Written by Jo Woolf, RSGS Writer-in-Residence and Author of The Great Horizon.
In the early hours of 21st July 1969, inside the small, cramped space of their landing capsule, Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were trying to get to sleep. The two American astronauts had just stepped into the history books, becoming the first humans to land on the Moon. Clad in their iconic NASA space suits with backpacks of breathing apparatus, they had climbed down the ladder from the Eagle landing module, jumping off the last three feet or so from the bottom rung, and had ‘bounced’ around the dusty landscape, collecting rocks, taking photographs and conducting scientific experiments. 250,000 miles away, the entire world was rejoicing in their achievement. After the intense excitement and physical demands of the last 24 hours, now, finally, it was time to sleep. Tomorrow, the last big challenge of their mission awaited them: getting back off the Moon.
The space within the landing module was not really designed to allow comfortable slumber. Every square inch had been spoken for in terms of equipment and storage. Armstrong, the Mission Commander, had chosen a place on the engine cover, some two and a half feet in diameter, and had fashioned a sling to support his legs. His head found a ‘pillow’ on a flat shelf. Meanwhile Aldrin chose to lie on the floor, where there was room for one person in a semi-foetal position. Both men continued to wear their helmets, to protect their lungs from the moon dust that had followed them into the module when they returned from their walk. It had a curious smell, Armstrong noted, reminding him of wet ashes. To Aldrin, it was more reminiscent of spent gunpowder, like a firework that had just gone off.
Some of the larger particles of moon dust lay scattered on the floor where Aldrin was attempting to sleep. His gaze rested on them idly, and then his attention was caught by a different kind of object on the floor below the instrument panel. With a jolt of alarm, he realised that it was a broken circuit-breaker switch, and by skimming his eyes over the controls he quickly identified it. It belonged to the engine-arm, which sent electrical power to the ascent engine. Despite all their careful manoeuvring in the tight space, it must have been snapped off by one of their bulky backpacks. Aldrin didn’t bother too much about how or why: what worried him was what they would do about it. Tomorrow, that particular circuit breaker would have to be pushed back in, to ignite the engine which would lift them off the Moon. If they couldn’t operate the switch, they were going nowhere.
Aldrin and Armstrong conveyed the problem to Mission Control in Houston, who assured them that they would come up with a solution by morning. Meanwhile, their orders were to sleep.
About seven hours later, after a fitful ‘night’ that was made even more challenging by unexpectedly cold temperatures, the two men awoke to find that no solution had yet presented itself. Simply using a finger or a small metal object to push the switch would be too dangerous, because of the electrical circuitry. As the scheduled time for lift-off approached, Aldrin remembered a felt-tipped pen that he kept in the shoulder pocket of his space suit. It seemed to be the perfect size. With some trepidation, he inserted it into the empty socket. To his profound relief, it fitted perfectly.
Hundreds of last-minute checks had to be made prior to lift-off. The Eagle was designed so that the lower half would remain on the Moon, while the upper part would ascend with the two astronauts to be reunited with Columbia, the orbiting Command Module in which Michael Collins, the third Apollo 11 astronaut, had been keeping a solitary vigil. This may well have been the most tense moment of the entire mission: as Aldrin explained, “the ascent stage simply had to work… We had no margin for error, no second chances, no rescue plans if the liftoff failed. There would be no way for Mike up in Columbia to retrieve us. We had no provision for another team to race from Earth to pick us up if the Eagle did not soar. Nor did we have food, water, or oxygen for more than a few hours.”
For his own part, Collins later admitted to a “secret terror” that the Eagle might either fail to lift off from the Moon, or crash back into it. He would then have no option but to return to Earth alone. He knew that a thousand things could go wrong during the rendezvous with Columbia. “A tilted gyro, a stubborn computer, a pilot’s error… one little hiccup, and they are dead men.”
Meanwhile, at Tranquility Base, the Eagle was cleared for take-off by Mission Control. Aldrin acknowledged the message and then added drily, “We’re number one on the runway.” Standing side by side at the controls, the astronauts exchanged a glance and waited for the countdown. “Nine, eight, seven, six, five, Abort Stage, Engine Arm, Ascent, Proceed.” Fired into life by Aldrin’s felt-tipped pen, the engine emitted a plume of flame and blasted dust in all directions as the module rose above the lunar surface. With no atmosphere to provide resistance, and only one-sixth of the Earth’s gravity to overcome, they were surprised at how quickly they attained speed. But there was no time to admire the view: they were focused on perfecting the Eagle’s angle and altitude in order to dock with Columbia. After two orbits around the Moon they were ready, and the Command Module was in sight.
As the Eagle loomed larger and larger in Collins’ window, he felt a wave of overwhelming relief. Now came the silent ballet of precise positioning: on the second attempt, the two spacecraft achieved perfect alignment and docking was successful. Nearly four hours after lifting off from the Moon, the Eagle had re-connected with her mother ship. Aldrin remembers: “The sound of those latches snapping shut as Mike secured the Eagle to the Columbia was one of the sweetest I’d ever heard.” After a lighthearted reunion, the astronauts transferred all the essential equipment and geology specimens onto Columbia, and then the brave little landing module was jettisoned to crash back onto the lunar surface.
The next task was to bring Columbia out of orbit and head homewards. Now that most of the risks were over, they joked about accidentally pointing it the wrong way. At 11.10 pm on 21st July, while on the ‘dark’ side of the Moon and out of contact with Earth, they fired the service propulsion engine which increased their speed to 6,188 miles per hour. As they came around the Moon half an hour later, the luminous blue-and-white Earth appeared to greet them, and they allowed themselves time to take photographs. The journey home would take two and a half days. For the first time in a long while, they could look forward to a peaceful sleep.
Re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere occurred on 24th July, at a height of around 400,000 feet and a speed of nearly 25,000 miles per hour. The pre-arranged location for splashdown was eight miles south-west of Hawaii. As they approached, the inky black space outside their windows was replaced by a multitude of colours and then a bank of stratocumulus clouds came into view; day was breaking over the south-west Pacific. The three main parachutes blasted open and the astronauts had a few seconds to enjoy their tranquil view of the ocean before the spacecraft hurtled into it. The impact on their bodies was only moderate; worse was the fact that they were now hanging upside-down from their straps as the capsule was tossed about in a choppy sea. Their return to Earth’s gravity could not have been more disconcerting. Airbags soon corrected their position, but they continued to bob around like a cork. Aldrin hoped that, when they emerged into daylight with live television cameras upon them, they would not be vomiting from sea-sickness.
After an eternal half-hour, the helicopter and rescue boats arrived. Luckily, the astronauts were still holding it together when the hatch was opened, perhaps through elation and relief. They had survived the longest and most perilous journey, and soon they would be reunited with their loved ones. Their lives were now changed forever… and the world had changed, too. During the first hours of the essential three-week quarantine that followed, they learned that the Moon landing had been watched by 500 million people – about 20% of the global population. As they marvelled at the newsreels and saw for the first time the scenes of euphoric celebration, they felt almost like latecomers to a worldwide party. On impulse, Aldrin turned to Armstrong. “Hey, look,” he said. “We missed the whole thing!”
The courage of the Apollo 11 astronauts was celebrated on 9th March 1972, when Neil Armstrong was a guest of the RSGS at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh. Before giving a talk about the mission he was awarded the RSGS Livingstone Medal, which he revealed he was especially proud to receive, in view of his family’s Scottish roots. The following evening, he delivered the Mountbatten Lecture at Edinburgh University, and on 11th March he celebrated his Armstrong ancestry with a visit to Langholm, where he was officially declared the town’s first Freeman.
Quotes and further reading:
‘Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon’ by Buzz Aldrin with Ken Abraham
‘First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong’ by James R Hansen