50 years later, Apollo 11 remains a defining moment

A "giant leap for mankind"

William Harwood – CBS News

In a culture steeped in high technology, from wearable computers to the internet of things and rockets that fly themselves back to pinpoint touchdowns, the Apollo 11 moon landing and Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” are slowly fading from memory, a forever remarkable but increasingly distant bit of history.

After all, for anyone born after July 20, 1969, the day Armstrong set foot on the surface of the moon, there has never been a time when humanity was bound to Earth alone. For many, the stories of Apollo 11, five subsequent moon landings and the near disaster of who managed Apollo 11’s descent to the lunar surface, said Kennedy’s vision “established the direction for the nation to get moving. And the nation started moving.”

“The environmental movement was starting at that time, the Peace Corps was starting at that time, the civil rights movement was starting,” Kranz said in an interview, sitting at his console in the recently restored Apollo 11 mission control room at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“This was the start of not only the space revolution, but the technology revolution within our nation,” he said. Looking across the iconic consoles and screens that once displayed the second-by-second heartbeat of Apollo 11, he added: “This is where it all began.”

Long and difficult road to the moon

The road to the moon would be difficult, hugely expensive and in a few cases, marred by tragedy. Three astronauts — Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White — were killed Jan. 27, 1967, when a flash fire erupted and swept through their problem-plagued Apollo 1 command module during a launch pad test at Cape Canaveral.

Five other astronauts — Theodore Freeman, Charles Bassett, Elliot See, Edward Givens and Clifton “C.C.” Williams — were killed in aircraft crashes or car wrecks before getting a chance to fly in space.

Apollo 11 crew – Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, ‘Buzz’ Aldrin

The United States would eventually spend $25 billion — $288 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars — developing the technology to send 12 astronauts to the surface of the moon and to bring back 842 pounds of lunar soil and rocks. The bulk of those samples are carefully maintained at the Johnson Space Center.

While science was never the primary justification for Apollo, it remains, perhaps, its most enduring legacy.

“There is not a price tag on this collection,” said geologist Ryan Zeigler, NASA Apollo sample curator, during a CBS News tour of the laboratory where the rocks are stored. “And nor will we ever put a price tag on the collection. They’re truly priceless. That word gets thrown around a lot, but no amount of money would let me buy new Apollo samples.”

Andrew Chaikin, author of “Man on the Moon” and an authority on the Apollo program, adds another enduring legacy: “the perspective, the change in awareness, looking back at the Earth from the moon and seeing it as a planet and in the words of (astronaut) Jim Lovell, a ‘grand oasis in space.'”

“So many of the guys talk about the seeming fragility of Earth, that we live on a world that we need to protect and cherish,” he said. “We had pictures of the Earth from the moon from the robotic missions, but there’s nothing like having a person come back and talk about that experience.””

The moon program got off the ground with the successful launch of Apollo 7 on Oct. 11, 1968, a shakedown cruise for the redesigned post-fire Apollo command module in low-Earth orbit. NASA originally planned to follow that flight with an Earth-orbit test of the command and lunar modules.

But the lander was behind schedule and in a bold step — some NASA insiders consider it the boldest decision of the Apollo program — program manager George Low suggested sending the Apollo 8 capsule, carrying astronauts Frank Borman, William Anders and Lovell, on a flight to orbit the moon, the first piloted launch atop a Saturn 5 rocket.

Launched Dec. 21, 1968, the mission was a resounding success. In a live television broadcast from lunar orbit that Christmas Eve, the astronauts took turns reading the first several verses of Genesis, a moving moment that provided a hint of the drama to come.

Time magazine named the Apollo 8 crew members “Men of the Year” for 1968, the same year Martin Luther King was assassinated and Richard Nixon was elected president. The dizzying pace of the Apollo program was enough to make Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 vision of the future — “2001: A Space Odyssey” — with its commercial flights to orbit, giant space stations and moon bases, utterly believable.

NASA followed the Apollo 8 mission with a test of the strange-looking lunar lander in Earth orbit during the flight of Apollo 9 and then in orbit around the moon during Apollo 10, a dress rehearsal that tested all the maneuvers and procedures needed for a moon landing except the final descent to the surface.

The stage was finally set for Apollo 11.

A voyage into history

More than a million spectators gathered along area highways, waterways and beaches to take in the historic launch. More than 3,000 journalists looked on from a press site 3.2 miles from launch complex 39A where Apollo 11’s mammoth, 36-story-tall Saturn 5 rocket stood steaming in the morning sun as supercold liquid oxygen boiled off and was vented overboard.


At 8:32 a.m. (EST), July 26, 1969, the rocket’s five huge F1 engines roared to life, generating 7.5 million pounds of thrust as they gulped a staggering 15 tons of fuel per second. Ever so slowly, the gigantic Saturn 5, still the most powerful rocket ever flown, majestically climbed skyward, the deafening roar of its engines overwhelming shocked spectators when it finally reached them.

“We are off! And do we know it, not just because the world is yelling ‘lift-off’ in our ears, but because the seats of our pants tell us so!” Collins wrote in his memoir “Carrying the Fire.” “Shake, rattle and roll! Noise, yes, lots of it, but mostly motion as we are thrown left and right against our straps in spasmodic little jerks. It is steering like crazy.”

Twelve minutes later, the third stage, carrying the command module Columbia and the lunar lander Eagle, was safely in orbit. After double checking the health of the spacecraft, the crew re-started the single hydrogen-fueled third stage engine at 12:22 p.m., blasting the crew out of Earth orbit and on toward the moon at an initial velocity of seven miles per second.

An hour and a half later, Columbia separated from the third stage and the lunar lander. Collins took manual control, flipped Columbia 180 degrees, docked with the lander and pulled it free of the no-longer-needed third stage.

Three days later, the astronauts flew behind the moon and out of contact with mission control in Houston. Flying backward, the main engine in Columbia’s service module ignited at 1:21 p.m. on July 19, burning for five minutes and 57 seconds to slow the ship down enough to into orbit.

Armstrong wasted no time looking at the cratered surface below and comparing it to photos captured earlier by the crews of Apollo 8 and 10.

“Apollo 11 is getting its first view of the landing approach,” Armstrong radioed. “It looks very much like the pictures, but like the difference between watching a real football game and watching it on TV. There’s no substitute for actually being here.”

The next day, slipping behind the moon during their 12th lunar orbit, Armstrong and Aldrin undocked Eagle from Columbia for the historic descent to the surface.

“The Eagle has wings!” Armstrong said.

A few minutes later, Collins, alone aboard the command module, said farewell to his crewmates: “OK, Eagle … you guys take care.”

“See you later,” Armstrong replied. The stage was set for the most dramatic moments in the history of the space program.

The pressure was almost unbearable in mission control.

“You’d have had to be an idiot not to understand that this was the time we were going to try to land on the moon,” guidance officer Stephen Bales told the author in an earlier interview. “I was just scared to death, mortified. I was really glad I could talk. I was that scared.”

Despite initially poor communications, Kranz gave the crew a “go” for powered descent initiation, or PDI. Right on time, at 4:05 p.m., the lander’s engine fired up at an altitude of 50,000 feet. From there to the surface — the finish line in the Cold War space race — would take just 12 minutes.

Flying backwards as the descent engine fired, Armstrong and Aldrin initially were oriented feet first and face down toward the moon’s surface so they could visually monitor their trajectory. Armstrong realized Eagle would be “landing long,” that is, somewhat beyond the center of the planned landing zone.

The lander then rotated around its long axis, putting the astronauts face up toward deep space so its landing radar could “see” the surface of the moon. And as soon as the radar locked on, Bales saw Eagle was descending 25 feet per second faster than expected. If the descent rate increased to 35 feet per second, the crew would have to abort and make an emergency climb back to orbit.

But as the seconds ticked by, the rate did not increase. It was clear by now that Eagle would be landing long, but there were no signs of any other guidance problems and Bales decided the crew’s flight computer was behaving within acceptable limits.

Then, five minutes and 17 seconds into the 12-minute descent, an alarm suddenly blared in the cockpit and the crew saw a green alarm code — 1202 — flash on their guidance computer display.

“Program alarm,” Armstrong called out. “It’s a 1202.”

Seconds ticked by.

“Give us a reading on that 1202 program alarm,” Armstrong repeated.

Eleven days before launch, Kranz and the White Team, along with two astronauts standing in for Armstrong and Aldrin, went through a final landing simulation. In a remarkable stroke of either pure luck or prescient planning, the simulation engineers decided to throw a very similar program alarm into the practice run.

Bales, 26, and Jack Garman, a 24-year-old computer whiz in a nearby support room scrambled to come up with an explanation. Believing the computer was malfunctioning, Bales called for an abort.

As it turned out, the alarm simply meant the computer was overloaded, unable to complete all the required computations in a given cycle. As programmed, it was prioritizing its tasks and getting the most important calculations done before starting a new cycle. Bottom line? Bales should have allowed the landing to continue.

When Armstrong called down the 1202 alarm during the actual descent to the moon, Bales and Garman were ready. After verification from Garman, Bales told Kranz, “We’re go on that alarm.” More alarms cropped up as the descent continued, but Bales and Garman were increasingly confident they could be safely ignored.

Aldrin was too busy to acknowledge the 60-second call. He was providing a running commentary for Armstrong, giving him Eagle’s altitude, horizontal velocity and descent rate in feet per second.

“Down two and a half (feet per second). Forward. Forward. Good. 40 feet, down two and a half. Kicking up some dust. 30 feet, two and a half down. Faint shadow. Four forward. Four forward. Drifting to the right a little. OK. Down a half.”

“I’m starting to get sorta uptight,” Kranz recalled. “And pretty soon, it’s 30 seconds (of fuel remaining). And now I’m starting to really sweat it out.”

Then, just when Kranz was expecting to hear the 15-second warning, Armstrong set the lander down and shut down the engine.

“Houston, Tranquility Base here,” Armstrong said. “The Eagle has landed.”

Armstrong and Aldrin spent 21 hours and 36 minutes on the moon — two hours, 31 minutes and 40 seconds walking about its surface — before blasting off and rejoining Collins aboard Columbia. The astronauts splashed down in the Pacific Ocean four days later, on July 24. They never flew in space again.

Collins, author of what many consider the best book ever written by an astronaut — “Carrying the Fire” — and Aldrin, a still-vocal space activist and proponent of human flights to Mars, would both participate in 50th anniversary celebrations, but without their crewmate. Armstrong, the famously reticent “First Man,” died on Aug. 25, 2012, at age 82, after complications following heart surgery.

Planning a return to the moon

Fifty years after Apollo 11’s voyage into history, NASA is preparing to return astronauts to the surface of the moon by the end of 2024, using a huge new rocket called the Space Launch System, or SLS, and Orion capsules described as “Apollo on steroids.” They will dock with a mini space station in lunar orbit and descend to the surface in a commercially-built lander.

The program is known as Artemis, the sister of Apollo and goddess of the moon in Greek mythology. The 2024 target date, imposed by the Trump administration, may or may not be doable depending on whether Congress agrees to the increased spending required to turn the plan into reality.

Chaikin warns that despite 50 years of progress on the high frontier a return to the moon will not be easy despite having done it before. In an interview, he recalled a conversation with Max Faget, the brilliant engineer who designed the Mercury capsule and played a major role in the Gemini and Apollo programs.

Faget and Bob Gilruth, the first director of what is now the Johnson Space Center, were walking along a beach near Galveston, Texas, Chaikin said, and “there was a big moon up in the sky and they stood there looking at it.” Gilruth then said to Faget, “Max, someday people are going to try and go back to the moon. And they’re going to find out how hard it really is.”

all images courtesy NASA