Forty-five years ago this weekend, humans landed on the moon for the first time as astronauts from the Apollo 11 spaceflight began exploring the lunar surface on July 20, 1969.
NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin spent only a few hours on the moon on that first voyage, but their accomplishment still stands tall more than four decades after humans first visited another celestial body, far from the bonds of Earth.
To commemorate that historic first moon mission, eWEEK talked with several former NASA Mission Control engineers who worked to support Apollo 11 back then, helping to guide the three-man crew through the launch, the voyage to the moon, the landing and the long return to Earth. (Astronaut Michael Collins, who piloted the command module and didn't land on the moon's surface, remained in moon orbit while his crewmates explored the lunar surface.)
Forty-five years after the success of Apollo 11, the former engineers still beam with pride and excitement about the spaceflight and its events. Gene Kranz was one of several flight directors for Apollo 11 at Houston's Mission Control headquarters at the time, while John "Jack" Garman was a 24-year-old NASA computer engineer. Jerry Bostick was a 30-year-old engineer who was a member of Kranz's flight team for the mission. Garman and Bostick were two of the many flight engineers who worked with the early open-source software that helped take Apollo 11 to the moon.
The nail-biting landing of Apollo 11's lunar module on the moon's surface on July 20, 1969, is still what Garman remembers the most. "It's like yesterday and at the same time, it's like it happened long ago in a galaxy far, far away," he said. "My biggest memory was when Buzz Aldrin said, 'picking up some dust'" as the lunar module's lone engine stirred up a large cloud of lunar dust as the spidery craft touched down on the surface of the moon.
Why was that so memorable?
Because in more than 100 realistic simulations of the landing on computerized training equipment, dust was never raised and not anticipated or programmed into the simulations, said Garman. Yet as the lunar module descended, there it was, he said. "This wasn't in the simulations. It was real."
And as the landing was finally happening, with the craft almost on the moon, there was a bit of a lull for the members of NASA's Mission Control staff, who at that point could do little more than just watch as the landing unfolded. "There was nothing the ground crew could do at that point, so you didn't have to focus so hard," he said. That allowed the Mission Control crew to really take in the landing and savor it.
"It had an impact," he said.
It wasn't so relaxed as the lunar module was heading from an orbit around the moon down to its surface, he said. Just a short time before the actual landing, two sets of loud program alarms went off as the lunar module descended, said Garman. At the time, no one knew why the alarms, which were setting off master caution and warning lights, were going off.
It turned out that the alarms sounded as the landing craft's onboard computer switched from two-second information reporting cycles to one-second cycles, which resulted in too much data being received, and an alarm that notified Mission Control of the issue, he said.
"As engineer, I made a recommendation to keep going," said Garman. "You always look for a second cue, and the vehicle wasn't tumbling and there were no other indications of a problem. It soon happened again, a different alarm, as it descended further. As soon as I heard it, I said it was the same type of alarm and that 'we're go.'"