Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stared through their helmet visors in wonder, mesmerized by the lifeless face of the moon rushing toward them. They were in their landing craft Eagle, standing with booted feet spread slightly. Each astronaut was sealed within the protective layers of his personal, pressurized spacesuit and helmet.
Flying backward with their bodies tipped toward the silent lunar surface below, they would soon fire the rocket in the descent stage beneath their feet. They would be aiming for a touchdown on a waterless ocean named the Sea of Tranquility.
Back on Earth, near a city called Houston, a fellow astronaut named Charlie Duke listened to the astronauts’ chatter and the reports of those manning the consoles around him. As CapCom, he studied each bit of critical information coming into and going out of Mission Control while across the street, I was on my microphone in the NBC studio. We were putting every word between Eagle and Mission Control on the air—live. It wasn’t as if we didn’t know what to do. Hell, we had been getting ready for this for years. We weren’t about to muck around with the most historic event of the twentieth century by interrupting it with our own mouthings. We wanted every word, every event, every touch on the moon live on the sixteen NBC worldwide networks.
“Eagle, Houston,” Charlie Duke’s voice shot across space at the speed of light, 186,300 miles per second. “If you read, you’re GO for powered descent.”
At that precise second, Apollo 11’s lunar module was coming around from the backside of the moon, where its receiving antennas had been blocked for twenty-two minutes.
Armstrong and Aldrin were not alone up there. Their crewmate, Michael Collins, was fifty miles out in front of them, orbiting the moon in their command ship, Columbia. Collins had heard the vital message clearly.
“Eagle, this is Columbia.” His words flashed instantly into the spacesuit helmets worn by Armstrong and Aldrin. “They just gave you a GO for powered descent.”
“Roger,” Armstrong acknowledged.
The two men glanced at each other and instinctively tugged at the cinches of their body harness. They were ready to go land on the moon as green-bright digits changed constantly before them, numbers flashing on Eagle’s flight panel in a breathless blur.
This was PDI!
Powered descent initiate.
On Earth, billions prayed.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin braced themselves for the shock of ignition.
Flame gushed beneath their feet. Inside Eagle the two astronauts, who had been weightless for four days, were once again in a gravity field. Their arms sagged. Legs settled within their suits. Feet pressed downward in their boots.
Eagle was in full power, blasting away weight and mass, slowing, slowing.
Headsets crackled. Mission Control was calling. “Eagle, Houston. You are GO. Take it all at four minutes. You are GO to continue powered descent.”
But all was not well.
Back on Earth, Mission Control was thick with tension.
Those manning the front row of consoles were in what was known as the “trench.” This was where final decisions were made.
Eyes were on a twenty-six-year-old computer master named Steve Bales. During a mission he was GUIDO, the acronym for guidance officer.
Today, Bales had come to work early. It could be the most important, demanding, and exciting day of his life. And he knew that twenty-four-year-old Jack Garman was in the back room. Both were experts on the lunar module’s onboard computers.
Deep within the bowels of Eagle, these essential computers measured all the electronic and mechanical forces needed to reach the lunar surface safely. And every flight controller in Mission Control knew these computers contained sensitive watchdogs—alarm systems to detect anything wrong.
Bales and Garman were familiar with each of those alarms and what they meant, and at the moment, everything they monitored aboard Eagle was green and go.
Then, within a flash, Eagle’s computers shrilled madly.
“Program alarm!” Buzz Aldrin shouted the warning. “It’s a twelve-oh-two.”
Twelve-oh-two. A warning that the lunar module’s main computer was overloaded. So much was happening and so quickly, so many performance signals were being generated, that the computer could not absorb them all.
In Mission Control everyone sensed an abort.
All eyes were on Steve Bales.
He stared at his console. Coded numbers told him instantly what was going wrong. He needed confirmation that his identification of the problem was correct and safe for Armstrong and Aldrin.
Bales called Garman in the back room. “It’s executive overflow,” Garman assured him. “If it does not occur again, we’re fine.”
Bales agreed, and he judged Eagle’s main computer was doing its job.
He keyed his mike. “GO!” he shouted.
Charlie Duke showed surprise. “We’ve got, uh, we’re GO on that alarm, Eagle.”
The beat speeded up.
Armstrong and Aldrin were four thousand feet above the moon. Flight director Gene Kranz opened his mike. “All right, you guys. It’s coming up on GO, or NO GO for landing. What’s it going to be?”
Every flight controller in the trenches responded with “GO.”
Charlie Duke called the American craft descending on the moon. “Eagle, you’re GO for landing.”
Three thousand feet up, another alarm rang in Eagle’s cabin. Steve Bales made an immediate judgment. Another “executive overflow.”
“You’re GO,” Charlie Duke told them.
Two thousand feet high, craters growing larger and larger below, and Neil called it out again: “Twelve-oh-one alarm.”
“What about it, GUIDO?” flight director Kranz shouted.
Director of crew operations Deke Slayton locked eyes with Steve Bales. The computer master read confidence in that look.
“GO!” Bales snapped. “Just GO!”
Charlie Duke looked at Slayton. Deke grinned and turned his right thumb upward with a quick, firm, stabbing motion.
Duke keyed his mike and swallowed hard. “We’re GO, Eagle. Hang tight, we’re GO…”
Inside our NBC broadcast studio, Russ Ward and I were hanging onto every word. No sooner than Apollo 11 had headed for the moon, we left the Cape on a National Airlines charter for Houston.
Now, Eagle was thirteen hundred feet above the lunar surface, beginning its final descent. Flames gushed downward as the craft slowed. Neil Armstrong had flown his mission right along the edge of the razor. He and Buzz were now so close that Neil had to flythis ship. He punched PROCEED into his keyboard. The computer would handle the immediate descent tasks. Buzz would back up both man and electronic brain so Neil could switch his eyes and senses to flying in vacuum.
Both men looked through triangular windows to study the surface of the moon. They’d made simulated runs so many times, they knew their intended landing site as well as familiar airfields back home. Almost immediately they noticed that they weren’t where they were supposed to be.
Eagle had overshot the landing zone and Neil scowled at the surface rising toward them. Boulders surrounded a yawning crater wider than a football field, and Eagle was running out of fuel and headed straight for it. There was no time to waste.
In the lunar void there was no gliding to conserve fuel. Eagle was only dead weight in a vacuum. There also was no opportunity to orbit again for another try at landing.
Eagle was sailing down at twenty feet per second. Neil nudged the power, slowing to nine feet per second. He attuned his senses to the rocking motions, the nudges and skidding motions of the sixteen small positioning thrusters that kept Eagle aligned through its descent.
Mission Control listened, mesmerized and awed, to the voices closing in on lunar soil. Neil guided his bird without wings. Buzz watched the landing radar and called out numbers that bespoke volumes of split-second judgment and maneuvering.
Eagle was now in a directed hovering mode. There was no place to land. Rocks, huge boulders, and deadly craters were strewn everywhere.
Mission Control was dead silent.
Neil fired Eagle’s right bank of maneuvering thrusters, and the lunar module scooted across rubble billions of years old.
There beyond a field of boulders, slightly to the left, the rocks were fewer, revealing a smooth, flat area. That’s it, Neil assured himself. That’s our new Home Plate.
The numbers ghosted back to Earth.
“Five-and-a-half down…five percent…seventy-five down…six forward…ninety seconds,” Buzz chanted. “Ninety seconds.”
Aldrin had been carefully watching the fuel gage, as had Mission Control. Ninety seconds of fuel left in their tanks for the descent. Eagle needed to land in ninety seconds, or—
No one wanted to think about it. If their engine gulped its last surge of fuel before they touched down, this close to the moon, they would crash, but Neil didn’t bother with if’s and could-be’s. He could feel what fuel they had left. His eyes and mind and hands worked beautifully in orchestrated skill. He would bring Eagle down and bring her down level.
It would not be easy. Eagle was now top heavy, the ascent stage still crammed with fuel, the tanks of the descent stage perilously close to empty.
Charlie Duke sounded the warning. “Sixty seconds.”
In sixty short seconds, the rocket power flaming beneath Eagle would burn out. The tanks would be empty. An abort would need to be initiated seconds before that happened if Eagle was not to crash.
Balancing on slashing flames and banging thrusters, Neil Armstrong calmly aimed for his new landing site.
The flight controllers were almost frantic with their inability to do anything more to aid Neil and Buzz.
This time the announcement was from Buzz as he watched an amber light blink balefully at him from the master caution-and-warning panel. It was the low-fuel signal. Buzz eyed another button, half afraid he might have to punch it. It read ABORT STAGE.
Neil didn’t respond. There was no time. All his senses were brought to needlepoint sharpness.
Buzz intoned the numbers like a priest, steady and clear, voicing the final moments flashing away. He had confidence in Neil’s ability. But his hand did not stray far from the ABORT STAGE button.
“Seventy-five feet,” he called out.
“Light’s on…down two-and-a-half…forty feet, down two-and-a-half…”
Time was the enemy.
Then the magic words!
“Kicking up some dust…
So close now! So close!
There was no turning back! The door behind Armstrong and Aldrin had closed.
“Drifting to the right a little…”
In our NBC studio all was silent. Russ Ward and I did not dare interrupt the voices coming from the moon. The landing was live on NBC’s sixteen networks spread around the planet. If it were possible for hearts to stop beating and for humans to still live, we would have done it.
Then these words from Buzz Aldrin…“Contact light!”
“Okay, engine stop…descent engine command override off…”
On Earth, billions of hearts pounded madly.
In Mission Control, Charlie Duke was choking…He still needed voice confirmation. He wanted to hear the words.
“We copy you down, Eagle,” he radioed, and began waiting all over again.
Three seconds for the voices to rush back and forth, Earth to moon and moon back to Earth.
Neil Armstrong had landed so smoothly that Buzz wasn’t taking any chances. Were they really down? Stopped? Buzz studied the lights on the landing panel to be certain.
Four lights gleamed brightly. Four marvelous lights were welcoming them to another world where no human being had ever been.
Neil allowed himself the luxury of a long, deep breath as he stared through his helmet visor at the alien world before him. He was surprised at how quickly the dust was hurled away by the final thrust of the engine and had settled back on the surface. Within seconds, the moon looked as if it had never been disturbed. He keyed his mike. “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
Charlie Duke spoke above the bedlam of cheering and applause in Mission Control.
“Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”
It was 4:17:42 P.M. EDT, Sunday, July 20, 1969, eight years after President John F. Kennedy had promised to send astronauts to the moon before the end of the 1960s.
Silently, Buzz and Neil saluted him.