By Roderick Sergiades
I have the most amazing memory. For instance, I can remember what I was doing late Sunday evening, July 20, 1969 and, no, it was not watching The Ed Sullivan Show. Instead, I was sleeping. Impressive, eh?
Of course, when I’ve randomly mentioned that date to friends and relatives of a certain age they, too, can also recall what they were doing late that night – and it wasn’t sleeping! Maybe my memory is not so remarkable?
Fortunately my parents were not asleep at the switch. They woke me up later that night so I could watch on glorious black and white television, like 20 per cent of the world’s population (600 million, including 35,000 spectators crammed into Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square), what Toronto mayor William Dennison called the greatest day in human history.
The Globe and Mail (and countless other newspapers the world over) the next day put it so eloquently in their screaming front-page headline: MAN ON MOON. Actually, it was two men.
Just hours earlier the Lunar Module (or ‘LEM’ as it was commonly called) Eagle had landed in the Sea of Tranquility on Earth’s closest neighbour at 4:17:39 p.m. (EDT). Unlike The Globe, Commander Neil Armstrong was a wee bit more reserved when he radioed, “Houston, uh, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed”. After two hours and five minutes had elapsed since separating from the Command Module (CM) Columbia, and a four and a half day voyage from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, mankind had touched the heavens.
Armstrong and lunar module pilot Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin were expected to then grab five hours of shuteye. But, no doubt, overcome by the excitement of it all elected to immediately begin preparations for the first moonwalk, as CM pilot Michael Collins orbited the mother ship 62 to 76 miles (100 to 122 km) above the lunar surface.
Still hours before leaving the LEM, Aldrin took the opportunity to say, “This is the LEM pilot. I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way”. He then took communion, complete with chalice, privately. When Armstrong set foot on the lunar landscape at 10:56:15 p.m., it was the first time in history that man walked upon a foreign celestial body. The dream that had inspired countless imaginations since ancient times was now reality. It had been accomplished, in part, with a spaceship computer less powerful than any mobile phone and a Saturn V rocket launch that could be felt under people’s feet some 20 miles (32 km) away!
Although it was the Americans who pulled off this absolutely colossal feat in the midst of the great space race with the Soviet Union, it was nevertheless an accomplishment all humanity could revel in. It was not just a great technological achievement, but also a tremendously emotional, psychological, and spiritual triumph. On the latter, all 12 men to walk the moon (between 1969 and 1972) were said to be reborn spiritually.
Yet watching from the comfort of our homes what appeared to be a flawlessly scripted moon landing ideal for TV was, in fact, a far from certain outcome. Then U.S. President John F. Kennedy knew this when he outlined his government’s goal in a 1961 speech by stating “before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
As the LEM descended towards the lunar surface, Armstrong realized that not only were they four miles (6.4 km) off course and over a boulder-strewn field, they may not have enough fuel to safely land as the commander looked for an alternate landing site. A mid-descent abort was possible but dangerous. Complicating matters were two different alarms responding to contradictory computer data. With only 50 seconds of fuel remaining, they safely landed, although their instruments led them to believe they had just half that!
With that scare behind them, Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, the second person to walk where no man had gone before had to remember not to accidentally latch the hatch shut when he exited the Eagle. For it had no outer handle and locksmiths charge double for Sunday calls.
U.S. President Richard Nixon had a special speech prepared which he hoped would remain unheard. Named In Event of Moon Disaster, it would be read on live television in the event the astronauts were marooned on the moon and would be accompanied by a priest who would “commend their souls to the deepest of the deep” in a ceremony akin to a burial at sea.
Fortunately, the EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity or moonwalk) Armstrong and Aldrin performed for over two hours went off without a hitch. Although the astronauts found it difficult to exit and enter the small hatch with their bulky PLSS (portable life support system) backpacks. That was often the most stressful exercise for Apollo astronauts.
As Armstrong moved onto the ladder, he radioed: “Okay, Houston, I’m on the porch”. From there, he slowly made his way down, describing the surface dust as “very fine-grained” and “almost like a powder”. Stepping off Eagle’s foot-pad, Armstrong said, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind”, and then walked about on the slippery surface.
Since those fateful words were spoken, there has been some debate as to whether he said “a” before “man”. In recent years, the recording has been digitally analyzed, which shows the ‘a’ was actually spoken, as Armstrong always said, and was most likely obscured by static.
When Aldrin set foot on the lunar landscape 19 minutes after Armstrong, he said the view was “magnificent desolation.”
After 21 and a half hours on the moon collecting 47-1/2 lbs of rocks and dust, it was time to leave. Mission Control was somewhat nervous, as they considered the lunar blastoff the mission’s most dangerous moment. Fortunately, this passed without incident and a little over eight days after they left Florida, all three astronauts were safely grounded on the USS Hornet in the North Pacific for what surely must be the most arduous transiting ever of North America. More importantly, Kennedy’s ambitious quest was now complete.
This July, NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) in concert with the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, will be celebrating this golden anniversary with various exhibitions. Likewise, Houston, Texas, home of Mission Control, will also hold various celebrations, as will venues throughout the United States this year.
For those of us unable to join Aldrin, Collins and the above events, there are still many reasonably priced collectibles to be had to remind us of one sleepless night half a century ago. Where has the time gone?