Monthly Archives: July 2012

40 Years After Apollo 11: July 24 – Other Landing Day!

I never wrote a final entry back in 2009 (work?) So here are my thoughts from today, July 24, 2012.

Today is the day the astronauts return to Earth. As with yesterday, they’re exactly on course, and a mid-course correction burn is not needed, so Mission Control lets them sleep in an extra hour. But they get up early anyway. It’s only five hours until reentry. Still, they don’t seem to be in a huge hurry…

Astronauts get a lot of Tang…

CAPCOM: And Mike, if you’re on loop there, to extend the range and the constant-g re-entry, here, I’ve got a little procedure, if you would like to listen to it.

Mike Collins: Stand by one. I’m right in the middle of my orange juice. Be with you in about 5 minutes.

It’s raining in the target landing area, so the splashdown point is moved about 200 miles downrange, where it’s supposed to be sunny and nice.

As they approach Earth, they jettison the service module. Now, the little cone-shaped capsule at the top of the 363 foot-high rocket that left Earth is the only part returning.

When the weather is (was) bad for a Space Shuttle landing, Mission Control can just tell them to hold off on their de-orbit burn and stay up a little longer. That’s not how Apollo worked. They are hurtling towards Earth at 24,677 miles per hour – way faster than the Shuttle’s typical speed of 17,500 miles per hour.

Apollo no longer has any fuel, save for a tiny bit in the control thrusters to make sure the capsule hits the atmosphere at just the right angle. So they have one shot. They can’t go around and try again. They are about to hit the super-thin upper edge of the atmosphere. But at that speed, it will feel like something just short of hitting a brick wall.

Spaceships reentering the atmosphere are surrounded by hot, ionized gas due to the speed. This leads to a period of several minutes where radio communication is impossible. The people on the ground just have to wait, and assume that everything is going well. As Columbia is about to enter this blackout period, Neil Armstrong makes his last transmission from space:

“See you later.”

Now, the capsule hits the atmosphere. The astronauts are slammed into their seats by 6.5 G’s (that means they feel like they weigh 6.5 times what they normally do.) Their average weight was 162 lbs. (they’d lost 7 pounds during the 8 day trip,) so they each felt like they weighed around 1,050 lbs… and not for just a second or two, for four minutes! This coming right after 8 days of feeling no weight at all! There’s a reason why almost all the men who went to the Moon on Apollo were hot-shot fighter pilots.

On the other side of the blackout, the carrier U.S.S. Hornet is waiting for Columbia. It’s just before dawn in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Two helicopters with specially trained crews are already airborne, flying about, waiting for word of the capsule’s exact position.

Then, in the early morning light, they see it, floating down on three giant parachutes. Before the capsule can even hit the water, the primary helicopter is already hovering nearby.

The capsule lands, and the first humans to visit the surface of the Moon are home, after traveling 953,700 miles on a trip lasting 8 days, 3 hours, and 17-ish minutes!

So, this is 1969. Our time in space is still limited. There are people on the International Space Station who have been in space longer than the total amount of every astronaut and cosmonaut put together in 1969. And nobody knew – knew for certain – that there wasn’t life on the Moon.

You haven’t really enjoyed the Pacific until you’ve floated in it wearing a bunny suit.

Before opening up the hatch, the first rescue swimmer donned a full decontamination suit. And after he opened the hatch, he passed in three more for the crew to put on. Because what if all that lunar dust they were kicking up with their boots had tiny dangerous microbes?

Once the crew was out of the capsule and on the raft, they were hoisted one at a time into a helicopter. The helo flew to the carrier, landed, and was immediately taken below. Then the astronauts walked over into a converted RV trailer which would be their home for the next 21 days, while everyone waited to see if they’d suddenly turn into zombies or worse: space communists! At least, that was the official reason. Since President Nixon was on board to greet them, they might have just wanted to make sure he didn’t give them any of his cooties (see July 13’s entry.)

Here’s some raw film footage of the recovery. Add your own soundtrack!

The Hornet swung by the capsule and picked it up with a crane. Then it steamed to Hawaii. There, the RV with the astronauts and a Navy doctor and nurse was offloaded and put aboard a plane for Houston.

Little know fact: Neil wrote “Stairway to Heaven” on his ukulele during the 21 day quarantine, changing the tune along the way based on the amount of unholy screaming and clawing at the window his crewmates did.

Finally, after 21 days with nothing to do but sit around and listen to Neil play his ukulele, they were released from quarantine.

Then they got a proper welcome home.

Yeah, we did that. No big deal.

So what does it all mean? Well, we won the space race for America, but we lost the space war for humanity. By pushing so hard for the deadline to land on the Moon before 1970, we took a ton of shortcuts. Before Kennedy set that goal (and at the time, his reasoning wasn’t bad,) NASA was expecting to get a nice big space station built in orbit using this awesome new concept called a “space shuttle.” Then, they would assemble the parts needed for a lunar trip in orbit, and finally set off for the Moon. Once there, they could start work on a Moonbase.

But because of Kennedy’s goal, NASA had to design and implement what was basically a one-off mission, with no built-in permanence or follow-up. Even before Apollo 12 was launched, Congress was drastically cutting NASA’s funding and canceling future missions. After all, we had beaten the Soviets. That was the whole point, right? (We found out later that we really, really, really, really didn’t have to worry about the Russians beating us to the Moon. Really.)

What would have happened if things had progressed more “naturally?” We might have developed a properly funded, uncompromised space shuttle. We might have used it to build a nice big space station. We might then have used that space station as the starting point for trips to the Moon. The downside would have been that the first lunar landing probably wouldn’t have taken place until around 1980. It’s hard to say.

On the other hand, Apollo proved once again that America can do anything it sets its mind to if you can get enough of her population excited about something. Kids growing up in the 60’s had the most amazing science role-models in the history of the world. And they knew from an early age that if they wanted to be an astronaut, they had to study hard and learn all about science. Apollo fueled American innovation for well over a decade, and spawned a legion of young scientists and engineers to fuel it for another decade after that. American kids – and adults – learned that it was possible to dream big.

What do we teach kids today? Be petulant, unethical, loud, unempathetic, and you’ll get your own TV show and maybe a perfume.

While Apollo set us back in terms of a sustained presence in space, it kept America dreaming big for two more decades. And it did, in fact, accomplish the greatest feat in human history. We went to the Moon. We took the first steps off-planet. We can do it again, and we can do more. Apollo taught us that we just have to want it.

Hi there. I’m a human. This is part of my legacy.

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Sally Ride

Sally Ride was the third woman in space (the Soviets had sent up 2 previous to her: a textile worker in 1963 who was part of a propaganda ploy, and a kick-ass fighter pilot in 1982.) She managed to thrive … Continue reading

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40 Years After Apollo 11: July 23

Originally written on July 23th, 2009…

Neil, Buzz, and Mike are still heading home. The Earth is now bigger in the window than the Moon.

As usual, Mission Control read up a few news highlights to the crew when they woke up. One of the items was about a Memphis couple whose daughter was born on Landing Day. They named her Module. Her last name is McGhee. Her name is Module McGhee. So I’m sure there’s one person out there in the world who hates Apollo. (2012 update: Module McGhee is a special-ed teacher in Georgia and loves her name. So that’s cool.)

Columbia is so perfectly on course that a scheduled mid-course correction burn has been cancelled. Everything is looking good as they prepare for splashdown tomorrow. They are the third crew in history to be returning home from lunar orbit. This is all routine now.

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40 Years after Apollo 11: July 22

Originally written on July 22th, 2009…

Not much is happening today. Neil, Buzz, and Mike are heading home. They’re now far enough away from the Moon to where they can take a picture of the whole thing. It’s pretty much the same as when they were approaching it, except now there’s a used rocket, a nylon flag, and some science experiments on it. Plus now every Human from Earth can look up at it and say, “Yeah, we went there.”


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40 Years after Apollo 11: July 21

Originally written on July 21th, 2009…

Neil and Buzz, after spending about 20 hours on the Moon, head back up to join Mike in the command/service module. And as we’ve seen almost every step of the way with Apollo, they’ve left behind the part of their ship they won’t need anymore to save on fuel. All that’s coming back up to orbit is 44 pounds of rocks and soil, Neil, Buzz, and 10,000 pounds of aluminum and steel to keep them alive and safe. Once the two ships have docked, Neil and Buzz will move all their stuff – and their prized lunar samples – over to the command/service module. Then they’ll eject the lunar module, leaving it to orbit the Moon. A few hours later, they’ll fire the big rocket on the end of the service module to escape the Moon’s gravity and head home to Earth (that little blue thing off in the distance.)


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A Visit with Ben

?*BZAP* “Hello, Mr. Franklin.” “Well met, stranger. Wither are thou from, with such odd attire?” “I’m from the future, and I wanted to ask your opinion on something.” “Prithy do so.” “In the future, we have two sciences, psychology and … Continue reading

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40 Years after Apollo 11: July 20 – Landing Day!

Originally written on July 20th, 2009…

While working on this little chronicle, there have been days when I’ve really had to search to find pictures that were definitely from that day. Not so here. Around 300 pictures were taken on the surface of the Moon on this day 40 years ago. I’ll try to find a few of the less common ones.

But first, a note about the landing. It almost didn’t happen.

Neil and Buzz were heading for the surface, the lunar module’s rocket firing all the way, as there was no atmosphere to use to slow their decent. The rocket had to fire, and it had to fire all the way down. And that meant it was using fuel. And there was only so much room for fuel. That will become a problem in a minute.

Early in the decent, other problems were cropping up. The antenna, which was supposed to automatically point back to Earth, kept moving a little off the mark, causing the signal to drop out. Then Houston would have to call Mike in the command module and ask him to relay info to Neil and Buzz in the lunar module. Just when that problem was settling down…

“Program alarm!”

As you may know, the guidance computer in the lunar module was less powerful than an iPhone. How were they able to use something so primitive to do something so complex as land on the Moon? For one thing, the LM computer was only programmed to land on the Moon. It didn’t have a fancy graphic display, its user interface was a keypad with about as many keys as an ATM, and it could not be used to open a Word doc (not that any existed.) All it did was take input from the sensors on the LM and make small adjustments to the attitude and speed of the ship as it descended towards the Moon.

Big huge buttons for use by gloved hands

But now, suddenly, on the little pocket calculator-like display of the computer, Neil and Buzz saw “1202.” That may not seem ominous, but in the literally hundreds of hours of simulator time they’d been through, they’d never seen that code pop up!

Back on Earth, someone knew what “1202” meant. For every person sitting at a console in Mission Control, there was a whole room full of people in another part of the building to support that person. One of those guys, Steve Bales, was in charge of knowing everything there was to know about the LM computer’s program. He quickly called his guy in Mission Control. “We’re go on that.” And the call went up to Neil and Buzz. “We’re go on that alarm.” That’s all they needed to hear.

Later, they would find out that the alarm went off because the computer was overloaded. You see, they’d forgotten to turn off the radar used to dock and undock with the command module, so the computer was getting too much input and running out of memory. Apollo 11 was almost scuttled due to the ’60’s version of a spinning rainbow beach ball.

Now they were close to the surface, and Neil saw another problem. The area where they were supposed to land was strewn with 10-foot tall boulders. Not a good place to set down. So he grabbed the controls from the computer and pushed the ship forward. They were skimming across the lunar surface, Neil looking for a safe place to land, Buzz calling out the ever decreasing fuel numbers. Finally, Neil found a good spot, eased the speed back, and landed the LM. With about 15 seconds of fuel left.

After everything was shut down, Neil took the first picture from the surface of the Moon.


Neil got out first. After saying his (possibly) flubbed historic line, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for Mankind,” he took this first picture while on the surface. That bag there is called a “jett bag.” Since weight is at such a premium, the astronauts throw out their trash. Yes, first picture, and you can see we’re already litterbugs.


Neil took this picture of Buzz coming down the ladder after him. The surface of the Moon is very bright. It’s like one big bounce board. That’s why Buzz shows up so well in this picture, even though he’s in the LM’s shadow. That’s also why you don’t see any stars in Moon pictures. In order to take a picture of something bright (like the surface of the Moon,) you have to use a fast shutter speed and close the iris down on the camera. Otherwise everything would be washed out. Under those conditions, starlight is far too faint to show up.


Here’s the plaque on the side of the lander. It says, “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon. July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all Mankind.”


And then, kinda-sorta opposite to that, we have Buzz in front of the American flag. Why does it stand straight out like that, even though there’s no air (and therefore no wind) on the Moon? Well, they planned ahead. You can see the horizontal bar at the top of the flagpole. The flag is attached to it and it’s holding it out. It looks a little crumpled at the bottom because the flag is made of lightweight nylon fabric, and in that light gravity, it doesn’t even have enough weight to straighten itself out. Also, they didn’t pack an iron aboard Apollo 11.


Here Buzz is checking the little cheat sheet attached to his suit’s wrist. This is one of the most iconic photos from Apollo 11. The version here is the original, a little tilted, not exactly framed, and with the LM leg visible. That gold pole sticking into the middle of the frame is a landing probe. There was one on the bottom of each LM leg, so they’d know exactly when they made contact with the surface.


Just for fun, here’s a less iconic image from that day. Just like vacation photos, not every snap deserves a frame.


This shot gives you a sense of scale. That huge 363 foot tall Saturn V rocket was needed just to get this lightweight little ship to the Moon. But they’re going to leave the Moon with even less spaceship than they came with. Only the top part of the LM, the part not covered in foil, is going to blast off from the Moon.


And that’s it. After 2 1/2 hours on the Moon, Neil and Buzz went back inside. On later Apollo flights, the astronauts would stay on the surface longer, and do multiple EVA’s. But this was the trial. This was to answer the question, “Can we even do this?” Here’s the face of the first man to walk on the Moon to give you an answer.


Neil and Buzz will stay on the surface for a few more hours, then they’ll start the long journey home.

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40 Years after Apollo 11: July 19

I wrote a series of posts about Apollo 11 on the 40th anniversary of the mission back in 2009. It’s a cool story. So here it is again, day by day, using only pictures I could confirm were taken on the day in question…

Originally written on July 19th, 2009…

Apollo 11 has arrived in lunar orbit. As they swung around the far side of the Moon, they fired the service module rocket to slow them down enough to be captured by the Moon’s gravity.


Now, Neil and Buzz have floated over to the lunar module and separated from the command/service modules. (Here the LM is upside down, rotating so Mike in the command module can make sure everything looks okay.)


From the lunar module, Neil and Buzz can look back at Mike, who is now the most alone person in the universe.


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