Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Look Back at Neil Armstrong's 'One Small Step for Man, One Giant Leap for Mankind'

It's Been 40 Years Since a Half-Billion People Worldwide Watched the Ghostly Black-and-White TV Images of Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin Walk on the Moon -- But Would This Remarkable Milestone in Human History Have Happened Had There Been No Cold War With the Soviet Union?

The ghostly black-and-white TV images were downright poor, even by 1969 standards, but for half a billion people watching live worldwide -- at that time the largest TV audience in history -- it didn't matter. It was a moment that gave Earthlings goosebumps. In these now-iconic still photos (left to right), Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin climbs down from the lunar excursion module Eagle toward the lunar surface; Aldrin poses for fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong's camera as Armstrong is reflected on Aldrin's face shield; the first human footprint on the Moon left by Armstrong as he stepped off the Eagle. But would the mission had taken place had there been no space race with the Soviet Union as part of the Cold War? (Photo montage courtesy National Air and Space Museum)

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EDT Thursday, July 16, 2009)

This is the second of a three-part monthly series commemorating the 40th anniversary of the most momentous events of the summer of 1969. With this issue, The 'Skeeter Bites Report is going on its annual two-week summer hiatus while I go on vacation. It will resume on Monday, August 3.


Here's a question that, if you're an American over 50 years of age, you no doubt will be asked in the next few days -- that is, if you haven't been asked it already:

"Where were you on July 20, 1969?"

It is one of several "Where were you?" dates that is permanently etched into the memories of millions of Americans: The day 40 years ago when Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong climbed out of the lunar excursion module Eagle, stepped one foot onto the surface of the Moon and uttered those now-immortal words: "It's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Never mind the fact that there was an additional word -- "a" -- that Armstrong's microphone failed to pick up. Half an hour later, fellow astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin joined him, describing the view of the moonscape as "Magnificent desolation."

Part II of a Three-Part Monthly Series

There were at least a half-billion people worldwide glued to their television sets -- the largest TV audience in history at the time -- who waited for six solid hours after Armstrong told mission control in Houston the news that President John F. Kennedy had set in motion in 1961 but tragically did not live to see: "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

For the first time, human beings from the planet Earth had set foot on extraterrestrial soil.

Who among the millions, especially children, who watched the ghostly, black-and-white TV images of Armstrong and Aldrin planting the American flag on the Sea of Tranquility -- a misnomer, as the Moon's surface is completely devoid of water -- and scooping up samples of lunar rocks not feel a sense of awe and wonder at the sight?

Then there was the sight of Armstrong and Aldrin taking a congratulatory telephone call from President Richard Nixon -- to this day the longest long-distance phone call in history -- and later of Aldrin, while testing methods for moving about in the much-lighter lunar gravity, taking several two-footed "kangaroo hops," as he called them.

Looking back 40 years, the technology employed to pull off the Apollo 11 mission looks downright primitive when compared to today's soon-to-be-retired space shuttle fleet -- akin to the Wright Brothers' aircraft they flew in 1903 when compared to today's jumbo jets.

The television images were of terrible quality, even by 1969 standards. That's because the lunar lander was equipped with a slow-scan television camera incompatible with commercial TV. Consequently, the images were displayed on a special monitor aboard the LEM and a conventional TV camera was trained on the monitor, significantly losing video quality in the transmission process and producing the ghostly black-and-white images that held millions of viewers spellbound for hours.

And while the Apollo 11 mission appeared to most of the world who followed it as it unfolded to be a flawless success, it wasn't until decades later that the world learned just how dangerous it really was.


For starters, the lunar module Eagle had landed miles from the target landing spot, due to incorrect readings by the module's on-board navigation and guidance computer. And the descent from the orbiting command module Columbia -- where astronaut Michael Collins remained aboard -- took longer than expected, making controllers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston extremely nervous. By the time Eagle finally landed, it had only 25 seconds of fuel remaining.

Responding to Armstrong's announcement of the Eagle's landing, a flustered but clearly relieved Charles Duke, the acting capsule communicator at mission control in Houston, relayed to Armstrong: "Roger, Twank...Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue here. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot!"

Another anxious moment came in the hours before the astronauts were to lift off from the Moon and return to the orbiting Columbia command module. While moving in the cabin of the Eagle, Aldrin accidentally broke a circuit breaker that controlled a switch that activated the Eagle's main engine for lift-off. There was concern at mission control that this would prevent firing the engine, which would have left the astronauts stranded on the Moon.

Fortunately, the use of -- of all things -- a felt-tip pen was sufficient to activate the switch. Had this not worked, the Eagle's circuitry could have been reconfigured to allow firing the Eagle's main engine.


Yet as momentous as the Apollo 11 mission was from the standpoint of human endeavor, it is impossible, on its 40th anniversary, to look back on it without recognizing the fact that Apollo 11 -- indeed, the entire American manned space program up to that point -- had more to do with the Cold War with the Soviet Union than it did with science and exploration.

The Apollo program was conceived early in 1960, during the final year of the Eisenhower administration, as a follow-up to America's Mercury program. While the Mercury capsule could support only one astronaut on a limited Earth orbital mission, the Apollo spacecraft was to be able to carry three astronauts on a circumlunar flight and perhaps even on a lunar landing.

Project Apollo was named after the Greek god of light and music by NASA manager Abe Silverstein, who later said that "I was naming the spacecraft like I'd name my baby." While NASA went ahead with planning for Apollo, funding for the program was far from certain, particularly given Eisenhower's equivocal attitude to manned spaceflight.

But in November 1960, Kennedy was elected president after a campaign that promised American superiority over the Soviet Union in the fields of space exploration and missile defense. Having been shocked by the Soviets' successful launch of its Sputnik satellite in 1957 and frustrated by several spectacular mechanical failures until the launch of the Explorer I satellite in 1958, America was in no mood to accept second-best.

Using space exploration as a symbol of national prestige, Kennedy warned of a "missile gap" between the two nations, pledging to make the U.S. not "first but, first and, first if, but first period!"

Despite Kennedy's rhetoric, however, he did not immediately come to a decision on the status of the Apollo program once he was elected. He knew little about the technical details of the space program, and was put off by the massive financial commitment required by a manned lunar landing. When NASA Administrator James Webb requested a thirty percent budget increase for his agency, Kennedy supported an acceleration of NASA's large booster program but deferred a decision on the broader issue.


On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to fly in space, reinforcing American fears about being left behind in a technological competition with the Soviets. At a meeting of the U.S. House Committee on Science and Astronautics held only a day after Gagarin's flight, many members of Congress pledged their support for a crash program aimed at ensuring that America would catch up.

Kennedy, however, was circumspect in his response to the news, refusing to make a commitment on America's response to the Soviets. On April 20, Kennedy sent a memo to Vice President Lyndon Johnson, asking Johnson to look into the status of America's space program, and into programs that could offer NASA the opportunity to catch up to the Soviets.

Johnson responded the following day, concluding that "we are neither making maximum effort nor achieving results necessary if this country is to reach a position of leadership." His memo concluded that a manned moon landing was far enough in the future to make it possible that the United States could achieve it first.

And so on May 25, 1961, in an address to a joint session of Congress, Kennedy forcefully declared "that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth."


Most historians agree that had there not been the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, the "space race" between the two countries to the moon might never have happened.

In author Craig Nelson's newly-published book on the space race, Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, while Kennedy was credited as the driving force behind the U.S. effort to put a man on the Moon, the president had originally envisioned the exploration of space as a multinational effort. It was only after Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev turned down Kennedy's invitation to make the lunar landing program a joint effort that Kennedy decided that the United States had to go it alone, Nelson writes.

Long before Kennedy took office as president, Johnson was already pushing hard for the U.S. to beat the Soviets to the Moon, according to Nelson. While he was still a U.S. senator, Johnson told his colleagues in 1959, "I'll be damned if I sleep by the light of a Red Moon ... soon they will be dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks on the cars from freeway overpasses!"

After Kennedy made him the administration's point man on the space program, Johnson pushed Congress hard for NASA funding, Nelson writes. When pressed by members of Congress to justify the multi-billion-dollar expense, Johnson shot back, "Would you rather have us be a second-rate nation, or should we spend a little money?"


Yet ironically, among the many mementos of the Apollo 11 mission that the astronauts left behind on the Moon -- including a commemorative plaque mounted on the base of the Eagle -- is a memorial to the three American astronauts and two Soviet cosmonauts who had lost their lives while on duty up to that time.

Apollo 1 astronauts Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Eugene White and Roger Chafee were killed on January 27, 1967 when a fire broke out aboard the spacecraft's command module during a training exercise on the launching pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. All three astronauts were trapped inside the burning capsule.

Three months later, on April 24, Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was killed when his spacecraft, Soyuz 1, lost power during re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, causing a catastrophic systems failure, including the deployment of the spacecraft's parachutes and it crashed.

But the greatest blow to the Soviet space program was the death of Gagarin, whose history-making flight as the first man to travel into space made him not only a national hero in the Soviet Union, but also a huge international celebrity. A fighter pilot by training before he became a cosmonaut, Gagarin was killed on March 27, 1968 when a MiG-15 he was flying during a routine training flight suddenly hit severe turbulence, went out of control and crashed.

That Gagarin and Komarov would be honored by American astronauts -- a memorial plaque to Gagarin on behalf of "The Astronauts of the Untied States of America" was presented to the Soviet Space Agency in 1971 -- is a testament to the common humanity of us all.


Although it's been 40 years after he became the first man to set foot on the Moon, don't expect Armstrong to do much celebrating of his milestone achievement in public. Armstrong, now 78, has always been a very shy man who zealously guards his privacy and has repeatedly turned down requests for interviews.

Armstrong is scheduled to appear on Sunday night at an event at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, where he is expected to give a 15-minute lecture, but is unlikely to answer questions from reporters. His last public appearance was in 2004, on the 35th anniversary of the moon landing, when he and his Apollo 11 crewmates received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from then-President George W. Bush at the White House.

Aldrin, now 79, has promoted space exploration for decades after he retired from NASA in 1972, including producing a computer strategy game called "Buzz Aldrin's Race into Space" in 1992. As part of the 40th anniversary festivities, Aldrin teamed up with music producer Quincy Jones and rappers Snoop Dogg, Talib Kweli, and Soulja Boy to create a rap single and video, "Rocket Experience." Proceeds from video and song sales will benefit Aldrin's non-profit foundation, ShareSpace.

Collins, now 78, retired from NASA in 1970 and took a job in the State Department as assistant secretary for public affairs. A year later, he became the director of the National Air and Space Museum. He held this position until 1978, when he stepped down to become undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1980, Collins took the job as vice president of LTV Aerospace. He resigned in 1985 to start his own business.

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COMING AUGUST 13 -- Part III: A trip "back to the garden" -- the Woodstock Music Festival.

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Volume IV, Number 56
Copyright 2009, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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