Space Sunday special: Apollo 11 at 50 Part 3

NASA’s official Apollo 50th anniversary logo. Credit: NASA

This is the concluding part of a special Space Sunday series, celebrating the 50th anniversary of  Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, and follows on directly from Part 2: “The Eagle Has Landed!”. To follow the full series, please click over to Part 1: Lift-off! We Have lift-off!

Part 3: “Magnificent Desolation” And The Voyage Home

I had asked [Neil] before the mission launch several times what he was going to say on the occasion of this historic moment, setting foot on the lunar surface, and he always replied, “I’m a test pilot, I’ll probably just say how dusty it is or something like that. Don’t worry.” But he came back with his now famous [line]. The media immediately wanted to know if it was one small step for a man, or just man. There was a little bit of static, so it wasn’t entirely clear.

– Astronaut Bruce McCandless, Capsule Communicator (CapCom),
Mission Control Green Team

Whether or not Armstrong had said “a man” in his statement was to become a matter of debate in the decades that followed Apollo 11, almost overshadowing that first step itself. With the indefinite article included, his comment makes sense: he is clearly referring to himself (“one small step for a man”). Without it, “man” becomes more reflective of humanity as a whole, making his comment the equivalent of “That’s one small step for humanity. One giant leap for mankind”.

Such was the level of debate with one analysis of recording suggesting he said “a man”, another suggesting he didn’t, that not long before his death, Armstrong noted a little ruefully – and quite correctly:

I would hope that history would grant me leeway for dropping the syllable and understand that it was certainly intended, even if it wasn’t said – although it might actually have been.

– Neil Armstrong

A ghostly image from the broadcast TV footage – captured by the news agencies by having to re-film live footage received from the Moon and played on a special monitor. Credit: CBS News

But on the Moon, and unaware of the controversy that was even then brewing around his words, Armstrong collected a contingency sample of rock and surface material in case an unexpected issue required the EVA to be curtailed. Then he took the remote-control TV camera mounted on the Lunar Module to take a panoramic shot around the Eagle before setting it on a tripod a short distance from the LM to allow Mission Control to use it to record the EVA.

That  camera is the reason why the Apollo 11 video footage looks ghostly. Its scan rate was incompatible with those used by US TV networks, so the live transmission had to be shown on special monitors with TV cameras set-up in front of them which then re-broadcast the images – with a significant loss of picture quality in the process. (It’s also worth notingthat while NASA recorded the footage onto magnetic tape, it was eventually lost through the agency’s policy of tape re-use.)

Shot from an automated camera aboard the Lunar Module, this shot shows Aldrin standing close to the US flag as Armstrong back away to take a photo of Aldrin saluting the flag. July 20th/21st, 1969. Credit: NASA

Aldrin set foot on the Moon 19 minutes after Armstrong with the words, “Beautiful view. Magnificent desolation.”

There was little time to appreciate it, however. The two men were on a tight schedule: because there was no empirical data on how well the portable life support system (PLSS) in the astronaut’s backpacks would perform on the Moon, it had been decided to limit this first (and only, for Apollo 11, which would spend less than a day on the Moon) EVA to just over 2 hours. Before that time expired, both men had to set-up the US flag, deploy the instruments of the EASEP, the Early Apollo Scientific Experiments Package, survey their location and collect and many rock and soil samples as they could manage.

The shot of Aldrin saluting the flag as taken by Armstrong, July 20th/21st, 1969. Credit: NASA

The flag (purchased from a Sears store) proved a little problematic. Its telescopic pole refused to go deep into the ground, leaving Aldrin fearing it would unceremoniously topple over while on camera. Nevertheless, he dutifully saluted it as a still-commissioned US military officer before taking up position in front of the TV camera to demonstrate various means of locomotion in the low gravity for the benefit of future crews.

While he was doing that we were all wondering what Neil was doing. Well, Neil was collecting this very fine and diverse group of rocks and soil. Not only did he get a very wide distribution, but he also thought the box looked a little empty, so at the last minute he filled it with just the dirt, so to speak, what we call the lunar regolith. That sample turned out to be the best, most comprehensive sample of lunar regolith that was ever taken on any of the Apollo missions.

– Harrison Schmitt, the only geologist-astronaut in the Apollo programme,
who served as both advisor to crews and as the Lunar Module pilot for Apollo 17

A rare photograph of Neil Armstrong on the Moon’s surface, as taken on Buzz Aldrin. Most of the time, Armstrong carried the Hasselblad camera on the special mount on the front of the EVA suits. Credit NASA

The EASEP contained a number of science packages, including a  passive seismic experiment package used to measure moonquakes, and a retro-reflector array used for a lunar laser ranging experiment to measure the Moon’s varying distance from Earth – and which is still operating today. They also had to deal with a “telephone call” from President Richard M. Nixon.

As it turned out, the PLSS systems performed well within their operational parameters, and both astronauts maintained lower than anticipated metabolic rates. This encouraged Mission Control to extend the EVA by 15 minutes to 2 hours 31 minutes, allowing Aldrin and Armstrong to top-up their sample collection to 21.55 kg (47.51 lb), all of which had to be hauled up into the Lunar Module.

Once back in the vehicle, the two threw out unwanted equipment – including their backpacks – to make a little more room in the LM. With the cabin repressurised and free of the internal life suupport system, both men settled down to sleep as above them Michael Collins continued to orbit the Moon in the Command Module Columbia.

In 1962, shortly before Armstrong joined the NASA Astronaut Corps, his 2-year-old daughter, Karen died from complications arising from a brain tumour. While on the Moon, he informally named this small crater close the the Lunar Module “Muffie”, the nickname he Karen. However, in difference to the biopic First Man, he did not drop a bracket belonging to Karen into the crater. Credit: NASA

I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what on this side.

– Michael Collins, recounting how he felt after Armstrong and Aldrin had departed for the lunar
surface, and he was passing around the Moon’s far side (Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journey, 1974)

Michael Collins, still sporting the moustache he grew during the 8-day Apollo 11 mission, sits in the hatch of the Command Module after its return to the Manned Spacecraft Centre’s Lunar Receiving Laboratory for detailed examination after the mission. Credit: NASA

Collins is the unsung hero of Apollo. While Armstrong and Aldrin held the world’s attention, he quietly circled the Moon in the Command and Service Module. A natural loner, he stated he never really felt lonely, and in the 48 minutes of each orbit when he was out of radio contact with the Earth as  Columbia passed round the far side of the Moon, not was he afraid. Rather, he felt “awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation”.

He was also the man perhaps carrying the heaviest burden: if anything went wrong with the Lunar Module that left his colleagues  stranded, he would have to abandon them to their deaths and return to Earth alone.

While this eventuality was rarely a subject of open conversation at NASA, a eulogy to be read by Nixon should the worse befall Armstrong and Aldrin.

Well that’s an unpleasant thing to think about, and we’ve chosen not to think about that up to the present time. We don’t think that’s at all a likely situation, it’s certainly a possible one.  But at the present time, we’re left without recourse should that occur.

– Neil Armstrong responding to a BBC question during a pre-launch
press conference about the risk of the Lunar Module being unable to leave the Moon

During his time alone, Collins was occupied with keeping track on the Lunar Module from orbit – something that proved harder than anticipated. He also performed assorted maintenance task in the Command Module, which he came to regard as his personal space to the extent he wrote a dedication to the vehicle in the equipment bay:

Spacecraft 107 — alias Apollo 11 — alias Columbia. The best ship to come down the line. God Bless Her. Michael Collins, CMP

He also dealt with a potential malfunction in the vehicle’s coolant system which, if unchecked, might have resulted in parts of Columbia freezing. Mission Control advised him to follow a complicated procedure for taking manual control of the system as he passed out of radio range around the far side of the Moon. When he regained radio contact, he reported the issue dealt with – but didn’t tell them that all he did was flick the system to manual and then back to automatic!

Two of the most iconic images from Apollo 11: the picture often used to illustrate Armstrong’s “one small step” – but actually a photo Aldrin took of one of his on boot imprints in the lunar dust; and a shot of Aldrin with his sun visor down, Armstrong reflected in it as he takes the photo. Credit: NASA

The Voyage Home

Whilst trying to stow the sample boxes in the unpressurised LM at the end of their EVA, Aldrin accidentally struck his flight console with his backpack, broke the switch need to arm a circuit breaker that would allow the Eagle’s ascent motor and return the men back to orbit. With the switch broken, there was no way to tell if the circuit breaker was armed, and while there wa a back-up means to arm the motor systems, it would require a split-second response from Aldrin if the breaker did fail.

It was a problem Mission Control were still pondering after Armstrong and Aldrin woke from their 7-hour rest period and set about preparing the Eagle for its return to orbit. However, it was Aldrin who found the solution. As the breaker was a simple push-in type, he would simply insert the end of a pen into the hole left by the broken switch and push that to trip the breaker.

The trick worked, and with Armstrong at the controls, the upper section of the Eagle fired its motor at 17:54:00 UTC, on July 21st, 2019. At the same time explosive bolts blew, freeing the ascent stage from the lower half of the Lunar Module, and it shot upwards, leaving behind not only the LM descent stage, the experiments and the equipment Armstrong and Aldrin had dumped, but also a memorial package containing an Apollo 1 mission patch to commemorate the three astronauts killed in that fire, medallions honouring  Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and Vladimir Komarov, the first man to die in a space flight, and a silicon disk etched with goodwill messages from 73 nations. Also, as the ascent module rose, Aldrin witnessed exhaust gasses from its motor topple over the flag. As a result, future crews would place their flags further away from their Lunar Modules.

In order to rendezvous with the CSM, Eagle executed a series of burns, including two behind the Moon, in a complex 4-hour sequence. At the same time, Collins remained ready to lower Columbia’s orbit to achieve rendezvous should Eagle encounter difficulties. However, Eagle behaved flawlessly, docking with Columbia 21:35 UTC on July 21st, 1969.

This picture, taken on July 21st, 1969 represented every single living human being born on Earth, except one. Michael Collins, the man who took it. Credit: NASA

Two hours after docking, with Aldrin, Armstrong and their cargo of samples transferred to the Command Module, the Eagle’s ascent stage was jettisoned. As it started drifting up and away from the CSM, there was a real risk that as both vehicles completed their next orbit of the Moon they would arriv back at the same point and collide, so 20 minutes later, Collins performed a short retrograde burn, putting the CSM “ahead” of the LM in their respective orbits as the crew prepared for their critical TEI – trans-Earth injection – burn to start their journey back to Earth.

TEI took place at 04:55:42 UTC on Tuesday, July 22nd, with Collins firing the Service Module’s big motor for just over 2.5 minutes. That provided the CSM with enough delta-v to swing around the Moon, escape its gravity and start the trek back to Earth.

Once on their way, the crew engaged in two broadcasts to Earth, and during one, they each made a personal statement about the mission. In his, Aldrin broke with recent NASA protocol (the as a result of the on-going lawsuit with atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who sought to prevent astronauts as federal employees from broadcasting religious statements), and quoted the Bible.

This has been far more than three men on a mission to the Moon; more, still, than the efforts of a government and industry team; more, even, than the efforts of one nation. We feel that this stands as a symbol of the insatiable curiosity of all mankind to explore the unknown … Personally, in reflecting on the events of the past several days, a verse from Psalms comes to mind. “When I consider the heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the Moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained; What is man that Thou art mindful of him?

– Buzz Aldrin, aboard the Apollo 11 Command Module, July 23rd, 1969

The final phase of the mission came as Apollo 11 approached Earth. Travelling at 40,000 km/h (25,000 mph), it could not enter orbit, instead, the Command Module, having jettisoned the Service Module, had to plough heat shield first into the upper reaches of the atmosphere and use the generated resistance to slow itself down.

However, a storm was approaching the planned splash-down location in the Pacific Ocean, so the decision was made to relocate the splashdown a further 398 km (215 nautical mi) downrange. This meant the crew would have to use an untried re-entry sequence. Entering the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere at 16:35:05 UTC on July 24th, the new sequence subject the crew to two separate high-gravity loads, the first reaching 6.5 standard gravities, the second 6.0 gravities.

Entry into the atmosphere heats the gases around a vehicle, and ionisation of these super-heated gases prevents any radio communication for a period of time.  With Apollo, this was generally around 3-4 minutes. But because of the change in Apollo 11’s re-entry vector, it was almost 6 minutes before communications wer re-established.

Apollo 11 splashed-down 15 minutes 30 seconds after entry into the atmosphere, some 24 km (13 nmi). from the primary recovery vessel the USS Hornet. A rough swell rolled the capsule over, and it took several minutes for the floatation gear in the nose of the capsule to right it. By that time, recovery divers from the Hornet’s helicopters were in the water alongside the capsule. In 2018 one of those divers, John Wolfram, credited as the first man to greet the Apollo 11 crew on their return to Earth, posted a video of that recovery operation.

While the possibility of bringing back pathogens from the lunar surface was considered remote, Apollo 11, 12 and 14 all featured isolation protocols just in case. This involved the astronauts donning biological isolation garments (BIGs) and being sprayed with decontamination liquids before being airlifted back to their recovery ship where they transferred to a special Mobile Quarantine Facility, marking the start of a 21-day quarantine period (this practice was dropped after Apollo 14, when it had been confirmed the Moon was lifeless).

The capsule was also treated to a decontamination process that started while it was still floating on the Pacific ocean and continued after it has also been recovered as well. Columbia normally resides at the US National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC, but in 2017 it was removed for restoration in readiness for a four-city tour of the United States a part of a special Apollo 50th anniversary display, which is due to conclude in September 2019.

A jubilant Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin in the MQF aboard the USS Hornet. Credit: NASA

After their time in quarantine – mainly at a facility built at the Manned Spacecraft Centre – the three Apollo 11 astronauts participated in a range of events, including a celebratory ticker-tape parade in New York City on August 13th, 1969, speaking before a joint session of Congress on September 16th, 1969. Then, on September 29th, 1969 commenced a 38-day world tour visiting 22 countries.

None of them opted to ever fly in space again.

The Apollo programme was, ultimately, a political act, designed to demonstrate America’s leadership. None of the expectations voiced during its development – going forward to Mars within two decades, routine flights to and from the Moon, etc., – came to pass. But that should no denigrate the achievement of Apollo, or of the historical significance of Apollo 11.

Through the programme, America did demonstrate its prowess; but more particularly, the massive returns Apollo gave to science, engineering, computer technology and more, allowed the United States to extend its status as the predominant technological and economic force in the latter half of the 20th century. It also, perhaps more than any other single programme, started to shift our perception of ourselves as a species and the planet around us.

Apollo 11 itself certainly united the people of the world like no other event before or since; 20% of the Earth’s 3.7 billion people watched Armstrong and Aldrin walk on the Moon. It remains through to this day, one of humankind’s towering achievements.

Apollo 11 remembered.

Neil Armstrong sadly passed away in 2012. Today, Buzz Aldrin remains engaged in space advocacy, and vociferous supporter of the human exploration of Mars. After spending time in public service, Michael Collins opted for a lower-profile life, but remains passionate about the potential of space exploration. He is active on Twitter, and frequently runs mini Ask Me Anything threads, addressing questions about the Apollo, space exploration and the Apollo 11 mission.