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

Chapter 1. THE BRIGHT STUFF

Grasping a grey pistol-grip controller with his right hand, Armstrong guided the lunar module down towards his chosen landing point. By manoeuvring the joystick he was able to fire thrusters mounted on the sides of the spacecraft, allowing him to fly in any given direction. But once moving, the lunar module would keep going until the opposite thruster was fired, which meant that maintaining course was a tricky process involving a careful balancing act. After satisfactorily landing the spacecraft, a shirt-sleeved Armstrong casually took off his headset and hopped out of the hatch.

It was Tuesday 15 July 1969, the day before Apollo 11 was due to launch, and Armstrong and Aldrin were taking part in final simulations using a mock-up of the lunar module in the Flight Crew Training Building at the Kennedy Space Center. Equipped with displays showing images of the landing zone, and driven by a battery of computers capable of replicating some of the challenges of space-flight, the simulator at Cape Kennedy1 was the best available. Here, and in other training facilities, Armstrong familiarised himself with the spacecraft's systems including the joystick with which he would fly the lunar module during the final stages of the landing. For a pilot, the hand controller was an unfamiliar device. In an aircraft, a control stick adjusts the angle of the ailerons on the trailing edges of the wings which roll the aeroplane left or right. The stick also raises or lowers the two horizontal elevators on either side of the vertical tail, pitching the aircraft up or down. By pushing against the air, these adjustable surfaces allow an aeroplane to change direction. In space there is nothing to push against, so these surfaces were replaced with small rocket thrusters that were controlled by the sensitive joystick, based on principles developed in NASA's experimental rocket plane, the X-15.

Straight out of a 1950s sci-fi comic, the X-15 was the stuff of legend. Everything about it was extreme. Slung beneath the wing of an adapted B-52 bomber, the aircraft was carried to altitude before the pilot ignited the rocket engine. Reaching record-breaking speeds in excess of 4,000mph, fast enough to strip paint off its airframe, the X-15 would zoom out of the atmosphere towards the edge of space, where the pilot would briefly experience weightlessness. It would then slice its way back into the thinnest layers of air for the flight down to the ground. In climbing to 50 miles and above, the X-15 was in effect the first manned sub-orbital spacecraft; three of its pilots reached altitudes that entitled them to receive NASA astronaut wings. At such heights the atmosphere was too thin to have any impact on conventional control surfaces, forcing the pilot to rely on the small rocket boosters and the prototype hand controller that were tested by, among others, Neil Armstrong, one of only 12 men ever to fly the X-15.2

For Neil, it was not so much a love of flying that took hold of him at an early age, more a fascination with the design and construction of aircraft. Armstrong rarely discusses his personal life, but he revealed in his authorised biography3 private details about his childhood, describing how he came to build model aircraft out of straw, paper and wood. He still possessed many of the models even after becoming an astronaut. Born on 5 August 1930 in Wapakoneta, Ohio, as a child Neil frequently moved from town to town due to the nature of his father's work in the state auditor's office. Stephen Armstrong had a remote though cordial relationship with his elder child; it was Neil's mother Viola who was to have the greater influence on their son.4 Like many of NASA's pioneering astronauts, Neil grew up in small country towns many of which were slow to recover from the Depression. 'We were not deprived,' he remembered, 'but there was never a great deal of money around.' All 12 men who walked on the Moon were either the first son or an only child. In Neil's case, a sister, June, arrived when he was nearly three, and a younger brother, Dean, joined them a year and a half later. The three children played happily together, but one abiding memory of Neil's places him quietly indulging in his love of books.

When Neil was 14, the family moved back to Wapakoneta where friends remembered him as being confident and capable but also as a boy with little to say. Those who knew him didn't regard him as shy – he played the baritone horn in the school orchestra and took part in plays – but he was seen as someone who didn't feel the need to say much. Neil was 'a person of very few words' who 'thought before he spoke', class-mates said. His tendency to engage with the world somewhat privately found expression in the construction of those model aircraft. 'My focus was more on the building than the flying,' he told his biographer, Dr James Hansen. 'While I was still in elementary school my intention was to be – or hope was to be – an aircraft designer.'5

Unhurried in design projects both at home and at school, Neil came to be known for doing things in his own way without being in any particular rush to set the world alight. He never displayed any 'outer fire', as his brother put it.6 NASA flight director Gene Kranz said he never saw Armstrong argue; nevertheless he 'had the commander mentality ... and didn't have to get angry'. Neil was cool in the old-fashioned sense, in that he tended to keep his distance. His interests weren't confined to model aeroplanes – he once crashed his father's car after the school prom while driving his date back from an all-night diner – but at first glance he was not the kind of person who might expect to find himself in an aircraft flying at five times the speed of sound. Nevertheless, applying his careful (some were to describe it as slow) analytical style of thought to the pursuit of his interest in aircraft design, Neil came to a logical conclusion: 'I went into piloting because I thought a good designer ought to know the operational aspects of an airplane.'7

From the age of 15, Neil joined other local kids hanging around Port Koneta, the town's small airfield. He saved his earnings and managed to pay for flying lessons, which he took to so readily he qualified by the time he was 16, before he'd got his driving licence. Hooked on aircraft, Neil opted to study aeronautical engineering at college, notwithstanding that college was expensive and his family couldn't afford it. A solution was possible through the navy, which was offering four-year scholarships in return for a period of service. Armstrong wasn't particularly interested in a military career but he saw it as a means to an end. In 1947, after receiving a 'wonderful deal' from the navy, he began to attend Purdue University in Indiana. Just a year later, confronted with the prospect of war in Korea, the navy began to recruit extra personnel and Neil, aged 18, was ordered to interrupt his studies and report for duty at Pensacola, Florida. While the air force turned out pilots, the navy produced airmen capable of landing on the deck of a pitching carrier, whom they branded aviators. In August 1950, after 18 months' training, Armstrong joined their ranks.8

On 3 September 1951, Ensign Armstrong was preparing for his twenty-eighth assisted take-off in three months. After lining up his F9F-2 Panther fighter jet aboard the USS Essex, a hydraulic catapult hauled his aircraft from a standing start down the length of the short flight-deck and into the air above the freezing waters of the Sea of Japan. Flying with VF-51, the first all-jet squadron in the navy, Armstrong was just beginning this armed reconnaissance mission over North Korea when his unit ran into antiaircraft defences. Streaking in at 350mph he prepared for a low-level attack when at 500 feet his Panther, loaded with bombs, struck an air-defence cable that ripped six feet off his starboard wing. Ejecting would have given him only the slimmest hope of reaching safety as few American pilots had returned after parachuting over enemy territory. After reclaiming limited control of the stricken jet Armstrong nursed it back to South Korea where he could safely eject, coming down virtually unhurt in a rice paddy. At a time when ejection seats were still in their infancy, Armstrong's cool handling of the incident won him much 'favourable notice', as a fellow pilot put it.9

During five tours of combat and 78 missions over enemy territory, Armstrong lost close friends and experienced freezing Korean winters amid a growing realisation that few people in the States knew what the military were doing in Asia. He fired thousands of rounds, suffered engine failure, survived forays into 'MiG Alley' and many times after landing he discovered bullet holes in his aircraft. Compared to civilian flying, combat – as Armstrong put it – ran the risk of 'more consequence to making a bad move'. He also enjoyed periods of leave in Japan, discovering aesthetic influences that were to stay with him for the rest of his life.

In September 1952, Armstrong returned from the war to finish his degree at Purdue, and there he met 18-year-old Janet Shearon, a home economics student. Attractive and vivacious, Janet was the girl he would some day marry, Neil told his roommate after first meeting her, although it would be three years before he got round to asking her out on a date. 'Neil isn't one to rush into anything,' Janet later said. Outgoing and talkative, she regarded him as good-looking and fun to be with.10

When Neil graduated in January 1955, with good though not outstanding grades, he looked for a job as a test pilot. While in Korea his term of service with the navy had officially ended and he had been transferred into the naval reserve, a halfway position between civilian life and the military. For civilians, the most exciting test-flight opportunities were to be found at Edwards Air Force Base, home to a small team from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Initially, Armstrong's application to Edwards was unsuccessful, and although the NACA took him on, he was sent not west but east to Cleveland where he was involved in research into anti-icing systems. Then, just five months later, he was invited to swap the grey clouds of Ohio for the Californian sunshine after the NACA found an opening and sent him to Edwards at last.11

Neil had once believed that nothing could replicate the great days of aviation, when fighter aces raced about the sky in scarlet triplanes, and heroes and heroines set records in epic flights to distant corners of the Earth. 'I had missed all the great times and adventures in flight,' he felt.12 But for an ambitious test pilot, Edwards was the place to be. Here, in 1947, Chuck Yeager first flew faster than the speed of sound, taking the rocket-powered Bell X-1 into a new era of high-speed flights that heralded the dawn of the space age. Edwards was where the first US jet had been tested, as well as many of the experimental X-planes, including the X-3 Stiletto and the X-5 variable geometry 'swing-wing' jet. But it was Yeager's achievement that first put Edwards on the map, prompting scores of young pilots to head west in search of golden opportunities.

After marrying Janet, Neil bought a property 5,000 feet up in the remote Juniper Hills region of the Antelope Valley, not far from the air base. It was a rural cabin with basic plumbing, bare wood floors and no electricity, but Neil slowly set about transforming the place into a home fit for a family. In June 1957 Janet gave birth to Eric, whom they came to call Ricky; two years later he was joined by a baby girl, Karen, and then in 1963 by another boy, Mark. Together the Armstrongs lived in the high desert of California, an untamed corner of America lost under endless blue skies.13

Edwards was situated next to the dusty salt-pan bed of Rogers Dry Lake. An enormous runway two and a half miles long extended into the lake itself which for most of the year was swept dry by the heat of howling desert winds. Stretching for 25 miles towards desolate mountain ranges, in an emergency the flat lakebed was as useful to dare-devil pilots as it was unforgiving. With its fearsome death toll and harsh climate, its rattlesnakes and sandstorms, Edwards was only marginally less desperate than the kind of air force pilots attracted there by the range of exotic aircraft.What mattered to many was the opportunity to clamber aboard something with an X in its name and push it as hard as possible in a wham-bam moment of ecstasy. However, the small number of engineer pilots, including Armstrong, who were attached not to the air force but to the NACA's High Speed Flight Station sought time to get intimately acquainted with the aircraft in the interests of aeronautical research.

Edwards for Armstrong proved to be a shining highlight of his career. His work was as varied as the aeroplanes he flew: he carried out more than 900 flights in a range of famous aircraft, from the F-104 Starfighter to the KC-135 Stratotanker. While he occasionally evaluated a new aircraft, noting its characteristics and recommending changes, he also flew older types that were fitted with experimental components designed to enhance the performance of the instruments, engines or airframe. A couple of his contemporaries considered other pilots to be better 'stick-and-rudder' men than Armstrong, but he acquired a reputation for a detailed understanding of technical issues and could be consistently relied upon to monitor a test accurately while rocketing through the sky faster than the speed of sound. His unflappable command of the aircraft bought him the time he needed to complete the task in hand.14

Sometimes the pressures were enormous. During the early 1950s, an average of one test pilot a week was killed in an air accident; in 1952 alone 62 pilots died at Edwards during a nine month period.15 Neil had been introduced to the ugly side of flying while still in Wapakoneta where he witnessed a fatal crash, but it was in Korea that he was first personally touched by loss. On the day he returned to his ship after bailing out, two squadron friends had been killed. Less than two weeks later a Banshee jet, attempting to land on the Essex, smashed into a row of aircraft lined up on the deck, burning four men to death. Later, the loss of Armstrong's cabin-mate Leonard 'Chet' Cheshire hit him particularly hard.16 At Edwards the risks could be more easily calculated, but much of the flying was still inherently dangerous, particularly Neil's work with the X-15, an aircraft he was to fly seven times.

Designed to reach hypersonic speeds above Mach 5, three X-15s were built by North American Aviation, each so dangerously close to the limits of aircraft performance that they set speed records which still stand today. Managed by a flight control centre equipped with tracking facilities, each flight to the edge of space was first rehearsed in a simulator. Once in the air, the aircraft was accompanied by four chase planes, while on the ground a fleet of vehicles was ready to deal with all eventualities. The pilot, wearing a pressure-suit and squashed into a tiny cockpit, could see little of his sleek black aircraft through the reinforced windows. At the end of his ten-minute test, he would have to lose speed and altitude quickly by flying a specific flight pattern, later adopted by space shuttle pilots. Even then he would be unable to land without first jettisoning the ventral fin slung beneath the fuselage.

On 20 April 1962, as the launch countdown reached zero, Neil prepared to assess a new 'g-force limiter' designed to prevent a pilot from experiencing a force more than five times greater than gravity. Once released, with a sharp lurch, from the B-52 he ignited his rocket engine and zoomed up to 207,500 feet – the highest altitude he would ever reach in an aircraft. At this height he could see the black void of space. He was completely reliant on his rocket thrusters to get back into the atmosphere, but while focusing on a test of the limiter he held the nose of the aircraft up for too long and as he tried to descend the X-15 bounced off the atmosphere back up towards the edge of space. The flight control centre urged him to follow the correct course, but Neil found that by the time he had managed to cut back into the upper reaches of the atmosphere he was screaming past the airfield at a speed of Mach 3. Turning round 45 miles south of Edwards, he was confronted with the uncomfortable thought that he might have to ask for permission to bring his rocket-plane into the traffic pattern of Palmdale municipal airport. When he eventually came within sight of the southern tip of Edwards the chase jets caught up with him and the control centre helped co-ordinate the landing as Armstrong raced in just a few feet above the desert floor.

During the post-flight debriefing a flight manager asked one of the chase pilots how close Neil had been to the trees.

'About 150 feet,' came the reply.

'Were the trees 150 feet to his right or to his left?' asked the smirking manager.17

Yet for all the record-breaking altitudes and speeds achieved by Armstrong and the other X-15 pilots, there was a growing sense that America was being left behind in the attempt to send a man into space. In October 1957, the legendary aircraft streaking about the blue skies above Edwards were overshadowed by a football-sized satellite. It did little more than transmit a radio signal back to Earth, but it was unmistakably un-American. Russia's successful development of Sputnik propelled the Cold War into space, prompting a sense of shock that rippled in many high-level directions. There was a widespread belief that if the Russians could send a ball across the United States, they could surely send nuclear warheads. But instead of bombs, a month later Sputnik 2 carried a dog, Laika, into orbit, extending Russia's bid for recognition as the world's leading technical nation. For the first time the NACA realised that Moscow was preparing to send a man into space,18 something that would deal a major blow to American esteem and put the US on the back foot for years to come. Washington was forced to act.

Less than a year after Sputnik, the NACA was replaced by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and its managers were given a specific brief: put a man in space ahead of the Soviets.19But what could a man actually do in space? Would the high g-forces, weightlessness and the undiscovered problems of orbital flight allow him to do anything at all? These questions shaped the search for recruits, and eventually 110 military pilots, each with a college degree and at least 1,500 hours' flying time, were invited to apply.

Armstrong, a civilian, was not asked. In any event, it is unlikely that he would have agreed to swap the successful X-15 programme for an unproven project where a man would be shut up in a capsule and blasted on a short trajectory largely controlled from the ground. 'Spam in a can' Yeager called it, though Armstrong himself was not quite so scornful. He saw that space represented a new challenge. 'I thought the attractions of being an astronaut were actually not so much the Moon, but flying in a completely new medium,' he said later.20

In April 1959, seven men were selected to take part in the fledgling manned space programme, named Project Mercury. All were white military men despite the fact that thirteen women later proved they could pass the demanding round of tests, including Jerrie Cobb. Cobb, who had set records for speed, distance and altitude, sought support from Congress, and a memo noting her impressive qualifications was laid before Vice President Lyndon Johnson – who promptly dismissed her cause with the comment 'Let's stop this, now.'21 NASA argued that one day capsules would support two or more astronauts in a confined space, making it difficult to accept women into the programme. However, as writer Andrew Smith put it, 'anyone capable of contemplating the myriad nasty ends available to an astronaut could probably learn to bare his arse in front of a lady without bursting into tears'.22

After being accepted by NASA, the Mercury Seven began preparing for America's first manned missions. The United States expected to become the first nation to send a man on a suborbital flight, in a mission that would be a triumphant coup for the West. In the first weeks of 1961, however, doubts remained concerning the safety of the capsule and its rocket, and both had yet to be man-rated in a test-flight. Instead of an astronaut, the capsule would first carry Ham, a four-year-old chimpanzee, and on 31 January Ham was launched on a flight lasting nearly 17 minutes. Then on 12 April the Russians, once again ahead of the Americans, launched Yuri Gagarin not just into space but into a complete orbit of the Earth. The coup had been pulled off, not by NASA but by Moscow. In the States, a contemporary newspaper cartoon by John Fischetti showed one chimpanzee telling another 'We're a little behind the Russians, and a little ahead of the Americans.'

On the day when he first flew faster than sound, Chuck Yeager had been unable to close the aircraft canopy unaided, after breaking a couple of ribs two days earlier while riding a horse. He had told only his wife and a fellow pilot about the accident, asking his buddy to secretly rig up a device that would help him secure the hatch. This anecdote comes from the writer Tom Wolfe, who wrote about the rugged, pioneering ways of pilots like Yeager, and his contemporaries the Mercury Seven. Only men with the 'right stuff', who rode horses through the desert, were able to fly experimental flying machines powered by rockets and testosterone, while ignoring eye-watering pain. Men like Yeager could 'break the sound barrier' (although there was no such thing), and if you asked them nicely they could even possibly squeeze spinach from a tin using just their hands. Wolfe's pilots are lone heroes, 'single-combat warriors' living on the edge, having taken over the mantle of the cowboys who occupied the wild deserts of the West before them. Such bravado was embraced by many of the air force pilots at Edwards. Men like Yeager were dismissive of the more studious type of airmen, some of whom came to be recruited as astronauts.23 It was said that anyone who would want to sit in a Mercury capsule would have to 'wipe the monkey shit off the seat first'.24 Some of these air force men were not actually entitled to become astronauts themselves because they did not have a college degree, such as Yeager. Priding himself on his 'balls out' attitude, Yeager regarded NASA's airmen as 'sorry fighter pilots' who rated 'about as high as my shoelaces'.25 But it was NASA's research pilots who would prove themselves capable in the agency's blossoming space programme.

In May 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American to reach space, his Mercury capsule being carried to an altitude of 116 miles by a Redstone rocket. During this and subsequent Mercury flights, the astronauts' work in weightlessness exceeded all expectations. Encouraged by their early success, NASA began to plan for more complicated missions in preparation for the ultimate ambition, a journey to the Moon. Such a flight would rely on orbital mechanics, lunar trajectories, docking procedures and machinery complex enough to safely carry a crew nearly a quarter of a million miles and back. More technically complicated than anything achieved by man before, such a mission would require years of studious preparation. Notwithstanding Wolfe's adulation of heroics, only those with the bright stuff would be up to completing such an adventure.

In April 1962, NASA asked for applications for a new class of astronauts. Applicants had to be test pilots who were currently flying high-performance aircraft and who had a college degree in engineering or one of the sciences. They could be no taller than six feet and no older than 35. Although it wasn't explicitly mentioned, it was clear that one way or another they would be involved in the preparations for a lunar landing. As well as new personnel, such ambitious plans would require spacecraft and rockets bigger and stronger than anything that was currently available. Two months earlier, Project Mercury had successfully achieved its goal of putting a man in orbit. John Glenn, a former marine, circled the Earth three times, but his hardware fell far short of the capability needed to get to the Moon. The rockets propelling the first two Mercury flights were not much more powerful than the XLR-99 engine installed in the X-15.

In May, NASA's plans for the future were set out at a conference in Seattle, and among those speaking was Armstrong, who delivered a presentation on hypersonic research flights. The conference was held alongside the Seattle World's Fair, whose guests included John Glenn. By proving that NASA was capable of orbital flight, Glenn had demonstrated that proposals for more adventurous missions deserved to be taken seriously. It was clear that the design and engineering challenges posed by flights into space promised to go beyond anything on offer elsewhere. For a pilot captivated by powered flight since childhood the new opportunities were too exciting to resist. Still, never one to rush things, Armstrong waited until he got back from Seattle before submitting his application. It arrived at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston in early June, missing the final deadline by a week.26

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At Cape Kennedy on 15 July 1969, after leaving the simulator Armstrong returned to the crew quarters, from where he called his parents in Wapakoneta. Sounding cheerful, he told them that he and the rest of the crew were ready for the launch, scheduled for 9.32am local time the following morning.

'Will you call us again before you leave?' his father asked.

'No, I'm afraid I won't be able to call again,' Neil softly replied.

'We asked God to watch over him, and then we had to say goodbye,' his mother later said.27

After lunch (why was it always steak, he had once asked Janet) there was little to do except try to relax and maybe steal a breath of fresh air. The crew were given access to a cottage on the coast where they passed the time swimming and relaxing on the beach. That evening they called their wives and ate an early dinner. Jim Lovell, the commander of the backup crew, told Armstrong, 'This is your last chance to tell me if you feel good. Because if you do I'm going to have myself a party.'

While the astronauts themselves maintained an air of business as usual, around them their support team felt a rising sense of tension. 'We were the ones who were a little uptight,' Dee O'Hara, the crew's nurse, later said. After driving to the space centre from her hotel, Dee told Neil, 'You wouldn't believe the number of people who have come to watch the launch.' Neil gave her a brief smile and said it was inevitable people were going to make 'a big deal out of it'. Dee was surprised by Armstrong's cool assessment of what to the rest of America promised to be the biggest scientific accomplishment in the country's history.28

Tight security operated throughout the 88,000 acres of the Kennedy Space Center as a million sightseers from all corners of the country descended on eastern Florida. From Titusville to Melbourne, thousands of cars converged on a huge region stretching as far west as Orlando. With the freeways blocked by the worst jams in Florida's history, some drivers used the wrong side of the road since no-one was heading in the opposite direction. Only the wealthy, or well-connected, managed to avoid the crowds by arriving in private aircraft and then boarding one of the hundreds of boats choking the Banana River. Meanwhile thousands of people, who were already settled among barbecues, beer coolers and bottles of pop, were either lounging around or else trying out their cameras, telescopes and binoculars. Somewhere out there was a rocket and a bunch of guys who were going to fly on it and there were persistent debates about which direction to look in. Hotel rooms had long since sold out but late-comers were allowed to set up camp-beds in lounges and lobbies. By the waterfront, caravans, tents and awnings lay scattered among camper vans and station wagons as revellers prepared for the countdown beach parties that would run through the night. A 'lift-off martini' would set you back $1.25, while for those who really wanted to live it up there was the 'moonlander', consisting of crème de menthe, crème de cacao, vodka, soda and a squeeze of lime, topped with an American flag. Food and drink were still available but local stores had sold out of alarm clocks by lunchtime.

While for some Apollo 11 represented exploration, prestige and glamour, all wrapped up in a neat metal tube, beyond the fanfare on the beaches others believed that America was falling apart at the seams. Many felt the whole event was a costly mistake that ignored the social problems battering the nation. As the parties were getting under way, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, successor to Martin Luther King as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led more than a hundred campaigners to the gates of the space centre in protest at 'this foolish waste of money that could be used to feed the poor'. As far as Abernathy and his supporters were concerned, relieving poverty was surely a priority over the search for moon rocks that was costing the nation $24 billion. Abernathy wanted to know whether the largest commitment of resources ever made in peacetime was really worth it. He was met by NASA Administrator Thomas Paine who addressed the protesters' concerns before inviting a delegation to watch the launch from the VIP area.

For the vast majority of America, however, the moral arguments were a distraction from a feat of engineering that represented all that was great about the country. American expertise had built this rocket, heroes would sit in the top of it and there were only a few hours left before everyone could see it for themselves. 'Apollo 11 gave a lot of nice people a chance to get acquainted,' said Texas car dealer Jay Marks. He and a friend had loaded up their sons and driven east to Cocoa Beach, a Florida playground that had been frequented by off-duty astronauts since the days of Mercury, and which was now overflowing with people from out of town. Throughout the day the southern sunshine had given way to heavy clouds, but undaunted by the weather, everywhere everyone shared the feeling that history was about to be made.

Ten miles beyond the most congested areas stood the object at the centre of all the excitement, the anguish and the hope. On launch-pad 39A, the towering Saturn V rocket waited in the one place on the coast that was relatively peaceful. With no-one aboard, and not yet carrying any fuel, the vehicle could be largely left alone until the pre-launch activity began. Yet this rocket, the most powerful machine ever built, was impossible to ignore. As dusk descended, the second tallest structure in Florida (the tallest was the building in which the Saturn V had been assembled) was brilliantly lit up by floodlights, its white panels glowing softly against the forbidding clouds behind. This was the vehicle that was going to achieve something men had dreamt of for millennia. That was the plan at least.

Like all astronauts' wives before a launch, Janet Armstrong had been trying to prepare herself for any eventuality. Having been driven to a spot three miles from the launch-pad, Janet and her children gazed at the monumental sight before them. With clouds obscuring the Moon, she stood lost in her thoughts until forced to retreat to the car when a gentle rain began to fall.29