Saturday, July 18, 2009

Apollo 11: Grabbing a rope at 3600 mph

Apollo 11 blasted off on July 16, 1969. I was eleven years old and, like every other kid in the 60’s, watched slack-jawed and imagined being aboard that giant rocket someday.

These weren’t innocent times, by any means. Vietnam was raging on, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated a year earlier, and the hippie drug culture was worrisome for all parents.

In spite of this, the world’s attention was diverted for nine days while three space cowboys journeyed to the moon, completing JFK’s vision from his 1961 speech.

There wasn’t much time to get to the moon and prance around before the decade’s end and it hadn’t been a completely smooth build up to this history making trip.

Neil Armstrong had been aboard Gemini 8 when a thruster got stuck causing the capsule to start spinning at a rate of 60 rpm. Armstrong stopped the spinning by firing the Re-entry Control System, but not before he and David Scott were in danger of losing consciousness. They had to abort the planned three-day mission only 10 hours after liftoff.

During a pre-flight test in January 1967, Apollo 1 experienced a fire in the command module, killing Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.

Apollo missions 2 through 6 were unmanned tests of various systems and the Saturn V rocket. Apollo 7 was the first manned Apollo mission, an 11-day earth orbital flight in October 1968 with Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele and Walt Cunningham. Apollo missions 8, 9 and 10 quickly followed, launching in December 1968, March 1969 and May 1969.

So you can appreciate (or remember if you’re my age or older) that it was nonstop NASA action for that ten-month period. These engineers, rocket scientists and daredevil pilots were the center of attention, and deservedly so. They were thought of as heroes, much more so then than they would be today.

Back then, flying was a luxury, a television show broadcast in color was still a treat, and no average person ever saw, much less operated, a computer. The whole concept of rocketing to the moon seemed amazing to some, incredible to most.

So there we were, glued to the TV, awaiting the now familiar ten to one countdown. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins were strapped into a pretty small command module (I’ve seen the replica at the Air & Space Museum and it’s no Winnebago), sitting atop a virtual bomb, ready for the ride of their lives.

At T minus eight seconds, the five F1 engines roared, shaking the ground for miles around. Four clamps held the rocket down while the engines built to full thrust, about 180 million horsepower. At T minus zero, the clamps released the rocket and we had liftoff. In less than three minutes, Apollo 11 was 58 miles downrange, cooking along at a swift 5,300 miles per hour.

We toasted the successful launch by clinking our glasses of Tang.

The spaceship wasted no time hanging around, firing its rockets after completing only one and a half laps of the earth and starting its three-day trip to the moon. Three days is an eternity to an eleven-year-old. I imagined Buzz asking Neil every 30 minutes or so: “Are we there, yet?”

I bided my time cutting articles out of the newspaper and putting them away for the day I would come across them and appreciate how, as a kid, I recognized the historic significance of the time. Here are copies of a few of those clippings:

Spacesuit Fashions

Saturn V Rocket

Apollo 11 To Harvest Moon

Gearing Up For Moon Walk

Alternate Landing Sites

Artist's Rendition of Landing

Moon Landing Schedule

Landing Headline

One Small Step

Nixon To Call Astronauts On Moon

The big day finally came. It was July 20th when the lunar landing module touched town on the Sea of Tranquility and Neil Armstrong spoke those famous words: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

I remember jumping up and down, cheering and racing for the bathroom after holding it for way too long. Astronauts didn’t have this problem, but it would be thirty more years before I saw a guy wearing a commercial version of a personal porta-potty at a Patriots game.

Speaking of which, proponents of our space program have always pointed to new technologies and gizmos that were spawned out of NASA’s efforts and eventually improved our collective lot in life. Supposedly, at least 1,400 inventions of necessity for space exploration have made it into our everyday lives, but the one I think is worth every dollar spent by NASA is cordless power tools. Cased closed.

One of the concerns we all had was how to rescue the astronauts if they got stuck on the moon. I remember a spokesman from NASA saying that they relied on redundant systems rather than to have a second Apollo ready to launch a rescue mission. At the time, we didn’t hear about (or perhaps didn’t appreciate the seriousness of) the close calls on Apollo 11.

The most precarious was the landing of the lunar module (LM). Because the chamber between the command module and LM had not been completely evacuated after Armstrong and Aldrin boarded, the LM got an extra push from the escaping gas when decoupling. That, and some other harrowing computer and sensor problems, resulted in the lunar module landing with only 17 seconds of fuel to spare.

We watched the “one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind” scene with a couple of my parents’ friends who had come over to witness history. With Armstrong bopping around on the surface of the moon, one of the guests questioned: “What if they get stuck on the moon? How do we get them back?”

Having read every article and watched every interview for a week, I told her about the redundant systems. She was unimpressed. “There may be two computers backing up the main computer,” she surmised, “but there’s only one rocket motor on the lunar lander to shoot it back to the command module, right?”

That was a pretty good observation, but she quickly followed that up with an interesting suggestion. “Can the guy in the command module lower a rope to the guys on the moon?” It occurred to me that some people hadn’t given this moon mission a whole lot of thought.

The guy in the command module is orbiting the moon at a clip of around 3,600 miles per hour, I said with authority. If he could lower a rope, how in the world would they be able to grab on with it coming at them doing 3,600 mph?

“Okay, Mike. We’re ready. Lower the rope. I think I see it… Holy crap!! That was fast! Mike, you’re going to have to circle around again until we get the hang of it.”

Fortunately, everything worked reasonably well and no rescue was necessary. Armstrong and Aldrin spent just short of 24 hours on the moon. The ascent back to the command module was flawless (other than the engine exhaust blowing down the American flag) and during the flight back to Earth, only one of four planned adjustments was necessary to correct their trajectory.

From the launch to the capsule being plucked out of the Pacific Ocean, I remember being completely absorbed by the Apollo 11 mission. We were a nation united and proud of accomplishing John F. Kennedy’s goal of landing on the moon before the decade was out.

The reason for taking on this gargantuan task was best summed up by JFK at his September 1962 appearance at Rice University. He said, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

* * * * *

There is an excellent account of the mission by Hamish Lindsay, one of the engineers who served at the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station in Australia:

Another interesting resource is an interactive Apollo 11 website created for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum:


  1. Good evening MR.Hunt Now a rope would be fine , but even if you could drop one it most likely would burn up prior to touchdown.

    Having some personal involvment with the first attempts to reach the Moon, especially with a manned rocket, I can speak to some degree of experience with the back up computors installed to hopefully prevent a great castrophy.
    I can say that during the early stages of rockets to the moon that your truely has a personal involvement with every computor system under the launchingt pad. As the designated Quality and Reliability Inspector It was my function to assure that every NASA requirment was met by the company I was working for , which was RCA Needham. Not only did we have electric specs, but environmental ones as well.

    RCA at that time built all of the basic computors[Ferrite Cores]that were manufactured in Needham to store all the information needed to get the rocket in the air.

    Countless testing was performed at each level of its manufacture, that also included physical testing of soldering, wires used to run through the cores[The wires used were the size of your hair [if you had any] The wires consisted of a Digit,READ, WRITE and a Sense wire that were all strung through the center of the ferite core in one continues run for each of the four different wires. Each Plain had a matrix of 64 by 64 rows and then stacked together in as many as 20 plains high. In most cases they would encapsulate the whole memory to with stand any harsh flow of salt water while being powered up. Thousands of hand soldering joints made for a very interesting trouble shooting problem once it was all encapsulated as a unit. Hundreds of inspections under microscopes during evey stage of its building process along with countless checks of the electric perameters had to be perfect during every stage or face rejection that would cost not only lives should it fail, but millions of dollars as well.

    The bond of trust between the NASA folks and myself had to be absolute, we did not have any margin for errors .

    I could go on and say that each basic computor ,not the external controls , just the heart itself sitting under the launch pad was severel million dollars in building to the United States Government and each pad had at least two, that once the rocket uplifted from the pad was all burnt up by the rocket fuel.

    Now can you imagine the back up they must have inside the rocket it self

    Yes my hands and few others actually touched the very first computor modules that got our Space boys into space and if a rope could have been used I am sure they would have found it a whole lot cheaper.

    CA Johansen

  2. Randy, Thanks for the terrific article and links. It was a stroll down memory lane. Your easy going writing style really made it all come alive again. Well done!
    Linell Grundman


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