The Time Machine: The Story Behind the Man on the Moon

This week, the Time Machine takes you back to the “giant leap for mankind” – the moon landing and the US’s space explorations before that triumph.

Buzz Aldrin

Moon-landing: Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. Credit: NASA

Forty-eight years ago, today, was humanity’s giant leap – the moon landing.

At 6:54 am, July 16, 1969, Neil Armstrong, Mike Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin stepped into the Apollo 11. Jack King, the voice of launch control had reported that the astronauts had boarded after a breakfast of “orange juice, steaks, scrambled eggs, toast, and coffee”.

And on July 20, at 4:17 pm, Armstrong became the first person to step on the moon, closely followed by Buzz Aldrin.

What came to be celebrated as the US’s single-largest achievement in the Cold War era, took place at a time when the US was also at war in Vietnam, while the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. was raging within the country. The US’s advances in space research and expeditions were reported with gusto, broadcast live, as the American public hung on every word that floated out of Cape Canaveral in Florida, and later Houston as well. It was as effective a propaganda machine as any, keeping the people excited. Nothing quite inspired patriotism like advances in space exploration did.

The space race

At the dawn of the space age, the US was a reluctant participant at best. Before the Russians launched the Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite in orbit, in 1957, the American political establishment was not as invested in space research as their counterparts in the USSR. Wernher von Braun, the chief rocket engineer was spending his days trying to cajole President Dwight David Eisenhower into letting him launch an Earth satellite. Braun had attempted to launch a similar satellite from Cape Canaveral, without presidential permission the year before Sputnik’s launch, intending to disguise it as an accident. His “accidental” launch was however stopped by Cape Canaveral commander Lt. Colonel Asa Gibbs.

Only a month after Sputnik 1, the Russians stunned the world again with Sputnik 2, and tested the limits of possibility – this time by sending a dog, Laika – along with it.

NBC correspondent Jay Barbree, who dedicated his life reporting the world of space research wrote in his memoir, Live from Cape Canaveral, “The numbers were unbelievable to an American public struggling to understand what was going on. Where were our rockets? Where were our satellites?”

A reactionary Eisenhower decided to appease the American public by launching the Vanguard, which was untested and von Braun had warned that it was unprepared for flight. Nevertheless, in December 1957, the US launched the Vanguard from Cape Canaveral, but the rocket only made it four feet above its launch pad before bursting into flame.

CBS correspondent, who was watching the launch from a beach nearby wrote later in life:

…I saw an unmistakable flash of flame and the pencil-thin white rocket began to move. “There she goes!” I shouted. “There she goes!” shouted Virginia into the phone. “There she goes!” shouted the CBS executive in New York, hanging up the phone and charging off to get the bulletin on the air. We beat ABC and NBC certainly. There was only one problem. A tenth of a second after I shouted, “There she goes!” I shouted, “Hold it!”

The space race had begun – USSR-2, US-0.

Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the moon. Credit: NASA

Project Score

Eventually, the US made up for lost ground and embarrassment by calling in von Braun, who in January 1958, successfully began American escapades into space with the launch of Juno 1, which placed the satellite Explorer 1 in orbit. Formerly known as Jupiter-C, Juno 1 was in fact the same rocket that von Braun had tried to “accidentally” launch in 1956.

Even so, the Russians kept up their pace, and the US was struggling to match it. Then came Project SCORE (Signal Communications by Orbiting Relay Equipment), which was to be their saving grace, by virtue of being the largest and heaviest satellite in orbit. Barbree wrote in his memoir that Project Score was a very hush-hush affair, with only 88 people who officially knew about it. The idea was to launch an Atlas 10B, an intercontinental ballistic missile, into orbit. The missile was fitted with a tape playback unit and a broadcast transmitter, which would continuously transmit a recorded message of peace from the president to the world.

The Atlas 10B was launched on December 18, 1958 at a little past six in the evening. For those witnessing the launch, it looked like the missile had caught fire, and the range safety officer at Range Control, Cape Canaveral, was sweating in his seat, reaching for the destruct button, afraid that it might hit Africa. Major General Donald Yates of the Air Force Eastern Test Range, who was overseeing the project stopped him, despite the officer’s protests, wrote Barbree. Yates had reportedly said, “Big deal. A lot of jungle out there. Don’t touch that damn button, Captain. That’s a direct order,” when he was informed of the possibility of the missile hitting Africa.

Happily, for General Yates, the missile didn’t veer off course and did not hit Africa. Nuclear catastrophe was averted. And two hours after the launch, President Eisenhower’s voice was transmitted from the satellite in orbit, saying:

“This is the President of the United States speaking. Through the marvels of scientific advance, my voice is coming to you from a satellite circling in outer space. My message is a simple one. Through this unique means I convey to you and all mankind America’s wish for peace on Earth and good will to men everywhere.”

Neil Armstrong

Armstrong after his moon walk. Credit: NASA

The wayward rocket and Astrochimp

 On April 9, 1959, the Mercury Seven astronauts were announced – among them Alan Shepard, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Donald K. “Deke” Slayton and Walter M. “Wally” Schirra. All of them would later be involved with Project Apollo which eventually got Armstrong to the moon. All of them had military backgrounds.

Over the next few years, as the Mercury Seven were training, the US began to put together the hardware and test it. The first launch, the unmanned Mercury-Atlas, was a failure, the rocket blowing itself to bits soon after the launch. For the second launch, a different rocket was chosen – a Redstone, which had propelled the Explorer 1 into space. The Mercury-Redstone also failed, this time, because of an electrical problem. The engines had ignited, only to shut down again, and the Mercury-Redstone settled decisively back into the launching pad. Except, the escape-tower rocket – which were installed to guide the Mercury away from danger should something go awry with the launch – fired up and left both rocket (Redstone) and spacecraft (Mercury) on the launch pad. It went berserk over the Florida sky, spitting flame and wreaking havoc, as Cape Canaveral yelled over loudspeakers for people to run for cover.

A Redstone did eventually carry an unmanned Mercury spacecraft into orbit in December 1960. In the next month John F. Kennedy would be sworn in as president, and he would promise that the US would send men to the moon before the decade was out. But the success meant that it was time to decide who among the Mercury Seven would be the first to go to space – and Alan Shepard was chosen, to be followed by Gus Grissom.

But before Shepard, NASA decided to first send Chang the chimpanzee, who was later rechristened Ham, into unexplored territory on January 31, 1961. NASA saw it as a precaution, but the Mercury Seven thought AstroChimp, as Ham came to be known, was unnecessary. Nevertheless, Ham became the first hominid to go to space. According to Barbree, there was much irritation about the fact that Ham would go before the Mercury Seven. He wrote:

“All that animal would do was bang levers and push buttons and get jolted with electricity if he didn’t perform as trained. The astronauts protested, but the medical folks insisted. There were too many unknowns about space flight to risk a human life without first sending up a chimp as a possible sacrifice. The fact that a chimpanzee is a highly intelligent anthropoid, an animal closely related to and resembling a human, didn’t matter. Killing one’s animal cousin appeared to be acceptable.”

Ham’s expedition into space was far from smooth – with the Redstone’s fuel burning up too soon, causing the escape-tower rocket to carry the Mercury spacecraft higher and faster. The capsule came back to Earth hard and Ham has nearly drowned in the ocean by the time rescuers arrived.

After AstroChimp’s perilous flight, von Braun decided another test flight was necessary before Shepard could be sent to space, much to the latter’s annoyance. Shepard told Barbree at the time, “We had them, Barbree. We had the Russians by the gonads and we gave it away.” The race was to be the first man in space, and Shepard was convinced it was a race the Americans had lost. If all had gone well with AstroChimp, he’d have been in the Mercury capsule, ready for lift-off in March. But now, he had to wait till May.

As it turned out, Shepard’s misgivings were not unfounded. On April 8, 1961, the Russians beat the US again, sending cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin hurtling into orbit atop a Vostok capsule. Needless to say, the chimp remained a sore spot for the astronauts at Cape Canaveral.

Gagarin orbited the earth in 89 minutes and as he came back through the atmosphere, and ejected himself out of the capsule, floating down to the surface with a parachute, he startled a pair of peasants and a grazing cow. He was asked, “Have you come from outer space?”

When Barbree received news of Gagarin’s feat, he wrote, “I had only one thought: NASA could have had Alan Shepard up there three weeks ago.”

The race to the moon

 At this juncture, newly-appointed JFK asked NASA:

“I want you to tell me where we stand. Do we have a chance of beating the Russians by putting up an orbiting laboratory? Or by a trip around the moon, or by a rocket to go to the moon and back with a man?”

And the game was on, though Kennedy didn’t live to see Armstrong on the moon. The Mercury Seven were followed by Project Gemini, and later by Project Apollo.

Project Gemini was set up to prepare and test all the techniques that would be required to reach the moon. They consisted of two-man missions, each dealing with a certain aspect of all the manoeuvres – docking with other space vehicles, spacewalking and rendezvousing – that would be required to make a moon-landing successful. Both Armstrong and Aldrin had proved their mettle in Project Gemini.

Armstrong had been given command of the spacecraft Gemini 8, and along with Dave Scott, they were supposed to figure out how docking would work. On March 16, 1966, the Gemini 8 successfully docked with the Agena, a rocket that had been placed in orbit. Though the docking went smoothly, what followed was described by Barbree as the “first real emergency in spaceflight”. Armstrong was supposed to fire the Agena rocket to boost the Gemini 8 into a higher orbit. But one of the Gemini 8’s rocket thrusters had malfunctioned and the astronauts were caught in orbit, spinning dangerously out of control while attached to another rocket that could potentially explode. They were a couple of hundred miles above China and could not contact Mission Control. Armstrong managed to undock the Gemini 8, but they were still spinning out of control, which meant that the two astronauts on board would pass out if something wasn’t done. Armstrong decided to break some rules to regain control and fired the nose thrusters to stabilise the capsule. The nose thrusters were only to be used when coming back to the surface, and once they had been fired, the pilot had to return, no matter what, because there was only so much fuel in the thrusters to make the return journey. And so, the Gemini 8 came back to earth. After their return, flight director Chris Kraft had said:

“The spin rate was up as high as 550 degrees per second, about the rate where humans lose consciousness, or the capability to operate. That was truly a fantastic recovery, and really proved why we have test pilots in those ships. Had it not been for the good flying, we probably would have lost the crew.”

Aldrin on the other hand, made headway with spacewalking with the Gemini 12 mission. There were two spacewalking missions that were conducted before, but neither one had been satisfactory. MIT graduate Aldrin, however, fiddled with the equipment and made changes to better facilitate his mission. On his spacewalk, he was thus able to surmount the problems that his predecessors had faced.

Neil Armstrong

Armstrong’s shadow on the surface of the moon. Credit: NASA

As NASA built and tested, the cosmonauts in the USSR weren’t twiddling thumbs. They were making headlines, remaining in orbit for nearly five days. The first woman in space was also claimed by the USSR – Valentina Tereshkova who stayed in orbit for nearly three days. Also claimed by the Russians was the first spacewalk by cosmonaut Aleksei A. Leonov, following which Pravda, the communist party’s official newspaper ran the cheeky headline, ‘Sorry Apollo’.

The moon-landing

 With the success of Project Gemini, the US was ready for Project Apollo. But the project had an inauspicious beginning – the capsule, Apollo 1, which was manned by Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee came to a horrific end. An exposed wire had sparked a fire in the cockpit, which was pressurised with oxygen. And all three astronauts lost their lives before the spacecraft could leave the launching pad.

Fortunately, the Apollo missions that followed went according to plan, and with the Apollo 8, the Americans managed to beat the Russians to circumlunar navigation. In December 1968, the spacecraft travelled around the dark side of the moon – at Christmas time, the achievement became a cause for yet more jubilation as the astronauts on board – Jim Lovell, Bill Anders and Frank Borman – read from the Book of Genesis from space, once they had completed orbit. Thereafter, NASA received several phonecalls, among which one was a disgruntled complaint that the space research organisation was promoting religion.

Meanwhile, in February 1969, the Discoverer, the CIA’s spy satellite had uncovered something which made the Americans all the more eager to put their man on the moon quicker. The Russians at the Baikonur station had built a mammoth ship – N-1 – which was bigger than NASA’s Saturn V. The space race was growing close, and the last lap was getting a man on the moon. And the Russian ship looked formidable.

February 21, 1969, all 30 engines of the N-1 ignited to lift it into space. Two engines stopped working, but the rocket continued its ascent. But 66 seconds after the launch, the massive spacecraft began to fall apart and caught fire. And now, the US had all the time in the world to send their man to the moon.

On July 16, millions gathered to watch the Columbia take Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins to the moon. Mission Control in Houston closely monitored them every step of the way. Collins was to remain in orbit with the Columbia, while Aldrin and Armstrong took their landing craft Eagle to the surface of the moon. As the Eagle made its way towards the lunar surface, Barbree wrote in his memoir:

“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.”

The Eagle’s descent didn’t go exactly according to plan. Twice, as the landing progressed, the computers on the lunar module overloaded, setting off alarms. Back in Houston, there was hesitation – should they abort mission? More trouble arrived. The Eagle was meant to land on the Sea of Tranquillity, on the moon’s surface, but very soon, it was evident to Armstrong that they were not where they were supposed to land. Below them were boulders and craters – the astronauts couldn’t see a suitable patch of surface to land on, even as the fuel for the Eagle’s descent stage running out. This meant they couldn’t go around the moon and try again. They had this one chance only. And fortunately, between the rocks and craters, they were able to spot a bit of flat land, which would now have to serve as their landing point. They had 90 seconds of fuel left in their tanks. If they didn’t land in 90 seconds they would crash.

The situation was tense in Houston and Cape Canaveral. Till Aldrin’s voice cracked through, “Contact light!”

Soon after, Armstrong announced to a world waiting with bated breath, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

This narrative has been pieced together with information from the following sources: First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, James R. Hansen; Live from Cape Canaveral, Jay Barbree; Appointment on the Moon, Richard S. Lewis; Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, Asif A. Siddiqi.