Tuesday, July 21, 2009

5 Obersvations about Apollo 11 - 40 years later

The 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon really moved me. I am such an aviation buff and really, in many respects, the Apollo 11 mission was a pinnacle of aviation achievement. I found myself totally absorbed in reading the annotated transcripts of the mission radio transmissions. Those transcripts along with other reading about the mission led me to write about my thoughts on Apollo 11.

1. First Steps vs. There and Back

For most of us Apollo 11 was about the first humans landing on the moon. After that, many think about NASA scientists and the potential for scientific experimentation in an extraterrestrial environment, maybe that was the mission for Apollo 11.

That isn't what the mission was about, at least from the point of Neil, Mike, Buzz, and the balance of the NASA team. Apollo 11 was really about engineering, about building a spacecraft that could take someone to the moon and back. The focus of most of the training and previous missions was about making the spacecraft perform.

The moon walk and experiments were really window dressing. Nice window dressing, but, totally secondary to the mission.

2. We still get facts wrong today.

People have an insatiable appetite for tasty little tidbits of fun facts. Take this little nugget from Popular Science:

When Buzz Aldrin joined Armstrong on the surface, he had to make sure not to lock the Eagle's door because there was no outer handle.

Now, isn't that a nasty little nugget. But it is stuff of urban legends. Here is how the legend started. From the transcript:

109:41:28 Aldrin: Okay. Now I want to back up and partially close the hatch. (Long Pause) Making sure not to lock it on my way out.

109:41:53 Armstrong: (Laughs) A particularly good thought.

A little joking on the moon gets turned into *OMG we could have been locked out and stuck on the moon.* Actually there was a handle on the outside of the hatch.

Now, what would have happened if the cabin should have begun to re-pressurize while the hatch were latched and Neil and Buzz were outside the LM? That door, then, could have been impossible to open. But, the pressure dump could be operated from the outside as well. See, this mission was about engineering.

Here is another Popular Science gets wrong, lots of people do actually:

The "one small step for man" wasn’t actually that small. Armstrong set the ship down so gently that its shock absorbers didn’t compress. He had to hop 3.5 feet from the Eagle’s ladder to the surface.

Sure he hopped 3.5 feet from the last rung of the ladder. But, that wasn't the small step of fame. The hop was to the LM's landing footer. See the round disk at the bottom of the support struts in this picture. That is what Neil hopped down onto. From that he stepped onto the moon's surface. Small detail, but Neil Armstrong didn't hop 3.5 feet onto the moon's surface.

3. 1969 Rocked for Aviation

Not only did we have the first people on the moon, but, 1969 saw the Boeing 747 fly.

Pan Am put this plane in service the very next year. So, we all watched a miracle of a spacecraft on the moon. Then we all could participate by flying this colossal aircraft. Aviation was coming to us all. What the world must have thought about us Americans. Wow, we are amazing. True.

4. The Surface of the Moon is a Powder

Reading the transcripts, I was impressed with the detail the Buzz and Neil used in describing the surface of the moon. Charcoal powder. Buzz was especially impressed with how the dirt behaved when kicked. Without an atmosphere to disperse the particles, the dirt would just fan out and drop back to the moon. It must have been something to see. He seemed fascinated.

It isn't just the dirt, though. Both Armstrong and Aldrin obviously spent sometime before the mission learning how important it would be to communicate back to the folks on the ground exactly what it was like to be on the moon. While they were on the moon, their descriptions were extensive. It was a detail not overlooked by either Neil or Buzz.

5. What did you say - I said Bravery

Again, reading the transcripts, the most common radio communication - Repeat, say again, what did you say. The tenuousness of the radio communication served to remind me just how tenuous this mission really was. It took real bravery for our astronauts to agree to Apollo 11. It took tremendous focus to complete than mission. What heros these men were.

Finally, enjoy this tasty nugget of a factoid. People can't resist, you know.

When you listen to the recordings of the radio transmissions, you'll heard a beep at the start of some transmission and a beep at the end of those transmissions. What are they?