Read an Excerpt
One Giant Leap Neil Armstrong's Stellar American Journey
By Wagener, Leon
Forge Books Copyright © 2005 Wagener, Leon
All right reserved.
To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, as brothers who know they are truly brothers.
For one crowning moment we were creatures of the cosmic ocean, a moment that a thousand years hence may be seen as the signature of our century....
During that one bright shining instant in July 1969, humankind enjoyed a collective jolt that transcended the quotidian anxieties of life. Earthmen had succeeded where Icarus failed, flying toward the sun without melting their wings, setting foot in the heavens, on the shore of another world. Suddenly, as two of our number walked on an alien orb a quarter-million miles in space and stared with awe and longing back at our blue-green world, we realized where we were; that man was alone, precariously clinging to a spinning ball in the vastness of space. Through their eyes and the black-and-white flickering television images of them, and the images of ourselves they sent back, we finally had a fledgling "you are here" map of the universe in our collective mind.
Even if the cynical view of the launch of Apollo 11, which said it was just spectacle to take our minds off the Vietnam Warand the other troubles of the day, was true, it was nevertheless pageant on the grandest of scales, and the whole world reacted in kind.
More than a million people were drawn to northern Florida's eastern coast to bask in proximity to the capes where the phenomenal voyage was to begin.
Cape Kennedy--as it was called for a decade until it was quietly decided the nation had gone overboard naming things after the slain president--was the space center, a hive of frenetic activity, where thousands labored to fulfill John Kennedy's promise to send a man to the moon and bring him safely back before the end of the seventh decade of the twentieth century.
In the days and weeks before blastoff a ragtag army assembled, ranging from drug-addled nomadic hippies to families on vacation to retirees in campers. Vehicles of all sorts sported American flag stickers--generally taken to mean to send a message that the occupants were against the people who were against the war in Vietnam. The flag stickers were fairly ubiquitous that summer; sixty-eight million of them had been distributed via copies of the Reader's Digest the previous winter.
Pilgrims descended on the area, erecting tent cities, drawing their recreational vehicles, jalopies, high-finned Cadillacs, and VW minibuses in circles, camping around the sulphurous estuaries, mangroves, and sand dunes surrounding the cape. Lotus-like, they emptied grocery store shelves, culled 7-Elevens of beer and soda, depleted the region's McDonalds of their last
all-beef patties, and finally, like any voracious army, turned to the land for succour, harvesting grapefruit trees and orange bushes and provoking outraged local farmers to brandish shotguns. Bars were sold out of liquor, and drugstores out of suntan oil.
Motel rooms had been spoken for many months earlier. Even the nineteen state governors who attended were forced to stay sixty-five miles away in Daytona Beach. Service stations posted NO GAS signs--an eerie foreshadowing of oil shortages that would roil America in the seventies. The city of Cocoa Beach parked a gasoline tanker and posted an armed guard behind city hall to supply police cars.
Making matters more desperate, the incredible tangle of traffic that clogged the highways for miles around made timely resupply difficult. A blazing sun, eighty-five-degree heat, and 75 percent humidity begat frayed tempers, uncountable fender benders, and endless lines of crippled cars and campers, hoods raised, spouting geysers of steam. Curses, fistfights, and worse punctuated the mad tableau.
Some who came were blissfully ignorant of the years of preparation and publicity that had preceded the launch, but were inexplicably drawn to the scene. One vacationing family sleeping in their overheated car told a reporter: "We were somewhere in the Midwest when we heard about it. We thought it was going to be last Wednesday, so we've been here a week."
Bill Emerton, then forty-nine years old and a very serious runner, covered the 1,034 miles from Houston to Cape Kennedy on foot.
Visitors who had planned ahead parked in the Celestial Trailer Court, or checked into the Polaris, Sea Missile, or Satellite motels. They dined at the Astro-Diner Outer Space Eat In, and used restrooms marked ASTRONAUTS and ASTRONETTES. Pan American Airlines had a stewardess dressed in a head-to-knee plastic bubble taking reservations for the first charter flight to the moon.
Distinguished guests included Jack Benny, Johnny Carson, Charles Lindbergh, 205 congressmen, 69 ambassadors, and thousands of the celebrated,
well-connected, or merely rich. The privileged were feted at lavish parties thrown by contractors, many of whom had gotten very rich off the $24 billion spent to put men on the moon.
President Richard Nixon had wanted to attend, but demurred when he concluded his presence would be dwarfed by the event. His chief aide, the fearsomely loyal H. R. "Bob" Haldeman, known for his henchman-like mien and deliberately unfashionable brush haircut, laid out the president's reservations in a memo: "He definitely wants to go ahead with plans to visit the Cape for the shoot and was interested in using the boat for his Presidential reception. He wants to be sure, however, that this would clearly be the President's affair--not NASA's--and he is afraid that if the boat belongs to NASA, and the VIP's are housed on it, that it will become their function rather than his."
Instead of taking a chance on being upstaged at the launch, Nixon canceled the trip, making plans to talk to the astronauts while they walked on the moon, pictured next to them on a split-screen television--in effect, putting him on the moon with them, doubtless one of the most brilliant public-relations coups in history.
The Banana and Indian rivers, which offered good views of the launchpad, likewise were jammed bow to transom; police estimates were three thousand craft of every description. The skies around the cape were peppered with hundreds of small planes buzzing back and forth, often precariously close to colliding, which led worried NASA officials to ask the Federal Aviation Agency to intervene and avert a disaster.
News coverage of the event, particularly television coverage, was unprecedented, precisely because there was no precedent. Never had the twenty-year-old medium covered a history-making news event that would "break" continuously for a week and be watched by a half-billion people around the world.
CBS, NBC, and ABC, America's three networks, canceled their regular programming and broadcast thirty-one continuous hours of coverage and analysis. At the crucial moment of Armstrong and Aldrin's walk on the moon, Walter Cronkite, the paterfamilias news grandee, of whom it was said, only
half-jokingly, that "he'll get them back safely," was struck dumb. "Wow, oh, boy," seemed the only sound he could make. Desperately, drowning in his elation, Cronkite croaked to his co-host, astronaut Wally Schirra, "say something, Wally." The press corps on July 16,1969, numbered an amazing 3,100 and ranged in seriousness from distinguished historians to a French magazine that passed out "gay" straw hats, a fact that William Greider, the Washington Post writer who reported it, fretted would be lost to history.
The million citizens, six thousand VIPs invited by the government, and throng of journalists representing fifty-four countries had come to see the Saturn V rocket, which stood amid all the hubris and carnival, alone, silent, and dignified on its concrete pad. Brilliantly bathed in xenon spotlights, shimmering a pale indigo, skirted by a diaphanous mist of venting liquid hydrogen, Saturn rose thirty-seven stories tall, sixty feet higher than the Statue of Liberty and fifteen times heavier; it was the most powerful machine ever built by man.
Saturn's passengers, commander Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, Jr., and Michael Collins slept less than four fitful hours the night of July 15.
The three had much in common. They were all born in 1930, were engineers and jet fighter pilots, and each possessed the suprahuman ability to face the maw of death with steely calm. But beneath the surface their personalities were divergent and occasionally even rancorous. The great voyage that lay ahead was reason enough for fitfulness, but the astronauts had numerous other vexations that had long been seething.
Buzz Aldrin was described by a writer as "powerful as a small bull...all meat and stone." He had graduated third in his West Point class and was a decorated Korean War fighter pilot. Aldrin earned a doctorate in astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and was the son of a general with an M.I.T. doctorate. The astronautics specialty that appealed to him was spacecraft rendezvous, a rather arcane subject in 1961, before John Glenn had achieved three tentative orbits of the earth--even before there was any certainty there would be a space program.
"I wish I could play the tapes back of those days and find out what I was thinking," he muses now. As with most of the happenstances that eventually winnowed the pool of potential space explorers to twelve stout-hearted Americans, Aldrin's choice of postgraduate study would be one significant step that in retrospect seems like predestination, because it made him the one man in tens of millions just right for the exacting job of navigating the new interplanetary ocean.
In the weeks leading up to the launch of Apollo 11, Aldrin was deeply troubled over NASA's indecision about precisely what he and Armstrong were going to do once they landed on the moon. Aldrin felt strongly that his duty was pointing out the safety concerns involved, and he refused to ignore an issue that could have put the mission in jeopardy.
"I could have just shut up, behaved like a normal person, and did what I was told, or I could speak my thoughts," he laughs. "Let's face it. It was a group of people in which most spoke their thoughts."
Aldrin felt that, due to the "critical nature of emergencies that could occur on the lunar surface," they might have to lift off in a do-or-die rush. If Commander Armstrong was at that moment bouncing along on the moon's surface, the escape window--the short period of time when rendezvous with the orbiting mother ship was possible--might be shut, dooming the mission and both astronauts.
In addition, the precedent during space walks was for commanders to stay with the ship while junior crew members did what NASA dubbed "extra vehicular activity," or EVA.
"The commander could oversee what was going on by remaining in the spacecraft and communicating with ground control," argued Aldrin. "There was also an extremely heavy training load on the commander and a lighter load on junior crew members. So it was logical to put the additional burden of spacewalking on the crew."
What came to be the more-or-less official version of the decision to have Armstrong first on the moon was that the landing module was so small, and the men's spacesuits so large and cumbersome, that it would be difficult for Buzz to get around Neil and out the narrow hatch.
At the time, he felt Armstrong was going to make the first steps on the moon simply because he was a civilian, and NASA felt it was the politically correct thing to do in the highly charged atmosphere of the Vietnam War protest era. "It would have been an insult to the service. There was no difference between us. We both learned to fly in Korea. When I was satisfied that wasn't the issue, I dropped the matter completely, and we got on with the mission."
Aldrin's safety concerns were addressed by planning to immediately prepare for liftoff upon landing, and by waiting until all systems were sound and ready for ascent before either man began the moon-walk.
Unfortunately for Aldrin, in the macho-gotcha world of the astronaut corps his queries led to smirking accusations that he was campaigning to be number one on the moon. "That gave fuel to others to say, 'Buzz was running around the office trying to get support for his being first on the moon,'" Aldrin says. "Well, bullshit. That was the interpretation of people who loved to pick apart what other people did."
Aldrin felt then and still feels he was something of an outcast in the
tight-knit world of the astronauts, despite being as qualified, or more qualified, than the rest of the men. "I was not what you would call an insider. I was not a carrier-based Navy flier. I was an egghead academician. They were competitive in pursuing their career agendas. I can't think of a single Navy test pilot who didn't do everything he could to enhance his career.
"When I first got into the astronaut program, there was a fun-poking where if you caught another guy doing something, you pointed it out and everybody had their chuckles. I didn't mind being called Dr. Rendezvous. But sometimes it was more than just fun-poking. It bordered on ridiculing the egghead. At least there was an undercurrent of that."
To add to the pressure, Aldrin's influential dad, General Edwin, Sr., threatened to fire an outraged broadside across NASA's bow demanding his son be first off the lander.
In frustration, Buzz decided to take up the issue of "the order of exiting" the moon landing vehicle with mission commander Armstrong directly, hoping to end a controversy that was embarrassing and was beginning to "hamper our training."
"I went into Neil's office and said I thought we needed a decision on this regardless of anyone's feelings or point of view."
Five years later, in his autobiography, Return to Earth, Aldrin wrote that Armstrong reacted "with a coldness I had not known he possessed. He said the decision was quite historical and he didn't want to rule out the possibility of going first."
Looking back through the lens of twenty-two years of sobriety, Aldrin says, his life was in turmoil when he okayed the final revisions to the book, and suggests he was harsh in his interpretation of Neil's remarks.
"I was going through the beginnings of personal problems that were significant--alcoholism misdiagnosed as depression."
Michael Collins was destined to become famous as the man who did not walk on the moon. But instead he would be "Carrying the Fire"--the title of his 1974 autobiography. That is, he would orbit the moon alone in the command module Columbia while Neil and Buzz descended to the lunar surface in the landing craft Eagle. The daunting nature of Collins's job was that he was in control of the only ticket home. The astronauts wouldn't travel to the moon in a powered ship; rather, once blasted free of earth's gravity, they would rely on their forward momentum to coast toward the pull of the moon's gravity. Then, like a slingshot, the five-thousand-pound ship would be captured by the lunar gravity; when Apollo 11 fired its engine for about six minutes, it would slow from 5,600 miles per hour to 3,600 and insert itself into a
After circling a dozen times, Eagle would separate from the mother ship while on the far side of the moon and begin an hourlong descent to the surface. Collins had to keep Colombia on a perfectly steady course for the 21 hours and 36 minutes Eagle spent on the moon. Then he had to be at the appointed position in lunar orbit in preparation for the tricky rendezvous and docking procedures for the return home.
The nightmare that haunted him was that if something happened to Neil and Buzz--if Eagle crashed or if its ascent engine refused to fire--there would be no way to reach them. Collins would have no choice but to leave his crewmates to die and make an unspeakably lonely return to earth.
Though Collins's role in the Apollo 11 mission was fraught with both tension and frustration, it resonated with the experiences of another pioneer airman, Charles Lindbergh, who a scant forty-two years earlier had made history by flying solo across the Atlantic Ocean. "From Armstrong and Aldrin's spectacular movements, my mind shifted to Collins's lunar orbiting. He had time for contemplation, time to study both the nearby surface of the moon and the distant moonlike world. Only once before had I felt such a connection as when I thought of astronaut Collins. That was over the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis."
Unlike his driven, near-obsessive crewmates, Collins, who was born in Rome, had been an indifferent student, having barely made the grade at West Point, and was a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base with a laid-back attitude, and, tellingly, was known to occasionally sport a mustache, a daring fashion statement for a 1950s-era test pilot.
New York Times science writer John Noble Wilford, who covered the astronauts and the space program for a number of years, wrote: "Collins's existence was drifting and unfocused until fairly late in life, leading some of his colleagues to expect that he would never do anything special."
But the space program finally fired his ambition and imagination. The first six months of 1969, with nearly every waking second devoted to training for the trip to the moon, were the most grueling of the astronauts' lives. Collins remembers particularly loathing the centrifuge, which whirled its victims around faster and faster until it imitated the crushing effect of reentering earth's atmosphere at 36,000 feet per second, subjecting the astronauts to ten times normal earth gravity. "My chest caved in and my vision narrowed, and when I finally reeled out of the torture chamber, I dared not turn my head left or right lest I fall over in an undignified heap."
The flight simulators were frustrating and worrying. Sometimes Collins was able to solve the dozens of vexing combinations of technical malfunctions that controllers threw at him as he tried to steer past earth's unforgiving atmosphere, but most often the flight would end in a virtual disaster, plunging into the sea, killing Buzz, Neil, and himself. Nonetheless, the simulators, which cost millions and required hundreds of engineers to program and maintain, were considered essential to the mission. Neil's wife, Jan, was at times concerned for his health: "Neil used to come home with his face drawn white. I was worried about him. I was worried about all of them. They were worried about whether there was time enough to learn all the things they had to learn if this mission was to work."
The three men trained for eighteen hours a day during the early summer, desperately trying to meet an arbitrary deadline that had to do with the Cold War and a world that, aside from our closest allies, believed years of highly adept KGB propaganda and placed the Soviets far ahead of the U.S. in space science. And, of course, the quagmire in Vietnam was damaging American prestige even amongst our closest friends in the world.
A Los Angeles Times front-page headline on July 13 said it succinctly: PRESTIGE OF U.S. RIDES ON APOLLO. Calling Apollo 11 a "$24 billion gamble," the Times said that the United States was committing its "national pride...to showing the world it can still fulfill a dream." And the paper was far from sanguine as to the chances of success. "It will send three young men on a human adventure of mythological proportions with the whole of the civilized world invited to watch--for better or worse....The journey is fraught with perils understood by few except the three astronauts who must face and overcome them." The Times quoted a Harvard professor who suggested that "sophisticates" of the 1960s no longer trusted science in any event. "Science is DDT, germ warfare and Thalidomide."
The astronauts knew all too well the perils they faced. Despite a supporting cast of 400,000, it would come down to their pushing all the right buttons at the right times. Collins called the mission "an extremely long, fragile daisy chain of events." Failure anywhere could mean disaster. In the long run, U.S. "prestige" would survive, but the astronauts might not, in which case the space program likely would die with them.
The final month before blastoff was spent in isolated crew quarters where maids sewed names in their underwear and a former tugboat cook served meals consisting almost solely of various meats, potatoes, and pastries. It was like a football training table and the three men quickly tired of eating the monotonous fare.
President Richard Nixon was forbidden by NASA medical director Dr. Chuck Berry from joining them for dinner out of fear he would contaminate them with germs. Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman promptly called a press conference blasting Berry, saying the doctor should keep his mouth shut. But the White House, wary of doing anything that could be interpreted as jeopardizing the mission, bowed out anyway.
The life of an astronaut had changed drastically from the heady days of the Mercury missions, when Wally Schirra, Alan Shephard, and their mates tooled around Houston in gratis Corvettes. The windowless quarantine quarters with three small sterile bedrooms and perforated walls that filtered the air were testament to that.
During one of the final examinations, the Apollo 11 crew were puzzled when doctors photographed and took biopsies of their skin. The explanation was that each would be photographed and sampled when they returned from the moon to make sure they hadn't brought back any predatory moon organisms. That was a sobering thought.
As July 16 drew near, pressure mounted during the long days and was increasingly assuaged with drink. Collins noted in Carrying the Fire that "Neil was clicking along like a well-oiled machine, his manner nonchalant....Generally quiet and incapable of small talk, Buzz could get wound up on any number of technical pet projects far into the night, with or without a bottle of Scotch for lubrication." Just weeks before the sixteenth, Neil crashed in the lunar module simulator after refusing Aldrin's, and eventually Houston's, insistence that he abort. Buzz felt it had made them look incompetent and worse in front of the mission-control engineers, and was furious. Neil was intent upon testing the outer parameters of the landing module's (LM) capabilities and didn't care what anybody thought. Wasn't that the purpose of a simulator? The argument was bandied back and forth over dinner and into the evening. After a nightcap, Neil gave up and went to bed just as Buzz was getting wound up. As his Scotch kicked in, Buzz became louder and ever more slashing in his critique of Neil's aeronautic skills. Suddenly, Armstrong burst through the door in a cold rage, obviously having heard more than enough. After the two had at one another, Collins recalls "creeping off to bed."
Collins made no secret of being somewhat intimidated by Armstrong and Aldrin, modestly writing, "both of them [are] far better engineers than I." He very much wished his crewmates were more capable of indulging in some small talk to ease the tension they were under. The three were going to spend a month in quarantine before the journey, travel 826,300 miles in a tiny spacecraft together, then be forced into three weeks of biological isolation to avert the possibility of contaminating the earth with moon germs; a total of two solid months together. Tensions and potential for conflict ran deep among the three. Thirty years later, Aldrin admits he was very uncomfortable being the junior member of a team Armstrong was commanding, and throughout the journey suffered "twinges of intimidation."
Neil was less than thrilled as well, and defied the quarantine order that had canceled a dinner with the U.S. President to drink a few beers and have dinner with old Navy buddies John Moore, who had been manager of Apollo Test Operations, and Ken Danneberg. Moore was Armstrong's instructor at Pensacola Naval Air Station, and in Korea Neil became Moore's wingman. Neil showed up with fellow astronaut Alan Shephard. The four men relaxed on Moore's porch at his home in Cocoa Beach before dinner to talk about the upcoming mission, but most importantly to spend some hours with their own kind, speaking in the shorthand of their engineer/test-pilot patois. Despite the crew friction, Armstrong was completely confident and refused to accept that Apollo 11 was different from any other test mission. He was merely going to put the equipment through the paces and would probably get to walk on the moon. The success of the mission was 100 percent in his mind; getting to walk on the moon was questionable, maybe fifty-fifty.
In 1963, when Neil Armstrong moved to Houston with his wife, Jan, and their sons, six-year-old Rick and baby Mark, his reputation as a flyer was well established. He was a decorated Korean War air hero, having flown seventy-eight missions, had soared 207,000 feet high to the edge of space at four thousand miles per hour in the "hypersonic glider" dubbed X-15, and was a survivor of numerous brushes with death, which were blandly referred to by test pilots as "coping with the unexpected."
The Armstrong family had moved into a ranch-style house in the El Lago development near Mission Control that was favored by the majority of the astronauts. The modest house had bright red doors, a small rock garden in front, and a good-sized swimming pool protected from prying eyes--of which there would soon be many--by a six-foot-high wooden fence.
Jan Armstrong had a lifelong passion for swimming. She had been I on the swim team in college and taught swimming and lifesaving while the couple lived in the California desert. But this was the first time they had their own pool; a real plus as far as she was concerned. Soon after settling in at El Lago, Jan had organized both a synchronized swimming and a racing team. Both Jan and Neil were big baseball fans, and supporters of the Little League, for which Jan organized fund-raising suppers and Neil coached--when not on a seven-day-a-week training schedule at NASA.
Their next-door neighbors were Ed and Pat White. Ed, who would die in the 1967 Apollo 1 fire disaster, had encouraged Buzz Aldrin to apply for selection as an astronaut with the third group, which was forming in late 1963. Buzz and Ed had a long history together, having been one class apart at West Point and members of the track team. In 1955 and '56 they represented their squadron in NATO, flying state-of-the-art Air Force F-100 Super Sabres based in Germany. While Buzz was on temporary assignment with the Air Force in Houston, charged with exploring the proper role of the air arm in space, White invited him to a barbecue to meet some members of the astronauts corps he hoped to soon join.
Neil Armstrong's reputation as a taciturn, steely-eyed test pilot preceded him to Houston, so it was with wonder that turned into glee that Buzz reacted to his first glimpse at the man with whom he would make history. Followed by a gaggle of kids, Neil was gracefully roller-skating around Ed White's pool deck. "He was quite adept at roller-skating," Aldrin laughs. "It wasn't exactly what men in their early thirties were doing."
But Armstrong's nephew Mike Trude recalls that that was typical. "Uncle Neil always joined in with the kids' games. When his family visited us in Chicago, or we visited them in Houston, he always had time for the kids, whether to take us to the Astrodome for a baseball game, or to play Wiffle ball in the backyard, skating, or any kind of sports. He played with us all the time."
In the final days before launch, Jan Armstrong's informal support group gathered at the house in El Lago, quietly helping out with the day-to-day running of the house and the care of her boys, knowing that the pressure on her would be immense. Jan's sister Carolyn Trude and her husband, Alfred, flew down from Barrington, Illinois. Neil's Navy friend Ken Danneberg came down from Colorado. And the astronauts and their wives, the only people alive who could truly understand the roller coaster of anxieties and joys Jan was experiencing, because they had been there, too, gathered around the family.
Neil had asked Jan not to come to see the launch, but he had said the same about his first space mission Gemini 8, and she had regretted missing it. This time she was going to be there, as were the boys. So they flew down to Florida and watched the blastoff, with the other two Apollo 11 wives, Joan Aldrin and Patricia Collins, from one of the best possible vantage points, a boat moored in the Banana River. A boat had the additional advantage of being out of shouting distance of the throngs of reporters. Mark, then six, was well aware that Daddy was perched at the top of the gleaming candle everyone was watching with awe. He knew his father's trip to the moon would take three days and hoped one day to join him on a return trip. He and Rick, who was twelve, caught up in the giddy, carnival atmosphere, squealed and cheered. When their husbands were safely en route to the moon, the wives returned to Houston to sweat out every minute of the following week.
The neighborhood buzzed with friends and relatives. The Armstrongs' bedroom was littered with maps of the moon's surface so they could follow Neil's travels as though he was on a road trip to another state. A speaker set up by NASA in the living room monitored all conversations between the astronauts and mission control.
Dave Scott, who had survived the nearly disastrous Gemini 8 mission with Armstrong, Jim Lovell, who would later live to tell the tale of the harrowing Apollo 13, and Ken Danneberg started a pool to guess where on the moon Neil would land the LM. Scott won by figuring he would go long, knowing Neil as a perfectionist who would not be easily satisfied with the first landing site he saw, but never imagining he would be forced to search so long that the LM would come within seconds of running out of fuel.
With the entire world's attention centered on his dad's daring deeds, six-year-old Mark tried to wring a bit of attention out of the swarm of adults surrounding his mom. While his dad was about to tread on the moon, his little feet were bouncing on the house's tile roof, debatably a more dangerous pursuit than traveling to the moon. Danneberg recalls: "Mark was the wildest kid I ever saw. He was on the roof, stuck up in trees, up to every kind of mischief, and his mother was trying in vain to get him to do his chores." No only was Mark not the center of attention, but Dad had, of necessity, been absent for what must have seemed most of his life, training for space missions.
As the astronauts tossed and turned during their last night on earth, Saturn was being filled with six million pounds of volatile liquid oxygen, liquid hydrogen, and kerosene.
They were awakened from their restless slumber by Deke Slayton, one of the original seven astronauts, who had been grounded with a heart ailment, and, though tough and crusty, became the esteemed and loved head of the astronaut corps. Deke gently rapped on the three doors and led the groggy, bathrobe-and-slipper-clad astronauts to Nurse Dee O'Hara's examination room, where they were weighed and given one last medical exam. All three men also handed their personal belongings--clothes, wallets--over to O'Hara to forward to their homes in Houston. It was an odd feeling for all concerned, but necessary because no matter what happened they weren't coming back to the cape. The important thing was not to say good-bye. It was part of the astronaut etiquette that one never did on launch day.
Countdown resumed at 11:00 P.M. on July 15. Crews led by Rocco Petrone, the launch director, began chilling down the rocket's systems so they would accept the ultracold propellants, liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, otherwise known as "cryogenics." They would be followed by highly volatile kerosene.
Once the tanks were filled, everything seemed to be running so smoothly that Petrone decided to get a bite to eat in the cafeteria. Halfway through his break came potentially catastrophic news. "A guy came down and said, 'Hey, we've got the same leak we had last week.'" Petrone fought off a sense of dread. The astronauts were aboard, and nobody could forget Apollo 1 and the flash fire that incinerated its crew eighteen months before.
Scrambling back to the firing control room, Petrone saw on television monitors highly flammable hydrogen hemorrhaging from the fully loaded bird--which had the potential of exploding with the force of a million pounds of TNT. "Leaking hydrogen isn't something you fool around with. There was a danger of fire." The exact same leak, at the same time in the countdown, had occurred a week prior during a practice loading, without the crew aboard. "It turned out one bolt was a little too long--about a quarter inch. It only showed itself when the cryogenics were flowing through. It shrank and gave you a leak. Because it had happened a week before, we knew that as soon as we finished loading hydrogen the leak would stop because it would warm up and expand." An emergency crew determined that the leak had indeed sealed itself. They cleaned up and the countdown continued. "If the leak hadn't stopped we would have had to divert the flow and probably abort the mission."
On the other side of the world, a similarly simple design flaw led to a cataclysmic disaster that all but ended the Soviets' race to the moon. Thirteen days earlier, on July 3, a Soviet N-1 rocket lifted off its pad at a secret location in the desolate steppes of Central Asia. Less than one minute into flight, one of the rockets' forty-three engines inhaled tiny scraps of loose metal and exploded. With the force of a nuclear explosion, the booster rocket slammed to the earth and destroyed all life for miles around. At that moment the space race was effectively over, though few people, save for U.S. intelligence, which had been closely monitoring the Soviet space program, knew about it. Two similar first-stage crashes later, in 1971 and '72, led furious, humiliated Soviet leaders to order the whole moon landing program scrapped. The remaining rockets were dismantled and recycled; one was ignominiously turned into a pigpen. All that were left were the unmanned Luna sample-return missions, which would, ironically, suffer yet another disaster on the very day of America's, and Neil Armstrong's, greatest triumph.
Cosmonaut Alexei Leonor, who endured and eventually commanded a Soyuz flight that linked with an American capsule, was devastated. "When Apollo 8 went around the moon, I was very proud for mankind, and I wished the astronauts every success. But it was very, very sad for us. We'd held everything in our
hands--after spending huge amounts of money and years of our lives--we let it slip away from us. It was a pity." The moon silently awaited the victors.
The flight of Apollo 11 was a television event, and television's flickering images would be seared in the world's collective consciousness, but it would not come close to capturing the majesty--and the danger--of Saturn. From the viewing stands three and a half miles away, the initial flame first appeared as a bright yellow-orange star, then, as the other four engines fired, a clattering noise like a tearing of the fabric of the sky rose louder and louder until the sound felt to viewers like a thumping against the solar plexus and blew over them in hot waves. Huge iron talons held the rocket in place for 8.9 seconds, as two-hundred-foot-long plumes of fire licked the tarmac. Miles from Cape Kennedy, the earth trembled. When full power was reached, a din that seemed to rend the universe caused the crowd of a million awestruck witnesses to muffle their ears and silently exclaim. Suddenly unfettered, Saturn was a ball of fire, slowly reaching for the sky, finally clearing the scaffolding and blazing like a second sun. Gradually winning the bout with gravity, it raced for the clouds, gracefully rolling over, controls set for the unfathomable 24,667 miles per hour necessary to escape Mother Earth and reach the moon. Two and a half minutes after ignition, Saturn had expended five million pounds of fuel. In three minutes it was traveling at 6,340 miles per hour.
A journalist at the launch asked renowned orator William F Buckley for a comment seconds after the launch.
"You're an eloquent man, Mr. Buckley," said the interviewer. "How would you describe what you have just seen?"
"With silence," was his answer.
Copyright 2004 by Leon Wagener
Excerpted from One Giant Leap by Wagener, Leon Copyright © 2005 by Wagener, Leon. Excerpted by permission.
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