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Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon

Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon

by Catherine Thimmesh

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“This behind-the-scenes look at the first Apollo moon landing has the feel of a public television documentary in its breadth and detail” (Publishers Weekly, starred review).
Here is a rare perspective on a story we only thought we knew. For Apollo 11, the first moon landing, is a story that belongs to many, not just the few and famous. It belongs to the seamstress who put together twenty-two layers of fabric for each space suit. To the engineers who created a special heat shield to protect the capsule during its fiery reentry. It belongs to the flight directors, camera designers, software experts, suit testers, telescope crew, aerospace technicians, photo developers, engineers, and navigators.
Gathering direct quotes from some of these folks who worked behind the scenes, Catherine Thimmesh reveals their very human worries and concerns. Culling NASA transcripts, national archives, and stunning NASA photos from Apollo 11, she captures not only the sheer magnitude of this feat but also the dedication, ingenuity, and perseverance of the greatest team ever—the team that worked to first put man on that great gray rock in the sky.
Winner of the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award
“An edge-of-your-seat adventure . . . Lavishly illustrated . . . This exhilarating book . . . will captivate.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“Thimmesh gives names and voices to the army that got Neil Armstrong and company to the moon and back. The result is a spectacular and highly original addition to the literature of space exploration.” —The Horn Book
“This beautiful and well-documented tribute will introduce a new generation to that triumphant time.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547349695
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 06/26/2006
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 80
Sales rank: 470,631
Lexile: 1060L (what's this?)
File size: 48 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.
Age Range: 10 - 11 Years

About the Author

Catherine Thimmesh is the award-winning author of many books for children, including Girls Think of Everything and Team Moon, winner of the Sibert Medal. Her books have received numerous starred reviews, appeared on best books lists, and won many awards, including the IRA Children's Book Award and Minnesota Book Award. She lives in Minnesota with her family. 

Read an Excerpt


Beyond Imagination

It was mind-boggling. The television itself had been a flat-out miracle when it began to dominate the scene a mere twenty years previous. And now, that technological wonder of wonders was going to trump itself. Because very soon, if all went according to plan, it would transmit pictures of an actual man, on the actual moon. In 1969, on July 20 (in one part of the world) and July 21 (in the other part), half a billion people on the blue-marbled globe clicked on their TV sets — flush with anticipation — eager to watch as Apollo 11 would attempt to put man on the moon for the first time in all of history. The moon!

And now, at this defining moment, the world had come together — like nothing ever before — not only to wish the astronauts Godspeed, but to bear personal witness to this incredible event. On that day, people gathered: in homes and schools and businesses; in restaurants and shops; and on sidewalks and streets and in parks. They were eager to be a part, however small, of something so out-of-this-world big. If there was a TV in the vicinity, it was on. And people sat. And watched — wide-eyed, waiting.

"Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. ... These brave men, Neil Armstrong and [Buzz] Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice."

Rest in peace? On the moon? Thankfully, no; those ominous words (penned in top secret for President Nixon) were never spoken. But while millions upon millions of people were spellbound and starry-eyed with moon mania (sitting, watching, waiting), those people behind the scenes fretted over more problems and concerns and plans for emergencies than the rest of the world could ever know. The "Fate Has Ordained" speech was to be delivered in the event that the worst possible scenario came to pass. The speech's very existence proved that, beneath all the excitement, those people running the show never for a moment lost sight of the all too real dangers they were choosing to run into head-on. And though millions of eyes were focused front and center on the astronauts and the spacecraft, much of the action would, in fact, be taking place on the sidelines.

When those millions of people tuned in hoping to witness the moonwalk, one thing they wouldn't see (or at best might just catch a glimpse of) were the nonastronauts, those beyond the glare of the limelight. The regular folks whose efforts made an impossible mission possible in the first place. All the people behind the scenes whose ideas and expertise, imagination and inventiveness, dedication and focus, labor and skill, combined in one great endeavor — on the grandest of grand scales — and conspired to put man on the moon. Yes, three heroic men went to the moon; but it was a team of four hundred thousand people that put them there. They were the flight directors, controllers, planners, and engineers; the rocket designers and builders and technicians; the managers, supervisors, quality control and safety inspectors; the programmers, electricians, welders, seamstresses, gluers, painters, doctors, geologists, scientists, trainers, and navigators ...

Apollo 11 is their story too.


In the Beginning ...

They were going to the moon, all right — at least that was the plan. That was the dream and the challenge set forth by one man, President John F. Kennedy, when he declared in May of 1961:

"I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth."

So they came by the thousands — kids really, twenty-somethings, a few in their thirties. No one knew for sure how to get to the moon, how to land, or get home. But their goal was clear-cut, and that was enough. That gave them purpose: a reason to puzzle out the problems and seek solutions rather than sleep.

Kennedy's decision was triggered by an intense "space race" with the old Soviet Union. The Soviets were first in space (with Sputnik); first too with a man in space. But for those who actually worked on the moon shot, the "race" became an afterthought. They were fueled instead by a desire to explore the heavens — the poetry of it all, the scientific challenge of it all, the "We're going to the moon!" excitement of it all.

But the moon? Could it really be done? Right from the getgo, administrators had identified ten thousand individual tasks that would have to be completed. And that was only the beginning. So much to do. Too much? An aide to Kennedy quietly predicted that it would take forty-four attempts. Forty-four tries before ever landing once on the great gray rock in the sky.


Moving Forward ...

The final picture was altogether different from the dream. Most thought they'd be going straight to the moon with one spacecraft, land, and come straight back. Instead, as the plan evolved, it called for two very different craft: a command and service module for flight and a lunar module (LM) to land on the surface. No one ever imagined landing on the moon in a seatless, gold-foil-encased, four-legged, spidery-ish thingamajig nicknamed the "LEM." After all, no one knew what a lunar module was even supposed to look like. And so, form followed function. Never mind if it looked like a bug.

"I can't say that I'm aware of any program where more people understood what the schedule was, how important it was, and worked so hard to make it happen. We had a great team," recalled Joe Gavin, vice president of the Grumman Aerospace Corporation, contractor for the lunar module.

That team at Grumman was 7,500 workers strong. They designed, developed, and built the lunar module, christened Eagle for Apollo 11, from the ground up. Reliability was insisted upon. They had a motto: There is no such thing as a random failure. And failures were eliminated — one by one. Because it was their baby, their handiwork — eight years of their lives — that, very soon, would settle down (fingers crossed) on that giant glowing ball in the inky-black soup of space.


And Onward ...

Space ... it's dangerous out there: micrometeoroids, radiation, airlessness. And coming home would be no picnic either. The compact-car-size space capsule would be greeted and surrounded by searing white-hot flames as it slammed madly back down to Earth.

"In designing the command module, the one thing we had to be sure of was that we could keep the crew alivethat was a big item," said Max Faget, NASA chief engineer and principal designer of the command module.

Keeping the crew alive under such extreme conditions was indeed a big item. Only the command module, Columbia, would make the complete journey from Earth to the moon and back home again. It would serve as crew living quarters and as the spacecraft control center. And Columbia alone would confront the fiery Earth reentry.

But the wizards at North American Rockwell (NASA's prime contractor for the command module) were up to the challenge. Fourteen thousand folks there, plus a skilled hodgepodge of eight thousand other companies, toiled to ensure that millions of components on the command module were in top-notch order.

Columbia was off to confront danger. Its builders would need to rely on their eight years of effort to give them confidence for a successful outcome. But it would be five hundred thousand miles before the truth of the matter would be told. Could their command module keep the crew alive?


And Upward ...

Launch operations at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida was like its own little town. A whopping seventeen thousand engineers, technicians, mechanics, contractors, and managers were needed to pull together the Apollo 11 launch. Needed to check, check, check the spacecraft: test it, stack the three rocket stages in the vehicle assembly building, or VAB, roll it out, recheck it, fuel it, and ready it for liftoff.

One of the most critical preparations for launch was the orchestration and performance of the crucial CDDT.

"The Countdown Demonstration Test, or CDDT, gives us confidence that we're going to get there in time and everything's going to percolate [work perfectly] together," explained Ernie Reyes, chief of the Pre-flight Operations Branch for Apollo 11. "It's a dress rehearsal for the countdown. The only thing we don't do, is we don't load the vehicle with all its fluids and juices [rocket fuel]."

Come launch day, Ernie Reyes and about five hundred others would work the consoles from the Firing Room of the Launch Control Center (LCC), the nucleus of launch operations. They would run the controls that would catapult Apollo 11 moonward bound. Five thousand others would directly support them for the actual liftoff.

It was a long, long march to that day, and the little town of KSC became a second home to quite a few folks. Many a lunch — dinners, anniversaries, birthdays — were forsaken in pursuit of Ready to Launch. On July 16, 1969, they were indeed ready. And at 9:32 A.M.... whoosh!


Maiden Voyage ... The Final 10 Miles

"The Eagle has wings!" radioed Neil Armstrong from the lunar module as he and Buzz Aldrin flew sixty-nine miles above the moon. Four words. Slightly cryptic, but oh so lyrical. There was no doubt of their meaning: The lunar module Eagle had separated from the command module Columbia and was now flying solo. It was ready to descend to the surface of the moon. Magical words, those four. Big smiles back on Earth, back in Houston, at Mission Control.

In Houston, the White Team was at the consoles in the control room monitoring and facilitating the moon landing. Gene Kranz was the flight director on duty — the person in charge of the mission during that time and responsible for the final decisions. He had arrived at the Mission Control complex (MCC) shortly past dawn, accepting the good lucks that were tossed his way by those he passed in the lobby. He refused the elevator, instead climbed three flights of stairs to the MOCR (Mission Operations Control Room, pronounced MOE-ker). They were attempting to put man on the moon today — a dazzling technological triumph — but at home, technology had a habit of getting stuck between floors, and Flight Director Kranz was taking no chances. "Today is not the day to get stuck in an elevator," he wrote in his memoir.

Forty minutes prior to beginning the landing sequences, Kranz addressed his flight controllers:

"In the next hour we will do something that has never been done before. We worked long hours and had some tough times but we have mastered our work. Now we are going to make this work pay off. You are a hell of a good team. One that I feel privileged to lead. Whatever happens, I will stand behind every call that you will make."

It was time. As instructed by Mission Control in Houston, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin fired their descent rocket engine, lowering the Eagle to an altitude of just 50,000 feet above the moon's surface. (On an earlier mission, several months previous, Apollo 10 had gotten to this very point — 50,000 feet — close, but still so far.) But now, for the first time, Neil and Buzz would go that last leg — the final ten miles.

"You are Go for PDI [powered descent ignition,"] Mission Control radioed the crew.

Never had more monumental words been spoken so simply: The green light was given to go ahead and land on the moon. Twelve minutes, now. And they would be on the surface of the moon. Or not.


Challenge 1: Alarms

BAM! Suddenly, the master alarm in the lunar module rang out for attention with all the racket of a fire bell going off in a broom closet. "Program alarm," astronaut Neil Armstrong called out from the LM ("LEM") in a clipped but calm voice. "It's a 'twelve-oh-two.'"

"1202," repeated astronaut Buzz Aldrin. They were 33,500 feet from the moon.

Translation: We have a problem! What is it? Do we land? Do we abort? Are we in danger? Are we blowing up? Tell us what to do. Hurry!

In Mission Control, the words TWELVE OH TWO tumbled out of the communications loop. The weight of the problem landed with a thud in the lap of twenty-six-year-old Steve Bales. Bales, call name GUIDO, was the mission controller for guidance and navigation.

A moment earlier (after some worries with navigation problems), Bales had relaxed with a deep breath, thinking at last: We're going to make it. Now, wham! His mind, again sent racing; his blood rushing; his heart fluttering; his breath — still as stone. But he wasn't alone.

A voice on another loop — belonging to one of Bales's backroom support guys, twenty-four-year-old computer whiz kid Jack Garman — burst in to make sure Bales was aware of the 1202. A quick glance at a master list told them a 1202 was executive overflow. Simply put, the computer had too much to do. But program alarms, as Garman knew firsthand, were built into the computer solely to test the software. By their very definition, they weren't alarms that should happen in flight. (During development, these alarms were testing computing cycles.)

Yet there it was: 1202. An unreal reality. First, stunned inactivity at Steve Bales's console.

Then, a bombardment of thoughts: What's the problem? Do they land? Do they abort? Are they in danger? Are they blowing up? Tell them what to do. Hurry!

Bales scoured his guidance and navigation data.

Searching. Sifting. Sorting.

Flight Director Kranz plucked details from a flood of incoming information.

Juggling. Judging.

Backroom guy Jack Garman (call name AGC) consulted his handwritten program alarm list, mandated by Gene Kranz (and neatly stashed beneath the Plexiglas on his console).

CapCom Charlie Duke (or Capsule Communicator, the voice link between Mission Control and the spacecraft) mused aloud: "It's the same one we had [in the simulator]."

And indeed, in one of the very last simulations, or practice sessions, before liftoff of Apollo 11, mission controllers found themselves stumped when faced with a similar program alarm. While training with the backup crew, SimSup Jay Honeycutt (or Simulation Supervisor) had asked software expert Jack Garman to concoct some sort of computer glitch for the controllers to solve. So Garman remembered the hidden software testing alarms and threw out one of those. It wasn't a 1202, but a similar type — one that supposedly should never happen in actual flight (because the situations that would trigger those alarms had presumably already been removed from the software).

During that simulation, that test, GUIDO Steve Bales had called for an abort — an immediate end to the landing. They stopped the pretend-land on the moon. But it was the wrong call. While the computer was definitely having difficulties, it would still have been safe to continue the landing because the LM's critical functions were still working.

"And so [Flight Director] Gene Kranz, who's the real hero of that situation, sat us all down and said, 'You WILL document every single program alarm, every single possible one that can happen' and what we should do about it if it happens," recalled AGC Jack Garman, explaining how they ended up with a written record of those "nonexistent" program alarms.

Sometimes, after the bugs have all been removed during development, programmers might go back in and remove all their testing alarms. But often, it's considerably more efficient (and cheaper) to just leave them buried unseen, deep down in the software.

"So I remember," continued Jack Garman, "going back to my little corner with my friends — my colleagues — and we wrote them all down. Wrote them on a sheet of paper (twenty or thirty of these alarms that were not supposed to happen), taped this list to a piece of cardboard, and stuck it underneath the Plexiglas on the console."

As they would discover later, though it seemed an impossible situation, it wasn't a false alarm. Executive overflow meant the computer was too busy. And the computer was too busy (it turned out) because a switch had been mistakenly left on.

"Give us a reading on the 1202 program alarm," said Armstrong from the lunar module as it continued its rapid — and very real — descent to the moon.

"The astronauts had no idea what these alarms were," explained Garman. "Absolutely no idea. These alarms were software development alarms. They'd never seen them. Never studied them. Never had them. No one in Mission Control knew what they were, not Kranz or anybody."

GUIDO Steve Bales determined the computer had not lost track of the LM's altitude or speed — critical for avoiding a lunar crash — and still had its guidance control, also essential. Flight Director Gene Kranz determined, with input from his controllers, that all other systems were functioning within acceptable parameters. AGC Jack Garman concluded that as long as the alarm didn't recur, they were okay.

Garman prompted GUIDO Steve Bales, who gave the "Go" to Flight Director Kranz, who in turn gave the command to CapCom Charlie Duke. CapCom relayed the message to Armstrong and Aldrin. "We are Go on that alarm," he told Neil and Buzz and the hundreds of others listening in on the loops. Not more than twenty seconds had passed from the time the 1202 was first called out.

"Program alarm!" Buzz responded from the LM. "Same one."

Garman clarified to Bales that as long as the alarm was not constant — not continuous — they were okay. The rest of Bales's information looked good. He told the Flight Director, "We're Go." Flight Director Kranz "went around the horn" — polling his controllers for their status reports — they were all "Go." Kranz told his voice link to the astronauts, "CapCom, we are Go for landing."

Aldrin acknowledged the good-to-Go. They were 3,000 feet from the moon now.

"Program alarm!" Buzz called. "1201."

"When it occurred again a few minutes later," Jack Garman recalled, "a different alarm but it was the same type ... I remember distinctly yelling — by this time yelling, you know, in the loop here —'SAME TYPE!' [in other words, Hang tight!] and he [GUIDOSteve Bales] yells 'SAME TYPE!' I could hear my voice echoing. Then the CapCom says, 'SAME TYPE!' Boom, boom, boom, going up."


Excerpted from "Team Moon"
by .
Copyright © 2006 Catherine Thimmesh.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Beyond Imagination,
In the Beginning ...,
Moving Forward ...,
And Onward ...,
And Upward ...,
Maiden Voyage ... The Final 10 Miles,
Challenge 1: Alarms,
Challenge 2: Almost Empty,
Challenge 3: Frozen Slug,
Challenge 4: First Steps,
Challenge 5: Wind,
Challenge 6: The Alien Environment,
Homeward Bound ... The Final 240,000 Miles,
Challenge 7: Images and Glitches,
Challenge 8: Open Chutes,
Author's Note,
Chapter Notes,
Additional Sources Consulted,
Photo Credits,
For Further Exploration,
About the Author,

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