With the exception of the tragic Apollo 1, Apollo 13, and the now somewhat forgotten incident at the start of the Apollo 12 mission when its giant Saturn V was merely hit by lightning during its ascent (and Mission Control decided to go for it anyhow, a brass balls decision utterly unthinkable post-Challenger), perhaps the greatest sin of the Apollo missions was that in a sense, the men who flew them, and those who staffed Mission Control, were so talented, cool, and well-trained, they ultimately made going to the moon look easy. The ability to seemingly literally rise from the fire of Apollo 1, and improvise brilliantly during the otherwise abortive Apollo 13 mission just added to the NASA can-do mystique of the era.
But this harrowing post by Robert Nedelkoff at the New Nixon blog illustrates many of the risks that Armstrong, Aldrin, and command module pilot Michael Collins faced:
The Guardian has just published an article about Collins which describes the terrible responsibility which was uniquely his during the Apollo 11 mission. Although the lunar module had repeatedly been tested and allowances made for its performance in the weightless atmosphere and lighter gravity of the moon, no one at NASA, or anywhere else, could be completely sure that the trip to the moon’s surface would conclude successfully.
Neil Armstrong, coolly assessing the situation before liftoff, thought that the chances were about 50-50 that the lunar module would not be able to escape the moon’s gravitational pull and that he and Aldrin would either crash back to the surface or, perhaps, would be stranded in an orbit far below the capacity of the command module to help, until their oxygen ran out. There were eighteen separate rescue plans devised, but there was no guarantee that any of them would work if needed.
Collins agreed with Armstrong’s view of the risks. As the world listened to Armstrong and Aldrin announce that “the Eagle has landed” and then watched them walk from their module, Collins remained in orbit, well aware that if worst came to worst, he would return to Earth alone, always to be, in his words, “a marked man.” Later, Charles Lindbergh, who spent thirty hours alone over the Atlantic, would observe that Collins, for a similar duration, had experienced the most profound isolation a human being had ever known until then.
At the White House, there were similar worries. Frank Borman, the commander of the Apollo 8 mission which was the first to orbit the moon, advised the White House that the President should be prepared to speak to the nation if Apollo 11 ended in tragedy. Nixon speechwriter William Safire therefore was assigned to draft a speech for this contingency that read, in part:
“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.”
(Over the last few weeks the text of this address-that-never-was has been mentioned in some websites and news reports as if it were recently unearthed, but in fact it’s been part of the historical record since Safire discussed and quoted from it in his 1975 book Before The Fall.)
And of course, the moon landing is still occasionally harrowing business for those three pioneers. Fortunately, even forty years later, they still have, as Tom Wolfe would say, the most righteous of the Right Stuff:
To which James Lileks has found the quote on its host Website that Absolutely, Perfectly, Defines YouTube’s culture:
What’s wrong with some guy saying the U.S. didn’t land on the moon? Who cares. That doesn’t give Armstrong the right to belt him.
As Lileks responds, “Blatherskate’s idea of ‘free speech,’ fashionable neutrality, ignorance, victimization, and misplaced outrage: every minor modern pathology in one tidy package.”