On July 20,1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in the lunar module (LM), Eagle, and Armstrong became the first person to step on to the lunar surface six hours after landing on this date (July 21) at 02:56:15 UTC. Aldrin joined him about 20 minutes later. I could have waited until next year, which will be the 50th anniversary of the event to write this post, but round numbers are overrated. Besides, there will be cascades of posts on that day and my post will get lost. As it is, there is no need to record the actual events in detail here. You can get them from hundreds of sources, including personal accounts by Armstrong, Aldrin, and dozens of others who were involved. I want to do two things here before getting to my recipe: first, to take note of the incredible precariousness of all the Apollo missions, but especially Apollo 11, and to list some of the many missteps of the mission, any one of which could have proven fatal for the astronauts; and second, to give a few of my own memories of the event.
Back in the early 1960s when I was a young teen in South Australia I remember reading about the plans for landing a craft on the moon, and especially remember the early ideas for the procedure. It seemed a little like something Rube Goldberg would have dreamed up. There were so many complex stages, most notably having to detach the command module from the upper stage of the rocket, turn around, attach to the lunar module, and pull it out of the rocket stage. My boy’s comic, named Eagle, as it happens, had stories in it about rockets landing on other planets, and the voyages were not anywhere near as delicate nor complex as the Apollo missions. Dan Dare, for example, just hopped into his spaceship and traveled the galaxy like driving a (complicated) bus. Dan never worried about re-entry, gravity, flight trajectories, and so forth. Apollo flights, on the other hand, did have to deal with the realities of physics. The lunar landing craft had to be light and, hence, flimsy, and, so, could not withstand the rigors of takeoff from earth. Therefore, it had to be encased in a sturdy flight container for takeoff, but had to be released from the container once the craft was freed from earth’s atmosphere and the hard knocks of takeoff.
I followed the developments of the Apollo program as best I could, given that, at the outset, news media were really limited, and NASA did not reveal a whole lot as the missions went on. The launch pad fire and deaths of the astronauts on Apollo 1 grabbed headlines, of course, but in England, where I was living by then, news coverage was sparse. Mostly what I recall was that from before Apollo 1 to Apollo 11 it seemed as if there was a new mission every few weeks, as well as numerous test activities. It was not until Apollo 7 in October 1968 that we saw live television images of a flight crew, and from then on it seemed helter-skelter onwards until the actual moon landing. At the time, the technology seemed so sophisticated and close to science fiction, whereas now, when I look back on the Apollo missions I marvel that they managed to land on the moon at all. The laptop I am working on now has more computing power than NASA’s mainframe in 1969, and I have owned programmable calculators that can do more than Apollo 11’s onboard computer. What is more, the lunar modules for moon landings look less sturdy than a big cigar box on toy legs, and if you’ve ever seen originals or replicas in museums, you’ll know how amazingly small and cramped they were.
The fact that NASA kept secret from the general public so many of the missteps of the Apollo missions is no surprise, and it astounds me now to read about them, and to try to imagine the dangers the astronauts faced hourly, and how calmly they dealt with them (even though vital signs monitors show they were under almost constant stress). One of the minor details that sticks in my mind is that after Eagle landed on the moon, Armstrong and Aldrin were supposed to sleep for several hours before walking on the moon. Whose bright idea was that? Sure, you are the first people on the moon and in a while you will be walking on the surface, but, meanwhile, just tuck up and sleep. Yeah – that’s going to happen.
Here’s short list of some (not all) of the problems encountered by Apollo 11, any one of which could have been disastrous to the mission and to the astronauts:
(1) As the descent began, Armstrong and Aldrin found that they were passing landmarks on the surface four seconds too early and reported that they were “long” in their descent, meaning that they would land miles west of their target point. When Armstrong looked outside as they were nearing the surface, he saw that the computer’s landing target was in a boulder-strewn area just north and east of a 300-meter (980 ft) diameter crater (later determined to be West crater, named for its location in the western part of the originally planned landing ellipse). Armstrong took semi-automatic control and, with Aldrin calling out altitude and velocity data, landed at 20:17:40 UTC on Sunday July 20th with about 25 seconds of fuel left.
(2) Five minutes into the descent burn, and 6,000 feet (1,800 m) above the surface of the Moon, the LM navigation and guidance computer distracted the crew with the first of several unexpected “1202” and “1201” program alarms. Inside Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas, computer engineer Jack Garman told guidance officer Steve Bales it was safe to continue the descent, and this was relayed to the crew. The program alarms indicated “executive overflows”, meaning the guidance computer could not complete all of its tasks in real time and had to postpone some of them. Later Garman wrote
Due to an error in the checklist manual, the rendezvous radar switch was placed in the wrong position. This caused it to send erroneous signals to the computer. The result was that the computer was being asked to perform all of its normal functions for landing while receiving an extra load of spurious data which used up 15% of its time. The computer (or rather the software in it) was smart enough to recognize that it was being asked to perform more tasks than it should be performing. It then sent out an alarm, which meant to the astronaut, I’m overloaded with more tasks than I should be doing at this time and I’m going to keep only the more important tasks; i.e., the ones needed for landing.
(3) Apollo 11 landed with less fuel than other missions, and the astronauts encountered a premature low fuel warning. This was later found to be the result of greater propellant ‘slosh’ than expected, causing a malfunction in a fuel sensor. On subsequent missions, extra anti-slosh baffles were added to the tanks to prevent this.
(4) Armstrong initially had some difficulties squeezing through the hatch with his Portable Life Support System (PLSS). According to veteran Moon-walker John Young, a redesign of the LM to incorporate a smaller hatch had not been followed by a redesign of the PLSS backpack, so some of the highest heart rates recorded from Apollo astronauts occurred during LM exit and return.
(5) While moving inside the cabin on the moon, Aldrin accidentally damaged the circuit breaker that was supposed to arm the main engine for lift off from the Moon. There was initial concern that this damage would prevent firing the engine, stranding them on the Moon. Fortunately, a felt-tip pen was sufficient to activate the switch. Had this not worked, the Lunar Module circuitry could have been reconfigured to allow firing the ascent engine.
(6) On the return to Earth, a bearing at the Guam tracking station failed, potentially preventing communication on the last segment of the Earth return. A regular repair was not possible in the available time but the station director, Charles Force, had his ten-year-old son Greg use his small hands to reach into the housing and pack it with grease.
President Nixon’s speech writer William Safire had prepared “In Event of Moon Disaster” for the President to read on television in case the Apollo 11 astronauts were stranded on the Moon. The contingency plan originated in a memo from Safire to Nixon’s White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman, in which Safire suggested a protocol the administration might follow in reaction to such a disaster. According to the plan, Mission Control would “close down communications” with the LM, and a clergyman would “commend their souls to the deepest of the deep” in a public ritual likened to burial at sea. The last line of the prepared text contained an allusion to Rupert Brooke’s First World War poem, “The Soldier”.
I well remember watching the blurry televised images of Eagle on the moon’s surface and the seemingly endless wait for Armstrong to emerge. It was very late when Armstrong came out, around 3 am GMT (on a Monday morning), and, even though I was on school holiday, I was working at a factory and had to be at work before 8 am; so, I could not watch much more than the initial descent and hear Armstrong’s first words upon stepping on the surface before heading to bed. Before, during, and after the BIG EVENT there was immense fanfare on UK media. I particularly recall debates with various panelists on BBC1 over whether landing on the moon had any real benefits, and whether or not the money could be put to better use, such as feeding the poor. One pompous ass made the point, in several debates, that there were poor people in Spain when Isabella and Ferdinand funded Columbus, and surely the discovery of the Americas was a better use for the money than feeding the poor. In the last of these debates Sammy Davis Jr remarked, “There are a lot of African-Americans who would disagree with you.” The fact is that the moon landing was a massive publicity stunt initiated by JFK in 1961 because the Soviet Union was clearly outstripping the US in what became known as the Space Race. Kennedy wanted a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and billions of dollars were poured into the effort.
Space exploration has certainly yielded multiple scientific discoveries, and there are numerous technological benefits to having permanently orbiting satellites, space stations, and what have you. Even moon exploration has uncovered a wealth of information about the origins of the solar system. But you do not need living human beings tracking across the moon’s surface to collect samples and to plant experimental equipment. All of that can be done remotely using robots and the like, and it would not imperil lives, (although there was emphasis on the Apollo 16 mission on capitalizing on the uniqueness of human observation). Putting living, breathing, and speaking humans on the moon was a gigantic PR move above all else, as evidenced by the fact that the Apollo program was cancelled after Apollo 17 flew to the moon in 1972, and no efforts to put anyone on the moon again have been seriously contemplated since. Scientifically, landing people on the moon is not a big deal; for propaganda purposes the rewards were incalculable.
As a teen I was acutely aware of the propaganda aspect of the Apollo program, and I lost all interest in moon shots after seeing Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. I was not alone either. It is well known that broadcasts by the Apollo 13 astronauts on the way to the moon were not shown on regular network television, because of lack of interest on the part of the US public, but, of course, when an explosion in the command module crippled it, all eyes were glued to the mission until it returned safely — mine included.
The food aboard Apollo 11 represented the height of late 1960s technology, as much as the Lunar Landing Module or the spacesuits worn on moonwalks. Tubes of apple sauce and stew that were used on earlier flights were ditched for meals that could be heated by the astronauts and eaten with real cutlery. The big problem in earlier missions was that the astronauts lost weight alarmingly while in space. The graph below, from the Autumn 1969 edition of the journal Nutrition Today, illustrates the dramatic weight loss suffered by Apollo astronauts.
It was not energy expenditure in mission activities that was the problem. Mowing the lawn would take up more calories than walking on the moon. The stress and tension of being in space was the main issue, coupled with the fact that the meals previously prepared by dietary scientists were not appetizing, and so the astronauts were simply not eating enough. Meals had to be lightweight, compact, and edible in zero gravity, and items that could produce crumbs, such as hamburger buns, were, and still are, banned on all space flights because of the havoc that crumbs can cause in the equipment. To combat some of these difficulties, NASA scientists employed the “wet pack” food technology developed on Apollo 8. A wet pack allowed thermo-stabilized food to retain its moisture content, thereby saving astronauts valuable food prep time. It also allowed them to see and smell what they were eating, making meals a bit more appetizing.
A major improvement in food technology starting with the Apollo 11 mission was the spoon-bowl packet, allowing for food to be rehydrated and warmed in a pouch, which was then opened with a plastic zipper and eaten with a spoon. The moisture in the food made it cling to the spoon, even in a reduced-gravity environment. Sausage patties, pork with scalloped potatoes, and chicken stew were some of the dishes packed in spoon-bowls and eaten during the Apollo 11 mission. Aldrin’s favorite was shrimp cocktail. He wrote, “The shrimp were chosen one by one to be sure they would be tiny enough to squeeze out of the food packet, and they were delicious!” Neil Armstrong’s favorite meal was spaghetti with meat sauce, scalloped potatoes, and fruitcake cubes. You won’t be able to make any of these dishes to the exacting standards of NASA kitchens, nor eat them in zero gravity, but you can make them the normal way in memory of Apollo 11 on this day.