Think about the world 49 years ago this week when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon and you almost shake your head wondering how we did it.
In just nine years from the first time a human went into space, our species was standing on another world. As incredible as NASA’s systematic conquest of the Moon was, it is almost as amazing that in almost five decades we have not returned.
Growing up a baby-boomer and witnessing the exciting drama of the Apollo 11 launch, three-day journey across outer space and the Sunday afternoon landing that July 20, 1969 is a cherished memory of my life. I was certain that in 50 years there would be an international outpost like we have at Antarctica—but we don’t. Maybe the that will be a reality in 2069, the 100th anniversary of mankind’s greatest adventure.
And it was just that—the greatest exploration mission ever achieved, as daring into the unknown as the great ocean adventures of Columbus and Magellan, the Antarctica expeditions of Byrd and Perry; and the pioneering aviators like Charles Lindberg—a hero to many of the moon-bound American astronauts.
With the 50-year benchmark of Apollo 11 looming on the horizon, the hoopla is building already for the immortality that has been bestowed upon first man on the Moon Neil Armstrong, fellow moonwalker Buzz Aldrin and lunar orbiter Michael Collins.
A Hollywood movie starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong and called “First Man” opens in October 2018. After the holidays, the world will relive the epic odyssey that changed the world forever.
There will be much embellishment as a half century tends to increase the memories. And there will be lots of Apollo 11 memorabilia for sale—but buyer beware. The marketplace is flooded with fakes, forgeries and outright lies.
Getting the jump on that Golden Anniversary of Apollo 11, here are a few facts about the herculean effort of more than 500,000 Americans from hundreds of companies in each of the 50 states pulling together during a tumultuous time for our nation and the world.
Armstrong died in 2012 and Aldrin at age 88 is one of four still alive from the 12 men who walked on the Moon from 1969-72. The others are Apollo 15 commander David Scott, 88; Apollo 16’s Charlie Duke, 82; and the 12th man-on-the-Moon Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, 83. Astronauts who just orbited the Moon who are still alive in their mid-80s are Apollo 8 Frank Borman and Jim Lovell (also Apollo 13 that looped around the back side during a rescue trajectory); Tom Stafford Apollo 10; Fred Haise, Apollo 13; Al Worden, Apollo 15 and Ken Mattingly, Apollo 16.
When capsule communicator (“CapCom,” always an astronaut) Charlie Duke said, “We were about to turn blue…” in response to Armstrong historic first words: “Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed,” Duke wasn’t kidding. The moon ship named Eagle overshot the landing target by 4 miles because of unknown gravity influences and Armstrong took controls from autopilot to navigate over a 100-yard crater and house size boulders, violating abort procedure when fuel reached 30 seconds until empty and setting the four, saucer-shaped feet of the 20-ton, 16-foot tall Lunar Module in a haze of engine-blown dust with maybe 15 seconds to spare. Armstrong’s extraordinary piloting skills were needed—as was a lot of luck. The famous astronaut later said he figured the odds of success at 50-50, though he thought they’d return alive.
Armstrong and Aldrin collected 47 pounds of rock and dirt. They took 97 photos while on the Moon for 22 hours, using one Hasselblad, 70mm film camera during the moonwalk (carried by Armstrong, Buzz took a few but only 2 with Armstrong in them). All photos from the Apollo missions are available to the public on Flicker.com, frame-by-frame, just as they shot them. In fact, they are copyright free—paid for by the American taxpayer.
When they took off their helmets and smelled the Moon dirt on their spacesuits, it reminded the astronauts of fireplace ashes or gunpowder. That makes sense, given the violent impacts of meteors of all sizes. There are many strange properties of lunar soil. The powdery grey dirt is finer than talcum powder and is formed by micrometeorite impacts which pulverize local rocks into fine particles. The energy from these collisions melts the dirt into vapor that cools and condenses on soil particles, coating them in a glassy shell. These particles can wreak havoc on space suits and other equipment. Some gloves and boots had layers stripped off by the abrasiveness. Moon soil, called regolith, also has iron in it, so magnetic power can be used to help control the contamination.
The total computer power of the “DSKY” unit on the Lunar Module “Eagle” was just 64K…as in kilobyte. That’s nothing by today’s standards. A thousand Ks is a megabyte, and a thousand megabytes is gigabyte. And, a thousand gigabytes are a terabyte. Now go and look at the computing power of your hand-held devices. Then think about today having the power of a singing birthday card to land a space ship on another world!
The Moon Race brought many NASA words into the American vernacular. Like A-OK, the 3-2-1 countdown to blast-off, “the clock has started,” and “all systems Go!” Very few phrases in human language will be remembered as long as that spoken by Neil Armstrong on his first steps on an alien world: “That’s one smalls step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” He said he came up with the words while on the there-day trip to the Moon, and yes, he probably flubbed saying “a man,” Armstrong claiming he said it and the “a” was unheard in radio static.
When Aldrin went down the metal-rung ladder and took his first steps on the Moon, he paused silently for a moment—to empty his bladder in the urine collector strapped to his leg. After that, Buzz uttered his own famous words, calling the landscape, “magnificent desolation.”
Enjoy the memories of man’s greatest adventure on YouTube and many documentaries. And don’t lose the dream of returning to the Moon—this time to stay.