To the Moon and back: 50 years on, a giant leap into the unknown

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The first four days of Apollo 11’s journey to the Moon had gone according to plan, but just twenty minutes before landing, the atmosphere grew tense as the crew encountered a series of problems. It was July 20, 1969, and as the world followed the spacecraft’s progress, it briefly lost radio contact with mission control in Houston.

Then, as the lunar module Eagle was in the middle of its descent, piloted by Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and mission commander Neil Armstrong, an alarm bell began ringing. Eagle had detached two hours earlier from the main part of the vessel, the command module, Columbia, where the third crew member Michael Collins remained in orbit. It was an anxious moment for Armstrong, a brilliant test pilot and aeronautical engineer, but a man of famously few words.

“Give us a reading on the 1202 Program Alarm,” he radios to mission control. They are told to keep going. Houston realizes the onboard computer is experiencing an overflow, but all systems are functional. Below them, the Moon’s craters are zipping by fast. Too fast, realizes Armstrong: at this rate, they will overshoot the landing site by several miles. He switches to manual control and starts to scope out a new landing site from his porthole. But there’s trouble finding the perfect spot, and it’s going to be tight.

“Pretty rocky area,” he tells Aldrin. Aldrin continues to tell him speed and altitude readings from the computer. “Coming down nicely,” he says. “Gonna be right over that crater,” Armstrong replies. Meanwhile, the fuel is rapidly depleting. Houston continues to announce the number of seconds left to the “Bingo fuel call” — the point at which Eagle will have 20 seconds left to land, or abort the mission.

It is now 30 seconds left to Bingo. Armstrong, summoning all his experience, is silent as he concentrates. The module comes to a rest on the ground. “Contact Light,” says Aldrin, meaning one of the leg’s foot sensors has touched down. The engines are switched off. “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,” announces Armstrong. “We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot,” replies Charlie Duke, the CapCom or capsule communicator on the ground.

– Nazi rocket man –

History records that the number of people who worked on the Apollo program was 400,000. But two figures tower above the rest for their contributions. In 1961, President John F Kennedy called upon his vice president Lyndon Johnson to beat the Soviets in space. “We are in a strategic space race with the Russians, and we are losing,” Kennedy had written in a magazine the year before. “If a man orbits Earth this year, his name will be Ivan.”

Johnson reaches out to the godfather of NASA’s space program: Wernher von Braun. The former card-carrying Nazi was the inventor of the V-2 rockets that rained destruction on London in World War II. Toward the end of the war, he surrendered himself to the Americans, who brought him and a hundred of his best engineers to Alabama, as part of the secret “Operation Paperclip.”

Von Braun told Johnson that while the US was well behind, they could conceivably beat the Russians when it came to putting men on the Moon, if they immediately started work on a giant booster rocket. Kennedy would address Congress later that year, famously committing “to landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” by the decade’s end.

Eight years later, Richard Nixon was president when the goal was realized. In case of a tragedy, he had prepared the following remarks: “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.”



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