The Apollo11 launch from Earth was 50 years ago on July 16, 1969, the lunar landing was July 20, the return launch was July 21, and the crew splashed down, safely home, on July 24. That’s over a week to party. If intelligent life makes it on this planet another 1,000 years, World War II will be as distant as the Crusades and the one hundred plus years of the struggle for civil rights will be a blip on a timeline. But, the very first time in human history the species unbound two of its own from the constraints of Earth, landed them to walk on a different celestial orb, and returned them home to tell their stories will stand as an event of massive human achievement. It would be wonderful if in the next millennium, there were no wars or bigotry with which to contend, but bigger, better space travel will certainly be creating headlines.
We all know the story: “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” Astronaut Neil Armstrong said he put the “a” in there, but it didn’t project. If old enough, we were likely tuned in and recent news has been awash with Moon stories. So, I wanted to find a few obscure details to celebrate. What did Neil and Marilyn share? They both wore Playtex. Monroe wore hers in the form of the company’s popular 1950s Cross Your Heart bra. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin wore space suits made from similar material developed by Playtex and sold to NASA. The soft, stretchy material worked like a charm. It protected Armstrong and Aldrin from the hostile environment while still allowing a wide range of motion just as successfully as it established Monroe’s legendary décolletage.
President John F. Kennedy began talking about going to the Moon in 1961 and when he was speaking at Rice University on September 12, 1962, announcing that “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,” none of the technology needed was available. None of the infrastructure had been invented. Scientists didn’t even know what route to take. There was no checklist. Zero!
Some of the greatest accomplishments were in the computers that had to be created and then made small, fast, and light enough for the project. If you remember, early computers were the size of warehouses. The ones that went to the Moon were a single cubic foot of volume. They used the newly invented integrated circuits––the first computer chips. NASA was first in the world to make computer chips responsible for human life. No computer before had the ability to return data in seconds. Until then, computers required programmers to type in punch cards and then wait hours for results. Those hours weren’t available to those traveling 24,000 miles per hour toward the Moon. The software was stitched together by women working on looms using wire instead of thread. All of this, and much more, was entirely created from scratch between 1961 and 1969.
Eagle, the Lunar Module, is a story all to itself. The four-legged, spider-looking lander was originally designed with five legs. The stability of a fifth leg was compromised away in favor of
making the craft lighter. It had a variety of tanks for air, water, fuel, and helium. It was essentially an aircraft even though it did not have to, in any way, resemble the aerodynamic
designs of airplanes. It was the first, and remains the only, manned craft designed for use entirely away from Earth’s atmosphere. The astronauts could not practice flying the LM so the very first test-flight was the real thing, landing on the Moon. Armstrong reported it handled like a dream––easy to maneuver and land. Finally, talk about stress! There was a second engine built to launch half of Eagle from the Moon’s surface to reconnect with Michael Collins and the orbiting Command Module that would deliver them home. If that engine failed, even a little, in the untested lunar atmosphere, our remembrances of Apollo 11 would be quite different.
Scientists and mathematicians were not sure of anything. They considered the possibility that the lunar dust may ignite when exposed to air inside the capsule. Armstrong and Aldrin had to cautiously perform an experiment in real time to be sure they wouldn’t be immolated. The “experts” weren’t even sure how deep the powdery surface would be. They couldn’t say if Armstrong would step down on a solid surface, or be swallowed up in feet of unstable dust. Our guys landed and eschewed a five-hour rest in favor of getting out on the surface asap. They didn’t travel all that way to take a nap! When they returned to the capsule they had collected 47.5 pounds of Moon rocks. Their first discovery about the rocks and dust they traipsed back into the capsule was that it smelled like someone shooting a cap-gun.
Our momentous achievement was launched by JFK. But, during the time of development, the fights with Congress over funding, and the ho-hum popularity polls, Kennedy admitted that he wasn’t really all that interested in space. He just wanted a project that would beat the Russians. Some things never change.
Happy birthday space travel!