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


With three of the command module's five windows covered by a protective shroud, the cabin was illuminated by a scattering of small lights that cast reflections in the men's transparent helmets. Lying on their backs and surrounded by dull grey hardware, Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin were busy making their final checks. An hour and 20 minutes before lift-off, still scheduled for 9.32am, Neil was monitoring the guidance system, his right elbow brushing against Buzz. Above, beneath and around them lay stowage lockers, harness supports, manuals and checklists, batteries, two computer displays, fire protection panels, 12 reaction control engines, pyrotechnic devices, helium tanks, drinking water facilities and 57 instrument panels supporting more than 800 switches and gauges. Tucked away were tapes containing music selected by the crew, and an opal chosen by Guenter Wendt which was to be presented to Mrs Wendt after it had travelled to the Moon and back. As well as items necessary for Holy Communion, among them a small quantity of wine, the men were also taking with them 2.4 ounces of plutonium 238, intended to heat one of the lunar experiments; snacks such as bacon squares, and meals including spaghetti and meat sauce; fragments of Flyer, the Wright Brothers' aircraft that was the first to achieve powered flight; two full-size American flags at the request of Congress; and TV broadcasting equipment for the benefit of the rest of the world.

If successful in reaching its destination, Apollo 11 promised to take mankind somewhere new – and it seemed to the crew that virtually all of mankind had given them a trinket to take along for the ride. For Michael there was a sense of tension that came 'mostly from an appreciation of the enormity of our undertaking rather than from the unfamiliarity of the situation. I am far from certain that we will be able to fly the mission as planned. I think we will escape with our skins, or at least I will escape with mine, but I wouldn't give better than even odds on a successful landing and return. There are just too many things that can go wrong'.1 Squashed in beside Buzz, Michael had minor tasks to complete, 'nickel and dime stuff' as he called it. 'In between switch throws I have plenty of time to think, if not daydream. Here I am, a white male, age thirty-eight, height 5 feet 11 inches, weight 165 pounds, salary $17,000 per annum, resident of a Texas suburb, with black spot on my roses, state of mind unsettled, about to be shot off to the Moon. Yes, to the Moon.'2

Beyond the rocket and its pad, 463 people directed the final preparations from consoles in Firing Room 1 of the Launch Control Center. At one point Jim Lovell, Neil's backup, came over the air, asking again whether Armstrong felt OK to fly. 'You missed your chance,' Neil replied.3 At the 56-minute mark, public affairs officer Jack King announced that parts of the countdown checklist were 15 minutes ahead of schedule. 'That's fine,' Armstrong had said, 'so long as we don't launch 15 minutes early.' With less than 40 minutes to go, launch controllers tested the Saturn's destruct system. Should the rocket tumble out of control near a populated area, the destruct system could be remotely activated. After passing the 15-minute mark, the booster no longer drew on an external electrical supply but began to rely on its own resources. At five minutes and 30 seconds from lift-off, the destruct system was armed,4 and at three minutes and seven seconds the launch sequence came under the control of a master computer in the firing room. At 17 seconds, the Saturn's highly advanced instrument unit, built by IBM, began independently to monitor the rocket's stability.

'T minus 15 seconds,' announced King, 'guidance is internal ... 12, 11, 10, 9, ignition sequence starts.'

In 1961, Alan Shepard's Redstone rocket had produced 80,000lb of thrust. Less than nine seconds before the launch of Apollo 11, fuel cascaded into the Saturn's five F-1 engines, the most powerful of their type ever built. After reaching maximum output, together they generated a ground-shaking 7.5 million pounds of thrust.

'6, 5, 4 ...'

Strapped down tightly inside the dull cabin of the command module, the men could see little through the hatch window. The first indication that they were on their way would come when the mission timer on the main instrument panel began to register the seconds, minutes and hours that had elapsed since ignition.

'3, 2, 1, zero. All engines running, lift-off! We have a lift-off, 32 minutes past the hour. Lift-off on Apollo 11.'

The engine-bells ignited in a blinding flash of light, each soon producing more thrust than the three main engines of the space shuttle combined. Now they were lit, they could not be shut down. Come what may, the crew knew they were at least going somewhere. All being well they would be in space in less than 12 minutes.

Boiling plumes of fire plummeted down through the launch platform, then were briefly sucked back towards the engines before rolling down to ground level. As 25,000 gallons of water washed across the face of the platform, huge clouds of flame, reaching temperatures of 1,900°F, were channelled away from the pad via long trenches filled with water. With the engines now burning 15 tons of fuel a second, more than 40 tons of propellant were consumed before the rocket even left the ground. Fountains of flame instantly vaporised the water in the trenches, producing clouds of steam that could be seen for dozens of miles around. Behind a protective sand bunker nearly 3,000 feet away 14 people in flame protection gear were waiting on armoured personnel carriers, ready to help the astronauts in an emergency. Further afield, teams of doctors, safety officials, ordnance experts and recovery specialists were stationed beside roadblocks surrounding the space centre. The five swing arms that were still connecting the vehicle to the tower were rapidly pulled aside, and as the engines' exhaust fumes thrust downward in a relentless force of energy they generated enough pressure to push the 36-storey rocket slowly off the ground. More than 17,000 gallons of water a minute were sprayed over the swing arms to preserve them as flames gushed from the 14-foot-wide engine-bells at a rate four times faster than the speed of sound.

The spectators saw the steam but at first heard nothing. Fifteen seconds later a noise could be sensed rushing at them. When it arrived it overwhelmed them, a resounding deep bass crackling that shook the ground. Australian journalist Derryn Hinch, packed in among the press corps, later found bruises on the tops of his thighs, caused by his shuddering desktop. (In tests carried out during poor weather conditions in Alabama, the sonic energy of five F-1s had reverberated so strongly off the cloud ceiling that minor earthquakes were felt 40 miles away.) Nurse Dee O'Hara cried as she saw the rocket rise into the clear blue sky. Photographers forgot their cameras and just stood and watched along with everyone else. In the VIP stands, the protester Reverend Ralph Abernathy considered himself to be 'one of the proudest Americans as I stood on this soil'. Aboard her boat on the Banana River, Jan Armstrong exclaimed, 'There it is! There it is!'5

Inside the command module, the astronauts were shaken so much they found it difficult to see the altimeters to check they were actually moving. The sound of the launch rumbled through the cabin like a distant express train. Buzz felt 'there was a slight increase in the amount of background noise, not at all unlike the sort one notices taking off in a commercial airliner'.6 Four of the engines could be gimballed, and as the rocket lifted off the ground it threw itself this way and that, struggling to keep away from the tower. To Michael, the first ten seconds felt 'very busy', and he believed the three of them were maintaining only the thinnest veneer of control. He compared the rocket's jittery action to a 'nervous lady driving a wide car down a narrow alley. She can't decide whether she's too far to the left or too far to the right, but she knows she's one or the other. And she keeps jerking the wheel back and forth.'7

In an emergency, Armstrong was responsible for swiftly selecting one of a number of abort procedures, as determined by the rocket's velocity and altitude. The booster was the first of its type equipped with a manual override system that allowed the commander to fly it himself should it deviate from its course.8 If the crew were to lose control altogether, Neil would turn the abort handle beside his left knee, which would instantly ignite the rocket mounted above the command module. This would quickly carry the cabin clear of trouble. Emergencies aside, the Saturn remained free to guide itself, and as its speed rapidly increased, the fast-changing situation required intense concentration. 'You have to do things right away and do them properly,' Neil later said, adding that he 'listened to indications over the radio as to which [abort] phase you were in or about to enter'9 while simultaneously monitoring the instruments.

After clearing the tower, the rocket maintained course by rolling over to 18 degrees from vertical, while control on the ground transferred from the Cape to Houston. In the Mission Control Center, flight controllers and backroom staff assessed more than 1,300 telemetry measurements that were automatically sent from the rocket. The launch team then gave updates to astronaut Bruce McCandless as he helped Armstrong through the abort options.

McCandless: 'Apollo 11, Houston. You're good at 1 minute.'

Armstrong: 'Roger.'

McCandless: 'Stand by for mode 1 Charlie.'

McCandless: 'Mark.'

McCandless: 'Mode 1 Charlie.'

Armstrong: 'One Charlie.'

Approaching four miles in altitude and climbing at nearly twice the speed of sound, the rocket's rough ride was beginning to quieten down. Thousands of awestruck spectators along the eastern coast of Florida were left stunned by the sight of the tiny white needle balanced on top of a towering column of smoke. Above the exhaust fumes, a plume of fire hundreds of feet long was driving the astronauts forward at 6,000mph, so fast that as they sank back into their couches they felt as if they weighed more than four times as much as normal.

McCandless: 'Apollo 11, this is Houston. You are go for staging.'

After the giant F-1 engines had burned for just two minutes and 42 seconds, the 138-foot first stage fell away from the rest of the vehicle .While soaring up to an altitude of 36 miles, the lowest reaches of space, the rocket had travelled at such a speed that it had been compressed lengthwise. When the first stage was dropped, the rest of the booster snapped back to its true proportions, throwing the astronauts forward against their harnesses.10 The five J-2 engines of the second stage then ignited, pushing the spacecraft up past the 60-mile mark. At this point the abort tower was jettisoned, carrying with it the command module's protective shroud and thereby allowing sunlight to stream in through the windows. At this height the Saturn was scything through the thinnest regions of the atmosphere.

More than six minutes after ignition, the second stage was depleted and it too was jettisoned, eventually plunging into the Atlantic 2,300 miles from the coast. Apollo 11 was now powered by the single J-2 engine of the third stage (known in NASA's jargon as the S-IVB). Pitching over towards a flatter trajectory, the crew were presented with a spectacular view of the curvature of the Earth as the ocean stretched away before them. Finally, at a point 1,461 miles downrange, the instrument unit stopped the engine. The astronauts were now coasting at more than 17,400mph, on an orbital path 103 miles above the world. Just 11 minutes and 49 seconds after launch – before the spectators had had time to return to their cars – Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins had arrived in space.

Buzz felt that 'The Earth ... has an almost benign quality. Intellectually one could realize there were wars under way, but emotionally it was impossible to understand such things. The thought reoccurred that wars are generally fought for territory or are disputes over borders; from space the arbitrary borders established on Earth cannot be seen.'11

On the ground, the cabin had been filled with a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen. During the ascent, the cabin pressure had been allowed to drop from nearly 15 to 5psi, and at the same time the crew's life-support system purged any remaining nitrogen to leave an atmosphere consisting of 100 per cent oxygen. Protected from the threat of nitrogen, the crew were able to remove their helmets. These had to be carefully stowed to stop them floating about the cabin in the liberating conditions of weightlessness. Releasing the straps on his couch, Collins moved forward towards the middle of the display panel. By slipping underneath it, he could pull himself into the lower equipment bay, on the far side of the command module. This was the only place in the spacecraft where an astronaut could stand up, his head rising towards the apex of the cabin. At the top lay a hatch, through which the crew would later be able to enter the lunar module once they had retrieved it from its protective position inside the adapter.

Moving about in the equipment bay, Michael removed a Hasselblad stills camera from a locker, then called over to Buzz: 'How would you like the camera ... I'll just let go of it, Buzz; it will be hanging over here in the air. Coming up – it's occupying my couch.'

The crew had spent a lifetime living with gravity, and now that it was no longer present, their hearts were working overtime. The men experienced a pounding in their ears and throats until their bodies were able to adjust. The first pictures Buzz took show that their faces were puffed up with blood, and though the redness receded the crew continued to look fuller than when on the ground.12 With gravity no longer pulling down on the fatty tissue beneath their eyes, Michael believed that Neil and Buzz looked 'squinty and decidedly Oriental'.13

An hour and 20 minutes into the flight, as the spacecraft passed from the dark side of the Earth into sunrise, an arc of rich crimson light rolled back the blackness of space with a majesty that took Michael's breath away.

'Jesus Christ, look at that horizon!'

Armstrong: 'Isn't that something?'

Collins: 'God damn, that's pretty; it's unreal.'

Armstrong: 'Get a picture of that.'

Collins: 'Oh, sure, I will. I've lost a Hasselblad ... has anybody seen a Hasselblad floating by? It couldn't have gone very far – big son of a gun like that.'

After a couple of minutes searching, the camera still hadn't appeared.

Aldrin: 'But you want to get it before TLI.'

Collins: 'I know it. That's what I'm worried about.' After eventually recovering the camera, Collins looked out of the window.

Collins: 'Trees and a forest down there; it looks like trees and a forest or something. Looks like snow and trees. Fantastic. I have no conception of where we're pointed or which way we're going or a crapping thing, but it's a beautiful low pressure cell out here.'

Having entered a 'parking orbit', the spacecraft travelled around the world one and a half times in less than three hours, giving the crew and the ground a chance to make sure everything was working. Once it was established that all was OK, at two hours and 43 minutes into the mission the crew received permission to re-ignite the third-stage engine. By burning the engine a second time, in a manoeuvre known as trans-lunar injection (or TLI), they would escape from orbit and begin their journey towards the Moon.

Mission Control: 'Apollo 11, this is Houston. Slightly less than 1 minute to ignition, and everything is go.'

Collins: 'Roger.'

Collins: 'Ignition.'

Mission Control: 'We confirm ignition, and the thrust is go.'

Mission Control: 'Apollo 11, this is Houston at 1 minute. Trajectory and guidance look good, and the stage is good. Over.'

Armstrong: 'Apollo 11. Roger.'

Mission Control: 'We show cut-off.'

Mission Control: 'Apollo 11, this is Houston. Do you read? Over.'

Aldrin: 'Roger, Houston. Apollo 11. We're reading a VI of 35,579 ... over.'

Armstrong: 'Hey, Houston, Apollo 11. That Saturn gave us a magnificent ride.'

Mission Control: 'Roger, 11. We'll pass that on. And, it certainly looks like you are well on your way now.'

Armstrong: 'We have no complaints with any of the three stages on that ride. It was beautiful.'

In a mission to the Moon, an obvious thing to do would be to point your rocket towards it and fly in that direction. But in attempting to do this, you'd be likely to miss. The Moon is a moving target, travelling at 2,286mph as it orbits the Earth over a 27-day period. When flying towards it, the trick is to aim at a point where you think it will be once you've completed the three- day journey out to its orbital track. It was a while before NASA could demonstrate an ability to do this accurately and reliably. Ranger 3, a probe launched in 1962, was designed to examine the lunar surface but due to an incorrect course change it missed the Moon by 22,000 miles. It remains trapped in lunar orbit to this day. Ranger 5 also failed to reach its target, problems with its power supply causing it to miss by 450 miles. Later, more advanced probes demonstrated that such difficulties had been overcome – so although the TLI burn put them on a course towards an empty point in space, the crew of Apollo 11 confidently expected the Moon would eventually meet them. Indeed Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins intended to arrive with such accuracy they knew that if they never fired their engine again they could expect to be carried round the Moon by lunar gravity and automatically sent back to Earth. Known as a free return trajectory, this technique was adopted as a safety measure since it gave the crew a chance to come home even if they ran into trouble after TLI.

Such intricate manoeuvres had to be carefully worked out by specialists, including astronauts. While Collins assessed EVA equipment and Armstrong worked on simulators, the third member of the crew, Buzz Aldrin, focused on mission planning. Buzz had once been a member of Houston's rendezvous and reentry panel, but when he found that the panel was not performing the work he expected of it, he drew attention to himself by switching to the trajectories and orbits panel.14 Within the Astronaut Office such actions occasionally won Aldrin a bad press, his true nature and motivation sometimes being misunderstood. Being misunderstood was something that had haunted Buzz since childhood.

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Born in Montclair, New Jersey, on 30 January 1930, Edwin Aldrin Jr was the third child and only son of a distant and demanding father. After studying under Dr Robert Goddard, a leading pioneer in rocket science, Aldrin senior (who used the name Gene) served as a pilot during the First World War and later came to know Orville Wright. Gene Aldrin completed a doctor of science degree in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), then cut a dash as an aide to General Billy Mitchell, who was stationed in the Philippines. In 1928 Gene left the military to become a stockbroker; through luck or judgement, he sold his stock just three months short of the Wall Street crash. Taking a job with Standard Oil, he travelled the world in a style that for an oil executive managed to include a good deal of adventure. He was commended by Mussolini, flew himself over the Alps, and crossed the Atlantic aboard the Hindenburg zeppelin. Gene subsequently became an aviation consultant, making use of his connections with Charles Lindbergh, Howard Hughes and Jimmy Doolittle.15

When Edwin junior was born, his two older sisters, Madeline and Fay Ann, came to call him 'brother'. Fay Ann, who was just learning to speak, pronounced this as 'buzzer', which was later condensed to Buzz. He saw little of his adventurer father, and was largely brought up by his mother, his sisters, Anna the cook and Alice the housekeeper. There was a sensitive, almost vulnerable side to Buzz, more pronounced than any comparable quality in either Armstrong or Collins. His childhood was marked by a quest for his father's approval, that even in adulthood proved to be somewhat elusive. During the Second World War, Gene Aldrin was away from home even more than he had been in previous years, serving in the South Pacific and in Europe. Buzz later wrote that whenever he came home 'the visits were always short and, it seemed to me, rather remote'. While, as children, Neil and Michael pursued hobbies that fulfilled personal interests, Buzz sometimes took part in things that were likely to win him attention. These included picking fights in pursuit of a 'much-wanted shiner', in order to impress the crowd he wanted to hang around with.

As much a loner as Neil and Michael, Buzz enjoyed solo activities such as pole-vaulting, swimming and cycling, but also played at quarterback for the school football team. His average grades at school brought disapproval at home, and as he grew older he came to realise that a better performance was required. 'My father never gave direct instructions nor stated goals,' Buzz later wrote, 'but what was expected was somehow made clear.' Making a decision to improve his schoolwork he threw himself into this ambition, so much so that by the time he graduated from West Point, in 1951, he came third out of a class of 475. His father wanted to know who came first and second. 'Third place doesn't hold quite the appeal to him that first place does,' Buzz remembered.

In deciding to join the air force, Buzz pursued his own ambitions rather than following his family's wishes. Instead of West Point, his father had wanted him to attend the navy academy at Annapolis, Maryland. The two had fought over the subject, Aldrin senior eventually giving way. Subsequently Gene wanted his son to fly multi-engine aircraft, while Buzz hankered after fighters. Again Buzz won the day, but at some cost since his successes were tinged with conflict and defiance.

Tenacious, competitive and with a point to prove, Buzz flew 66 combat missions in Korea, shooting down two MiGs. After returning to the States, in 1954 he married Joan Archer, the daughter of family friends. Bright, articulate and with a master's degree from Columbia University, 'she had a way of smiling at me I couldn't figure out', Buzz wrote. 'It either meant, "I've got your number, buster," or "Try and catch me." Both, I think now.'16 Joan came to think of him as a 'curious mixture of magnificent confidence bordering on conceit and humility'.17 Indeed a fellow air force officer quietly took Buzz aside after a few beers one night and told him he was too competitive and too insensitive to others, but that he had great potential and he wouldn't want to acquire a reputation as an egotist. 'He must have spoken the truth,' Buzz later recalled, 'because the truth can sometimes hurt and I had tears streaming down my cheeks. I thanked him.'18

In 1956, Buzz was transferred to Bitburg, Germany. In Bitburg, Aldrin began to think about his future and considered applying to the air force's experimental test pilot school at Edwards. Instead he decided to earn a postgraduate degree, and he asked the air force to send him to MIT where his father had studied some 40 years earlier. Beginning his studies just a few months after NASA selected the Mercury Seven, Buzz chose for his doctoral thesis the subject of manned orbital rendezvous techniques. Rendezvous, the science of two spacecraft finding and approaching each other, would be an essential component in any mission to the Moon. It was not, however, a traditional subject of study for an air force pilot. It was becoming clear that Aldrin's ambitions lay in other directions.

After starting his doctorate, Buzz wrote to NASA during their search for a second group of astronauts, suggesting they drop the requirement for test-flight experience. NASA declined. In early January 1963, after completing his studies Aldrin was briefly posted to the air force's space systems division in Los Angeles, and from there he was sent to the Manned Spacecraft Center to assist with government experiments that were being prepared for the Gemini flights. He, Joan and their three children, Michael, Jan and Andy, together made the journey to Houston. Then in June, when NASA asked for applications for a third group of astronauts, Aldrin found that the requirement for test pilot experience was no longer mandatory and he quickly applied.

After enduring the series of rigorous selection tests, alongside Collins, Aldrin was in his office one day in September when Deke Slayton called and invited him to become an astronaut. 'Shoot, Deke,' Buzz replied, 'I'd be delighted to accept.' In common with almost everyone who received the call from Deke, Buzz accepted in as relaxed a style as he could muster, later saying, 'I was determined to look casual and self-assured and from somewhere deep in my conditioning, that attitude materialised.' In contrast to Armstrong, who genuinely was casual and self-assured, Buzz later described himself as being 'out of my head with excitement'. Whereas Armstrong had been too busy to worry about whether he would be selected,19 Buzz wrote that he had become 'so oriented to the goal of becoming an astronaut that I felt being refused would bring about destruction, deep disappointment from which I might never recover'. For Aldrin, much was at stake. Many years later he once introduced his father as 'the man who propelled me into the astronaut business', which, said Buzz privately, 'was a bit of an under-statement. An under-statement that paled beside the expectations Edwin Eugene Aldrin had for his lastborn child and only son.'20 Joining NASA was a moment of triumph Buzz had long been working towards. But in many respects membership of such an elite group of high-achievers meant that life was to become more complicated.

Aldrin's doctoral work – and vocal championing of his own ideas – eventually earned him the nickname Dr Rendezvous. Armstrong later said it was true that Buzz knew more about rendezvous matters than anybody else in the Astronaut Office, adding that 'he didn't hide that fact but he didn't take advantage of it either'.21 Another fact Buzz found it hard to hide was his confusion over how crews were selected for flights. Decisions were made behind closed doors, largely though not exclusively by Slayton. Thirty astronauts were available for the ten manned missions of the Gemini programme, and each flight required two crewmen. In theory there were 20 places to fill, but some astronauts were to be selected for a second trip. Deke paired potential candidates according to their skills and compatibility, giving command positions to the Mercury veterans and handing out the remaining seats to the more promising newcomers.

Inevitably some of the 14 recruits were chosen to fly ahead of their envious peers. Buzz was among those who had to wait. For six years he had been studying hard for an opportunity that now lay just outside his reach. As frustrating as it was, he knew he could not adopt the direct approach he had used in confrontations with his schoolmates, or later, when fending off his father. His father, having kept him at arm's length, awakened in Buzz a need to go the extra mile. All along, Buzz had found that determination and achievement could overcome the difficulties in his life. But now things were different and he was unsure how to take the softly, softly approach. When he ran out of patience, Buzz decided to talk to Deke directly. After reminding Slayton just how experienced he was in the field of rendezvous techniques, Buzz went on to say, 'I had no idea at all how the selections were made, but that I felt it was honest to at least state that I had some pretty good qualifications'. The conversation dried up in an awkward silence until eventually Deke said he would take the matter under consideration. Subsequently, Slayton and the NASA hierarchy deemed that Buzz had been brash.22

Aldrin decided to share the problem with colleagues. He frequently discussed the 'astronaut business' with his close friend and fellow air force pilot Charlie Bassett, who was due to fly aboard Gemini 9. As crew after crew was announced, it appeared that the only thing that raised a man's chances of being selected was previous experience as the member of a backup crew. Anyone on a backup crew could reasonably expect to fly three flights later. Finally, Buzz was told that he was to be part of the Gemini 10 backup crew, which meant he might fly aboard Gemini 13 – a poor place to be in a programme with 12 flights, two of which were unmanned. Bassett's forthcoming mission was of great interest to Buzz since it was to include a rendezvous, and the two frequently discussed Charlie's preparations.

Early on the morning of 28 February 1966, Charlie and his fellow crewman Elliot See flew from Houston to St Louis to inspect their spacecraft. Amid bad weather, See, who was piloting their two-seat T-38 jet, was struggling to land and after coming in too low he attempted to go round again, but it was too late. The jet tore into the very building where the spacecraft was being prepared and both men were killed. In the aftermath, their backups, Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan, became the prime crew, Cernan subsequently carrying out the dangerous EVA Charlie had been training for. In the weeks after the accident, those preparing for successive missions moved one flight forward. Through the loss of his close friend, Buzz moved from Gemini 10 to backing up Gemini 9, which put him in line to fly on the last flight, Gemini 12 – in theory. When he explained the changes to Charlie Bassett's widow, Jeannie, she told him, 'Charlie felt you should have been in it all along. I know he'd be pleased.'23 Aldrin later described this as one of the most uncomfortable moments in his life. But the Gemini 12 line-up was not yet confirmed. The final decision on whether Buzz would fly was to be addressed by Slayton and the NASA hierarchy.

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At her home in Houston, Joan Aldrin and her children Michael, 13, Janice, who was nearly 12, and Andrew, 11, had watched the launch of Apollo 11 on television. Sitting alongside Jeannie Bassett, Joan had fallen silent during the final seconds of the countdown; while watching the rocket race away from the Earth she didn't say a word for the first seven minutes of the flight.24 The live TV coverage had struggled to keep up with the booster's furious pace and soon all that could be seen was a billowing column of smoke, as if the rocket had finally been consumed by the fire trailing behind it. The men were not due to return for another eight days.