In 2009, Captain Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who landed a commercial airliner on the Hudson River in New York durring an emergecy manourvre and singlehandedly saving the lives of 155 people on board, was being awarded the Neil Armstrong medal of excellence (at Purdue Univeristy). Armstrong himself, was ofcourse on hand to make the presentation, and in his speech giving Sullenberger the medal, he quiped “The recipient of this award, Captain Sullenberger is [now officially] a fellow member of Pilots who land in Strange places Club” – This summed up Neil Armstrong! Self affacing, understated, surprisingly witty, and yet – as was evident from those immortal first words stepping onto the lunar surface – profoundly poetic.
Obviously his life and legacy are inextricably linked with the exploits of NASA and the space race, and to fully appreciate them, we need to go back to 1961 when (President) Kennedy was making his famous pledge of landing a man on the moon before ‘the decade was out’. At the time of that Speech, Yuri Gagarin had already become the first man in space and to orbit the earth in a series of historic ‘firsts in space’ for the Soviet Union. The Americans in comparison, with their Mercury Program had only a modest 15 minutes of successful manned spaceflight (courtesy Alan Shepard) to their credit. That is all they had in their locker at the beginning of their journey to the moon. They had to learn, innovate, engineer new ways that would require a prolonged time in space for the astronauts, mastering techniques to dock and maneuvre spacecrafts; build said spacecraft from scratch and build the most powerful rocket in history to send them on their way; all within of timeframe of roughly 10 years.
Naturally the figure-heads of these campaigns were always going to be the astronauts. But this was a complete new field of endeavour and new protocols and skills had to be develop to train these people. The guys in pole position to do that job were Air Force pilots, and more specifically Test Pilots who made their living testing novel state of the art and very risky aircraft at unprecedented speeds and altitudes. Armstrong was always going to be in the running as he had established himself as reputation of a phenomenal test pilot handling the X-15 which was basically akin to piloting a rocket through the edge of the atmosphere at three, four or even five times the speed of sound. However, having Test Pilot chops was not going to be enough, and all these prospective astronauts had to demonstrate that they had what was called ‘the Right Stuff’. They were spun, shaken, bolted and jolted in myriad different ways which would test them physically and mentally – a lot of it probably unnecessary in hindsight. But out of all of that shaking and poking, emerged an elite group of Astronauts that who were selected for NASA’s Gemeni program, which succeeded Mercury and was to lay out the foundations for subsequent Appollo program and the eventual moon landings.
The Soviets demonstrated yet again that they were ahead as they got their cosmonaut Alexey Leonov to do the first ever Extra-
Vehicular Activity (EVA) or space-walk in Earth Orbit. The entire purpose of the Gemeni mission was to demonstrate that NASA could master these EVAs and “Rendez-vous” which was a term used to describe the meeting of two space crafts in orbit without which there would be no landing on the moon. The Americans eventually came up to speed as Astronaut Ed White completed the first ever EVA for NASA. The subsequent few Gemini missions were to improve upon Ed White’s initial EVA by increasing the difficulty level of tasks for the astronauts while they were out in space. Then came Gemeni 8 and Neil Armstrong’s maiden space flight as he commanded the first ever manned redenez-vous, docking with the unmanned spacecraft Agena. The initial docking was successful, however, soon after ,his space craft spiralled out of control and he had to undock and abort the mission mid-way to save his (and crew mate Dave-Scott’s) life. The remarkable calmness he showed under immense pressure was a key in NASA earmarking him as one of the first choice commanders in Apollo missions. By the final Gemeni mission, NASA had pretty much perfected the EVAs and Rendezvous as Gemini 12 commanded by Jim Lovell (who would later command the fateful Apollo 13 mission) and Buzz Aldrin. They successfully completed their rendezvous with an unmanned space craft and used its engine to go into an even higher unprecendented orbit around the Earth. Buzz Aldrin also demonstrated flawless EVA techniques in that same mission thus achieving all the mission objectives of the GEMINI program.
It was time for Apollo and that one final push for the moon. Key obstacles stll remained in the planning of the mission. Namely the rockets used to send them on their way, the capacity of the Command module which was the main spacecraft to go to the moon and the building of a Lunar lander which could negotiate the alien conditions on the lunar surface. All these things had to be tested and demonstrated before a mission to send astronauts to the surface of the moon could be given the green light. However tragedy struck in the very first Apollo 1 mission as the crew Gus Grissam (one of the original Mercury guys), Roger Chaffee, and Ed White (the same person who had previous done the first space-walk for NASA) died in a cabin fire in the command module durring a routine training exercise in Houston only a few weeks before lift off. Later investigations revealed systematic flaws and failures within the design and protocols which meant that the Astronauts’ safety was severely compromised.
It was a body-blow for NASA in more ways than one, and could have even spelled the end of the enterprise. However, they dusted themselves off and returned with a renewed focus to get the job done right this time. Apollo 7 was to take up Apollo 1’s mission riding the Saturn V rocket (the most powerful in history pioneered by Wernher Von Braun) and test the Newly designed Command Module. The success of that mission was not only poignant because of the Apollo 1 tragedy but also because it now meant that Astronauts can now be sent to the Moon’s orbit.
And Apollo 8 did exactly that as they sent Frank Borrman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders to lunar orbit. Never before in human history had anyone been this far from home. They were also the first humans to see the far side of the moon from only 60 miles no less. It was Apollo 8 that sent back those iconic – and now ubiquitous – pictures of Earthrise. However this was also one of the most risky missions to date as the spacecraft had to fire its engine behind the far side of the moon (out of contact with Houston) to ensure a return trajectory to earth. They had no backup. Any mistake or miscalculation and they would have either crashed into earth and burnt, or gone into deep space. Fortunately for them and the Apollo program, their Maths was spot on and they fired their engine at exactly the right moment.
Apollo 9 was the first time the Lunar lander or the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) was going to be tested. NASA outsourced the development of the lander to a private company called Grumman Coorporation. They came up with a weird spidery looking spacecraft which consisted of two stages. A descent stage to land on the surface of the moon and an ascent stage (which was essentially a detachable top half) to lift off from it. Apollo 9 successfully demonstrated the Lunar Modules capabilities in near earth orbit, and its subsequent mission Apollo 10 left near earth and tested it out in lunar orbit. They did every thing but land one the surface of the moon. The stage was now set for the next mission, Apollo 11, to attempt to make the first ever lunar landing.
Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins were given the responsibility. Everything went according to plan, the lift-off, the aquiring of Lunar orbit and the undocking of the Lunar Module (LEM) for final descent. However, just as the Eagle (their LEM) was approaching the surface, the auto-pilot encountered problems with data overload. Its astonishing to realize that the computers involved in landing the LEM on the surface of the moon had less processing power than ordinary smart-phone these days. Also lets not forget that no one had ever actually landed the LEM as it is not designed to fly on Earth Surface with its atmosphere. The had a Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV) to simulate the conditions on the moon but the ‘flying bed sted’ – as it became known among astronauts – almost ended in disaster as Armstrong had to bail out as this extraordinary footage shows. A fraction of a second late and he probably would have died.(Back on the Eagle) Neil Armstrong noticing that there was an error with the mapping of the lunar surface, decided to switch to manual.As he searched for an improvised landing sight, he was alerted that there were only 60 seconds of fuel left. In 30 seconds he had to decide whether to land or to abort the mission. Moreover the Lander was above a very large crater which meant that chances of crashing were higher. A crash landing on the moon would have meant there was no hope of Armstrong and Aldrin returning to Earth. However, as his Gemini 8 mission was evidence, Armstrong kept his cool and with only 20 seconds of fuel remaining relayed that now famous message
“…Houston…. Tranquillity base here!… The Eagle has landed”
What happened after – as they say – is well documented history.
Aldrin and Armstrong clocked about 2 and half hours of EVA on the moon, and the mission objective for the subsequent 6 missions was to improve upon that. By Apollo 17 – the final mission – the astranauts were taking Lunar rovers (which were essentially an auto-mobiles designed to whizz around on the surface of the moon) and they were able to stay there for about 3 days. But – as it has been for the last 40 years – the hunger and the appetite for more began to wane and the US government decided to cut the funding for Apollo 18 and 19
Apollo 11 was to be Neil Armstrong’s final involvement with NASA as an active astronaut. In retirement, because of the notoriety of being the first man on the moon, Armstrong became much more of a reserved figure and limited his public appearances to handful of NASA events. He was not a bitter or frustrated celebrity; just someone who clearly valued his private life and understandably wanted to be out of the fray. He became a lecturer at the University of Cincinnati before accepting corporate directorships of Aeronautical Engineering Companies. In his last few years he became quite a vocal critic of President Obama’s decision to scrap the Manned Space program. Along with friend and fellow Astronaut Gene Cernan (Commander of Apollo 17) even went to Congressional Select Committee to voice his disappointment over the direction of the Manned Space Program. In the biography authorised by him “First Man” by James Hansen (added to the Quackonomics Bookstore, Armstrong was always keen to make the point that he was merely the arrow-head in what was a massive effort by hundreds of thousands of people who worked on the moon landing. He was convinced that he was only doing his job and many of his colleagues in the previous and subsequent missions would have been just as accomplished as he was. He wanted to be remembered by the ledger of his work over a long time rather than just a solitary firwework he was part of 43 years ago. Though its probably fair to say that the ‘solitary firework’ is STILL the most electrifying moment in human history.For me, the most astonishing feat of the Mercury,Gemeni and Apollo missions (other than the obvious one ofcourse) is rate of innovation that was involved througout the process.The eagerness and the motivation to find solutions to physical challenges that presented themselves. That spirit of improving upon the previous best, the learning from failures, and the standing on the shoulders of Giants, exemplified the very best of Engineering and Science. Will we ever send manned missions to the moon again? Or even better it? Is the first person to walk the surface of Mars alive among us right now? Currrent political and economic climate suggests that the answer to all these questions is probably unlikely.
But the 1960s wasn’t a happy time either. There were a whole host of issues, priorities and obstacles for the public and politicians to deal with. Yet that generation managed to land on the moon. Perhaps with renewed vigour and motivation to take up challenges, we can create an appetite for attempting to send astronauts to Mars. Just maybe, if we manage to live long enough, in the tail end of our lives we can yet witness a moment to rival Armstrong’s; when we send a human mission to Mars and watch in awe, as that Astronaut takes her first step onto the Marsian surface.