Apollo 11 Anniversary

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin landing and walking on the Moon.

For those of us who witnessed that mission and were glued to the small screen from July 16 to 24 in 1969—from the blastoff, which propelled the Saturn V rocket carrying Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins out of Earth’s orbit, their four-day journey to the Moon, the detachment of the lunar module to the nail-biting landing that almost wasn’t on July 20, the somewhat-grainy images of Armstrong and Aldrin descending the ladder and stepping onto the surface of the Moon, walking about, then taking off and docking with the command module, their return journey, blazing reentry through the Earth’s atmosphere and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on July 24—it was an experience indelibly etched into our memories. A mix of emotions never entirely experienced before: a breath-holding, heart-racing, goosebump-raising, awe-inspiring mix of wonder, fascination, disbelief and pride.

It was a moment that brought humanity together—some 600 million viewers around the world watched Armstrong step on the lunar surface and utter, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” with millions more listening to coverage on the radio.

It was an eight-day crash course in space travel, rocket design, aeronautics and physics that bolstered our vocabulary with terms like propulsion systems, command module, lunar module, lunar-orbit rendezvous, Modularized Equipment Stowage Assembly and Sea of Tranquility. But most importantly, it provided an invaluable lesson in courage, extraordinary skill, nerves of steel and accomplishment from the astronauts and scientists and technicians in Mission Control.

***Image***Several channels in the U.S. have already been commemorating this historic event and will continue to this week, as will broadcasters around the world.

Fifty years later, there should still be an incredible sense of awe and wonder when considering the missions to the Moon. The Apollo program was set up in response to a challenge launched by President John F. Kennedy in two famous speeches, one to Congress in 1961 and another at Rice University in 1962. He wanted the U.S. to get to the Moon before the Soviets did—at the time, the Americans were behind the Soviets, who had already launched men into space who had orbited the Earth. And President Kennedy wanted the U.S. to be the first to land on the Moon and do it before the end of the decade.

Kennedy didn’t want the world to view America as second best; this was at the height of the Cold War, so there were also national security considerations. “We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding,” he 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, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win,” said Kennedy.

He mentioned that new knowledge of our universe and environment garnered from the space program would enrich science and education with “new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school.”

He ended with the famous lines: “Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, ‘Because it is there.’ Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the Moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail, we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.” Dangerous and hazardous it was indeed, and NASA was not prepared.

Tom Jennings, director of the film Apollo: Missions to the Moon, which recently aired on National Geographic Channel, told me that in 1961, “NASA was way behind the Russians. They had ideas, but they didn’t have a spaceship that could go up.”

Apollo: Missions to the Moon screened at the Monte-Carlo TV Festival. Jennings and his team got access to some 10,000 hours of recently digitized, previously unheard audio from Mission Control from several of the Apollo missions, including Apollo 11. We talked about the nail-biting moments before the lunar module touched down on the surface of the Moon—when an alarm rang repeatedly, confounding Armstrong and Aldrin and the technicians in Mission Control.

“It was called a 1202 alarm,” explained Jennings. “They had to look it up; what’s a 1202 alarm? It was the guidance computer that was overloaded. The alarm went off two or three times and Mission Control had to override it. The lunar module only had so much fuel, and Armstrong and Aldrin only had 25 seconds to land, or they wouldn’t have enough fuel to go back up and would have had to abort the mission.”

Without guidance from the computer, Armstrong had to manually land the lunar module, which was heading straight for a crater.

Jennings and I, both kids at the time, remember watching that live on TV, along with hundreds of millions of viewers around the world, and we were so caught up in the life-and-death element of the moment.

And then we heard Armstrong’s voice: “Tranquility base here—the Eagle has landed.”

And Mission Control responded, “Roger, Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”

Nearly six hours later, at 11:56 p.m. Eastern Time in the U.S., we watched, riveted, as Armstrong stepped out of the lunar module, carrying a TV camera that broadcast live images, and we heard the historic sentence: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

There have been numerous benefits of the Apollo missions, which President Kennedy had accurately predicted. Scientists and engineers have built upon the advances achieved by the 400,000 people involved in getting Apollo 11 to the Moon, in everything from solar cells and fire prevention fabric, to medical monitoring, insulation, semiconductors and computer chips. The technology in personal computers, so ubiquitous today, was based on computers the Apollo missions had developed.

And the critical decision-making sequences and procedures developed by Mission Control have served as a model for several organizations, from police departments and emergency centers to managing industrial disasters.

The priceless intangible benefit was that for a few days, the United States and much of the world were united in celebrating the triumph of the Apollo 11 astronauts. Americans were still reeling from the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and ongoing riots and protests against the Vietnam War and in favor of civil rights. For a handful of days, we were overcome with joy and pride.

After viewing and listening to thousands of hours of video and audio to make Apollo: Missions to the Moon, Jennings commented, “To be able to spend so much time with them via the footage and media coverage, you would think, Oh, they were almost like gods back then. But the more you see them being interviewed, they are just very focused guys. They had a goal and they are going to reach it. It wasn’t so much that they were, Hurrah! Gung Ho! They were just very smart. They knew what they needed to do, and they were going to keep their cool and make it happen. I’m more in awe of them now than then because they are more human to me now.”

Among the benefits of the Apollo missions, there is a huge and often overlooked one: astronauts brought back stunning images of Earth, the most famous one, Earthrise, from Apollo 8.

I spoke with filmmaker Rory Kennedy, Robert’s daughter and John’s niece, who made a film last year, Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow, in which she interviewed some 40 astronauts and scientists. “The most important and relevant understanding that NASA has given us is about the Earth and its place in the universe and how extraordinary this planet is,” she said. “[Even with] everything they have learned and all the knowledge they have, being able to look back almost to the beginning of time, they have yet to find a planet like Earth—we need to take care of this planet. We’re doing a really bad job.”

So as we commemorate the extraordinary accomplishments of the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon (which can be done by watching any of the programs on offer, or, if you’re an Apollo geek like I am, pick up the book 100 Days: How Four Events in 1969 Shaped America by Harlan Lebo), let’s remember that it all started from Earth, and we need to safeguard and protect our home.