Moonshot: The Inside Story of Mankind's Greatest Adventure - Dan Parry (2009)


For astronomers and geologists, Apollo 11 promised to offer a unique glimpse into the earliest years of the Moon, the Earth and the solar system. Relative to the Earth, the Moon is so big that some astronomers don't regard it as a moon at all but more the smaller partner in a binary planetary system. Many of the features on the near side are big enough to be seen with the naked eye, including mountainous regions rising to thousands of feet. But, since it orbits the Earth primarily (and does not orbit the Sun directly, in the way the Earth does), the Moon is not officially classified as a planet by the International Astronomical Union. It is better described as Earth's only natural satellite.

Information given to the press before the launch offered three competing theories for its origin.1 While some experts believed the Moon evolved separately from (but at the same time as) the Earth, others thought its mass was once part of the Earth itself until driven into space by some cataclysmic impact. A third idea suggested it had wandered through space until captured by the Earth's gravitational field.2 In the search for the truth, the Moon's most alluring feature was the promise it held of an unprecedented look into the long-lost history of the Earth. In the billions of years since our planet was formed, climate conditions and continental drift have erased important clues about the past. Seas have come and gone, coastlines have vanished and mountain ranges have been greatly eroded. The lunar surface, however, undisturbed by the processes alive on Earth, remains suspended in a deathly state of preservation. While the Earth's surface is rarely older than 500 million years, there was hope that an astronaut on a lunar mission might find rocks dating back to more than four billion years. In 1969, scientists imagined the Moon would reveal the dormant secrets of the solar system's formative years.

Quite how well preserved the Moon would prove to be depended partly on its history of seismic and volcanic activity. Geologists had been trying to land a seismometer on the surface since the Ranger 1 mission. It was hoped that the instrument carried by Apollo 11 would finally answer some of their questions about the Moon's internal structure. Whether they could find answers to other questions would depend on the astronauts' ability to find valuable examples of moon rocks and successfully bring them home. To stir things up a bit, Armstrong had considered sneaking a piece of limestone (the sedimentary product of sea creatures) into the LM and placing it into one of the two rock-boxes.3 Samples of material were due to be sent to teams of scientists at 127 laboratories around the world, their research interests ranging from rare gases and metals to the analysis of lunar glass.4 Looking for an exclusive insight into the earliest days of the Moon, they were hoping to be whisked away on a bountiful journey into the distant mists of time. It would all begin the moment someone stepped on to the surface.

For astronauts hoping to walk on the Moon, the most striking features were not the rocks found in a specific area but the life-threatening conditions prevalent across the entire lunar terrain. Unprotected by an atmosphere, during the height of the lunar day the ground soars to a temperature of 243°F. Radiation levels are significantly greater than on Earth, occasionally becoming dangerously high, and micrometeoroids regularly pelt the surface. Armstrong and Aldrin would have to overcome these dangers if they were to leave the relative safety of Eagle. And once outside, there was no certainty they would find what they were looking for. Their landing ground had been chosen largely because of its flat terrain rather than for any geological value. They had received little training specific to the site and they were not expected to retrieve much more than samples of whatever they found lying beside the spacecraft.5 Yet slender as these pickings might be, once brought home to Earth they would be unique. Although the dangers were considerable, so were the potential rewards.

After being given permission to stay on the surface, Neil explained to Mission Control why he had taken his time to land: 'Hey, Houston, that may have seemed like a very long final phase. The auto-targeting was taking us right into a football-field-sized crater, with a large number of big boulders and rocks for about one or two crater diameters around it, and it required us going in [computer program] P66 and flying manually over the rock field to find a reasonably good area.' Meanwhile, in Houston, Joan Aldrin was passing round cigars when the TV coverage switched to a press conference being given by Janet. Deciding she ought to do the same, Joan left the revellers in her front room to join the reporters waiting outside.6

Much still needed to be done before Neil and Buzz could begin to relax. Soon after landing, they vented the descent engine's fuel tanks to prevent a dangerous build-up of vapour pressure. Since a leaking fuel tank on the ascent stage or a failure in their oxygen supply could force them to return to orbit sooner than planned, the next priority was to update their guidance systems with Eagle's position relative to the stars. Releasing the cables holding him in position, and removing his helmet and gloves Buzz peered through Eagle's alignment telescope. Determining relevant angles relative to specific stars, he updated the two computers. 'The first two hours on the lunar surface were, for me, the busiest part of the flight,' Buzz later said.7 Neil tried to establish whereabouts they were on the ground. The navigation error they had encountered at the start of PDI had been stretched by his decision to fly virtually straight and level as they dodged the craters at the end of the flight. They had a rough idea of where they were, but neither the crew nor Mission Control could establish a precise position.

Armstrong: 'Houston, the guys that said that we wouldn't be able to tell precisely where we are, are the winners today. We were a little busy worrying about program alarms and things like that in the part of the descent where we would normally be picking out our landing spot. And aside from a good look at several of the craters we came over in the final descent, I haven't been able to pick out the things on the horizon as a reference as yet.'

Mission Control: 'Rog, Tranquility. No sweat. We'll figure out ... We'll figure it out. Over.'

Later, it was established that they had come down nearly four miles further west than expected. The landing site was roughly a third of a mile beyond the 'football-field-sized crater' that the radar had been bringing them towards. During their training this had been informally called West Crater. At some point in the Moon's history it had been gouged out of the landscape after a meteoroid smashed into the surface, creating an explosive force that had sent broken chunks of rock in all directions. Some could be seen through Buzz's window, away to the right of the spacecraft, while closer to the LM lay many smaller rocks, several up to three feet across.8 Craters of all sizes lay everywhere, ranging from one to 100 feet wide. But the feature that dominated the landscape was the layer of dust blanketing the ground, which Neil compared to 'very fine silt'.9 By making detailed assessments of what the surface looked like, the men were outstripping the capabilities of the Surveyor probes before they had even stepped out of the spacecraft. The LM was facing west, and while they could see ahead and much of the ground left and right, they couldn't look directly behind them, back towards the Sun.

Armstrong: 'The area out the left-hand window is a relatively level plain, cratered with a fairly large number of craters of the 5-to 50-foot variety; and some ridges which are small – 20, 30 feet high, I would guess; and literally thousands of little 1- and 2-foot craters around the area. We see some angular blocks out several hundred feet in front of us that are probably 2 feet in size and have angular edges. There is a hill in view, just about on the ground track ahead of us. Difficult to estimate, but might be a half a mile or a mile.'

Mission Control: 'Roger, Tranquility. We copy. Over.'

To Neil, the surface appeared warm and inviting. 'It looked as if it would be a nice place to take a sunbath,' he later remembered. 'It was the sort of situation in which you felt like going out there in nothing but a swimming suit to get a little sun.'10

Still passing across the near side, Michael Collins in Columbia had heard the exchange of transmissions during the landing. Twenty minutes after touchdown, he was encouraged by Neil's first impressions of the surrounding area.

Collins: 'Sounds like it looks a lot better than it did yesterday at that very low sun angle. It looked rough as a cob then.'

Armstrong: 'It really was rough, Mike. Over the targeted landing area, it was extremely rough, cratered, and large numbers of rocks that were probably some – many – larger than 5 or 10 feet in size.'

Collins: 'When in doubt, land long.'

Armstrong: 'That's what we did.'

Safely on the ground and reflecting on what had happened, Neil's heart-rate was now registering in the 90s; during the landing it was in the region of 150 beats per minute. While he continued to describe what he could see, Aldrin worked on the guidance systems. Now that they were on the surface they could see fewer stars than when coasting through space, and to enhance the accuracy of the updates Buzz used an estimate of vertical based on gravity.11 Other tasks also demanded attention. Eagle's mission timer was suggesting they had been in space for 902 hours, and after trying to reset it Houston asked the crew to vent the fuel tanks again.

At 3.59pm, 103 hours and 27 minutes into the mission, radio contact with Columbia was suddenly lost as the command module began its fifteenth orbit. For the first time on his own, Michael slipped behind the far side of the Moon. 'I am alone now,' he later wrote, 'truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the Moon, and one plus God only knows what on this side.' Coasting through shadow, for 48 minutes Michael lay beyond the reach of any other human being. Gazing out of the window he could see nothing but stars; in the darkness even the Moon itself was concealed from him. Enveloped by a sense of freedom and peace, Collins regarded it as a magical experience that he described not as solitude but characterised more by a sense of confidence, 'almost exultation'.12

While waiting for the command module to return overhead, Neil and Buzz carried out a simulated countdown. All being well, this would serve as a rehearsal for the launch scheduled for the following day, although if they got into difficulty and needed to blast off as soon as possible they would be well prepared. The countdown was timed to reach zero upon Columbia's return. This moment would be their third opportunity to leave the Moon earlier than planned, but again it wasn't needed. As Mike passed above it was clear that Armstrong and Aldrin would be staying where they were for a while longer yet, and they began to power down the LM.

Aboard Columbia, Collins approached the landing site from the direction of the Sun. Coasting at more than 3,600mph, 60 miles above the Sea of Tranquility, it took him just 13 minutes to pass above the general area of the landing ground. Before vanishing over Eagle's western horizon, Michael used the sextant to look for the LM. By entering map co-ordinates into his computer, he hoped the sextant would be automatically aimed at the right spot on the surface. But the instrument was fitted at a steep angle and the presumed landing site crossed its field of view for just two minutes, giving him little time to find the LM. Houston later gave Michael new co-ordinates to check, and on each successive pass he searched up to two grid squares on his map, together totalling a square mile or so. Houston was giving him areas that were ten grid squares wide, and in the little time available he saw nothing but craters.13 While coasting overhead, Collins could talk directly to Neil and Buzz, but once he sailed beyond their line of sight he relied on Houston to connect him. Of course, as soon as he passed round to the far side, Michael could talk to nobody.

During this period, Collins climbed out of his pressure-suit. By detaching the centre couch and placing it to one side, he made it easier to get in and out of the lower equipment bay where the sextant was installed. Turning up the lights and moving freely in the spacious cabin, Michael knew that TV commentators would be suggesting he was the loneliest man 'since Adam'. He didn't agree, and later wrote that 'Far from feeling lonely or abandoned, I feel very much a part of what is taking place on the lunar surface.'14

On the ground, the crew agreed to skip a four-hour rest period, following an idea they had discussed before launch. There had been concerns that it might take time to adjust to one-sixth gravity. But Neil felt they had done this remarkably quickly, and he advised Houston that the EVA would now begin in about three hours' time, at around 8pm.15 The rest period had been included in the flight-plan partly to soak up any delays caused by technical difficulties. If the crew had lost time after the landing in dealing with a problem they might still have been able to begin the EVA on schedule. But since reaching the surface, Armstrong and Aldrin had not encountered any serious problems. They had the Moon at their feet and were keen to explore its surface.

Before preparing to leave the spacecraft they took their first meal break since breakfast, ten hours earlier. For Buzz this was an opportunity to pause and consider the almost unbelievable position they now found themselves in. After seeking the advice of Reverend Dean Woodruff, Aldrin had decided that at this point it would be appropriate to celebrate Holy Communion, and had agreed this in advance with Deke.16A leading atheist had taken NASA to court after the reading from Genesis by the Apollo 8 crew, consequently Slayton had advised Buzz not to broadcast the Communion text. Taking the wine and chalice from his personal preference kit, Aldrin read from a small card as he addressed Houston and the millions of people listening at home. 'This is the LM pilot. I'd like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way. Over.' Buzz then took Communion in silence, the wine slowly swirling around the chalice in the Moon's low gravity.

Neil was left to his own thoughts, which soon he too would be sharing with the world. Only after they landed did he decide on what he would say once he stepped on to the surface.17

When they were ready, the men broke into the snacks they had brought with them and tucked into a brief cold meal. With empty food trays adding to the clutter in the cabin, they now found themselves up against an unexpected problem. In Houston, EVA training sessions had always begun with everything ready to hand. Now, their cramped cockpit was strewn with cameras and magazines, checklists and flight-plans and bulky equipment for extra-vehicular activity – and everything had to be either prepared for use on the surface or else stowed away.18 In case the timer could not be restarted, Neil decided to leave his watch in the cabin rather than wear it during the EVA.19 (Astronauts were given a standard-issue Omega Speedmaster Professional manualwind watch, but Buzz considered it not up to the job.20) Tidying up the cabin, setting up cameras and retrieving kit from lockers, they took their time preparing everything carefully, wanting to get as much done as possible before they had to strap on their bulky backpacks.

Returning across the near side, Michael was trying to listen to their preparations. Later he said that the role of the command module at this point in the mission was to 'act like a good child and be seen and not heard'.21 In single-handedly maintaining his position in orbit, and providing the closest thing Neil and Buzz had to a rescue agency, Collins himself was taking part in a testflight. Armstrong later said, 'I think Mike's view, and I share it, was that his responsibility was to prove single-man operation of the command module – a very complex piece of machinery – for the first time, for an extended duration, and in conjunction with a spacecraft on the ground. He needed to demonstrate communications procedures and many other things.'22 The dialogue between Houston and Eagle was initially transmitted to Columbia, but when Buzz complained that the relay signal was interfering with the LM's transmissions Houston switched it off. After losing contact with Tranquility Base, Michael felt 'somewhat cut out of the loop'.23 Later he also inadvertently lost contact with the ground, and by the time the link was restored he was ready for something close to a chat.

Collins: 'Houston, Columbia. Over.'

Mission Control: 'Go ahead, Columbia.'

Collins: 'Roger. I finally got you back on [antenna] Omni D. I've been unsuccessfully trying to get you on the high gain, and I've gone command reset to process. How do you read me now?'

Mission Control: 'Roger. Reading you loud with background noise.'

Collins: 'Houston, Columbia. Could you enable the S-band relay at least one-way from Eagle to Columbia so I can hear what's going on?'

Mission Control: 'Roger. There's not much going on at the present time, Columbia. I'll see what I can do about the relay ... are you aware that Eagle plans the EVA about 4 hours early? Over.'

Collins: 'Affirmative ... I haven't heard a word from those guys, and I thought I'd be hearing them through your S-band relay.'

Mission Control: 'Roger. They're on about page Surface 27 in the checklist, proceeding in good time.'

Collins: 'Glad to hear it. You got a crowd there in MCC [Mission Control Center]?'

Mission Control: 'Roger your last [message], Columbia.'

Collins: 'Roger. I'd expect you probably have about nine CapComs and eleven flight directors with no place to plug in.'

Mission Control: 'Roger.'

Collins: 'That ratio might even be reversed ... glycol evaporator outlet temperature is 50 degrees and the comfort in here is just fine.'

Mission Control: 'Roger. We copy 50 degrees on the glycol – and comfort index fine.'

Collins: 'And, if you'll excuse me a minute, I'm going to have a cup of coffee.'

Neil and Buzz were struggling to keep abreast of their highly detailed EVA checklist. Since leaving Earth they had been relying on the life-support systems aboard Columbia and Eagle to supply them with oxygen, regulate the temperature and remove the threat of contaminants. Soon they would be dependent on their pressure-suits, and in making sure these were functioning properly they took all the time they needed.

The suits were made of layers of a range of materials, and after the Apollo 1 fire they were designed to be fireproof.24 Closest to the body was a layer of Nomex material, designed for comfort, then came the rubber-coated nylon pressure bladder, followed by a nylon restraint layer. The pressure-suits used by all three crewmen were broadly similar, but those worn by Neil and Buzz had an integrated exterior cover protecting them from heat and micrometeoroids. This cover was made of two layers of rubber-coated nylon, followed by five layers of heat-resistant Mylar film, separated by four layers of Dacron spacer netting. These were covered by two layers of fireproof beta-cloth incorporating Kapton film, similar to the gold foil used on the LM's descent stage. The suit was then sealed in an outer shield of Teflon-coated beta-cloth. Worn outside the suit was a backpack which in NASA-speak was known as the portable life support system, or PLSS (pronounced 'pliss'). Secured to the suit by straps and clips, the PLSS pumped water through the thin tubes embedded in the astronaut's liquid-cooled underwear. It also supplied oxygen, which was released through a choice of vents at the neck and torso (Buzz preferred the former).25 The PLSS removed carbon dioxide and other contaminants from inside the pressure helmet, and sent and received communications and telemetry to Earth (via the LM). Protected by a thermal insulation jacket, the Apollo 11 PLSS was able to support an astronaut for four hours. Coolant, oxygen and communications were supplied by tubes (their blue and red attachments becoming a characteristic of the suit), and all three could be adjusted using a remote control unit worn on the chest.

Above the PLSS was a second supply of oxygen that would last 30 minutes in an emergency, and on top of this was a communications antenna. Fitting over the bubble helmet (which Neil and Buzz treated with an anti-fog spray) was a protective polycarbonate shell, covered with layers of fabric. Held in place by straps, this was known as the lunar extra-vehicular visor assembly, or LEVA, and was equipped with two main visors. One protected the bubble helmet, while the other was gold-tinted and shielded the astronaut from sunlight (which could be further restricted using smaller side visors). The LEVA's gold visor was immediately distinctive, becoming the hallmark of pictures of men on the Moon.

Boots and gloves were already incorporated into the pressure-suits, but were supplemented by bulkier items designed to stand up to the harsh conditions of the surface. The over-gloves consisted of layers of thermal insulation, and included fingertips made of silicone rubber to provide a degree of sensitivity. Both Neil and Buzz had simple checklists sewn on to the gauntlet of their left glove. The exterior boots incorporated deep treads cut into a thick blue rubber sole, while the upper surfaces were made of Chromel-R woven steel. They rounded off the outfit, which in its entirety was known as the A7L extra-vehicular mobility unit (EMU).Weighing 183lb (on Earth), each EMU cost close to $1.5 million. Zips and hose connectors were locked in position, and these locks were then secured with additional 'snap locks', so that vital connections were doubly locked tight. 'I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the environment inside the suit,' Armstrong later said.26

While preparing the two backpacks, Neil and Buzz discovered each had a control button that in all their simulations they had never encountered before. Worse, the remote control unit on the front of Neil's suit could not be secured to his PLSS. The 50- pin connecting cable had always proved tricky in training. Now that he was doing it for real, to Neil 'it began to look like we would never get those connectors made'.27On Earth the backpacks were worn with protective shoulder pads – but even without these, in reduced gravity they were still comfortable. Eagle's small cabin had been tricky to operate in at the best of times. Now that Armstrong and Aldrin were wearing their PLSSs on top of their bulky suits, there was barely room to move. To Buzz, it felt like they were 'two fullbacks trying to change positions in a tent'.28 They couldn't afford to damage anything in the fragile spacecraft so every move had to be made with great care.

Collins: 'Houston, Columbia on the high gain. How do you read?'

Mission Control: 'Roger, Columbia. Reading you loud and clear on the high gain. We have enabled the one-way MSFN relay that you requested. The crew of Tranquility Base is currently donning PLSSs. The LMP [lunar module pilot] has his PLSS on, comm checks out, and the CDR [commander] is checking his comm out now. Over.'

Collins: 'Sounds good. Thank you kindly.'

Eventually the men were ready to disconnect their suits from Eagle's oxygen and water supplies. While preparing to switch over to their backpacks, they found that the PLSS cooling units were taking longer to start working than they had estimated. Depressurising the LM also took longer than expected. By the time they finished their preparations it was 9.36pm and they were more than an hour and a half over the time they had estimated for the beginning of their EVA. TV networks around the world were forced to wait for the sensational pictures they had promised their viewers. Without knowing what was holding things up it was hard to know when the moonwalk would actually start. Janet Armstrong suggested the delay was caused by Neil thinking of something suitable to say. Joan passed the time listening to music. Pat Collins found the process frustrating and compared the uncertainty to labour pains. When someone pointed out that Michael would be behind the Moon when the door finally opened, Rusty Schweickart said he'd be back around again, then added, 'It's going to be a long night for these guys if he isn't.'29

Finally, Buzz was ready to open the hatch, down to the left of his knees. Given its narrow width it would have been impossible for the men to carry the TV camera, tools, flag and package of experiments with them, so these had been stored in compartments on the outside of the LM. Moving about in the awkward, stiff suit, Buzz was surrounded by scores of switches and circuit breakers, each set in a deliberate position. With a great deal of effort he bent down but found the hatch wouldn't open. Having not completely vented the oxygen from the cabin they found that pressure of just a tenth of a pound per square inch was still pushing the hatch shut against the vacuum outside.30 Only by tugging on it could Buzz break its seal and allow the remaining oxygen to escape. Glittering ice crystals were instantly formed, vanishing through the broken seal as quickly as they were created.31 Having successfully turned the handle, Buzz pulled the hatch in towards him – and there, outside, lay the surface of the Moon, now theirs to explore.