A friend asked me once what I thought was the most significant news event to happen in my lifetime. He thought I my answer might be the 9-11 attack, or the John F. Kennedy assassination, or something along those lines.
I answered that I thought it was when we landed on the Moon.
That was a massive accomplishment!!!
It was the culmination of millions of years of evolution, including thousands of years of advances in mathematics, science, and technology.
It should be a national and international holiday.
In May 1961, when Kennedy proposed that the U.S. “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” he was raising the bar about as high as it could have been raised. It was an incredible challenge that would require new concepts, new designs, and new technology. It would also require tremendous effort, tremendous investment, and tremendous coordination.
Growing up, I had been a big fan of NASA ever since I could remember….
I was born when Explorer 1–the first satellite launched by the United States–was still sending data back to Earth, and a little over 5 months before NASA was formed. At one time, I knew every mission, the astronauts that flew them, the nicknames of the spacecraft, and what happened with each one.
By July 1969, I was following the flight of Apollo 11 as closely as I could. I was one of millions of people all over the world watching the Moon Landing (on CBS with Walter Cronkite, of course).
The technology was fairly primitive by today’s standards….
Nevertheless, the Apollo Guidance Computer was a massive breakthrough at the time with 2k of memory and 32k of storage to land on the Moon, and it could preform 8 tasks at once!!!
During the descent they first had some trouble with communications, and then, after that was resolved, two computer alarms went off: 1202 and 1201.
The astronauts had been trained in simulators for almost everything anybody could imagine happening. Usually, if anything like this happened, the answer was to “abort” the landing.
The astronauts didn’t know these alarms meant and had never trained for them.
And at first, even NASA didn’t know what they meant either.
Basically, what was happening was that the computer was getting too much information to process. However, it was set to reboot automatically when that happened and return to the same place it was before it had to reboot, so it was more like some hiccups in the system, and Mission Control was still getting data.[The people who wrote that software in assembly language to land on the Moon probably had to be more succinct in their coding than most any other software program that comes out today, and it wasn’t a fault with the software that caused the problem, it was when Aldrin turned on some radar that would be useful if they had to abort. Aldrin also noticed the correlation and suggested that his action was related to the alarms. The extra data coming in as a result of Aldrin flipping that switch was enough to exceed the computer’s capacity and sound the alarms.]
Imagine you are one of the two people in the Lunar Module on your way down to be the first in all of human history to land on the Moon. You’re doing something that’s NEVER been done before and millions of people all over the word are listening to every word you say and every breath you take. The hopes of humanity are all focused on you, your margin of error is incredibly tiny with death just out the window, just one small mistake away…. and alarms are going off on your landing computer.
NASA came back with a “go” on those alarms. In other words, “ignore them” and “keep going.”
When Armstrong could get a good look at the landing site situation, he realized that it wasn’t the one projected. They were 2 seconds off, so they were two miles further downfield than they planned.
They were headed to land in a crater with car-size rocks all around.
Armstrong decided to take control of the landing to the extent he could. He expended almost all the remaining fuel in the lander to land passed that. This took them another two miles away from the original landing site.
At the end, when his fuel was about to run out, and dust was blowing up from the landing thrusters–making it difficult for him to see exactly where he was landing (or what he might be landing on)–they finally touched down so gently that it was hardly noticeable.Buzz Aldrin says, “Contact light.”
However, they actually hadn’t ‘landed’ at this point. The landing legs had probes extending down and he was reporting that at least one of the probes had touched the surface.
Then Neil Armstrong says, “Shutdown” and Aldrin responds, “Okay. Engine stop.”
There was a short technical exchange between Armstrong and Aldrin that was part of the post-shutdown process, then there was the “official” announcement by Armstrong: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” [Houston was where Mission Control was located. Armstrong come up with the name “Tranquility Base” because they had landed in the lava-plain Mare Tranquillitatis (“Sea of Tranquility”). The “Eagle” was the name of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module.]
One can make an argument for any of these as the first words spoken from the Moon.
Regardless, considering all the pressure they were under and ongoing drama going on I just relayed, the words exchanged between the two astronauts and Mission Control during the entire descent are exceedingly calm.
Mission Control expresses the pent-up relief everyone must have felt once they had landed in their response, “Roger, Twan…Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”
Keeping all that in mind, this video is one of the best there is to watch the landing.