One Giant Leap: An Excerpt from Rocket On Men July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in the first manned mission to the moon. Four days later, when the spacecraft touched down on the lunar surface, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins became instant American heroes. These excerpts from Craig Nelson's new book, Rocket Men, reveal some intriguing dramas behind the well-known stories of the astronauts and their incredible feat. The LiftoffCradled in their formfitting couches, the three astronauts lay silently on their backs in 35-pound space suits, preparing for the countdown. The NASA load-in crew wished them luck—then closed the ship's hatch. It was a Florida dawn in July, 85 degrees, with a light wind and a ten-mile visibility. On the tidelands, a huge audience had made it to the beaches to witness history. Across the horizon lay the entire script of American space travel in a line of U.S. Air Force and NASA launchpads. In the tiny 11-by-13-foot capsule, Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins faced a cockpit that included five windows, numerous gauges, an assortment of dials, and, as Collins later put it, "
great handfuls of switches, around 400, if you included plungers, ratchets, handles, and knobs. You [had] to be careful not to hit one by accident."
Posted on the dashboard were last-minute to-dos, handwritten cue cards, and the user's guide for the rocket. Next to Armstrong's chair was the most important tool of all: the abort lever, resembling a big oven dial on a pole. There was an unacknowledged prayer shared by astronaut crew and ground-control engineers alike at the start of every NASA mission—"
Dear Lord, please don't let me screw up"
—but this sentiment was felt more keenly on this flight. "
We were our nation's envoys, we three, and it would be a national disgrace"
if anything went wrong, said Collins. "
We would be watched by the world; we must not fail. I really felt this pressure, an awesome responsibility, a completely negative sensation. By flight time, I had tics in both eyelids."
Armstrong commented, "
I was aware that this was a culmination of the work of 300,000 or 400,000 people over a decade and that the nation's hopes rested on the results. With those pressures, it seemed the most important thing to do was focus on our job as best we were able and allow nothing to distract us."
Slowly, Apollo 11 began to rise. The sound of the liftoff overwhelmed the screams of a million spectators, many of whom now called out in unison, tears streaming down their cheeks, "
Go! Go! Go! Go!"
Norman Mailer described the launch as mankind's finding a way to talk to God. The author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke, said, "
At liftoff, I cried for the first time in 20 years—and prayed for the first time in 40."
Walter Cronkite of CBS later said, "
Everything else that has happened in our time is going to be an asterisk."
And Wernher von Braun, the genius behind Apollo 11's Saturn V rocket, said, "
It is equal in importance to that moment in evolution when aquatic life came crawling up on the land."
The astronauts themselves had very different feelings. Said Collins, "
Shake, rattle, and roll! Noise, yes, lots of it, but mostly motion. We [were] thrown left and right against our straps in spasmodic little jerks."
The LandingApatch in the southwest corner of the moon's Sea of Tranquility had been chosen as the landing site, after photos taken during earlier missions had indicated that it was relatively free of boulders and craters. Four days after liftoff, on July 20, the Eagle landing craft fell to an altitude of ten miles, then fired its rocket to slow itself out of orbit and into descent. A computer used radar to drop the craft to about 500 feet and approach with portholes tilted down so that Armstrong could assess the terrain. If he felt that the target site was unacceptable, he would use radar to land the module himself. Just how difficult was it to fly this aircraft? In essence, Armstrong needed to fly a craft that was different from anything ever built, using controls devised from scratch, in one-sixth gravity, with no atmosphere, on a landscape whose features weren't truly known, and carrying enough fuel for only one attempt to land. The first sign of trouble appeared when Houston's Mission Control lost radio contact with Eagle. The engineers jury-rigged a solution by patching communications from Eagle to Columbia (orbiting with Collins at the controls) and then to Houston. This added new pressure; in an emergency, there would be additional delays in communications. While Armstrong looked out the window, Aldrin, monitoring displays and gauges on the dashboard, called out the data readings. Aldrin was so busy working, he never once looked out the window to watch the landing. Although plummeting at 7,614 feet per second, neither man felt a sensation of descent. As Armstrong searched for the right place, it became clear that they were going to overshoot the target by almost four miles. At Mission Control, readouts showed that the astronauts were flying 20 feet per second faster than planned. (If the number reached 40, flight rules called for an abort.) Armstrong now took control of the module. Said Aldrin later, "
He slowed our descent [until], at 300 feet, we were descending at only three and a half feet per second. As Eagle dropped, we continued skimming forward. Neil still wasn't satisfied with the terrain. He stroked the hand controller and descent-rate switch like a motorist fine-tuning his cruise control [as] we scooted across boulders."
Said Armstrong, "
I was surprised by the size of these boulders. Some were as big as motorcars."
Mission Control could not understand why Armstrong was taking so long. Said Floyd Bennett, planning chief, "
I said, 'What is he doing?' We didn't know. He didn't have time to tell us that it was a rock field out there."
As fuel gauges dwindled, nerves began tightening further. Houston finally warned them that Armstrong had only 60 seconds of landing fuel remaining. Said Aldrin, "
When the [low fuel] light came on, and we were still not close to the ground, I was concerned. But what could I do? Say, 'Neil, hurry up'? That would just excite him."
Armstrong said, "
Finally, we found an area ringed on one side by fairly good-sized craters and on the other by a boulder field; it was about the size of a big house lot."
Aldrin called out, "
Forty feet … Picking up dust … Thirty feet."
His nose and throat dry and cold from the tanked air, Armstrong finally saw a clear spot and put the ship into vertical landing position. The descent to the moon kicked up so much dust that at 30 feet, the ground below became a roiling cloud. Neither man could feel it happen, but then, with about 17 seconds of fuel remaining, the dashboard's blue light ignited. A foot sensor had made contact. At 3:17 p.m., Central Standard Time, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong announced to the world, "
Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."
Said Walter Cronkite on live television, clearly overcome, "
Wow, boy! Man on the moon!"
Their faces grizzled with four days of stubble, Armstrong and Aldrin grinned, shook hands, and clapped each other's shoulders. Advertisement
just the facts, ma'am"
kind of guys. This particular question, though, preoccupied Armstrong. He later explained that his words were inspired by the children's game Baby Steps, Giant Steps. Many assumed that U.S. Information Agency officer Simon Bourgin had drafted the statement (Bourgin had contributed to previous Apollo statements). Others at NASA tried to take control of the comment, until press officer Julian Scheer put a stop to all the chatter by asking, "
Did Isabella tell Columbus what he would say in advance?"
There's also the issue of the missing word a (as in, "
One small step for a man"
). The statement doesn't make sense logically in the way it has been recorded. Armstrong has always insisted that he said it correctly. "
The a was intended,"
he said later. "
I thought I said it. So [I'd] be happy if it's put in parentheses."
[To hear Armstrong's actual historic statement from the moon, go to history.nasa.gov and search for one small step.] A NASA executive later told a reporter that, with the "
one small step"
statement, the taciturn Armstrong surprised everyone: "
Yes or no from him [was] a big conversation."
And Armstrong's son, Rick, then 12 years old, said, "
Usually when you ask him something, he just doesn't answer."
The StepAfter Eagle landed and the hatch opened, Aldrin guided Armstrong as he slowly crawled backward in his bulky space suit. The debarkation through the narrow doorway of Eagle's "
was more difficult than anticipated, as this transcript of the astronauts' conversation makes clear: Aldrin: Neil, you're lined up nicely. Toward me a little bit. Down. Okay. Now you're clear … Roll to the left … You're lined up on the platform. Put your left foot to the right a little bit. Armstrong: Okay? How am I doing? Aldrin: You're doing fine. During this maneuver, Armstrong forgot to turn the handle releasing the equipment assembly hatch, where most of the equipment that would be used on the moonwalk, including a TV camera, had been stowed. Mission Control reminded him, so Armstrong pulled himself back up, released it, and then continued climbing down. When Walter Cronkite, during the CBS television broadcast, asked why the descent to the surface was taking so long, astronaut Rusty Schweickart replied to the TV, "
[Armstrong] doesn't have eyes in his rear end."
Houston: Standing by for your TV [transmission]. Armstrong: Houston, this is Neil. Radio check. Houston: Neil, this is Houston. Loud and clear. Buzz, this is Houston. Verify TV circuit breaker in. Aldrin: Roger, circuit breaker's in. Then suddenly, it happened: The ten-by-ten screen at Mission Control bloomed to life. The huge assembled crowd began cheering as they witnessed Armstrong's foot touch another world for the first time in history. That step was really not so small, by the way. From the last rung of the ladder to the surface of the moon, it was a three-and-a-half-foot drop.The SurfaceThe moon was lit by a sun unfiltered by any atmosphere, with one-sixth gravity that inspired hardened pilots to act like eight-year-old boys and a top dust as soft as the powdered beaches of Cancún. Aldrin told a reporter, "
When you put your foot in the powder, the boot print preserved itself exquisitely. When I would take a step, a little semicircle of dust sprayed out before me. It was odd; the dust didn't behave at all the way it behaves here on earth."
Armstrong said, "
[The moon] has a stark beauty all its own, like much of the high desert of the United States. It's different but very pretty."
An awestruck Aldrin called it "
Across the monochrome lunar vista of white highlands and black cratered seas were colored shots of sparkle, later identified as either volcanic glass or particles produced by the pounding of meteorites. The other unique quality of being on the moon, both men reported, was the pronounced curve of the horizon. "
The horizon seems quite close to you,"
said Armstrong. Just as dramatic was the vast difference between lunar shade and light. "
The light was sometimes annoying because when it struck our helmets from a side angle, it would enter the faceplate and make a glare that reflected all over it,"
Armstrong said. "
As we penetrated a shadow, we would get a reflection of our own face, which would obscure everything else."
Without atmosphere, lunar vistas were brilliantly clear, like the earth's after a drenching rain but even more striking, as if the landscape seemed to roll on forever. Returning lunar visitors were filled with a near-religious feeling, citing "
I felt buoyant and full of goose pimples when I stepped down on the surface,"
Aldrin said. Overhead was no blue sky, but one infinite expanse of velvet black.The ConflictDeeply embedded in NASA's genetic code, the U.S. Navy had a long tradition of not allowing the commander of the ship to be the first to enter unknown territory. Five months before the mission, a Times-Picayune news article claimed that Apollo 11's "
flight plan as now drawn calls for Aldrin to climb down the ladder from the lunar module shortly after touchdown. Forty-five minutes later, the Apollo commander, Neil A. Armstrong, will join him."
The article added that the "
disclosure of Aldrin as the choice comes as a surprise to many who had speculated that the top commander would be entitled to take his place in history. But the space agency said that the decision is not Armstrong's to make."
George Mueller, the manned spaceflight associate administrator, confirmed that Aldrin would be first man out. At the same time, though, flight crew operations director Deke Slayton told Aldrin that Armstrong would probably be first: The commander had seniority. Flight director Chris Kraft later recalled, "
In all the early plans, it was the lunar module pilot [Aldrin]. Buzz desperately wanted that honor and let it be known."
At the space center before the launch, Aldrin "
came flapping into my office like an angry stork, arguing that he, the lunar module pilot, and not Armstrong, should be first down the ladder,"
astronaut Gene Cernan remembered. Aldrin said, "
Clearly, the matter was weighing on [Neil], but I thought that we knew and liked each other enough to discuss it candidly. Neil equivocated a minute or so; then, with a coolness I had not known he possessed, [he] said that the decision was quite historic and he didn't want to rule out the possibility of going first."
The confusion finally forced a decision by the agency's highest executives. "
I thought about it,"
said Kraft. "
The first man on the moon would be a legend, an American hero beyond Lucky Lindbergh, beyond any soldier or politician or inventor. It should be Neil Armstrong. I brought my ideas to Deke and then to George Low [manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office]. They thought so too."
Armstrong would be the one. The FlagStrapped to the lunar module's ladder, the American flag was transported to the moon, protected from the 2,000-degree temperatures at touchdown by a steel-and- ThermoFlex casing. The flag itself was made of nylon and was purchased for $5.50 through a government-supply catalog. Yet the most difficult and daunting task of the whole mission, Armstrong later confessed, was putting that flag up on the moon. Contrary to many geologists' conjecture, the moon's surface (at least in the Sea of Tranquility) was a thin sweep of dust covering dense, impenetrable rock. After pounding away at the task for much too long, Aldrin and Armstrong could get the flagpole sunk only a few inches deep, at best. Both men were convinced that with billions of people watching live, they would step back from the flag only to see it topple over. Armstrong tried patting a mound of lunar soil at the base to stabilize it, but it remained so precariously un-right that he and Aldrin spent the rest of the moonwalk carefully avoiding the flagpole. "
We wanted the flag to suspend itself nicely, and we knew there's no atmosphere on the moon to speak of, so we sewed a hem in the top of the flag and made an aluminum flexible tube that slipped through the hem. You could take hold of it and pull it by hand until you extended the top out,"
as technical services department director Jack Kinzler described it. "
When they started to deploy it, they saw the rippling effect if you left that extender slightly short. So they decided to take the picture that way. I'm glad. It [looks] more realistic, like it's fluttering in the wind."
When the broadcast showed the men's digging finally accomplished and Aldrin smartly saluting the flag, everyone at Mission Control cheered. "
To be able to salute that flag was one of the more humble yet proud experiences I've had,"
Aldrin said later. "
To look at the American flag and know how much so many people had [done to] get it where it was … At that instant, we sensed this almost mystical identification with all the people in the world."
Meanwhile, geologists back home, watching Armstrong and Aldrin spend precious moments raising the flag, talking on the phone, and taking pictures, grew impatient. Selenologist Harold Urey finally erupted at the TV, "
Hurry up and get those samples!"
(The men eventually brought home over 40 pounds of lunar rock.)The MissionWhenever American astronauts return from space, they're asked, "
So what was it like?"
One reason most have little to say is that they work so hard. "
The awe and wonder is pushed into the background,"
Collins told a reporter. "
There you are in the most incredible position. [Yet] my whole attention was riveted on the next job in line. Nothing would have been more pleasant than just to look."
Aldrin commented, "
Our surface activity was limited to two hours and forty minutes; every minute was busy."
By the time Armstrong and Aldrin got back inside the lunar module, they had worked for over 22 hours. Desperate for sleep, they "
cleaned up the cockpit and got things pretty well in shape,"
said Armstrong. "
We planned to sleep with our helmets and gloves on. For one thing, it's a lot quieter."
Armstrong took a hammock and slept for about three hours; Aldrin sprawled on the floor and slept for four. Far above them in solo orbit, Collins got a very good sleep, indeed.The ReturnBack on earth, the astronauts felt the exhausting power of gravity. "
Arms, which had floated before, now hung heavily and had to be willed to movement,"
said Aldrin. After landing in the Pacific Ocean, Aldrin and Collins began a furious set of calisthenics during the helicopter ride to the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, where their quarantine trailer was waiting. (Armstrong did not join in.) The men began their three-week quarantine with a hot shower and a cold martini. It had been, to NASA and the crew's everlasting credit, a mission as perfect as anyone had ever known. "
To me, the marvel is that it all worked like clockwork,"
said Collins. "
I almost said magic. There might be a little magic mixed in [there] somewhere."
During the splashdown into the Pacific, one Navy helicopter carried a television camera, whose signal was sent back to Houston and displayed on a giant screen. Next to the screen appeared these words: "
I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth. John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961."
And next to that, eight years, one month, and twenty-nine days later, it said "
Task accomplished, July 1969."
Today, Neil Armstrong, 78, lives in Ohio, Buzz Aldrin, 79, in California, and Michael Collins, 78, in Florida. Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon