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1 A JOURNEY for ALL MANKIND Wednesday, July 16, 1969, 6:00 a.m. (EDT) Countdown: T minus three hours, thirty minutes to liftoff. Clear Florida sky.
Elevated 300 feet in the air on an upper platform of Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39-A, I stood alone on the grating of the towering gantry. A few yards away, loaded with more than 2,000 tons of liquid oxygen and hydrogen propellant, the giant Saturn V rocket also stood, primed for liftoff as the countdown progressed. Large shards of frost were already falling off its outer skin from the super-chilled liquid oxygen within.
Hours earlier my Apollo 11 crewmates, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins, and I had enjoyed a predawn steak-and-eggs breakfast—an astronaut tradition—and had gone through an elaborate suiting-up with NASA’s equipment team helping us get into our pressurized suits, helmets, gloves, and boots. Along with our Pad Leader, Günter Wendt, a gray-haired man of German descent who had worked on almost every launch since the early days of the Mercury program, the three of us, carrying our portable air-conditioning ventilators as though we were heading off to work with our briefcases, loaded into the courier van for the short drive out to the launchpad.
Slowly we ascended in the gantry elevator, passing red metal grated walkways at various intervals leading to strategic areas of the rocket. Each of us had trained for his entire life leading up to this moment. As a crew, we had worked together for nearly a year, with Neil and I initially on the backup crew for the gutsy Apollo 8 mission, the first to fly around the moon after only one prior mission with the Saturn V, and then with Mike as the prime crew for the Apollo 11 mission. Because of the seating order in the cramped conditions of the Apollo command module—comparable to the interior of a small van in which the three of us would live and work for more than a week—climbing over one another to enter the craft while wearing our spacesuits was next to impossible. So Günter stopped the elevator about three-fourths of the way up, and dropped me off to wait there on the metal grat- ing while he, Neil, and Mike proceeded two more flights up to where the elevator opened at the “white room,” the final preparation area leading to the narrow hatch opening to the spacecraft. In less than three and half hours, if all went well, the enormous rocket, with the power of an atomic bomb, would release an engulfing fireball and lumber off the pad, slowly gathering speed as it rose majestically into the sky, launching America’s first attempt to land human beings on the moon.
The sun had not yet come up and was barely peeking above the horizon as I stood on the grating and peered through the clear bubble helmet I wore. The only sound I could hear came from my ventilation unit. Looking up and down the coastline, my eyes scanned the beaches for miles along the causeway near Cape Canaveral, where more than a million people had started gathering the night before, trekking in cars, motorcycles, pickup trucks, campers, and large motor homes, inching their way through bumper-to-bumper traffic as they sought the perfect launch viewing location. Already people were filling in every available spot of dry ground, and thousands of boats were anchored on the Indian and Banana rivers near the Cape. Without a good set of binoculars, most of the spectators could not see me, and from my vantage point I could barely see them, but I could see the evidence of them in the flickering campfires that dotted the beaches in the darkness. Everyone knew that something big was about to happen.
Because of the danger of explosion should something go wrong, the area immediately near the Saturn V was evacuated except for technicians making their final pre-launch checks. Even if the launch was perfect, no human could stay within several miles of it outside of the Firing Room, the launch control center at the Cape. The hot gases and thunderous noise would consume anyone standing too close to the rocket at ignition. The VIP spectator area, from which President Nixon, former president Lyndon B. Johnson, the astronauts’ families, politicians, celebrities, and others with the coveted special pass would watch the launch, was a full three miles away. Even there, the vibrations would be felt, and the roar from the engines would be almost deafening.
I looked to the south, where some of the older launch pads were located, and I couldn’t help letting my eyes linger on Launch Pad 34, where, two and a half years earlier, three of my fellow astronauts—Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White—had lost their lives when they were trapped inside their space capsule in a torrid burst of flames during a pre-launch training test for Apollo 1. Ed had been a year behind me at West Point, where we became friends, and we’d later served together in the Air Force as fighter pilots in Germany, flying F-100s in the “Big 22” Squadron. He was the key person who had kindled and encouraged my efforts to contribute to the space program and ultimately become an astronaut, and now he was gone.
Instinctively my hand moved to a pocket on my spacesuit that contained a special pouch in which I carried an original mission patch honoring the men who had died aboard Apollo 1, as well as various medals honoring Soviet cosmonauts Vladimir Komarov, who had been killed on Soyuz 1, and Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. In that same pouch I carried a silicon disk inscribed with wishes from leaders of seventy-three nations of the world, and a gold pin in the shape of the olive branch of peace that we had chosen as a symbol of our mission for all mankind. I planned to leave these tributes on the moon.
Not too far from Pad 34, I could see the remnants of Pad 19, where Jim Lovell and I had crewed the last mission of the Gemini program, for a series of complex rendezvous maneuvers and the world’s first successful spacewalk. It was exhilarating to end that program on a high note and pave the way for Apollo. I thought about how far we had come since man’s dream of flight was first realized when the Wright Brothers’ Flyer took to the air on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, at Kill Devil Hill, near Kitty Hawk, in 1903—the very year my mother, Marion Moon, was born. Now, only sixty-six years later, we were aiming for a much longer, more daring, and dangerous flight.
For fifteen minutes I stood on that walkway, suspended from the steadily marching countdown, and enjoying a moment of peace and solitude as I contemplated the journey ahead. I recalled just how wonderful my life had been to get me to this point. All the facets and experiences had worked out along the way to put me in the right place at the right time. Now I was leaving Earth to land on another celestial body, and, if all went as planned, I would return to family and friends, to a full life. Our confidence was high—about 60 percent certain that we would succeed in landing on the moon, the part that had never been done before, and 90 percent that we would make it back home alive. We had trained, tested, and simulated nearly each element of the mission. But there were no guarantees. Even with all the preparation, a myriad of things could go wrong. As astronauts, we were trained to accept such risks, even the risk of not returning.
Finally, Günter was ready for me. I ascended the remaining twenty feet or so, and Günter helped me into the hatch, strapping me into my seat in the center couch, between Neil on my left, strategically situated near the abort handle, and Mike on my right. As we settled in, there was nothing left to do but wait while the countdown continued.
-., At 9:32 a.m., as the five large Saturn V engines ignited, we heard the final sequence of the countdown in our headsets: “T minus ten, nine, eight . . .” I quickly glanced at Neil and Mike, and we exchanged nervous but confident grins. Outside, at the base of the rocket, gases rushed out of each of the engine nozzles as we built up thrust. “T minus five, four, three . . .” With the engines running at full power, the gantry latches released and for a couple of seconds that seemed like forever, the rocket was standing unsupported, free as an eagle ready to soar.
“Two, one . . . zero . . .” The normally calm voice of Public Affairs Officer Jack King cracked with emotion from the Firing Room. “All engines running!” Even inside the command module with our helmets on, we could hear the mighty rumble. What looked like hundreds of tiny amber lights blinked on the instrument panels in front of us as the controlled but excited voice cried, “Liftoff! We have a liftoff!”
The rumbling sound grew louder and the huge rocket felt as though it swayed slightly as it smoothly inched off the pad. In fact it was so smooth that at first we couldn’t detect the exact moment we left the ground. More large shards of frost fell from the sleek metal sides as blue sky seemed to move past the hatch window directly above me. Below us an inferno of flames, steam, and gases billowed all around the launch pad. With 7.6 million pounds of thrust pushing all 3,240 tons of the rocket and spacecraft, we cleared the tower and rapidly accelerated, the g forces dramatically building up and pressing against us. We were on our way to the moon!
Twelve seconds into our flight, shortly after we cleared the tower and were streaking from a straight vertical shot to a gradually changing angle of inclination into the blue sky above, the hundreds of technicians hovering over their displays and consoles in the Firing Room at Cape Canaveral could breathe a little easier. At that point their main job was done and control of our mission moved to the nerve center at Mission Control in Houston, where hundreds of other technicians and engineers manned their consoles and displays, monitoring every aspect of our flight. In the main control room, whimsically known to NASA’s engineers as the “bat room” because of the darkened area in the front where large video screens tracking the flight covered the walls, dozens of people worked at separate stations, with each console controller monitoring one specific aspect of the spacecraft and reporting to the Flight Director if everything was “go,” or if anything was wrong. Although the room was filled with experts handling vital information, only one person communicated directly with us in the Apollo 11 spacecraft: the Spacecraft Communicator, or “Capcom,” a fellow astronaut. All the information that we needed to know from the many monitors in Mission Control, and feedback on what we were experiencing in space, flowed through the Capcom.
Three minutes into the flight, the g forces had increased to the highest point, as we felt nearly four times heavier than our normal body weight. We were forty-five miles high, at least six times higher than most commercial jets can fly, traveling at a speed of nearly 6,500 miles per hour. Neil, Mike, and I had all been in space on previous missions, but it was nonetheless thrilling to look out our window and see the curved Atlantic horizon rapidly receding from view as we looked back at Earth. Within four minutes we were approaching the sixty-two-mile mark, the division between Earth’s blue skies and the endless blackness of space. By twelve minutes we had accelerated to nearly 17,500 miles per hour, the speed required to maintain an orbital course around the Earth. It was time to get busy; during our one and a half orbits we had to make sure all systems were functioning before we left the bounds of Earth orbit to redirect our course to the moon.
Crucial to the success of our flight navigation were the two onboard guidance computers we had on the mission (one in the command module and one in the lunar module), each with about 74 kilobytes of memory and a 2.048 MHz clock processor. With their small displays and nineteen-button keyboards, the Apollo control system seems archaic by today’s standards. Many modern mobile phones have more computing power than we did. But these computers enabled us to measure our velocity changes to a hundredth of a foot per second, determine rendezvous and course corrections, and make minute maneuvers for our descent to the moon. You couldn’t do that with a slide rule. NASA made sure the Apollo computers were the most advanced of the day, the first to use integrated circuit technology, and we expected them to work astoundingly well to perform all the complex calculations needed.