186. Apollo 11

Apollo 11 was the first moon landing, but Apollo 13 got the movie because of the extra drama. Except for the absent landing, you probably won’t find a better picture of an Apollo mission than that film. This visuals are stunning and the portrayal of events is quite accurate.

Apollo 11, 47 years ago today, was a complete success, but it flirted with disaster twice, in two separate events, minutes apart during the landing. It was broadcast live, so everyone in America and half the rest of the world heard the crises in real time, but you would have needed to be an insider to understand them at the time. I was listening, glued to the TV screen, and I only later realized what was happening right in front of me.

The lunar lander separated from the command module as scheduled. Armstrong and Aldrin fired its rockets to slow its orbit. As it fell toward the moon, there was an alarm – a code 1202 – on the lander’s main computer. Only two men at mission control knew immediately what it meant. The mission was so complex that there were probably thousands of things only a few of those present fully understood.

The computer was overloading. Too many things were happening at once for it to handle. You need to remember the incredibly tiny capacity of 1969 computers. It could not keep up with events, the queue was getting long, so the alarm sounded. Steve Bales recognized that the computer was still doing everything it needed to do, that it would clear the queue in a few seconds, and said GO when most of those present were thinking ABORT. The mission continued, the computer worked through the queue, and then the alarm went off again. Bales said GO. A third time the computer overloaded and Bales shouted GO for the third time just as the lander was approaching touchdown.

The problems weren’t over. The lander had overshot its target and Armstrong found himself over a massive boulder field. There was nowhere to land.

An abort would have meant firing off the upper stage rocket and returning to the command module, allowing the now nearly empty lower section to crash to the moon, and missing the landing. Instead, Armstrong chose to adjust his rate of fall to a near hoover, tilt the entire lander – now top heavy and prone to flipping – to slide sideways and, just as the last of the fuel was nearly gone, reach a clear area where he set the lander down on the lunar surface.

On Earth, we had all been holding our breaths. We just didn’t realize how much reason we had had to worry.


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