Okay, so it’s a little late for the anniverary…
It’s July 20, 1969. 400,000 people worked to bring two men to this point. And now, 33,000 feet above the moon, even with thousands of hours of simulation and training back on Earth, things weren’t going the way Neil and Buzz expected.
The radio link with Earth kept fading in and out. Buzz had to keep hitting the “reset” button to get their little dish antenna to point right at Earth. Meanwhile, Mike Collins in the Command Module “Columbia” was doing his best to relay messages from his ship in lunar orbit down to the “Eagle,” which was now just a few miles above the surface.
There’s no air on the Moon, so you can’t just glide to the surface. You have to fire a rocket, and keep firing it all the way down until you land. Now the fuel tanks on Eagle were starting to empty, and the liquid was sloshing around, causing the ship to wiggle back and forth. This was unexpected, too.
But Eagle was still in good shape. The engine was firing, slowing them a little more every second, bringing them a little closer to the surface of the Moon.
Suddenly, an alarm goes off. There are no computer screens aboard Eagle. There’s only a little 3-line, calculator-like display. And so the only information that comes to the astronauts with the alarm is the number “1202.” The astronauts have never seen this before. In all the simulations, in all the fake emergencies the engineers could think to throw at them, a 1202 has never shown up.
In Houston, 26-year-old Steve Bales sees the alarm on his screen. He helped program Eagle’s computer, a marvel of technology for the time, but less powerful than a modern cell phone. Steve knows what 1202 means. It means the tiny computer is being overloaded. Only much later will they find out that a radar had been left on when it should have been off, causing the computer to get too much data and slow down. But right now, Steve tells Gene Kranz, the head of Mission Control, that it’s okay to keep going. He says Eagle can still land, even with this computer problem.
The message goes back up to Eagle. “We’re go on that alarm.” That’s all they need to hear. They have complete trust in the people down in Houston. Buzz resets the computer and they continue down to the surface.
Up to this point, Neil and Buzz have been basically lying on their backs, looking up, as the engine fires forward to slow them down. Now, at 20,000 feet, the ship finally pitches over and they can see the moon below them.
As they descend, Buzz keeps his eyes on the little three-line computer display, reading off numbers to Neil. Neil is looking out the window, which has a number of little marks on it. He can tell where Eagle will land by listening to Buzz’s numbers and finding them on the window marks.
Now, at only 2,000 feet, Neil sees a big problem, the biggest one yet. The little marks on the window are telling him that he’s going to land on the side of a crater. Eagle will probably tip over, or be torn apart by the jagged rocks on the edge of the crater. Neil takes the joystick and turns off computer control. As they continue to descend, he jams the stick up and Eagle lurches forward at over 50 feet per second. Now only 400 feet above the surface, Neil can see he’s flying over not only a jagged crater, but a field of 10-foot-high boulders.
Neil asks Buzz, “How’s the fuel?”
Buzz responds, “Take it down.”
Neil finally sees a clear area. He’s so close to the surface that he can see the shadow of his ship. He pulls back on the stick and Eagle stops barreling over the lunar surface. Now it’s just a short 100 feet to landing.
Buzz gives the call, “Quantity light.” That means land in one minute or abort. But Buzz sees that Neil has things under control. “Drifting forward just a little bit. That’s good…” And then, “Contact light.” Neil shuts off the engine, and Eagle settles on the surface of the Moon with a whole 30 seconds’ worth of fuel left.
From Mission Control: “We copy you down, Eagle.”
Neil: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
Mission Control: “Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”
Seven hours later, Neil and Buzz are the first Humans to walk on the Moon.
And that, my children, is what we can do when we’re not fighting each other.
To see all the pictures, movies, and transcripts from the Apollo program, visit the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal.