Apollo 11: half a century on

Fifty years ago this month, NASA put the first astronauts on the Moon. Nick Smith talks to Apollo 11 Lunar Module pilot Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the Moon, and the only surviving moonwalker from that legendary mission

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Buzz Aldrin in the Eagle lunar module, July 1969. Image: NASA

On 20 July 1969, history was made when the first humans ever to set foot on another planetary body away from Earth opened the hatch of Apollo 11’s fragile four-legged Lunar Module and took their “giant leap for mankind”. The two men – described the following day in the New York Times as “Mr [Neil] Armstrong and his co-pilot Col. Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. of the Air Force” – were captured on a television camera that beamed their every move back to a global audience of 600 million. Their first actions on the Moon were to set up a further television camera, plant the American flag, collect rock samples, deploy scientific instrumentation and test their mobility in the unfamiliar, low-gravity environment.

While Neil Armstrong was a civilian aeronautical engineer, his lunar companion ‘Buzz’ Aldrin (who was to later legally change his name to his childhood moniker) was a military man who had served as a jet fighter pilot in the Korean War, flying 66 combat missions. With degrees in mechanical engineering (United States Military Academy) and astronautics (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Aldrin had already been into space on the Gemini programme in 1966, when he clocked up five hours of extra-vehicular activity (EVA), as well as testing the docking procedures that would later become crucial to Apollo 11’s success.

As well as being one of the most remarkable feats of exploration ever achieved, the Apollo ‘Lunar Landings’ were also something of an international political coup, played out against the backdrop of the Cold War. “You have to really have a very compelling reason to want to go there,” says Aldrin.

That reason was not so much to do with the spirit of humanity, the thirst for scientific knowledge, or even the thrill of exploration. As early as 12 September 1962, President John F Kennedy had said: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” But, what Kennedy – who was assassinated before Apollo 11 achieved its aims – was focused on was getting the upper hand in an increasingly tense Cold War, by beating the Russians to get there.

READ THE ENGINEER’S ARCHIVE COVERAGE OF APOLLO 11

In 1957, America had been shocked by the Soviet Union placing the first artificial Earth satellite – Sputnik – into space. Later that year, the Russians sent the first dog – Laika – into orbit. In 1961, as part of the Vostok 1, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became both the first man in space and the first to orbit our planet. With America lagging in the Space Race, the quest to put a man on the Moon had become a proxy war. With the death of Kennedy, it became a debt of honour, and lunar success became central to the American national identity.

“Apollo 11 will probably go down in history as one of the major responses of two nations facing each other with threatening technologies,” says Aldrin. “It was also our response to the apparent superiority of the Russians in putting objects into space before we could. Both nations gave assurances that it wasn’t going to be just dogs and monkeys, but it was also going to be humans. In the case of the US, it was going to be very out in the open.”

Aldrin states that this race forced the Russians to become less secretive about their technology: “even though they launched and recovered well inside their boundaries and didn’t necessarily need to expose a lot of the technology, they became more open about what they were doing.”

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The Apollo 11 Saturn V launcher lifts off from Cape Canaverel, 16 July 1969. Image: NASA

The story of how the Saturn V AS-506 left Earth on 16 July 1969 is one that has passed into legend. The rocket’s cargo was essentially a Command Module (Columbia) that would remain in lunar orbit, piloted by a third astronaut (Michael Collins, “the quiet one”), while the Lunar Module (Eagle) descended to the Moon, later to rendezvous with the Command Module prior to return to Earth. As with Edmund Hillary’s first successful ascent of Mount Everest in the preceding decade, this was an event that was to transfix the world and become a media circus on a previously unheard-of scale. In a press kit issued to the media a few weeks before Apollo 11’s departure, NASA described the three-man crew as “astronaut-explorers”.

Aldrin says that the entire mission was based on procedure and there was no room for improvisation. Upon landing on the Moon, “we knew we were going to call ourselves Tranquility Base. But we never rehearsed that because we didn’t want people to know. We hadn’t inserted the historic announcement into our procedures checklist. So when Neil said ‘Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.’ It struck me as, ‘Gee, Neil, don’t do that. We are in the middle of something.’”

What they were in the middle of, says Aldrin, was “the most critical door-opening in all humanity. That was the moment of triumph. Seen from the Moon, every other human, except the three of us, was up there on that small object in the sky called Earth. We knew that the pressure was on us to make the landing. If you don’t make the landing you can’t go outside. But that’s not the way the press saw it. For them, the most important thing was going down the ladder.”

But that was the easy part, he recalls, describing what he saw as: “magnificent desolation. The magnificence was the achievement of humanity – for us to be able to get there. But the scene was so desolate, totally lifeless. It probably hadn’t changed much in 100,000 years. It’s not a hospitable place”.

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Neil Armstrong’s boot print will remain unchanged on the lunar surface forever. Image: NASA

Aldrin reflects that there were two conditions “that assisted with the transition from not having a space programme to reaching the Moon.” First, “when the president said we were going to the Moon, the air force had already been studying missions there – including manned flight – so it wasn’t a totally unexplored area.” Second, while the Russian space programme was disorganised and decentralised, NASA had just one aim: to get astronauts to the Moon. The US also had flexibility: they knew that the proposed Soviet Nova rocket could not be ready within Kennedy’s deadline, but there were two Saturn V rockets “that were the legacy of [space architect]Wernher von Braun. An engineer came along and said: ‘wait a minute. If we optimise here and there, shed a little weight and send two more specialised spacecraft to the Moon, we can make do with just one Saturn V.”

The plan formed for the orbiter-lander configuration which, with hindsight, “is the obvious way to go to the Moon, instead of direct there and back. The Russians looked at other shortcuts that we didn’t evaluate very much. We chose flexibility”.

Despite current talks at NASA about restarting the lunar programme in the near future, Aldrin has always been sceptical about the value of returning to our closest satellite, saying: “Going back to the Moon 50 years after we went there in the last century without having a clear development plan for what we’re going to do – other than to say that it is a rehearsal for when we go to Mars – doesn’t make much sense.”

This point of view is only partially shared by NASA’s new and 13th administrator, James F Bridenstine, who has been in his post since April 2018. The former US Congressman freely admits that he is “the first NASA administrator never to have seen humans walk on another world”, which is all the more reason for stressing that now is “time to go back”. When this happens, he says, we are going to do things differently.

According to Bridenstine, the next time we shoot for the Moon, our endeavours won’t be in response to a Cold War race to put ‘flags and footprints’ on an unclaimed extra-terrestrial colony; it will be in the broader pursuit of science. He says:“We are the pioneers, the visionaries and the doers. We will add our names to history’s greatest adventurers. The degree of excitement is as high as it has ever been. It is infectious. Everybody is ready to go back to the Moon.”

These preliminary efforts, backed partially by corporate, rather than government, funds will be an intermediary phase leading to “the exploration of other worlds, such as Mars and beyond”.

Broadly speaking, Aldrin agrees with this last sentiment, at least. “We learned quite a lot going to the Moon, and it is now appropriate to build on that and move on to a much bigger and grander objective by going to another planet. Not just to visit it a few times, but to set up a sustaining presence. As a project, going to Mars is quite a bit different, much more advanced, and I think we ought to be much more about doing that. Eventually humans will leave the Solar System and go to other stars. Not in my lifetime. But we will learn how to do that.”

What follows is a transcript of a trans-space conversation between Lunar Module astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and the mission-control base at Houston, Texas. Armstrong is about to descend the ladder from the Lunar Module to take his first steps on the Moon.

ARMSTRONG: “OK, Houston, I’m on the porch.”

HOUSTON: “Roger, Neil.”

HOUSTON: “Columbia, Columbia [the command and service module]. This is Houston. One minute, 30 seconds LOS [loss of signal], all systems go. Over.”

ALDRIN: “Halt where you are a minute, Neil.”

ARMSTRONG: “OK, everything’s nice and straight in here. OK can you pull the door open a little more? Right.”

HOUSTON: “We’re getting a good picture on the TV.”

ALDRIN: “You’ve got a good picture, huh?”

HOUSTON: “There’s a great deal of contrast in it and currently it’s upside down on the monitor. But we can make out a fair deal of detail.”

ARMSTRONG: “OK, will you verify the position, the opening I ought to have on the camera?”

HOUSTON: “The what? We can see you coming down the ladder now.”

ARMSTRONG: “OK, I just checked getting back up to that first step. It didn’t collapse too far. But it’s adequate to get back up. It’s a pretty good little jump.”

ARMSTRONG: “I’m at the foot of the ladder. The LM [lunar module] footbeds are only depressed in the surface about one or two inches, although the surface appears to be very, very fine-grained as you get close to it. It’s almost like a powder. It’s very fine. I’m going to step off the LM now. That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. The surface is fine and powdery. I can pick it up loosely with my toe. It does adhere in fine layers like powdered charcoal to the sole and sides of my boots. I only go in a small fraction of an inch, maybe an eighth of an inch, but I can see the footprints of my boots and the treads in the fine sandy particles. There seems to be no difficulty in moving around this and we suspect that it’s even perhaps easier than the simulations on the ground. Actually no trouble to walk around. The descent engine did not leave a crater of any size. It [LM] has about one foot clearance on the ground. We’re essentially in a very level place here. I can see some evidence of rays emanating from the descent engine, but a very insignificant amount. OK, Buzz, are we ready to bring down the camera?”

ALDRIN: “I’m all ready. I think it’s squared away and in good shape. But you’ll have to pay out all the LEC [lunar equipment conveyor]. Looks like it’s coming out nice and evenly. It’s quite dark here in the shadow and a little hard for me to see if I have good footing. I’ll work my way over to the sunlight without looking directly into the sun…”

Moonwalking into the history books

The reason that Neil Armstrong is absent from virtually all of the classic Moon landing photos is because he took most of them. “Neil was an excellent photographer, and he took that great picture,” says Aldrin, referring to the so-called ‘visor’ shot (above) of Aldrin staring straight to camera, with Armstrong clearly reflected in his visor. “I was walking along the lunar surface and he said: ‘hey, stop.’ And he just took it. People ask me why it is such an iconic shot. I’ve got three words: ‘Location. Location. Location.”

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One of the most iconic human images: Neil Armstrong’s portrait of Buzz Aldrin on the moon. Image NASA

The camera used by Armstrong was a Hasselblad 500EL/M 6×6 medium format roll-film unit with a 60mm lens that had been modified for extravehicular activity: large buttons were added and the camera body was finished in silver to shield the film from solar radiation. The landing party had three fresh film magazines: two colour and one black and white. The magazines returned to Earth, while the Hasselblad remains on the lunar surface.

This wasn’t the only camera the astronauts had with them. There were three Hasselblads in total – the other two being an IVA ‘intravehicular’ model with an 80mm lens, and a spare, left in the orbiting Command Module. While Aldrin was never meant to be the main photographer, he took the first exposure shot on the Moon. Aldrin’s role was to take geological references on a Kodak stereo camera. The little crosses on the Hasselblad photos are fiducial markers created by inserting a Réseau plate between the shutter blades and film. This was a common method of producing reference points on photographs and to determine levels of image distortion in pre-digital scientific photography.

Smartphone or Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC)? 

It’s passed into modern culture that there is more computing power on today’s smartphones than what was available to the whole of NASA’s Apollo 11 space programme. While this is beyond doubt and much of what was done on Apollo 11 in terms of navigation, life support, environmental monitoring and power management could be done via an app, Aldrin defends NASA technology as being revolutionary for the time.

“I can’t quantitively give you the numbers, but there was no way you could possibly have had any kind of mechanical calculator to make the corrections needed to be able to get to the Moon. Our computers gave us the sophistication of mathematical smoothing techniques for the equations of motion and the perturbations. We were able to squeeze out of limited capacity some very, very remarkable achievements.”

Apollo 11 also saw hand-off to manual at critical moments: “We chose to use humans to execute and aid things like re-entry, final closure braking and docking manoeuvres. We made use of humans there, rather than to try to automate everything. I think we made wise decisions when exploring how to do these things.”