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

Chapter 15. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

Tired and still wearing their bulky pressure-suits, Armstrong and Aldrin shivered in the cold cabin of the LM. Warning lights and electroluminescent instrument panels could not be switched off and the surface reflected sunshine so brightly, light penetrated the thin window shades. Even the Earth kept Neil awake, since it lay directly in his line of sight through Eagle's alignment telescope. 'It was just like a lightbulb,' he later recalled.1 The cabin was shielded from the Sun by the bulk of the spacecraft, so without a heater it became uncomfortably chilly. Raising the temperature of their cooling systems had little effect and neither Neil nor Buzz could properly sleep.

Stretched out in the comparative luxury of the command module, Michael was woken by Mission Control at 9.31am on Monday, 21 July.2 He was immediately given instructions on navigation tasks before vanishing behind the Moon at the start of his twenty-fourth orbit. Houston then called Tranquility Base, and after a breakfast of cold snacks Neil and Buzz powered up the computers and the rendezvous radar. Houston still hadn't established their position, and to provide further details Buzz was asked to track the command module using the rendezvous radar. Once he'd done this, Mission Control changed the checklist procedures and asked Buzz to switch off the radar until they reached orbit, to avoid overloading Eagle's computer. During the descent the computer had been so busy it had triggered a series of alarms. During the ascent it would be busier still. 'We were concerned,' admitted Charlie Duke, 'very concerned.'3

In preparing the spacecraft for launch, Buzz had to find an alternative way to close the engine arm circuit breaker, which had been damaged the previous day by his PLSS. Looking for a suitable object that could be inserted into the hole, he found that a felt-tipped pen fitted perfectly, and he successfully pushed the circuit breaker into the correct position. Electrical power could now reach the engine when a switch was pushed by Neil. If they hadn't been able to close the circuit, they would have had to resort to more complicated ways to get round the problem. After preparing the 16mm camera in Buzz's window, they put their gloves and pressure helmets back on and waited for the countdown to end. Once again, timing was essential. They had to launch at precisely the right moment if they were to catch up with Collins before running out of electrical power.

When Michael approached the Sea of Tranquility on his twenty-fifth orbit, Houston asked him to look for Eagle one final time. The LM had been on the surface for a little over 21 hours, but Collins had not been able to spot it once. Mission Control had refined the search, and with less than 30 minutes to go before lift-off Collins was given a new location that later proved to be only 220 metres away from Eagle. By that point, feeling 'like a nervous bride',4 Michael wanted to focus only on the launch. 'My secret terror for the last six months,' he wrote, 'has been leaving them on the Moon and returning to Earth alone.'5 In Houston, Janet Armstrong believed that as long as Eagle lifted off from the surface, 'Mike will come and get them, wherever they are'.6 Collins, however, knew that if Neil and Buzz failed to reach 50,000 feet, the lowest height he could descend to, there was little he could do to help them. 'One little hiccup and they are dead men,' he wrote.7

Mission Control: 'Tranquility Base, Houston.'

Aldrin: 'Roger. Go ahead.'

Mission Control: 'Roger. Our guidance recommendation is PGNS, and you're cleared for take-off.'

Aldrin: 'Roger. Understand. We're number one on the runway.'

While pressurising the two fuel tanks Buzz discovered that one failed to respond, which for him was 'the worst thing we could have seen'.8 The problem began to resolve itself, however, and the flight controllers were not especially worried – but they were slow to reassure the crew.

At 12.54pm – 21 hours and 37 minutes after landing – the launch countdown reached zero. Neil pushed switches that ignited four explosive nuts and bolts and severed the electrical cable connecting the two stages of the spacecraft. After Armstrong pushed the engine arm switch, Aldrin then punched the computer's 'proceed' button, allowing the software to ignite the engine. A second went by and nothing happened. Then, in a sudden jerk of movement, the engine fired, and as the ascent stage smoothly rose vertically from the surface its exhaust plume knocked over the flag and shredded the foil on the descent stage. A swarm of sparkling ribbons of Kapton scattered sunlight in its wake.9

As they accelerated towards orbit, Neil and Buzz noticed that in the time they had been on the ground the terminator had crept back, revealing features they had not previously seen. Gravity gradually fell away as they raced towards the escape velocity of 3,400mph, and some of the lunar dust in the cabin began to float about. Although the ascent engine was relatively small, the ascent stage was by far the lightest spacecraft in the Apollo system, and compared to the pick-up truck characteristics of Columbia it handled like a sports car. 'It's a very light, dancing vehicle,' Armstrong later said.10 Aldrin felt that 'each time you hit the thrust controller, the vehicle behaved as if somebody hit it with a sledge hammer, and you just moved'.11

After seven minutes the engine shut down, and at an altitude of ten miles above the Moon they entered orbit. Coasting at nearly 3,800mph towards their highest orbital point, 47 miles above the surface, the men removed their gloves and helmets as the spacecraft raced through shadow. Once they switched on the rendezvous radar, Armstrong and Aldrin began to play catch-up with the command module. Eagle would perform the rendezvous procedures while Columbia, coasting at an altitude of 60 miles, remained the passive partner. Mission Control took a back seat as Neil and Buzz pursued the command module around the Moon, progressively raising their orbital altitude over three hours, as perfected during the Gemini missions.12

With Eagle chasing him from below, Collins worked flat out to make sure he was holding a stable position. Operating on his own, during the course of the day he would have more than 850 key strokes to make on the computer. As the LM drew closer, Michael kept his eye glued to the sextant and was taken aback when he spotted Eagle coming up towards him. 'For the first time, I had the feeling that that son of a gun was really going to get there in one piece,' he wrote.13 Relief was starting to replace his long-harboured anxiety. Having slowed to match Columbia's speed, Eagle took up a position less than 100 feet from the command module. The two spacecraft were behind the Moon, and for the moment the crew were unable to tell Houston that everything was going to plan. As soon as they came back into radio contact Mission Control was anxious to know how things were developing.

Mission Control: 'Eagle and Columbia, Houston. Standing by.'

Armstrong: 'Roger. We're station-keeping.'

It was the news the controllers had been waiting for, and relieved applause filled the Mission Operations Control Room.14

With the two spacecraft flying in formation, the three astronauts were ready to begin their docking manoeuvres. Neil was preparing to adjust Eagle's position when he realised he was about to look directly into the Sun. In swiftly taking alternative action, he inadvertently jammed the LM's guidance system, triggering warning lights and freezing the autopilot. Just a few feet short of the command module, Armstrong and Aldrin were forced to switch to the backup computer. But they managed to hold their course, and at 4.35pm the combined command and service modules successfully docked with the lightweight ascent stage. Working on the probe and drogue assembly inside the tunnel, once again Michael smelt the odour of burnt material that he had noticed on the first day of the flight.15

As they prepared to enter the clean cabin of the command module, Neil and Buzz knew they risked carrying with them a quantity of lunar dust. To keep this to a minimum, they unstowed the LM's small vacuum cleaner and tried to collect as much dirt as possible. It wasn't only cleanliness they were concerned about. Before the mission, fears of so-called 'moon-bugs' had prompted NASA to adopt an extensive set of precautions. Virtually none of the 127 teams of scientists awaiting samples of moon rocks believed there was any point in testing the material for forms of life. Nevertheless, Congress was persuaded to hurriedly authorise the construction of a special quarantine facility in Houston, as part of the elaborate plan to isolate potential bugs. The plan also included protective rubber suits, the vacuum cleaner for Eagleand a period of quarantine for the crew – beginning the moment Neil and Buzz left the surface.16

Aboard Columbia, Michael raised the level of the cabin's oxygen supply. Once the hatches were open the increased pressure would flow into the LM, rather than the other way round.17 As Armstrong and Aldrin returned through the tunnel he was ready to kiss his crew-mates, but settled for firm handshakes instead. Smiling and giggling like schoolboys, Neil, Buzz and Michael warmly congratulated each other and joked about the difficulties that had caused so much anxiety and which had now been successfully completed.18 Later, Buzz returned to Eagle, and telling Mike to 'get ready for those million-dollar boxes' he passed the two sample containers through the tunnel. These were then zipped up in white cloth bags before being stored in the lower equipment bay. Since they had been sealed in the vacuum of space Michael was unable to open them, but Neil showed him the contingency sample so that he could see the dark powder for himself. 'Sort of like wet sand,' was his first impression.19

As part of their preparations to leave lunar orbit, the crew collected rubbish, urine bags and items they no longer needed and dumped everything inside the LM. Eagle was to be jettisoned and left to freely coast around the Moon. Its decaying orbit would eventually bring it crashing down to the surface. Once Neil and Buzz had taken a last look at the cabin of their spacecraft, the hatches were replaced and Collins fired pyrotechnics to separate the two vehicles. 'There she goes,' said Armstrong, 'it was a good one.'20 At 6.41pm, Collins flew Columbia away from the LM, and as they began to leave it behind they saw its thrusters fire as Eagle loyally held its position.21

Two hours later, Columbia was passing the near side on the twenty-ninth orbit when Charlie Duke offered to read them some news.

Starting off: Congratulatory messages on the Apollo 11 mission have been pouring into the White House from world leaders in a steady stream all day. Among the latest are telegrams from Prime Minister Harold Wilson of Great Britain and the King of Belgium. The world's press has been dominated by news of Apollo 11. Some newsmen estimate that more than 60 per cent of the news used in papers across the country today concerned your mission. The New York Times which, as we mentioned before, has had such a demand for its edition of the paper today – even though it ran 950,000 copies – said it will reprint the whole thing on Thursday as a souvenir edition. And Premier Alexei Kosygin has sent congratulations to you and President Nixon through former Vice President Humphrey who is visiting Russia. The cosmonauts have also issued a statement of congratulations. Humphrey quoted Kosygin as saying, 'I want you to tell the President and the American people that the Soviet Union desires to work with the United States in the cause of peace.

Duke then moved on to news from home.

You're probably interested in the comments your wives have made. Neil, Jan said about yesterday's activities, 'The evening was unbelievably perfect. It is an honour and a privilege to share with my husband, the crew, the Manned Spacecraft Center, the American public, and all mankind, the magnificent experience of the beginning of lunar exploration.' She was then asked if she considered the Moon landing the greatest moment in her life. She said, 'No, that was the day we were married.' And Mike, Pat said simply, 'It was fantastically marvellous.' Buzz, Joan said – apparently couldn't quite believe the EVA on the Moon. She said, 'It was hard to think it was real until the men actually moved. After the Moon touchdown, I wept because I was so happy.' But she added, 'The best part of the mission will be the splashdown.'

After one more orbit, Michael was ready to make the final significant burn of the mission, the trans-Earth injection manoeuvre, which would launch them out of lunar orbit and send them on their journey home. At 11.55pm they ignited the engine, and for two minutes and 30 seconds a stream of flame accelerated them from less than 3,700mph to 5,900mph, enough to free them from the grip of the Moon. Coasting back to Earth, once again they maintained the passive thermal control roll – slowly turning the spacecraft in order to distribute evenly the impact of the Sun's heat. As on the outward journey, platform alignments, fuel cell purges and waste dumps needed to be regularly tended to, but other than their routine chores there was little to do beyond watching the Moon get smaller. 'What did we do with our free time?' Collins asked himself later. 'We mostly just waited. We had plenty of time to eat, had plenty of time to get rested up.'22

At last they had time to complete some minor tasks. It had been hoped that before Eagle parted from Columbia, prior to the descent to the surface, the crew would have time to frank a first-day cover commemorating a new 10-cent stamp showing an astronaut on the Moon. The idea was that the envelope would bear proof that it had been handled by the crew only hours before the landing. They had been given ink and a rubber stamp marked with the date 20 July, but they did not have a chance to use them until 22 July, the seventh day of the mission.23

That night, as they aimed their camera out the window during their TV broadcast, Charlie Duke identified what he could see.

Mission Control: 'We see the Earth in the centre of the screen ... and see some land-masses in the centre, at least I guess that's what it is. It's very hazy at this time on our Eidephor [screen]. Over.'

Collins: 'Believe that's where we just came from.'

Mission Control: 'It is, huh? Well, I'm really looking at a bad screen here. Stand by one. Hey, you're right.'

Collins: 'It's not bad enough not finding the right landing spot, but when you haven't even got the right planet!'

Mission Control: 'I'll never live that one down.'

Collins: 'We're making it get smaller and smaller here to make sure that it really is the one we're leaving.'

Mission Control: 'All right. That's enough you guys.'

On the following day, Wednesday 23 July, Houston informed the men that Nixon was planning to meet them on their return. The president was about to embark on a trip to seven nations and would begin his travels with a visit to the USS Hornet, the aircraft carrier that was waiting to recover the crew. As well as international updates there were also domestic headlines: 'A little closer to home here, back in Memphis, Tennessee, a young lady who is presently tipping the scales at eight pounds, two ounces, was named "Module" by her parents, Mr and Mrs Eddie Lee McGhee. "It wasn't my idea," said Mrs McGhee, "it was my husband's." She said she had baulked at the name Lunar Module McGhee, because it didn't sound too good, but apparently they have compromised on just Module. Over.' The crew were also told that the residents of Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and San Francisco were planning to make their cities visible by switching on all their available lights.

That evening Janet Armstrong and Pat Collins took their children to Mission Control to watch the crew's final TV broadcast. With the mission drawing to a close, each of the men had prepared a personal statement. After Neil delivered a brief introduction, he handed over to Michael. Collins was conscious that while TV audiences around the world knew of the three astronauts, Apollo 11 represented the work of thousands of people who did not receive the same recognition. Paying tribute to those who had put together the hardware on which their lives depended, he thanked the 'American workmen' who had built the spacecraft, the technicians who had assembled and tested everything and everyone who had worked on the mission at the Manned Spacecraft Center. 'This operation,' said Collins, 'is somewhat like the periscope of a submarine. All you see is the three of us, but beneath the surface are thousands and thousands of others, and to all those, I would like to say, thank you very much.'

Buzz took a different tack, and suggested that the mission was representative of something more than the will of one nation. To him, Apollo 11 stood 'as a symbol of the insatiable curiosity of all mankind to explore the unknown'. He added, 'Neil's statement the other day upon first setting foot on the surface of the Moon, "This is a small step for a man, but a great leap for mankind," I believe sums up these feelings very nicely.' Buzz then finished with a verse from Psalms before handing back to Armstrong, who ended the broadcast with a farewell to everyone listening in: 'We would like to give a special thanks to all those Americans who built the spacecraft, who did the construction, design, the tests, and put their hearts and all their abilities into those crafts. To those people, tonight, we give a special thank you, and to all the other people that are listening and watching tonight, God bless you. Goodnight from Apollo 11.'

After the broadcast, looking down at the lights shining on the west coast of North America, the crew prepared for the final night of the mission.

By the morning of Thursday 24 July the crescent-shaped Earth was growing rapidly larger in the windows. Gravity was pulling the spacecraft towards the planet with ever-increasing speed. By the time the crew hit the atmosphere they would be travelling at nearly 25,000 miles per hour, 40 per cent faster than a Mercury capsule.24 At this velocity, if they came in at too steep an angle they would burn up; if their approach were too shallow they risked bouncing off the atmosphere on a trajectory that would take them back into space. The acceptable gap between the two was just 40 miles wide. If the Earth were the size of a football, this re-entry corridor would be little thicker than the edge of a sheet of paper.

After securing loose items in the cabin, the men took seasickness pills while working their way through the re-entry checklist.25 Sitting in the left-hand commander's seat, Michael kept an eye on their progress by monitoring the angle of the horizon, assisted by Neil in the middle couch who was reading from the DSKY. The computer would guide them down, but Collins had to be prepared to take over should anything unexpected develop. 'As our journey draws to a close,' he later wrote, 'the consequence of a screw-up looms as large as life, literally.'26

Columbia's shape was designed to produce a small amount of lift, like an aircraft wing. The angle at which the spacecraft fell could be altered by thrusters embedded in its hull, allowing some control over its path through the atmosphere. Collins had been expecting to fly just over a thousand miles during re-entry, but fearing turbulent weather in the landing zone Houston advised him to increase the ground-track to 1,500 miles. The Hornet had already moved to the new position, which was 800 miles southwest of Hawaii. By using the thrusters to change the angle of lift, the command module's flight-path could be extended. But the new landing point was at the far end of its range and Michael was concerned that should he need to take over from the computer he would be 'hard-pressed to come anywhere near the ship'.27

Twenty-seven minutes from re-entry, Columbia entered the Earth's shadow. Then, with just 14 minutes to go, the service module was jettisoned. After keeping the crew supplied with water, oxygen and electrical power throughout the mission, it was no longer needed, and the men watched it fly past their windows on its way to burning up in the atmosphere. At launch, Apollo 11 had been heavier than 3,300 tons; now all that remained was the command module, which weighed less than six. Columbia's blunt side, previously hidden by the service module, was protected by a heat-shield. Made of resin, the shield was ablative, in that as the temperature rose pieces of it would gradually flake off, exposing cooler material underneath.

Once their altitude fell to 67 miles (400,000 feet) above the Earth, the crew began to be buffeted about as Columbia ripped a burning hole through the night sky above the Solomon Islands, north-east of Australia.28 Wearing only their flight-suits, and sitting with their backs to the direction of travel, the men plummeted 33 miles towards the ocean while covering the first 500 miles of the ground-track. Falling too fast to push the air out of the way, Columbia hurtled through a blaze of colour as it collided with gaseous molecules beneath the heat-shield, smashing into them, generating friction and creating bursts of heat that accumulated into a fiery ball. 'We started to get all these colours past the windows,' Collins later remembered, 'subtle lavenders, light blue-greens, little touches of violet, and great variations mostly of blues and greens.'29 As flames rolled back the blackness of space, Michael believed they were 'flooding the entire Pacific basin with light'.30 The disintegration (or ionisation) of the molecules blocked radio signals, and for three minutes the crew were unable to talk to Houston. At 5,000°F, temperatures outside the spacecraft were hotter than the exhaust from the F-1 engines that had launched the men eight days earlier.31 The command module's silver-coloured thermal shielding helped to prevent heat penetrating the cabin, and inside the crew were kept cool by the spacecraft's life-support system.

Eventually Columbia flattened out, at which point each man felt six and a half times heavier than his normal weight on Earth as the g-forces peaked at their maximum level. The spacecraft flew the next 500 miles more or less horizontally, but it was approaching the landing point too quickly and risked overshooting it. Following a predetermined plan, the computer shifted the command module's angle of attack, sending Columbia thousands of feet back up into the atmosphere. Then, as they dived down to cover the final 300 miles towards the landing point, the crew were given a second dose of high g-forces. By the time the spacecraft had descended to an altitude of 15 miles, it was plunging almost vertically.

At 24,000 feet, a cover protecting the apex of the command module was jettisoned and two small drogue parachutes were released, stabilising the descent.32 At 10,000 feet, three much larger parachutes opened. Looking up out of the windows, Michael watched the orange and white streams of cloth blossom into three great canopies. Together they eased Columbia through banks of stratocumulus clouds. The men struggled to regain control of their arms and legs, now suddenly heavy with gravity.

Once radio contact resumed, Houston stayed off the air as much as possible while the navy prepared to retrieve the crew.

Rescue helicopter: 'Swim 1. Have a visual dead ahead about a mile.'

Hornet: 'Hornet. Roger.'

Rescue helicopter: 'Roger. This is Swim 1, Apollo 11.'

Armstrong: '300 feet.'

Rescue helicopter: 'Roger. You're looking real good.'

Rescue helicopter: 'Splashdown!'

Less than ten minutes after beginning re-entry, Columbia plunged into the Pacific 812 miles south-west of Hawaii. While it was 11.50am in Houston, locally it was 7.50am, ten minutes before dawn. Splashing down into water was seen as a softer, and therefore safer, option than hitting the ground; even so, in coming down at 20mph they still landed with a solid jolt. Buzz needed to push in circuit breakers that would allow Michael to eject the parachutes, but he was thrown forward with the impact, and as they filled with water the parachutes dragged Columbia over before they could be cut. After eventually releasing the canopies, Michael had to shut down the spacecraft's power. Before he could do this, however, he had to quickly close the vents that had allowed the cabin to match atmospheric pressure. This instruction on the checklist, circled and underlined, was intended to prevent the 'moon bugs' escaping, and in Michael's mind failure to carry it out would mean that 'the whole world gets contaminated, and everybody is mad at you'.33

The spacecraft was designed to float, either right way up in the 'stable 1' position or upside down in 'stable 2'. Suspended by their restraints in the uncomfortable stable 2 position, Buzz, Michael and Neil waited for three flotation balloons to roll Columbia over. In the intervening seven minutes a snorkel valve began to let in seawater, and while waiting for navy swimmers to be carried out to them by helicopter they took another seasickness pill. The spacecraft had landed within 12 miles of the Hornet, the prime component in an extensive recovery force that was directed from a room next to the MOCR in Mission Control. Consisting of two ships in the Pacific and three in the Atlantic, the force was supported by 13 aircraft at seven bases around the world.34

Briefly opening Columbia's hatch, navy swimmer and decontamination specialist Lieutenant Clancy Hatleberg threw in three 'biological isolation garments', or BIGs. Rubber suits equipped with a hood, a visor and a biological filter, the outfits were the next stage in the plan to prevent the risk of contamination.

Standing in the lower equipment bay, the hatch closed once more, Neil put his on first, followed by Mike; Buzz slipped into his while sitting in a couch. After helping each other secure zips and fasteners, they scrambled out of Columbia and clambered into a raft bobbing in the purplish-blue water beside the spacecraft. While trying to ignore a growing sense of seasickness, the men sprayed each other with disinfectant, again as part of the decontamination regime. With their face-masks fogging up, they were then hoisted up into one of the Sea King helicopters hovering above, leaving the swimmers to shut the hatch and disinfect the command module.

The safe retrieval of the crew was filmed from another helicopter, and seeing the men on television, Janet, Joan and Pat allowed themselves to celebrate. In the Armstrong household, everyone jubilantly waved flags while drinking champagne.35 The TV pictures were also shown in Mission Control, where huge cigars were handed out to the controllers, astronauts and VIPs cheering and applauding in the Mission Operations Control Room. Those who had watched the splashdown from the viewing gallery joined the party in the MOCR, and with the celebrations in full swing there was barely room to move.

Aboard the helicopter the men were greeted by NASA doctor Bill Carpentier, who would have jumped into the water and helped them to safety had one of them been injured. To Buzz, Columbia had represented safety and security; now, looking down on it from above, the spacecraft seemed small and helpless. He was struck by a 'peculiar feeling of loss'.36

After touching down on Hornet, the helicopter was lowered into one of the ship's vast hangars. Uncomfortably warm in their BIGs and struggling to keep their balance, Neil, Michael and Buzz stepped on to the deck to the accompaniment of a brass band. While waving to hundreds of sailors, and a sprinkling of VIPs, they briskly walked into a silver trailer set up 30 feet away. The Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF) would be their home until they got to Houston, and only Carpentier and technician John Hirasaki were allowed to join them.

The crew had been living and working in virtual isolation since June, and now that they were home, for the moment nothing would change. Their period of quarantine had been set at three weeks, and after spending three days of this in space they would pass another three in the MQF. The airtight trailer contained a lounge area, a galley (complete with microwave oven), bunk-beds and washing facilities. After a series of hurried medical checks, the men showered and, for the first time in more than a week, put on clean clothes. When they were ready, a curtain was drawn back from a window and there, waiting outside to greet them, was Richard Nixon. The president was genuinely enthralled to meet them and during a short, lighthearted exchange he described himself as the 'luckiest man in the world'.37

Two hours after the men arrived aboard the ship, Columbia was hauled from the water and hooked up to the MQF via a plastic tunnel. With assistance from the crew, Hirasaki went into the spacecraft, and after making sure the thrusters and pyrotechnics were safe he retrieved the films and rock-boxes. These were passed to the outside world via an airlock in the MQF before being taken by separate helicopters to Johnston Island, from where they were flown to Houston.

As the ship sailed for Hawaii, the enormity of their mission struck Buzz once again, as it had during training.38 Now, however, there was no longer a flight to focus on. Instead, there was a growing realisation that there would be months of public functions to attend. Later, Buzz came to realise that it was his time on the Hornet that marked the 'start of the trip to the unknown'.39

The following day Michael crawled back into Columbia to retrieve the flight-plans and checklists. Before leaving, above the sextant he wrote 'Spacecraft 107 – alias Apollo 11 – alias Columbia. The best ship to come down the line. God Bless Her. Michael Collins, CMP'.40

On arrival at Pearl Harbor the MQF was loaded aboard a flatbed lorry, and as it was gently driven to an airfield crowds of onlookers accompanied the crew's slow journey. It was then hoisted aboard a C-141 transport jet for the six-hour flight to Houston. Just after midnight on the morning of Sunday 27 July, Neil, Michael and Buzz landed at Ellington Air Force Base, near the Manned Spacecraft Center. The MQF was hauled out of the aircraft and taken to a brightly lit area where again another enormous crowd awaited them. This time, however, the well-wishers included friendly faces from home. Wearing Hawaiian carnation leis, Janet, Joan and Pat, accompanied by their children, could do little more than swap smiles through a window and hold stilted conversations over telephones. But the women could see for themselves that their men were safe, and that now they were in Houston they were home. 'Oh, thank God,' said Joan, through her tears.41

The rocks, the men and even Columbia were all to be accommodated in a purpose-built quarantine facility at the Manned Spacecraft Center known as the Lunar Receiving Laboratory (LRL). The three-storey LRL was based on plans drawn up in 1966 by an inter-agency committee composed of government departments, the National Academy of Sciences and NASA. As well as quarters for the crew – and the technicians, doctors, housekeepers and cooks looking after them – the LRL also contained elaborate facilities to store and analyse lunar material in vacuum conditions. Sealed from the outside world by biological barrier systems, the LRL's inhabitants would be held for the remaining two weeks of the quarantine period.

They could be held for longer if more time were needed to prove that anyone who had come into contact with the rocks posed no risk to Earth.42 This would be established in the ultraclean facilities of the sample operations area. Here, on 26 July, the rock-boxes were opened under vacuum, preserving them in their pristine state. After initial analysis, they were to be transferred, still under vacuum, to laboratories where their mineral and chemical content could be assessed. In examining the rocks for any evidence of life, samples would be exposed to plants, fish, birds, oysters, flies, cockroaches, prawns and germ-free mice, which would then be closely watched for evidence of a reaction. Fifty feet below the LRL, other samples would be assessed in a radiation laboratory using gamma ray spectrometry techniques. Meanwhile, Columbia would also be examined so that problems during the flight could be investigated. In designing and building the LRL, no expense had been spared. Nothing like it existed anywhere else in the world.

From Ellington, the MQF was driven by lorry along roads packed with more excited onlookers before being parked beside the LRL. Once a germ-proof barrier had been set up, the men were released into their new home. In the following days they spent most of their time preparing written reports and delivering day-long debriefing sessions, attended by many different people. Sitting behind glass, they answered questions about every detail of the flight, for the benefit of Deke Slayton, the crew of Apollo 12, flight controllers, systems engineers, managers, mission planners and everyone else involved in returning to the Moon. The crew in turn were told the precise location of the landing site, determined by the film taken through Buzz's window. They were also given news that NASA had not wished to broadcast during the mission, including details of the fatal incident involving Senator Ted Kennedy at Chappaquiddick. By the time they came to be asked questions about the LRL itself, Collins simply replied, 'I want out.'43

Every now and again the LRL population was joined by people who had been accidentally exposed to lunar material. They too had to be confined to quarantine until the mice proved there was nothing to worry about. In the meantime a colony of red ants voluntarily broke in and the crew were happy to point out to the technicians in charge of the supposedly impregnable facility that the number of insects seemed to be steadily growing.44 In between debriefings, and visits from family members (who were also held back by glass), the men tackled some of their burgeoning mail-bags, signing pictures and answering requests for autographs. They also discussed their future.

Collins had already told Deke that he would not be taking part in another flight, but he didn't yet know what he wanted to do. Nor did he know what Buzz and Neil were intending, 'but whatever it is, we should support each other', he wrote, adding, 'I'm not sure we have yet built the basis for that support'.45 Buzz, however, was struggling to support himself emotionally. In a picture taken during the debriefings, he later came to believe that 'everyone else appears relaxed and there I am – eyes wide and looking frightened'.46 At the centre of his worries lay concerns about what to do next. He was conscious that many public commitments were being planned for the crew and he saw it as his duty to accept them. Since these would keep him away from training for quite a while, he realised that the chances of flying again were shrinking. Decisions about his future were being made for him, and Buzz came to feel that things were slipping out of his control. It would be nearly three years before he felt able to make a new start.47

Earlier than anticipated, at 9pm on the evening of Sunday 10 August, the quarantine was declared over and the doors of the LRL were opened. Within two days Neil, Buzz and Michael would begin the first of many press conferences, speeches and guest appearances where they would be received as a team of dashing superheroes. For one last evening, however, they were still mere men. Taking what Collins described as 'their first smell of the earth in nearly a month', they went home to be reunited with their families.48