On this day in 1969, the Apollo 11 spacecraft safely returned to Earth from the moon. This excerpt from Go, Flight!: The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control, 1965–1992 (Nebraska, 2015) gives insight to the weight of this accomplishment.
From Chapter 7: A Bunch of Guys about to Turn Blue
The first part of President Kennedy’s directive had been accomplished with the landing and moonwalk, but the job was not finished. The second part—the most important part—was to return the crew of Apollo 11 safely to Earth.
One last shift change put Lunney’s Black Team on duty for the departure from the lunar surface. Lunney did not seem all that concerned. “I think the landing and all that was associated with it and then watching the EVA were the high points,” he began. “When we got to the ascent back into lunar orbit, I think we felt that in some sense, the hard part was over. We knew that this had to work, but we were pretty confident it would.”
Hal Loden was not quite as certain down at the control console, and in the MOCR, responsibility for the ascent engine was his. It had been tested several times both on the ground and in flight, and there were all kinds of redundancies built into the control system for igniting it. Loden was comfortable enough with that part of the equation, but what about the unknowns? What might the Attitude Control System (ACS) do? What if more RCS propellant was used than had been planned? No one had ever lifted off from the lunar surface before.
The ascent had Loden’s attention. “That particular phase of the mission had never really been tested from the standpoint of real hardware, other than firing the engine and thrusters on test stands. So, yeah, I was a bit concerned as to what was going to happen.” Despite his butterflies, Loden was seeing nothing concrete that might have caused him to alert Lunney. All he could do was keep whatever apprehension he had at bay and hope for the best. “When you get down to zero, you can’t stand up and say, ‘Flight, I don’t feel good! Don’t do this!’” Loden continued. “You’ve just got to understand that the best minds in the engineering world have put that machine together, and we had the best pilots flying it. You’ve just got to go on faith that everything’s going to work right.”
Capcom Ronald E. “Ron” Evans helped Armstrong and Aldrin through their final preparations, and finally, Aldrin could be heard counting down their final seconds on the moon.
Abort stage, engine arm, ascent, proceed.
Eagle had spent 21 hours, 36 minutes, and 20.9 seconds at Tranquility Base.
Millions of people were already beginning to come to grips with the enormity of what NASA had just accomplished. There were house parties, celebrations on town squares all over the world, and quiet vigils in bunkers in war-torn Vietnam. Ironically, it was the people closest to the situation who could not reflect on the flight of Apollo 11.
Reflection had to wait until after the flight or maybe even decades. Then and only then could anyone in the MOCR comprehend what had taken place that magical week in July 1969.
Surprised as he might have been about the successful landing, Ed Fendell had gone off shift shortly thereafter. He went back to his Houston apartment, and when he got up on the morning following the EVA, he went to a local dive for a quick breakfast. He sat down at the counter, unfolded a newspaper—which he still has—and started reading.
Two men soon sat down right next to him. They were a little older, grimy from work at a gas station just down the street. One of them started talking. “You know, I went all through World War II. I landed at Normandy on D-Day,” the man said. The man had his way to Paris, and on into Berlin. If he did not have Fendell’s full attention yet, he was about to when he continued, “Yesterday was the day that I felt the proudest to be an American.”
It was at that point that Fendell “lost it.” He paid as quickly as he could, grabbed his paper, and walked out to his car.
Once there, he started to cry.