Sunday, July 18, 1999
The Moon Landing 30 Years Later
Flight abounded with drama

Florida Today

Neil Armstrong participates in tests at the Lunar Landing Research Center.
(NASA photo)
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        CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — On a day destined for history, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were not thinking about posterity — they were worried about running out of gas.

        Standing inside their spaceship, the men were a few hundred feet above the lunar surface, trying desperately to find a smooth place to land. But nothing, it seemed, was going right.

        The moonscape below held a deep, deadly crater surrounded by a field of forbidding boulders. Alarm bells shrieked, indicating their flight computer was overloaded and ready to shut down.

Eight anxious seconds:
The descent of the Eagle
        And then there was the fuel — they had less than 30 seconds of it left.

        “The more you think about it, the more remarkable it seems,” said former Kennedy Space Center Director Jay Honeycutt, an Apollo 11 flight operations engineer at Mission Control in Houston. “I'll tell you, it would have been damn easy to abort that mission. Damn easy.”

        NASA didn't, and the result was a day that many think is the most important in the long ascent of humanity: July 20, 1969, the first time people set foot on another world.


Neil Armstrong participates in tests at the Lunar Landing Research Center.
(NASA photo)
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Challenge from Kennedy
        The Apollo program was set in motion May 25, 1961, when President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to send astronauts to the moon, and return them safely to Earth, before the end of that decade.

        No one was certain it could be done, a feeling that held right up to the predawn hours of liftoff day at Kennedy Space Center — July 16, 1969.

        Bathed in xenon spotlights that shot up toward a pale, beckoning moon, a fully fueled Saturn 5 rocket stood on a seaside launch pad.

        Thirty-six stories tall, the Saturn 5 was as heavy as a Navy destroyer and generated 7.5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. Its first stage alone was more powerful than 500 fighter jets.

Neil Armstrong practices for the mission.
(NASA photo)
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        NASA launch pad leader Guenter Wendt and three other men were the only humans allowed within 3.5 miles of it.

        A giant fuel depot unto itself, the Saturn 5 was pumped full of a half-million gallons of propellant that Mr. Wendt said “had the explosive equivalent of eight-tenths of an atomic bomb.”

        Like a robotic dragon, the Saturn 5 slept fitfully during the overnight hours, its metal skin bending and contracting from the supercold fuels that filled it. It hissed and spewed white clouds from relief valves, its massive fuel lines letting off steam.

        Mr. Wendt and his crew stepped through an exhaustive list of 11th- hour work as astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins were roused at 4 a.m., dressed, and headed from their crew quarters to the pad.

        With the sun rising over Florida's Space Coast, the trio rode an elevator to the top of the launch tower and were strapped in.

Apollo 11 heads to the moon.
(NASA photo)
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Off to the moon
        The Saturn 5 came to life at 9:32 a.m. with the explosive force of a volcanic eruption. There was a blinding flash and a cascading cloud of steam as the rocket's five first-stage engines lit.

        A man-made earthquake shocked the surrounding wetlands as the Saturn made its slow-motion move away from Earth, shedding huge sheets of ice that formed about the supercold propellants rushing beneath its skin.

        Gulping fuel at 15 tons per second, it accelerated to 26,000 mph, the speed needed to escape the pull of Earth's gravity.

        Eight years, one month and 21 days after Mr. Kennedy put the country on course for the moon, the Apollo 11 astronauts were off.

        Over the next three days, they rocketed along at nearly 50 times the speed of a pistol bullet, making their way across the 240,000-mile gulf that separates the Earth from its sole natural satellite.

        Then, leaving Mr. Collins to orbit the moon in a Command Service Module called Columbia, Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Aldrin began their dive into the history books.

Neil Armstrong practices on the Iron Cross Attitude Flight Simulator at Dryden Flight Research Center in 1956.
(NASA photo)
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        Swooping around the far side of the moon, the astronauts fired their lander's engine for 29.8 seconds, dipping into an orbit less than 10 miles above the lunar surface.

        Named Eagle, the lander had just sailed back into radio contact with Mission Control in Houston when trouble began: The radio link with flight controllers on Earth kept dropping in and out, broken at best, nonexistent at worst.

        “We couldn't hardly communicate with the crew,” said Apollo 11 lead flight director Gene Kranz. “We were relaying instructions through Mike Collins in the Command Module.”

        The scratchy radio link turned out to be only the first of a stack of problems that nearly forced NASA to abort the mission.

        Just minutes after a final engine firing, radar tracking data showed the astronauts were flying toward a point four miles beyond their planned landing site.

        A series of vexing computer alarms rang out, triggering harried assessments to determine whether it was safe to proceed.

Tense moments
        Mr. Armstrong took manual control, wresting destiny away from the lunar lander's flight computer. Plunging toward the surface at 20 feet per second, he glanced out into gray desolation and hurried toward a relatively smooth area off in the distance.

        There was no time to waste.

        Eagle was guzzling its last few gallons of fuel — and an engine shutdown anywhere above 10 feet in altitude would result in a crash forceful enough to break the craft's landing struts, effectively stranding two men on the moon.

        Deathlike silence gripped the crowd inside Mission Control, now helpless witnesses.

        All that could be heard was the faraway voice of Mr. Aldrin, who kept up a running commentary, calling out the lander's altitude, rate of descent and forward velocity as swirling clouds of dust kicked up on the lunar surface.

        Then finally, four lights on the craft's control panel lit up — an indication that sensors on its quartet of landing struts had come in contact with the lunar surface.

        “Contact light!” Mr. Aldrin exclaimed.

        A brief but seemingly interminable pause proceeded the now-famous call: “Houston, Tranquility Base here,” Mr. Armstrong said. “The Eagle has landed.”

        “Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground,” astronaut Charlie Duke replied from Mission Control. “You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot.”

        Less than a minute's worth of fuel remained when Eagle touched down. To this day, Mr. Kranz still marvels at Mr. Armstrong's piloting skills.

        “I think Neil Armstrong played that just like a spectacular concert pianist. He knew exactly how many seconds of fuel he had. He knew exactly what altitude he was at, and he used every bit of fuel right down to the very end to get the best possible landing site.”

        Six hours and 39 minutes later, at 10:56 p.m. EDT, Mr. Armstrong became the first human to tread the surface of another planetary body, a moment he himself described best:

        “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

        Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Aldrin spent the next two hours and 14 minutes collecting rocks, drilling core samples, setting out science experiments and taking photographs of what Mr. Aldrin termed “magnificent desolation.”

        The pair planted an American flag and took a call from President Richard Nixon. When they rocketed away 21 hours after their arrival, the astronauts left a plaque bearing the inscription: “Here Men From Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon The Moon. July 1969 A.D. We Came In Peace For All Mankind.”

        Three decades later, the astronauts and all Apollo workers can lay claim to helping stitch together a nation that had been steeped in Cold War self-doubt, its very fabric torn apart by Vietnam, assassinations and riots.

        “We demonstrated that what Americans can dream, Americans can do,” said Mr. Kranz.


The Moon Landing: 30 Years Later
Neil Armstrong, The Reluctant Hero
Lebanon's code of silence shields Armstrong
Landing's legacy is still being created
Still to come: the moon, Mars and beyond
NASA research is spinoff city
- Flight abounded with drama
Infographic: The descent of the Eagle
Where the moonwalkers are now
Ohio leads nation in number of astronauts
Cyberspace a great resource for outer space
Special multimedia section from Associated Press