The date is 20 July 1969. Neil Armstrong and ‘Buzz’ Aldrin in the Lunar Module ‘Eagle’ have separated from the Apollo 11 command module and are about to land on the moon. Suddenly, the on-board computers go crazy and error codes start flashing on the screen. Their fuel supply is dwindling and they have overshot their planned landing site. If the errors are not resolved, the computer will be of no assistance to them during landing. Armstrong and Aldrin are however, extremely calm. They know this error is of no consequence. They start to focus on landing the spacecraft manually and use their combined fighter pilot experience to successfully touch down on the moon’s surface. *Drum-roll*
One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankindNeil Armstrong, from the surface of the Moon on July 20 1969
In retrospect today, it is hard to believe that such levels of sophistication were achieved with simple equipment. But technology itself was only an enabler. It was the strength and tenacity of the team behind the US space program that made the moon landing missions a runaway success.
My parents initiated me into the space travel religion when I was quite young. It has since turned into an unbridled passion for astronomy. I read every book on the US space program I could lay my hands upon and asked my father countless (and endless) questions on space travel! I plan to do the same with my kids and I will point them in the right direction if they are interested. When we talk about what inspires kids in school, the subject of space is almost always first!
Back to the moon landings. There will always be conspiracy theories and I will not expend any more energy to refute them. The launch was real, the reflectors left by the astronauts are still there, and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has photographed all the landing sites on the moon. You have to be superhuman to pull off such a feat – or even to convince the world that it really happened. Either way, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the learning from such accomplishments. What lessons can we apply even today?
Competition is a wonderful motivator
When the erstwhile Soviet Union launched the Sputnik I in 1957, the rest of the world instantly took notice. The US government went a step further. They knew they had been caught napping! They immediately put into place a space program with ambitious goals. John F Kennedy in 1961 said “We choose to go to the Moon” before the end of the decade. Nobody even knows if the Soviet Union had plans to send unmanned missions to the moon. But the very thought that they could end up second in the Space Race propelled the US government into action. Given the technology in the 1960s, the moon landings were certainly an overachievement. Talk about competition being a motivator!
Nobody’s role is insignificant
Do you remember the quiz questions in General Knowledge exams when you were a kid? The questions on the moon landings were always about Neil Armstrong, rarely about Buzz Aldrin, and never about Michael Collins or the rest of the NASA team. The astronauts were skilled pilots with combat experience and certainly were worthy candidates. The contribution of the rest of the team was even more critical.
The Cap-Comms (fellow astronauts who were the only voice between Mission Control and the astronauts in space) were stationed on ships around the world to keep talking to the Apollo crew. They had to remain calm in the face of fire.
The simulation engineers (SimSup) worked with the astronauts before launch and put them through grueling troubleshooting sessions to make sure they could deal with any abnormality on their own when they were in space. This practice reaped rich dividends when Armstrong and Aldrin saw errors appear on their screens. Their training helped them to quickly set aside the insignificant errors and continue without pressing the panic button.
A lesser known story is that of the women behind the space program. It is fascinating to read Margot Lee Shetterley’s Hidden Figures (Paperback | Kindle | Illustrated Edition). During a period rife with racial segregation, three African-American women worked tirelessly behind the scenes as human computers and made the mission a huge success.
I too am guilty of not mentioning all the other key contributors here. The post would run into several books then. Imagine the complexity and coordination involved!
It didn’t happen in a day
The US space program started with a project called X-15 that sent astronauts up to the very limits of the Earth’s atmosphere and dropped them from there in hypersonic rockets. Project Mercury came next and featured among others, Alan Shepard as the first American in space. There were several significant milestones achieved with Mercury and its successor, Gemini.
Neil Armstrong went through a torrid time aboard Gemini 8 when his spacecraft started to spin uncontrollably. They had just achieved the first docking of two man-made objects in space and were about to undock when the incident happened. Armstrong, with his usual nerves of steel, managed to get the craft under control and the two-man crew made it safely back to Earth through an emergency re-entry procedure.
However, the worst was yet to come. During a pre-launch test, the entire crew of Apollo 1 tragically lost their lives in a cabin fire. The other astronauts weren’t deterred and they instead vowed to make the Apollo 1 crew proud by flying to the moon and back.
It is the first time that matters
12 men have walked on the moon. How many do we remember? The unprecedented success of Apollo 11 was in a few ways a bane to the subsequent missions. When the third mission (Apollo 13) was launched, the public didn’t even watch the launch event like they did for the previous missions. It had become a routine thing to land on the moon! Only when the mission was in serious trouble en route to the moon did the public sit up and take notice. But that is another story for another day! You always remember the first time very well. It doesn’t belittle the other missions but the victor is always remembered.
It is awe-inspiring even after 50 years
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first moon landings. I have devoured several books on this subject and I still keep going back for more. To get a sense of the tension in Mission Control during the Apollo missions, read ‘Failure is Not an Option‘ by Gene Kranz, former flight director at NASA. It is a gripping page turner and I read it at least once a month.
Here are a few other great books on the Apollo missions. I have read them all multiple times and highly recommend them. Start reading to your kids from these books!
- First Man (Paperback |Kindle) – Neil Armstrong’s story that explores a lot of previously unseen emotional aspects of the man.
- Apollo 13 (Paperback) – The inside story of NASA’s gravest adversity and greatest achievement (in my opinion) told by mission commander Jim Lovell.
- Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Apollo Moon Landings (Paperback | Kindle) – A complete history of all the missions
- Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys by Michael Collins (Paperback | Kindle) – The story of Apollo 11’s lesser known member of the crew.
- A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts (Paperback) – Another great book that was written by an outsider.
Our parents’ generation was lucky enough to witness this spectacle as it unfolded. I hope it happens again at least in the next generation!
What is your favourite part of the Apollo missions? Let me know in the comments below!
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