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.'”
Apollo 11: Looking Back at the First Moon Landing 45 Years Ago
It was quite a time to be working at NASA, Garman said, with the average age of the Mission Control workers about 27 or 28 years old. “We wrote our own [procedure] books. We didn’t have prior people to teach us anything.”
Jerry Bostick said that for him, many parts of the Apollo 11 mission remain very prominent even today, from the launch of the spacecraft atop the huge Saturn V rocket that propelled it away from the Earth, to the “trans-lunar injection” that rocketed the crew and their command and lunar modules directly to the moon. Those moments were all special, said Bostick, “with all of us in the control center feeling that this was for real; it was not a simulation or a practice mission. It was the real thing—we were headed for a landing on the moon.”
Also still memorable, he said, was the entrance of the spacecraft into a descent orbit around the moon and the actual landing. “When we heard [Aldrin say] ‘picking up some dust,’ it was a great relief. If they were that close, there was no question that they would safely land. Who can ever forget Neil stepping off the ladder?”
Getting to Apollo 11 wasn’t easy, Bostick added. “The first manned Apollo flight, Apollo 7, remains an unheralded mission,” he said. The Oct. 11, 1968, Apollo 7 mission came 21 months after the horrific January 27, 1967, launch pad fire that claimed the lives of three Apollo 1 astronauts, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. The three died when an electrical short ignited the capsule’s pure oxygen environment, causing an explosion. By Apollo 7, the command module capsule had been redesigned and made much safer, then put into Earth orbit to prove its airworthiness.
“It was the most jam-packed flight plan we had ever attempted and if not successful, the entire program would have been at risk,” said Bostick. “It was very successful and gave us enough confidence to fly the very next flight to the moon, Apollo 8. That flight is one of the boldest things NASA ever undertook and proved that we were able to do everything required to achieve President Kennedy’s goal [of landing men on the moon by the end of the decade and then returning them safely to Earth], except for the actual landing. It also proved to us that we were well in advance of the Soviet Union.”
To Gene Kranz, the legacy of Apollo 11 all these years later continues to be the talented and smart people who were on his flight control team in those heady days of Apollo, he said. “This was a group of young people, about 26 years old, who were willing to stand up to great opportunities in front of the world. And they stood up whether they did well or did poorly.”
One of the key reasons that the Mission Control flight engineers were so young was that many of the established NASA workers were unsure of the space program, said Kranz. “Space was such a new thing that they were not willing to risk their careers on space, so we were forced to have a relatively young team. By Apollo, we had to bring in young people because the people, who did [the earlier] Gemini [space program] were technical dinosaurs by that time.”
Kranz, now 81 years old, looks back philosophically at Apollo 11. “When we were doing the work, this was a very special mission to us all, but it was just one of a series of missions when we were moving to a high ground in space. As a team and as a nation, the real impact didn’t come through in those days. It’s really only now as we look back at it.”
Apollo 11: Looking Back at the First Moon Landing 45 Years Ago
It was one of history’s most significant events, said Kranz, but he is disappointed that it doesn’t seem to rank very high almost 50 years later. “The thing that is disturbing to me is that the history books today are treating it almost casually,” he said.
Nine months after the Apollo 11 mission, Kranz would play another huge role in NASA’s Apollo program. He was one of the key heroes who helped bring the three-man Apollo 13 crew home to Earth in April 1970, after an oxygen tank exploded and disabled the vehicle as the craft made its way toward to Moon. Tom Hanks later made a popular and well-received film, “Apollo 13,” about the spaceflight in 1995.
That amazing rescue mission is still a subject Kranz talks about 40 to 50 times a year in talks around the world. “I sort of feel that Apollo 11 has been forgotten because of this,” he said. “The movie ‘Apollo 13’ really affected three different groups,” including Kranz’s generation and those of his children and grandchildren, he said. “This had an incredible impact.”
Such a film also needs to be made about Apollo 11, he said. “What would be the impact if we did a similar story on Apollo 11, because that had its challenges and its heroes as well?”
For all three men, the early ending of the Apollo program with its 17th mission in 1972, after the cancellation of what would have been three more missions, Apollo 18 through 20, was disappointing.
“Yes, I think there are many regrets” about the cancellation, said Kranz. “As a nation, we have a propensity to move to do great things, and then once we do it, we tend to get distracted. There was even talk at the time of a mission that would have landed on the back side of the moon, which would have been one of riskiest ever. But it didn’t happen. It was a very difficult time after Apollo 17.”
Since Apollo and the Space Shuttle program, the United States has “sort of lost the big picture not only of space but of history, our nation, our future,” said Kranz. “We get so pre-occupied with trivia today. I look at these kids playing video games on their iPads” and see it as a waste of their minds. “Our pioneer spirit is part of our heritage. We are here through the courage of our pioneers. What do we have to do to our people and nation to get that back?”
Garman agreed. “Ending the Shuttle program, I think and many people think, was not the right thing to do at all,” he said. “It makes us dependent on Russia. Yes, the Shuttle was high-risk, but that is part of space. We don’t have a real mission [in space exploration] today, and that’s a real problem.”
While some people talk about humans going to Mars or to the moon in the future, “it’s not a funded or visible target,” said Garman. “I’m an optimist, though. I don’t see them cancelling human spaceflight. I think things will work out in the long run. I hope so.”
Bostick may be the one who is most disappointed by America’s current space exploration picture.
“After Apollo 11, the other lunar landings allowed us to really start exploring the moon,” he said. “Apollo 13 showed us and the world that we could solve very complicated and unrehearsed problems by refusing to accept defeat. A lot was accomplished through Apollo 17, but not nearly enough. We literally had only scratched the lunar surface. The cancellation of the program after Apollo 17 was a tragic mistake for our nation. The hardware was already in place and none of us involved could ever understand the rational for stopping there.”
Today, it’s even worse, said Bostick. “NASA today is not a pretty picture. Just like Apollo, the Space Shuttle program was stopped prematurely. The hardware was safer at the time of cancellation than at any previous time in the program. Now we have no way to get people into Earth orbit and must pay the Russians [didn’t we prove in the sixties that our technology was ahead of theirs?] for a ride to the International Space Station. In my opinion, NASA now has no goal. President Kennedy’s goal was clear and concise, with an objective and a schedule. Now there is no clear goal. Orion is a spacecraft being built with no objective; it may do this or it may do that. We may go to an asteroid someday, but we don’t know which one and when.”