About the Author
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You say, Hey, I'm out here 150 or 200 thousand miles away from home, goingin the other direction. It's not just home—it's not like you're on a trip fromHouston to California. I mean, you have really left society.
The Saturn V was such an enormous machine. And the size of theengines. You still wonder, when you see it on its side down there inHouston. It was an enormous thing. And I think I felt that more goingup the morning of the launch. Because it was so quiet, nobodyaround it… I don't want to say awe, a combination of admiration—yeah, maybe awe. Wonderment.
It's a little different sitting in the rocket, rather than watching it… from the ground, and hearing the announcer, you know, dramaticallytalk about the countdown, and what's going on. Insidethe rocket, sitting there, waiting for the countdown, is a lot different,because you don't get that momentous buildup, that anxietybuildup. You're sitting there, and you just do certain things. And thelaunch is a little bit different too, because on the ground you getthat vibration in your stomach, whereas in the spacecraft itself, it'sa big rumble. You can hear those valves open up and all that fueldrop down those manifold valves. You know, the pipes are big. Youknow, you're burning fifteen tons per second. And so you really goto town, and you can hear that. And it's a big rumbling noise, andoff you go.
There's always the element of unreality in it because a launch is notreal until you lift off. And until you lift off, something could alwayshappen to call you back, to prevent the launch… So you don'tcommit yourself to the flight—totally—until you get ignition andyou're off the pad. And then, it's all or nothing. That's the gamble—it's either heads or tails. At that point, you're committed tothe flight. Whether you come back is not important at that point.Then, the flight is the important thing… I would say, at the instantof liftoff (snaps his fingers),—and you know they can't call you back,there's a momentary thing that says, This is for real. And then, trainingkind of takes over. And you go through things like you did inthe simulator.
Above: Apollo 8's liftoff, viewed by a camera on the launch pad. Opposite: A trackingcamera view of Apollo 15.
There was a startling moment there, right at liftoff. Everybodygot quite startled. Because we had simulated the hell out of everything—aborts and everything—but nobody had ever been ona Saturn V… As we lifted off, you can imagine this rocket—it's agiant thing, but it's not bulky like an obelisk or like the WashingtonMonument; it's not rigid. It's more flexible. Not quite a whip antennaon your automobile, but somewhat like this… So we wereliterally being thrown around. I mean, "thrown around" is the bestway I can describe it. I felt like a rat in the jaws of a giant terrier. Imean, here we'd hardly started, and already we had something thatwe hadn't simulated.
I really wasn't sure the crazy thing was going to stay together. Evento read the gauges was almost a guess.
It was raining so goddamn hard—it was really a damn storm that morning.We wanted to launch, obviously. We delayed during the countdown,but we weren't about to crawl out of that goddamn thing and go back.We were ready to launch. And then we were running out of the [launch]window, and it looked like it was easing off some, and they fired our buttsright through that stuff.
Apollo 12 lifts off into a rainstorm. Half a minute later, the ascending spacecraft was struck by lightning, knocking out the command module's electrical system.
No matter what single, double, or triple failure those guys [the simulation instructors] put into the electrical system, they never came up with anything that turned on every electrical warning light in the caution and warning system. Man, they all lit. I think there were eleven of them. And they all came on. Everything that had anything to do with the electrical system lit up on the caution and warning panel. Every one of those hummers was on. Every one! I couldn't believe it.
Pete called it right; he told [the ground] he thought we got struck bylightning, but neither Al nor I had a window to look out of, and we didn'tsee anything… There was a boost protective cover over us; duringlaunch, his is the only window … until the [launch escape] tower goes andpulls the boost protective cover off.
I thought the service module had somehow separated from the commandmodule. Because I didn't know any other way—I knew that no failure,or two failures, could do it. Because we'd had all the failures. So Iknew them. You know, I'd look at six lights; that's AC [bus] 1. You soonlearn the patterns and the numbers. And there were so many… I said,"They didn't bolt the command module right to the service module, andit slipped." Because, see, we lost three fuel cells. The only way you cando that is to kind of break it… So that's what went through my mind. Inever thought of a lightning bolt…
I never thought about aborting—at that point. Obviously, I did not wantto wind up with a dead spacecraft in orbit.
In retrospect, it could have been catastrophic. But it wasn't.
Burning in the invisible flame of the Saturn V's second-stage engines, a connecting ring falls away following first-stage separation. An automatic camera aboard the unmanned Apollo 4 captured these views.
We had a lot of acceleration just prior to [first-stage] cutoff. Wewere really being squashed back… We were up to four and ahalf Gs or whatever it was. And, you know, your chest gets compresseddown. You're panting. Your arms feel real heavy, so you'renot moving around flipping any switches. And of course the fluid isall back here in your ears. But you get used to it. So you're kind ofsemiacclimated. And suddenly, you go from that, not only to zero Gas the engine cuts off, but there's little retrorockets that fire on thatengine to pull it back off, just before the second stage cuts in… .You know, you've seen those old movies like Captain from Castile,where they have a catapult that heaves the rock over the wall?I mean, I suddenly felt like I'd been sitting on a catapult and somebodycut the rope. Because I felt like I was going to go right throughthe instrument panel. Literally… And so I threw my arms up. Andjust as I got my hand up like that, the second stage cut in, and,clunk, the wrist ring hit my helmet. So I was a little embarrassed. Ofcourse there was this big cloud of fire around us, you know (laughs),it was a very spectacular part of the flight. And of course, I'd justgone through my first launch; then two minutes and forty secondslater, we're in the middle of this, and I thought, Boy, this is going tobe something. [It was] dull after that.
Having that whole mission in my hands when we lifted off—I hadthat T-handle, which could've shut that Saturn V down, abortedthe mission if I wanted to. I mean, I had that decision to make—anytime, I could've made it, good or bad. You almost wish you hada guidance failure at liftoff. Because I knew I could've flown that bigSaturn V into orbit goddamn near as good as the computer.
You know, in Earth orbit the horizon is barely curved. All of a suddenyou move out at 25,000 miles per hour, and the first few hours,things really happen… I mean, you can see yourself leave theEarth at a tremendous rate of speed. You can see the horizon beginto close in upon itself. You can begin to see the continents.You begin to see things from the top down. You begin to see andrealize after a period of time that the Earth's rotating, because thecontinents are beginning to change places. And the second day,now you've been looking at the Earth, it's become quite small andcontinues to get smaller, but very slowly does it continue to getsmaller. So it's pretty dynamic in those first twelve hours—that'swhen things really happen.
In spaceflight, when we orbited the Earth, we thought in terms ofcontinents. We were over the U.S.; now we're over a body of water.We're over Africa now; we're over Australia now. In the lunar flight,we thought in terms of bodies. The moon's here, the sun's there,the Earth is there.
I fancied myself as a guy who understood geography. And I lookedout there, I could not figure out what was up… I mean, everybodyknows that north is up, right? You sit in the classroom in fourthgrade, and you look up there, and the teacher has a globe. Therewere several things that came across later, and I thought, Jeez, Ishould have known that. One, the Earth is not divided up neatlyinto little colored countries. Okay? So you don't see a red America,and a green Chile, and a purple China (laughs)… I expected morevisual clues as to what I was looking at. Secondly, it's covered withclouds, so that obscures things. And God does not necessarily saythat when you look at it the first time that north is going to be up.And it took me like several minutes to finally realize that what wasup, was really Antarctica.
And I thought to myself, Now wait a minute. Let's go back. Whatdo you see? Well, you see a big white patch. Is that clouds? No, itlooks like ice. A big ice patch in the wintertime that you can see, it'sgot to be Antarctica. Antarctica up? Oh yeah, that could be, causewe're down. Well, then, we must be looking at it like this. So I actuallywent and looked at it like that [upside down]–Yeah, that's right!That's Antarctica! And then I said, Well, if that's Antarctica, let'sstart working from there. That thing here… , What could that be?My first thought was, That must be the horn of Africa. See, here'sthe horn, here's Cape Town. Well, if that's Cape Town, where'sSouth America? And what is this thing?" Then I got to realizing,That ain't the horn of Africa; that's the coast of Chile! Isthmus ofPanama, here's Florida. And here's Africa. Then it jelled.
An Apollo 12 view of Earth includes the Bahamas (turquoise spot at right of center).
The Earth is [fifty] times brighter than the moon, because of thereflection of the sun's rays on the clouds. But you don't get that onphotographs.
The other thing … was that this little spot, the Bahamas lowland,was a turquoise jewel that you could see all the way to the moon.… It was like it was illuminated, like a piece of opal. And you couldsee that all the way. And I kept being amazed about that.
To me, it's crystalline. Crystalline being it has depth. I like to drawthe analogy with someone who has deep blue eyes… The Earthis deep blue. And especially when you get out a little ways, not toofar away, and you can look back at it, it's deep blue. It's got a three dimensionalfeel to it. A depth. And it's really beautiful… .
I was just wishing I could spin it around and look at the rest of it.
You can see the whole Earth at about ten thousand miles. And youstart taking pictures. You take one at ten, and one at fifteen, andone at twenty, et cetera, et cetera. And of course, they're all thesame; it's just that the Earth takes less of the field of view of thecamera as you get further away. But you don't think that. You think,Oh, I wanna take another picture now. I wanna take another picturenow. It's spectacular. Oh, it's spectacular.
It was kind of like, Yeah. The Earth's getting smaller. In fact, thiswas something that really surprised me. Here you are, watching theEarth shrink. And you know when it really dawned on me that we'rea long way from home is when you start picking up the delay inthe communications. Now, why looking out of the window seeingthe Earth shrink doesn't do it, but why the audio of the delay inthe communications does, [I don't know], but it did… When youwould call, "Hello, Houston," and then there would be, Mmmmmmmm"Go ahead, 14." And that was the first big realization that,hey, we're starting to get out here. More so than seeing the Earthshrink. And I don't know why. I just remember that.
Aboard Apollo 8, Bill Anders does a weightless somersault.
I got out of my suit first, and I was flipping around, thinking, Isn't this fun! And then suddenly I thought, My God, if I do this about three more times, I'm going to embarrass myself. So I'm going to quit doing it… I didn't throw up, but I thought, I'd better be careful or I'm going to throw up… After about eight hours, I'd adapted. Reasonably.
I was really, really worried about [whether I'd get sick in zero G]. AndI remember the exhilaration the first time I released the lap belt, gotout of the couch, and I thought, Oh God, now we'll find out. Andit took about ten nanoseconds to recognize, I've been here all mylife. This is absolutely natural. And I never gave another thought toit… I must have beamed from ear to ear when I realized, Got itmade. This is perfect. I know exactly where everything is. Upsidedown, right side up, it looks perfect to me. It's beautiful. I can moveanywhere I want, I can do anything I want, and there aren't anyproblems associated with this business. And I remember what aeuphoric feeling that was.
We lit the [Service Propulsion System] engine to take us off thefree-return trajectory. So that's the first time that you light the SPSengine. And item number one on the SPS burn checklist is "Secureall lose items." Okay, so now, you've just spent a thousand hours inthe simulator, and you've gone through this how many hundreds oftimes? … Okay, items secure. And then you go on down. And thenyou're into the nitty-gritty, you know, you get your fuel cells up, andyour gimbal motors on, and this check and that check, and you'reready to burn… It was a short burn, I think two or three seconds,or whatever… And so as soon as the engine lit, I was really surprised.Because it—Pow! And man, you went back [in your seat],and a checklist goes flying over your head here, and something elsegoes flying over there. After that, you paid more attention to itemone, "Secure all loose items."
Zero G is a blessing and a curse. I mean, for keeping track of yourfilm, it's a curse, because the goddamn stuff, you put it down, whichis stupid to do. I always used to put it on the edge of the simulator,and it just stayed there, you know? (laughs)
And without thinking,I didn't stick it on the Velcro. Put it down here—where is it? I'd haveto go hunting for it, and that always puts you a few minutes behind.It's also a curse from the bodily functions. I mean, next time yougo to the latrine, imagine if you were in zero G. What does thatstuff do? It just—ugggh. It's hard, even with KC-135 [zero-G aircraft]flights, you just are not able to totally train yourself for zero G untilyou get there.
The plus side is, it's a very comfortable place. I mean, I can't sitstill; my back starts hurting. And yet, I never got uncomfortableon the flight… It's very relaxing. It's easy. You don't have to bestrong… Mainly you're just like a big fish, like a jellyfish, lyingthere. And your arms are like this, in their natural position; your legsare like that… Pretty soon, after three days, you're adapted to it.… I enjoyed zero G.
The thing that was the most difficult for me to sleep was that thedamn sleeping bag was sized for somebody like C. C. Williams, thebiggest guy around. I was like one pea in this pod. I didn't realize it,but I kind of like to feel the security of the bed up against me. AndI can't sleep on my back; I've got to sleep on my stomach, and feelpressure. And there was no pressure. And I'm sure you've had thisfeeling, where you're lying in bed, and just before you drop off tosleep, you suddenly feel like you're falling… .
No matter what I say, anybody says, about weightlessness, you cannotrelay that to somebody who hasn't had the experience. You justcannot relate to it until you've had the experience of being in zeroG. It's absolutely delightful. But how are you gonna explain it? Youcan't explain it!
When we were about to leave on Apollo 11, [NASA administrator]Tom Paine flew down to the Cape, had dinner with us, and said,"Look, if you guys screw it up, don't worry about it, come on back,we'll give the three of you the next shot at another try at the landing."Which I thought was kind of unusual for him to say, but it wasvery nice, and it took a lot of the pressure off us, especially Neil.
Inside Apollo 11 on the way to the moon, clockwise from above: Mike Collins in thecommand module's lower equipment bay; Neil Armstrong studies a photomap of thelanding site; Aldrin inspects the lunar module.
I've often said that my instinct—not a carefully reasoned statistical study, butmy instincts—told me that we had a 90 percent chance of a safe return and a50 percent chance of a safe landing.
Inside the Apollo 16 lunar module Orion, John Young helps Charlie Duke suit up before undocking. Opposite: Orion flies free, seen from the command module Casper.
Landing the lunar module was … the kind of thing where you know that you only have one chance—no two chances, one chance. Everything has to go right. So that puts you right up on the edge of performance… There's an old saying in the program, I don't know whether any of the other guys have mentioned it: "Get ahead and stay ahead." … Always stay ahead… So in a lunar landing, it's really thinking ahead. It's planning ahead… Because if you get surprised, it's going to take away from your time and your mental process. And if you're ahead, you can absorb that… . So you're thinking all the things that you should do, and all the responses to emergencies—you don't get into specific emergencies, but you're just running your [mental] computer as fast as you can run it… And if you get into an emergency situation, things happen so fast, you have such a short period of time, there's no margin. You know—thirty seconds, or whatever it is… You cannot afford to make a mistake… Not so much consciously, but subconsciously, you have all your memory banks running. You're focused entirely on the job, but you're also paying attention.
As an example: I'm holding onto two [control] handles, and thereare a number of buttons in front of me. Now there's a blue buttonto turn the engine off, and there's a red button to abort. I don'twant to push the red button… So when you go into the landing,part of your computer in your mind is concentrating on those threebuttons so you don't screw up. In addition to that, you're concentratingon the flying, and you're concentrating on listening to Jimand looking out the window, and the [trajectory]… What if all ofa sudden we lose [communications]? What if I can't hear Jim? ThenI gotta know what he's doing. So I have to make sure that withouthim, I can still do the job.
So you play all that [in your mind]. ‘Cause in the simulations,they've done that to you. They've done all these things to you… .That's the beauty of the simulations… In the simulator, you cansay, I'm not going to listen to Jim this time. I'm just going to go doit. But in the real world, you have to put everything in the [mental]computer and run it at the same time. So the mental challenge isenormous! I mean, you don't have to focus on all that, but you better.Because if you don't, number one, you could screw up anyway,and number two, if you have a problem, it diverts your attention,and if you're not in parallel processing—and that's what it is, parallelprocessing all that stuff—if you're not processing everything in parallelat full speed, you're liable to miss something. And if you missit, either you're dead real quick or you blew the mission. There'sno recovery. And you know that, going in. There's one chance, andyou've got two or three minutes. One chance and that's all. So, boy,you really tune up for that.
For that reason, flying the lunar module is a very demandingtask. It's the toughest flying job—and I've flown a lot of stuff—thetoughest flying job I've ever had.
It was a beautiful airplane. I think in some of the failuremodes … that it was very difficult to fly. If you had totalthree-axis failure of the autopilot, the only way that wecould ever get the simulator down was for Ed to do the yawand the roll, and I would handle the pitch and the throttle.And, you know, we made some hairy-looking approaches[in the simulator]… Because, you see (gesturing with hishands), here the thing's sitting like that [on its engine exhaust];it's literally balanced. You just move it one way andit's just going to keep going on over, unless you stop it.And so you've done that maneuver, and it starts picking upspeed, and then you've got to do the exact opposite. So itwas a real spastic thing. And we hoped, obviously, that we'dnever have a failure in three axes at once, because one mancouldn't do it without losing it.
You had to get it down or you didn't get another chance… .I mean, at the [aircraft] carrier, you could always go around.
We all adapt our relationship to the passing of time, dependingon the circumstances. A batter looking at a ball,you know, reads the spin, tries to figure out where the ball'sgoing to go, and takes a swing, all in a matter of less thana second. On the other hand, a lot of things, you take verylong deliberations, take a hundred or a thousand times aslong to make a decision of similar import. And I think it'sjust human nature that you adapt your appreciation of thetimescale to meet the circumstances. In the lunar landing,when you have not too much fuel and not too much time,you adapt your sense of time to that which is available. Andif you're properly trained, and you have enough practice,you can get a confidence that you can do what's requiredin the time available, and you really don't worry about thepressure of time.
Pete and I get into the lunar module, getting ready to go down tothe moon. And Dick's job was to put in the probe and drogue andstuff. It took quite a while for him to do that, and we were gettingstuff ready, and trying to close out the lunar module … and all of asudden Dick said, "Well, I'm getting ready to close the hatch now."So we looked up at him, and—I can still see him up there gettingready to close the hatch—and we didn't really say anything; I can'tremember if we said, "See you in a couple of days," or didn't sayanything, you know. I personally was wondering, "Will I ever seethis guy again? Wonder what's going to happen to us? I hope I seehim in a few days." But we never said anything, we kind of lookedat each other, you know, and had, really, I felt, really loving feelingsbetween us, yet I don't remember saying anything, except somethinglight, like, "Well, see you in a few days." … It seemed thatwe had a lot of unspoken thoughts there, at least I did. You know,when you don't speak things, then you don't know what the otherpeople are thinking.
I tell you what, I envied them. I wish to hell I could have gone withthem, but there was no way for that to happen. I think Pete and Alkind of felt the same way.
Inside the Apollo 12 command module Yankee Clipper, Dick Gordon photographsthe departing lunar module Intrepid, carrying Pete Conrad and Alan Bean.
NEIL ARMSTRONG ONTHE FIRST LUNAR LANDING
I thought in a gross sense that the lunar module was a much betterflying machine than I expected, and it was really easier to flythan any of our simulations… Talking about a fairly few secondsof control here, and it's difficult to draw fine judgments on thatlimited experience. But I felt good about the flying qualities of themachine… .
There was a substantial distraction [from the computer alarms]—because one wonders, Is this something serious that I have to worryabout? … It surely diverted my attention. And normally in thatparticular phase, I would have been selecting landmarks and tryingto identify precisely where I was going to go and where that relatedto our intended landing spot. And that's the part that I missed, thatI didn't get to do… All our landmarks that we used for identifyingour target were upstream. They were east of the landing area. We'dpassed those… .
That [football-field sized, boulder-strewn crater] was clearly avery desirable location [for the geologists], because there was alot of action there, there were a lot of things that people wouldbe interested in, and that looked like really an ideal place (laughs)to go if you could do it safely. But I didn't have that much courage(laughs)… .
Could be a lot of things [that would make it risky to abort thelanding]. Could be that you don't get an engine fire with your ascentengine. You don't get clean separation. After all, that's a whole ‘nothertest program, doing an abort sequence at low altitude for thefirst time, so in that sense, with a landing, at least, you're not tearingthe vehicle apart, not changing engines in midstream. The landinggear's already down and locked. You have a lot of things going foryou, and I would agree with [flight director] Gene Kranz that, otherthings being equal, you might tend to push in the land directionrather than the abort direction as a relative risk judgment… .
It [blowing dust] wasn't a surprise. We expected that there wouldbe some kind of effect from the rocket exhaust on the surface. Butnot knowing precisely what the surface was, and not knowing whatthe deflected exhaust characteristics [would be], we didn't knowwhat to simulate and how to simulate it… .
We were pretty close, pretty low, and I was close enough that, Ithought if the engine quit [because of running out of fuel], we'realright—you just fall into the moon. So, when you get down to acertain level, you don't care if the engine quits. Just like an airplane(laughs). I don't think I was thinking about that, except subconsciously.But there's a point at which you are worried, and that'swhen it's very difficult, or maybe impossible, to abort. And onceyou get below that altitude, and with the velocity low enough thatyou aren't going to tip over when you come down, then you're thesame as free—home free.
There was that moment, right after we touched down, when . . .we just kind of looked at each other and—I'm not sure how it happened,a slap on the back, or whatever—but there was that, just,little moment of, Hey—we made it.
The view from the descending Apollo 11 lunar module Eagle at an altitude of (topleft) 7,000 feet, (top right) 200 feet, (bottom left) 75 feet, and (bottom right) 7 feet.These frames were recorded by the onboard 16mm movie camera.
To a certain extent, you console yourself—It's just another simulation,and you've been through all sorts of these simulated problems.… Well, you know better, but it's a good trick to calm yourselfdown, to say, It's just like a simulation.
I think I mentioned … the surprise we had when we looked up atsix thousand feet above the surface to find this mountain on ourleft went another seven thousand feet above us. We'd never hadthat view out of the simulator window… Fortunately, Hadley Rillewas very obvious out in front of us, and that reassured us that we'dprobably come to the right place.
I found it very convenient not to look out too much. Because it wasvery distracting to see all the craters, and see the moon, and seeyou were coming down. You know, you're really doing this. If I'dlook inside, it seemed a lot like the simulator. So, what I would dowas look out, and then when I would get excited, or (laughs) full upwith information, you know, I'd say, Quit doing that and concentrateon what you're doing. Then I do it, but then I'd say, Well, I don'twant to just miss the whole thing, either. I want to do the job, but Iwant to not miss the show. So it was a constant look in and do thejob, and then look out and try not to look out too long.
[The dust] was very confusing… It's very confusing, looking atthat stuff going out laterally, and you're not really sure what you'redoing. So you had to check the gauges, or look for rocks stickingup through it, or whatever. And the window's not very big. And thecloser we got, the worse it got, obviously… And it got heavier andheavier to the point where, if you look at our movies, just beforetouchdown there, no way you can see through it to the ground.
Damn right I was watching where we were going. If anything wentwrong, I wanted to be oriented. Fast scan pattern—I was watchinginside, but I was keeping things posted as to where we were. I wantedto be in a position so that if anything happened—Al's controlswent out, or anything—I knew how to handle it from that point. Iwas ready to go ahead and land if necessary, or whatever… .The both of us knew we were going to land. Even when the landingradar didn't come in, it was pretty certain to pitch over, and ifwe were in any sort of position, we'd've landed anyhow. We're notgoing to get down to eighteen thousand feet and not take a look.Regardless of what Houston says.
Ed said [later], "What were you going to do?" I said, "You'll neverknow" (laughs)… We had an altitude limit, which we couldn't gobelow unless we had landing radar locked in and feeding into thecomputer. And we were getting awfully close to that… Oh, I'msure if we had not had it in, and I'd pitched over and gone down andlanded, you know, he wouldn't have said, "Don't, don't!" (laughs)
To shut down and drop to the surface was a real relief.
The view from the descending Apollo 12 lunar module Intrepid 650 feet above theOcean of Storms.