The ghostly, white-clad figure slowly descended the ladder. Having reached the bottom rung, he lowered himself into the bowl-shaped footpad of Eagle, the spindly lunar module of Apollo 11. Then he extended his left foot, cautiously, tentatively, as if testing water in a pool—and, in fact, testing a wholly new environment for man. That groping foot, encased in a heavy multi-layered boot (size 9½B), would remain indelible in the minds of millions who watched it on TV, and a symbol of man's determination to step—and forever keep stepping—toward the unknown.
After a few short but interminable seconds, U.S. Astronaut Neil Armstrong placed his foot firmly on the fine-grained surface of the moon. The time was 10:56 p.m. (E.D.T.), July 20, 1969. Pausing briefly, the first man on the moon spoke the first words on lunar soil:
"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
With a cautious, almost shuffling gait, the astronaut began moving about in the harsh light of the lunar morning. "The surface is fine and powdery, it adheres in fine layers, like powdered charcoal, to the soles and sides of my foot," he said. "I can see the footprints of my boots and the treads in the fine, sandy particles." Minutes later, Armstrong was joined by Edwin Aldrin. Then, gaining confidence with every step, the two jumped and loped across the barren land scape for 2 hrs. 14 min., while the TV camera they had set up some 50 ft. from Eagle transmitted their movements with remarkable clarity to enthralled audiences on earth, a quarter of a million miles away. Sometimes moving in surrealistic slow motion, sometimes bounding around in the weak lunar gravity like exuberant kangaroos, they set up experiments and scooped up rocks, snapped pictures and probed the soil, apparently enjoying every moment of their stay in the moon's alien environment.
After centuries of dreams and prophecies, the moment had come. Man had broken his terrestrial shackles for the first time and set foot on another world. Standing on the lifeless, rock-studded surface he could see the earth, a lovely blue and white hemisphere suspended in the velvety black sky. The spectacular view might well help him place his problems, as well as his world, in a new perspective.
Although the Apollo 11 astronauts planted an American flag on the moon, their feat was far more than a national triumph.* It was a stunning scientific and intellectual accomplishment for a creature who, in the space of a few million years—an instant in evolutionary chronology—emerged from primeval forests to hurl himself at the stars. Its eventual effect on human civilization is a matter of conjecture. But it was in any event a shining reaffirmation of the optimistic premise that whatever man imagines he can bring to pass.
It was appropriate that the event was watched by ordinary citizens in Prague as well as Paris, Bucharest as well as Boston, Warsaw as well as Wapakoneta, Ohio. In practically every other corner of the earth, newspapers broke out what pressmen refer to as their "Second Coming" type to hail the lunar landing. Poets hymned the occasion. Wrote Archibald MacLeish:
silver evasion in our farthest thought—
"the visiting moon" ... "the glimpses of the moon" ...
and we have touched you! ...
Three days and three nights we journeyed,
steered by farthest stars, climbed outward,
crossed the invisible tide-rip where the floating dust
falls one way or the other in the void between,
followed that other down, encountered
cold, faced death—unfathomable emptiness.
U.S. space officials, normally as detached and professionally cool as the astronauts they sent into space, in their own way also grew poetic. "We have clearly entered a new era," said Thomas O. Paine, Administrator of NASA. "The voices coming from the moon are still hard to believe."
For those who watched, in fact, the whole period that began with Eagle's un-docking from Columbia, the command module, and its descent to the moon seemed difficult to believe. No work of the imagination, however contrived, could have rivaled it for excitement, suspense and, finally, triumph.
The Eagle Has Wings
As the orbiting command module and the lunar module emerged from behind the moon, having undocked while they were out of radio communication, an anxious capsule commentator in Houston inquired: "How does it look?" Replied Armstrong: "The Eagle has wings," The lunar module was on its own, ready for its landing on the moon.
Behind the moon again, on their 14th revolution, Eagle's descent engine was fired, slowing the module down and dropping it into the orbit that would take it to within 50,000 ft. of the lunar surface. The crucial word from Houston was relayed by Michael Collins, Columbia pilot, when a burst of static momentarily cut Eagle off from the ground: "You are go for PDI [powered descent insertion]." Again Eagle's descent engine fired, beginning a twelve-minute burn that was scheduled to end only when the craft was within two yards of the lunar surface. One of the most dangerous parts of Apollo 11 's long journey had begun.
Now the tension was obvious in the voices of both the crew and the controller. Just 160 ft. from the surface Aldrin reported: "Quantity light." The light signaled that only 114 seconds of fuel remained. Armstrong and Aldren had 40 seconds to decide if they could land within the next 20 seconds. If they could not, they would have to abort, jettisoning their descent stage and firing their ascent engine to return to Columbia,
At that critical point, Armstrong, a 39-year-old civilian with 23 years of experience at flying everything from Ford tri-motors to experimental X-15 rocket planes, took decisive action. The automatic landing system was taking Eagle down into a football-field-size crater littered with rocks and boulders, Armstrong explained: "It required a manual takeover on the P-66 [a semiautomatic computer program] and flying manually over the rock field to find a reasonably good area." The crisis emphasized the value of manned flight. Had Eagle continued on its computer-guided course, it might well have crashed into a boulder, toppled over or landed at an angle of more than 30° from the vertical, making a later takeoff impossible. Said a shaken Paine in Houston's Mission Operations Control Room: "It crossed my mind that, boy, this isn't a simulation. Perhaps we should come back for just one more simulation."
Now the craft was close to the surface. "Forty feet," called Aldrin, rattling off altitudes and rates of descent with crackling precision. "Things look good. Picking up some dust [stirred up on the surface by the blasting descent engine]. Faint shadow. Drifting to the right a little. Contact light! O.K. Engine stop." Armstrong quickly recited a ten-second check list of switches to turn off Then came the word that the world had been waiting for
"Houston," Armstrong called. "Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed." The time: 4:17:41 p.m,, E,D.T., just about H minutes earlier than the landing time scheduled months before, It was a wild, incredible moment. There were cheers, tears and frantic applause at Mission Control in Houston "You got a lot of guys around here about to turn blue," the NASA communicator radioed to Eagle "We're breathing again." A little later, Houston added: "There's lots of smiling faces in this room, and all over the world." "There are two of them up here," responded Eagle. "And don't forget the one up here," Collins piped in from the orbiting Columbia.
For the next 3 hrs. 12 min., Armstrong and Aldrin busily read through check lists and punched out computer instructions, making all Eagle systems ready for a quick takeoff if it should become necessary. Aldrin took time to describe the landing site: "It looks like a collection of just about every variety of shapes, Angularities, granularities, every variety of rock you could find."
After it became evident that the sturdy, 16-ton craft had survived the landing unscathed, the astronauts, eager to explore their new world, requested permission to skip their scheduled sleep period and leave Eagle around four hours earlier than planned, "Tranquillity Base," radioed Houston, "we've thought about it, We will support it."
Armstrong and Aldrin struggled to put on their boots, gloves, helmets and backpacks (known as PLSS, or Portable Life Support System), then depressurized Eagle's cabin and opened the hatch Wriggling backward out of the hatch on his stomach, Armstrong worked his way across the LM "porch" to the ladder and began to climb down On his way he pulled a lanyard that opened the MESA (Modularized Equipment Storage Assembly) and exposed the camera that televised the remainder of his historic descent. Thus the miracle of the moon flight was heightened by the miracle of TV from outer space, made possible by a special miniature camera. Because the camera had to be stowed upside down for a few seconds, Armstrong was turned topsy-turvy in the picture; a NASA television converter quickly righted it.
On the moon, even the taciturn Armstrong could not contain his excitement. He could not, of course, have known about the gentle admonition made by his wife Janet as she watched the mission on TV: "Be descriptive now, Neil." Yet suddenly he began to bubble over with detailed descriptions and snap pictures with all the enthusiasm of the archetypal tourist. Houston had to remind him four times to quit clicking and get on with a task of higher priority: gathering a small "contingency" sample of lunar soil that would guarantee the return of at least some moon material if the mission had to be suddenly aborted.
"Just as soon as we finish these pictures," said Armstrong. Scooping up the soil, he reported: "It's a very soft surface. But here and there, where I probe with the contingency sample collector, I run into very hard surface." Even his geologic descriptions bordered on the rhapsodic "It has a stark beauty all its own. It's like much of the high desert of the United States. It's different, but it's very pretty out here."
Aldrin, obviously itching to join Armstrong, asked: "Is it O.K. for me to come out?" As soon as he touched the surface, he jumped back up to the first rung of the ladder three times to show how easy it was. Then, delighted with his new-found agility despite the 183 Ibs. of clothing and gear that he carried, he became the first man to run on the lunar surface.
[More are coming soon...]
Time Magazine, 25 July 1969
Last Updated (Friday, 17 May 2013 11:17)