“And finally, Primly, I know that the most important prayer of your life had already been answered: Squarely has returned safely from outer space. But if you could have one other wish at this moment and have it come true, what would that one wish be?” “Well, Nancy, I’d wish for an Electrolux vacuum cleaner, with all the attachments …”
Armstrong had also told his parents that it would be better not to come to Kennedy, so they had stayed home in Wapakoneta, Ohio. Unlike almost any other American celebrity, however, astronauts were of modest income, with backgrounds in the military, where they had all been trained. There is in fact a great history in aviation of ‘ordinary’ heroes — the Wright brothers made bicycles and Lindbergh was a mailman, after all. But the astronauts were the first to be in such a position, and then come face-to-face with the worst of American hero-worship.
Think of your son being the first man to go to the Moon; could there be a prouder moment in any parent’s life? Instead, Neil Armstrong’s mother and father found themselves living in a Spielberg horror movie, their small town and their modest home under attack by a ceaseless horde of reporters and photographers, the broadcast networks even parking an eighty-foot transmission tower in their driveway. At the least, when it was learned they only had a black-and-white TV to watch their son’s historic moment, a big color set arrived, courtesy of ABC, CBS, and NBC.
By Tuesday, July 15th, every room for let within fifty miles of Kennedy’s pad 39A was taken; a thirty-mile swathe of highway was quadruple-parked end-to-end with untold thousands of cars and trailers and motorcycles and campers stocked with beer, Pepsi, and bikinis. It was the middle of summer in the middle of Florida, meaning a heat that melted asphalt onto the soles of barefoot children and a humidity that made women sweat like Teamsters, especially that remarkable gaggle of lithe and adventurous females that made their way to Cocoa for every shot, pretty young things on the hunt for astronauts, or their best buddies, or somebody who worked at NASA, or somebody, sure to have a swinging time at the Satellite, Vanguard, Polaris, Rocket! or Space Girls taverns, drinking liftoff martinis and moonlanders of vodka, soda, lime juice, crème de menthe and crème de cacao. Legend has it that a woman known as “Wickie” would trump them all by sleeping with six of the Original Seven. Cocoa’s innkeepers knew what they were doing for, even under this giddy torrent, the town never ran out of liquor, gasoline, or food. It did, however, run out of alarm clocks.
In the last days before liftoff, the crew was given the use of a beachside cottage, one of the many properties that came with NASA’s purchase of Merritt Island. For their last supper, instead of White House food with President Nixon, however, they had “broiled sirloin, mashed potatoes, tomato puree, buttered asparagus, combination salad, cottage cheese, fruit bowl, bread, butter, and a beverage,” as the NASA press office revealed. Their cook, Lew Hartzell, was an ex-Marine who’d honed his kitchen skills on a tugboat. It hadn’t taken more than a few nights of Lew’s Marine grub before Armstrong confided to Jan, “I’m sick of steak!”
Anyone attending a Cape Kennedy launch who once dreamed of the Space Age can’t help but imagine it will be a Tomorrowland of People-Movers and personal JetPacks and mysterious “Doctor Who-X Files” technology. Instead, it is as relentlessly an industrial manufacturing facility as one could imagine: a scattering of utilitarian 1960s office buildings, generic assembly factories, and sheds made from slabs of concrete topped with corrugated metal, set against an outback of pine, scrub, and palm. But, instead of valves, or ball-bearings, or Chevelles on the assembly line, there are nose cones, and exhaust nozzles, and flotsam and jetsam of rocket parts — a common industrial park, but one testing LOX engines and LH2 tanks — making it even more of a Tomorrowland than Disney himself could engineer.
As deserted as it looked, the Merritt Island that would become Cape Kennedy was home to over five hundred creatures, including a great array of ibis, gull, heron, egret, bald eagle, raccoons that fish the swamps, wild pigs that are regularly struck by cars in the dead of night, great circling flocks of turkey vultures, and a family of big, black alligators that live right next to the VAB. There is a widely-held belief that the Cape has seen a burst in the neighborhood’s lynx population, brought on by the ready supply of deaf rabbits living too close to the launch pads’ explosive roar. And, as the sun falls, Kennedy’s most ravenous inhabitant appears: mosquitoes, in uncountable swarms, perhaps explaining why, until sixty years ago, there were scant humans living here.
The day before liftoff, a mule-and-wagon carrying the Reverend Ralph Abernathy (head of the Southern Christian Leadership Council and successor to Martin Luther King) appeared with a group of protesters before the gates of KSC. The decade had seen a small but voluble public protest against Project Apollo, saying that its federal monies should go to Earth-based needs instead of starry dreams, and some of the SCLC’s chiefs were its most visible opponents.
Medical Operations Director Charles Berry:
I went up to [Reverend Abernathy] and I said, “You know, I do not understand why you would come and try and demonstrate and say that we ought not to have this flight to the Moon. Do you have any concept at all about what this can mean to the world and to us as a nation, having the capability to do this?”
He said, “It’s really not about the capability to do this, it’s this money that’s going to the Moon, this money’s going to be on the Moon, and it should be being spent on these people down here on the Earth.”
And I said, “There isn’t a single dollar going on the Moon. Not one dollar going to be on the Moon. Every one of those dollars that’s gone to this program, and a lot of this nation is involved in that, and every one of those dollars is going to somebody down here on the Earth. If some of your people wanted to be working on some of that, they could have done it. I’m sure that jobs are there. You could work on it, and you could be getting some of that so-called moon money, if you want to call it that.”
“That’s not what I’m saying,” he said. “The thing is, that money ought to be spent on these people right down here.”
I said, “Well, you obviously don’t understand what is happening here, and it’s being done for your good and for everyone’s good. If a nation is great, it’s my view that that nation ought to be able to do both things, and we ought to be able to do the things that are necessary here. We need the science and the technology on the cutting edge if we’re going to be a nation that’s going to progress. If you don’t, you’re going to die as a nation and you’re not going to solve any of the problems here on Earth or anywhere else.”
Later, NASA Administrator Tom Paine went out to meet with the reverand, and offered to let some of the group watch the launch from the Center. Abernathy would later admit that, “I succumbed to the awe-inspiring launch … I was one of the proudest Americans as I stood on this soil; I think it’s really holy ground.”
All NASA rockets at launch are aimed to the east, partly to take advantage of a boost from the earth’s 915 mph rotation, and partly to be over the Atlantic and away from human inhabitation in case anything goes wrong. Apollo 11’s liftoff of 9:32 A.M. EST on July 16, 1969 was chosen based on daylight hours available at both the launch and recovery sites; weather predictions; and the elliptical orbit of the moon, which can be between 221,000 and 242,000 miles away from the earth and travels at 2,287 miles an hour. A lunar mission targets where the moon will be by the time its ship arrives, and there is a mere four-hours margin of error for the moment when its rocket engine must hurl a spacecraft out of earth’s orbit and into a lunar trajectory. As recently as 1965, Soviet probe Luna 6 missed the moon by 100,000 miles and zoomed off into deep space.
Across Kennedy Space Center on that July 16th of 1969 rose wave after wave of electrical happiness, of young children on the night before Christmas, a mass exhilaration mixed with an equal host of fears (many NASA employees who saw Challenger disintegrate cannot bear to witness another liftoff to this day) and also, a sensation of profound achievement. Even the lowest subcontractor employee most distant from the work on the pad knows: Launch is why we are here.
T minus 5.25 hours: The phone rang in crew quarters at 4:15 AM with the voice of Astronaut Office Head Deke Slayton: “It’s a beautiful morning!” After shaving, showering, and dressing, Slayton (along with NASA artist Paul Calle and backup crewman Bill Anders) joined the three men for a breakfast of steak, eggs, orange juice, and toast (which followed the NASA physicians’ strategy of low in fiber, low in waste). The 11 crew autographed a set of commemorative stamp envelopes — one stack was left behind, as a kind of insurance for their wives and children in case the worst happened, and the other joined them on the flight, alongside a host of other outer space memorabilia. Buzz Aldrin: “As we signed the envelopes, we stacked them in boxes inside Mike’s room. We took no security precautions whatever because only NASA officials and functionaries were permitted in our quarters and, to us, they were beyond suspicion. On the last day before liftoff, Mike told us that one of the boxes was missing. We said nothing, but the theft disappointed and discouraged us.”
“On Apollo 11 I carried prayers, poems, medallions, coins, flags, envelopes, brooches, tie pins, insignia, cuff links, rings, and even one diaper pin,” Collins said. “Some things belonged to me and some to others. The only criterion was that the object had to be small, but none matched the ingenuity of one gent for whom I carried a small hollow bean, less than a quarter of an inch long. Inside it were fifty elephants, carved from slivers of ivory, which he planned to distribute to his coworkers after the flight.”
“We ran a detailed rendezvous meeting of some sort, and afterwards I said, ‘You know, Buzz, if you want to guarantee the long-term success of Apollo and that we’ll continue to go back to the Moon just forever, all you need to do when you get up there, just take a little pouch filled with gold dust and just spread it out on some of those rocks when you collect them,’” Mission Design Head Kenneth Young recalled. “I said, ‘We’ll be going back there for 100 years trying to find that gold.’
“He said, ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t do that.’”
Neil Amstrong wanted to play a similar joke on the expectant selenologists: “I was very tempted to sneak a piece of limestone up there with us on Apollo 11 and bring it back as a sample. That would have upset a lot of apple carts! But we didn’t do it.”
Collins, Aldrin, and Armstrong then went upstairs to get suited. What for Gemini was a uniform trailer next to the launch pad had become a suite, with facilities more suitable to testing and storing outfits that cost $100,000 on average — Frank Borman’s head was so large, his Apollo 8 helmet cost an extra $45,000. The space suits were incredibly complicated, being, in effect, miniature spaceships, with twenty-five layers of nylon, teflon, beta silica, jersey, neoprene, kapton, mylar, nomex, and spandex. Apollo 11’s suits came with repair kits of replacement gaskets, bladder repair patches, outer shell patches, and cloth tape. Just like the ships and their various components, the suits needed to be as thoroughly tested as possible, and came with their own crew, headed up by the elfin and well-tailored Joe Schmitt, who had overseen the dressing of every American astronaut since Alan Shepard: “We suit technicians had been working in the suit room since 3:30, turning on the air and oxygen supply, making leak checks on the suit consoles, checking out the communications systems, laying out suit equipment, making sure suit pockets were loaded in correct order with pens, flashlights and so forth. On Neil’s suit, a small folding shovel with plastic sample bags were placed in the special pocket. These were to be used in the event that their stay on the moon was to be cut short for any reason, so at least they would come back with a few lunar soil samples.
“Two types of spacesuits were used. Mike Collins wore an intravehicular suit, which means that these suits were only to be used inside the spacecraft, while Neil and Buzz wore extravehicular space suits. Three were [custom-tailored] for each crewman—one for training, one for flight and one back-up flight suit. It seems like a lot of money but when you consider that the extravehicular suits were designed to operate in a -250 degree Fahrenheit to a +310 degree Fahrenheit temperature range, and that it has ultraviolet radiation and a certain amount of micrometeorite protection, well I guess that was a fair price for a 28-layer spacesuit.”
If a quarterback wore three uniforms on top of each other, he would be as comfortable and as flexible as the men of Apollo 11. Mike Collins: “They have to be heavy, insulated, bulky, and then, even worse than that, they have to maintain, as their name implies, a pressure with a vacuum outside, and you’ve got to be pumped up like the tube in your car, and that makes them very rigid, and then all kinds of ingenious engineering devices come into play to take something which fundamentally wants to be immobile, wants not to change shape, like the tire on your car, and force it to have joints at the elbows and the wrists and the arms and the knees and the heads and the whatevers, so that you can move around and do whatever you have to do inside it while it still is maintaining this rigid pressure. So to engineer a suit properly is an extremely complicated task.”
To get ready, each crewman first applied salve and taped on a diaper, and then donned a condom, tube, and waist-mounted collection bag for urine. Silver chloride biosensors were glued to their chests, sending heart and respiration data to a belt studded with cellphone-sized radio transmitters, which forwarded continuous medical information — including the data from radiation dosimeters — to Mission Control physicians. They then donned long-johns (made of cotton and officially referred to at NASA as “constant wear garments”) and then the suits, which sealed and zipped from the back, and so always needed a helping hand to get in and out of, like a matador and his suit of light. Next came ‘Snoopy hats,’ the brown and white skullcap which contained a mic and earphones. Omega watches set to Houston time (CST) were strapped to each wrist. Pumpkin-orange plastic booties, like kids’ sandals, protected the boots from earth-based micro life forms. Oxygen tubes were connected to ventilator machines, which had handles like small suitcases and which they then carried for the rest of the journey to the pad, like businessmen on their way to the future.
In the suit and in the ships while traveling in outer space, the crew breathed pure oxygen; on the pad, the CM was filled with a mix of forty percent nitrogen and sixty percent oxygen, a procedure followed in the aftermath of the Apollo 1 fire. Suit technician Joe Schmitt: “COM carriers were donned and a communications check was made. Nylon comfort gloves followed by the suit gloves were donned and locked to the suit arms. Next the fishbowl helmets were locked into the suit neckrings. At this point, the pre-breathing begins, as we turn off the air and turn on the breathing oxygen supply. Pressurized suit leakage checks are made after which the crew would lounge comfortably in their reclining chairs until we got the go ahead from the pad leader, Guenter Wendt, to proceed to the spacecraft. Also, a ham on rye sandwich was carried along as a quick snack.”
As they walked through the hallway to the transfer point, the astronauts were greeted excitedly by NASA well-wishers, but all they could hear was the whisper of their oxygen pumps and the plod of their galoshes (worn only for the journey from suit room to spaceship). At that moment, Collins believed their chances of a fully-successful mission were 50/50, as did Armstrong: “My gut feeling was that we had a 90 percent chance — or better — of getting back safely, and a 50 percent chance of making a successful landing.” They approached the firetruck-red scaffolding and its battleship-blue open-cage elevators. “When you get to the base of this gigantic gantry, it’s empty, there’s nobody there, it’s deserted,” Mike Collins remembered. “You’re accustomed to scores of workers like ants swarming up and down and around it you’re with a crowd of people, and then suddenly, there’s nobody there. And you think, ‘God, maybe they know something I don’t know.’”
We walked through a sealed compartment painted gray which reminded me of the inside of a navy ship. It was along the walls of these of these corridors that Guenter Wendt had placed signs. These signs read: “The Key,” and then another one, “To the Moon,” then another, “Located In,” and finally, “The White Room.” These signs tipped off the crew that Guenter was up to his old tricks again. Another thing I remember was the fishy smell of the hypergolic fuel. Of course, the crew didn’t smell anything but pure oxygen as they were tightly sealed in their space suits.
A few more steps and we came to the base of the high-rise elevator. We all boarded the #1 elevator, pushed one button which is programmed to take us to the 320-foot level where the spacecraft hatch was located. As we walked along the creaky walkway we could hear cracking sounds of gases being burned off at the base of the burn pond located a good distance from the vehicle. Snow was falling from the cryogenic-filled tanks glistening in the floodlights.
After removing Neil’s yellow boot protectors, he climbed into the commander’s seat on the left. I followed him inside and immediately connected his communications line. Neil was still connected to his portable oxygen ventilator during ingress, so I switched over to the ship’s [spacecraft's] oxygen line and turned on the oxygen valve. With his feet positioned in the stirrups, his restraint straps consisting of lap belt and shoulder harness were connected and adjusted. I had no voice communications with the crew so he would give me hand signals that he was comfortable. Mike was strapped in the right seat and Buzz in the center seat using the same procedure as Neil’s. I made a quick check of everyone’s equipment, asked them if everything was OK, and wished them good luck.
Grabbing an overhead bar, each crewman inserted himself into his bespoke couch, laying flat on his back to cushion against the crush of launch and splashdown. Backup crewman Fred Haise then helped Schmitt connect each man’s suit to the ship’s oxygen and com ports, adjust the seat harness restraints, and check that the dashboard switches hadn’t been accidentally bumped by the men in their bulky suits getting settled in. The dashboard’s most significant buttons, switches, dials, and latches were locked or hooded so they could not be accidentally turned, switched, or punched, a caution that would not be followed with the first Lunar Module, leading to a frightening accident on the Moon. Before Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins had arrived, Haise had gone through the cabin with a 417-point checklist of to-dos — one more example of the exciting life of astronauts.
American spaceships were so tiny — the Apollo command module, a copper, silver, and white cone made from iron reinforced with porcelain, was a mere eleven feet high and thirteen feet at its widest — that the press regularly asked about claustrophobia. Frank Borman explained why this wasn’t a problem: “Here on Earth usually, when you’re trapped in something, what’s good is on the outside. In a spacecraft, what’s good is on the inside and what’s outside is death.” “Mostly it’s lousy out there,” Wally Schirra continued. “It’s a hostile environment, and it’s trying to kill you. The outside temperature goes from a minus 450 degrees to a plus 300 degrees. You sit in a flying Thermos bottle.”
Aldrin, who sat out launch in the center seat, was the last to enter. He waited and watched the sun rise over the cemetery-flat tidelands of Florida, casting into full relief the harsh and enormous shadow of the great American rocket and its accessory umbilical tower, while below lapped a thousand campfires marking the audience who had made it to the beaches, and across the horizon was written the entire history of American space travel in a line of United States Air Force and NASA launch pads which had boosted them all, from chimpanzees Ham and Enos to Shepard’s Pad 5, Glenn’s 14, and Gemini’s 19, the ruins of the Fire at 34, and now, Apollo’s 39A and B. It was a Florida dawn in July, eighty-five degrees and seventy-three percent humidity, with a light wind, and a visibility of ten miles. Into the beach’s sand, one group had written in enormous letters:
GOOD LUCK APOLLO 11
The crew finished their load-in procedure. Collins, Aldrin, and Armstrong lay on their backs, each cradled in a form-fitting couch, like an egg. Wendt and Haise silently wished them all the luck in the universe. The hatch was closed.
T minus 43 minutes: There was a barely-perceptible jolt as the launch tower’s uppermost capsule arm swung away to clear itself from the spacecraft, meaning the closeout crew was gone, and just maybe, launch would actually go forward. Armstrong: “These things were canceled more often than they were launched.” Seated left to right, Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins faced a cockpit that included five windows (momentarily covered by the emergency launch escape tower), numerous gauges and readout panels, an assortment of dials, and, as Collins described it, “great handfuls of switches. Around four hundred of them, if you include the plungers, the ratchets, the handles and the knobs. And you do have to be careful not to hit one of them by accident. You have to be careful when you move around if for some reason you’re inside an inflated suit. You can bash a half a dozen of them and you would know it immediately if you were in your underwear. But in that pressure suit you would never know it. You’d never feel it.”
Everywhere on the walls were squares of Velcro which mated the squares glued to every piece of equipment so that, in zero gravity, tools could be used and kept at a convenient arm’s length without floating away. Stuck all over the dashboard were last-minute to-dos, a wallpaper of posted handwritten cue cards, attached to the velcro or stuck in the cracks of the instrument panel, annotations to the training, and the rocket user’s guide.
“The hand controller [is] the control stick that you use to fly the vehicle,” Collins said. “It’s mounted on a pole about two feet long and it has an elbow joint … There’s another one on the left that’s more like a throttle … you push to go forward or backward, or up or down, or left or right.” The Saturn’s three stages, combined with Eagle and Columbia, were powered by engines and steered by thrusters totaling ninety-one rocket motors in all.
To the left of Armstrong were the bins containing the mission’s complement of food and water; to the right of Collins were the necessary equipment for urinating and excreting, and directly below Aldrin’s upraised feet were the navigation tools and the tunnel that, after a space minuet, will in time lead to the docked Lunar Module. Right next to Neil Armstrong’s chair was the most important tool in the ship at that moment. It looked like a big oven dial, on a pole. It was the abort lever.
Guenter Wendt: “A lot of people ask the question, ‘Were the astronauts nervous when they were put in the spacecraft?’ And the answer is, ‘No, they were not.’ … If you prepare for your biggest vacation trip you ever made, you’re going to fly to, let’s say, Australia and so on. You worry about the day of the flight. Is the alarm clock going to go off? Is the car going to have a flat tire? Will the car get you to the airport? Will the airplane be on time? Will I make a connection? But once you’re on the final airplane, you go back and you say, ‘Ahhh, got it made.’ See, and that’s about the same as these guys. They have been through so many tests, so many dry runs, so many activities, that finally they say, ‘Oh man, just close the hatch and let it go.’”
There was in fact an unacknowledged prayer shared by astronaut crew and ground control engineers alike at the start of every NASA mission — “Dear Lord, please don’t let me screw up” — a sentiment felt more avidly on this flight than on any other in agency history. “We were our nation’s envoys, we three, and it would be a national disgrace if we screwed it up,” Michael Collins said. “We would be watched by the world, including the unfriendly parts of it, and we must not fail. … I don’t know about Neil and Buzz, because we never discussed these things, but I really felt this pressure, this awesome sense of responsibility weighing me down, this completely negative sensation … . By flight time, I had tics in both eyelids, which went away as soon as we got airborne.”
I was certainly aware that this was a culmination of the work of 300,000 or 400,000 people over a decade and that the nation’s hopes and outward appearance largely rested on how the results came out. With those pressures, it seemed the most important thing to do was focus on our job as best we were able to and try to allow nothing to distract us from doing the very best job we could. And, you know, I have no complaints about the way my colleagues were able to step up to that. …
Each of the components of our hardware were designed to certain reliability specifications, and far the majority, to my recollection, had a reliability requirement of 0.99996, which means that you have four failures in 100,000 operations. I’ve been told that if every component met its reliability specifications precisely, that a typical Apollo flight would have about [1,000] separate identifiable failures. In fact, we had more like 150 failures per flight, better than statistical methods would tell you that you might have. I can only attribute that to the fact that every guy in the project, every guy at the bench building something, every assembler, every inspector, every guy that’s setting up the tests, cranking the torque wrench, and so on, is saying, man or woman, “If anything goes wrong here, it’s not going to be my fault, because my part is going to be better than I have to make it.” And when you have hundreds of thousands of people all doing their job a little better than they have to, you get an improvement in performance. And that’s the only reason we could have pulled this whole thing off.
When I was working here at the Manned Spacecraft Center, you could stand across the street and you could not tell when quitting time was, because people didn’t leave at quitting time in those days. People just worked, and they worked until whatever their job was done, and if they had to be there until five o’clock or seven o’clock or nine-thirty or whatever it was, they were just there. They did it, and then they went home. So four o’clock or four-thirty, whenever the bell rings, you didn’t see anybody leaving. Everybody was still working.
The way that happens and the way that made it different from other sectors of the government to which some people are sometimes properly critical is that this was a project in which everybody involved was, one, interested, two, dedicated, and, three, fascinated by the job they were doing. And whenever you have those ingredients, whether it be government or private industry or a retail store, you’re going to win.
The pressure, on all three men, was so enormous that, for the first thirty minutes of countdown, they sat in absolute silence.
By 7:30 AM, the temperature under the tin-roofed shade of the V.I.P. viewing stand had topped 100 degrees; one NASA contractor handed out paper sunhats. Behind the bleachers were the wood shacks built by the broadcast networks, a string of beach cabanas, on a grassy knoll. Down the hill below, stationed before the giant countdown clock and the banks of the barge turnaround basin, hundreds of photographers fussed and parried with their equipment — their historic subject, that machine of fire, smoke, and ice, smoking, snowing, and whistling 3.5 miles away, was blurred in their telephoto sights by the mungy thermals of a Florida morning. Though an uncomfortable day for human beings, at least the weather was cooperating for the needs of launch, which required a cloud ceiling of at least five hundred feet, and a windspeed of less than twenty-eight knots.
T minus 5 minutes: The launch escape tower, a 150,000-pound thruster attached to the Command Module which the astronauts could use to pull themselves to safety in the event of a pad catastrophe, was armed.
T minus 3 minutes 10 seconds: Humans relinquished control of the countdown to the firing room’s computer, which began several hundred last-minute tests.
T minus 50 seconds: The Saturn V’s internal power engaged, and all but five scaffold service arms decoupled from the rocket’s flank and swung away.
T minus 17 seconds: The firing room’s computer gave the final trajectory to the Saturn’s guidance systems. At this moment, the men aboard knew that they were actually going to fly. Neil Armstrong: “The reality is, a lot of times you get up and get in the cockpit, and something goes wrong somewhere and you go back down. So, actually, when you actually lift off, it’s really a big surprise.”
T minus 10 seconds: The launch pad’s fifty-eight-foot wide, forty-two-footdeep blast trench was flooded with water to counteract the rocket’s noise and heat.
T minus 8.9 seconds: The five F-1 engines ignited. Producing a thrust that was four times the speed of sound, their fiery exhaust hit a forty-foot-deep, 1.3 million-pound wedge deflector (laminated in volcanic ash and calcium aluminate) which split it in two. The twin flames then roared into the pit, vaporizing the water. The blast pit’s nozzles constantly refilled it at fifty thousand gallons a minute, and huge twin clouds of mist and flame began to inflate and bloom from the sides of the rocket’s base.
T minus 2 seconds: The five F-1 turbines reached ninety percent of full power — the thrust of 540 jet fighters — consuming 10,000 pounds of fuel every second.
During fueling, the Saturn’s main tanks had been chilled to -423 and -297 degrees Farenheit so that they could then be topped with cryogenic (lowtemperature) liquid hydrogen and LOX. That freeze would in turn alchemize Florida’s robust humidity into condensation frost on the rocket’s skin, becoming flurries of snow and chunks of ice that floated down to the ground during fueling and countdown, and crashed in great chunks during launch. That ice and snow, combined with the fire, smoke and vapor of launch, as well as the five rocket motors’ overbearing thunder, made for a spectacle that was both primordial, and unearthly.
Since the onlookers stood at least 3.5 miles away, there was a curious effect in that the sound of the rocket ran fifteen seconds late, meaning that, at first, the flames of ignition and clouds of exhaust appeared in distant and absolute silence. Then the roar arrived, tardy but violent, a series of shakes under the feet and pounds to the chest. It could be heard hundreds of miles away (only a nuclear bomb is louder) and its force shook an immense radius of ground. When Walter Cronkhite covered the first Saturn V launch for CBS in 1967, the broadcast trailer, also 3.5 miles from the pad, was shaken so severely that American viewers watched their beloved anchorman being pelted by ceiling tiles and insulation. Those watching that same liftoff from the top of Petrone’s Launch Control Center, meanwhile, said the center’s roof rolled like an earthquake.
The five F-1 engines burned eighty-five thousand pounds of gas in 8.9 seconds before the craft even began to rise. It was one of the great innovations of the von Braun team: a ring of hold-down arms attached to the rocket’s waist, keeping it to ground until the thrust had achieved seven point five million pounds — force enough to stabilize an ever-growing rise into the air. “The hold down mechanism would release the rocket only after all five engines of the first stage produced full power,” Wernher von Braun explained. “If this condition was not attained within a few seconds, all engines would shut down. In such a situation, unless special provisions were made for reattachment of some swingarms, Launch Control would be unable to ‘safe’ the vehicle and remove the flight crew from its precarious perch atop a potential bomb.
“These considerations led to the establishment, at Marshall, of a special Swingarm Test Facility, where detachment and reconnection of various arms was tested under brutally realistic conditions. On the ‘Arm Farm,’ extreme conditions (such as a launch scrub during an approaching Florida thunderstorm) could be simulated. Artificial rain was blown by aircraft propellers against the swingarms and their interconnect plugs, while the vehicle portion was moved back and forth, left and right, simulating, the swaying motions that the towering rocket would display during a storm.”
Then, very slowly, Apollo 11-Saturn V began to rise. At that moment of being airborne, mission chronology changed from T minus to GET or MET (General Elapsed Time or Mission Elapsed Time). The rocket’s sound and the shake were so profound that they overwhelmed the screams of over a million spectators, feeling that rollercoaster mix of rushing glee and tongue-biting fear, now calling out in unison with tears streaming down their cheeks: “Go! Go! Go! Go!”
At her home in Houston, Joan Aldrin could barely stand the tension. She smoked and fidgeted, her eyes wet with fear, the entire household silent and nervous with her. At the Collins home, though, Mike’s wife Pat breezily announced to her guests: “There it goes!”
The rocket at first seemed to lift as slowly as possible, but inch by inch, it gained speed, rising faster, then faster still. “There was this enormous light, and the rocket goes up and up, and then it goes through the first skiff of clouds, and then through the second skiff of clouds, and then you see a puff of smoke — the first burn-out — and then the rocket disappears,” selenologist Harold C. Urey remembered. “The precision! The accuracy! If only a fraction of this precision and accuracy spins off into industry, it will pay for the whole space program.” Norman Mailer was so overwhelmed by the experience that he could only describe the launch of Apollo 11 as mankind having found a way to talk to God.
Werner von Braun had spent nearly thirty years waiting for this moment, for the mission when his greatest creation would be used for travel to another planet. NASA had completed its end of the Space Race with enormous speed and energy, even more brilliantly than its cousins at the Pentagon — it had been a mere eight years, after all, since the agency had sent its very first astronaut into the sky. Watching his masterpiece rise to the heavens, von Braun prayed out loud with tears in his eyes: Our Father, who art in Heaven Hallowed be thy Name, Thy kingdom come Thy will be done On earth as it is in Heaven.
He then turned to a colleague and offered, “You give me $10 billion and ten years, and I’ll have a man on Mars.”
The author of 2001: A Space Odyssey had a similar reaction: “At liftoff, I cried for the first time in twenty years — and prayed for the first time in forty years,” said Arthur C. Clarke. Walter Cronkite predicted: “Everything else that has happened in our time is going to be an asterisk,” and von Braun later decided that, “I think it is equal in importance to that moment in evolution when aquatic life came crawling up on the land.”
The astronauts themselves were having very different thoughts and emotions. Michael Collins: “Shake, rattle, and roll! Noise, yes, lots of it, but mostly motion, as we are thrown left and right against our straps in spasmodic little jerks. It is steering like crazy, like a nervous lady driving a wide car down a narrow alley, and I just hope it knows where it’s going, because for the first ten seconds we are perilously close to that umbilical tower.” Apollo 8’s Bill Anders described it as “like being a rat in the jaws of a giant terrier.”
Buzz Aldrin: “It’s seldom mentioned, but the first twelve seconds or so of any flight are, from a safety standpoint, the most dangerous. For those seconds, the rocket is rising alongside the launch tower. If anything should go wrong in the automatic guidance system — some minute change in the angle of the rocket — there might be contact with the tower. The entire Saturn V, loaded with highly explosive propellants, could turn into a gigantic fireball. When launch control comes over the speaker with “Tower clear” the danger is over, and there is a sense of relief stretching from Houston to Cape Kennedy to us.”
GET 00:00:12: After the tower’s scaffold was cleared by the four outer F-1 rocket engines gimbaling at a slight yaw, control and communications moved from Kennedy to Houston. If the Saturn’s on-board navigation system failed at this point, however, for the first time in NASA history, Neil Armstrong could fly the 363-foot rocket himself. Guenter Wendt: “[After crew insertion] we would go to a very forward position, what we called the roadblock, where the crew—I had always an emergency crew that in case we need to go in a hurry we would stay there right at the roadblock. I also had my electrical technicians, the mechanical technicians, and the system guys that were at the last minute to be available. Once it clears the tower, then you are ready to party, partially, because you have no longer control over anything. Houston has control over it. And there’s nothing you can do anymore. Even if they parachute, they go up in the ocean and it’s not any of your problem.”
For those on the ground with binoculars, their very last sight of Apollo 11 before it disappeared from sight was of a white pencil of a ship, trailing a fat and glowing red brush of fire.
So many around the world agreed with that morning’s Parisian newspaper Le Figaro, which announced that, “The greatest adventure in the history of humanity has begun.”