Colin Burgess is the author of several books on spaceflight, including Shattered Dreams: The Lost and Cancelled Space Missions (Nebraska, 2019), Footprints in the Dust: The Epic Voyages of Apollo, 1969–1975 (Nebraska, 2010), and Teacher in Space: Christa McAuliffe and the Challenger Legacy (forthcoming 2020). His books and others are available for 50% off in our Spaceflight Sale for a limited time.
It was the evening of Sunday, July 20, 1969. Right across America, families sat glued to their television sets, breathless with anticipation, pride, and not a little anxiety as the first ghostly, grainy black and white images suddenly emerged on their screens, showing a man standing on the footpad of an ungainly-looking machine, the Lunar Module known as Eagle.
At 10:56 p.m. East Coast time, Neil Armstrong reported that he was on the footpad, having cautiously descended the slender ladder attached to Eagle. He noted as he looked around that the footpads were only depressed an inch or two in the lunar dust, which he described as very fine-grained and powdery. Armstrong then said he was going to step off the footpad and the world held its collective breath. Gripping the ladder in his right glove, Armstrong extended his left foot and firmly planted the first human footprint into the surface of the moon. Then he uttered those truly immortal words: “That’s one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind.” There was muted jubilation as we all sat mesmerized, watching him venturing further afield, joined some twenty minutes later by fellow moonwalker Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin.
I was one of those millions of spellbound TV spectators, but the effects of the International Date Line meant that things were just a little askew for those of us living in Australia. I had grown up just south of Sydney, and from the age of fourteen—propelled into the interest of a lifetime in 1962 by the Mercury flight of astronaut John Glenn—had become fascinated by the dynamic, fast-moving history of human space exploration. The moon landing had come about just eight years after Alan Shepard’s trailblazing fifteen-minute suborbital flight, following an exciting era in space exploration punctuated at times by tragedies such as the loss of the Apollo 1 crew in a pad fire.
But there was a problem if I wanted to watch the first moonwalk, albeit one easy to resolve. In Sydney, the date had already clicked over to July 21st, and the first moonwalk would take place in the early afternoon. Being a Monday, it was a work day for me, so I made a quick phone call to my boss, moaning something about waking up with stomach cramps. He gave me the day off, but not before he had chuckled and told me to enjoy the moonwalk on TV. He knew me too well.
And so, at 12:56 p.m. Sydney time, I pumped my fists in the air and let out a whoop of joy as Neil Armstrong made what he called his “giant leap” for mankind.
Everything seemed to have gone so smoothly and without a hitch, but I later learned that Neil had caused something of a problem by being far too good a pilot in setting Eagle down on the lunar surface. Any commercial airline pilot will tell you that the best airport landing involves thumping the wheels down hard onto the runway, rather than floating to touchdown. Floating actually means that a pilot runs the risk of overshooting the touchdown zone. Although passengers might experience a smoother landing, the pilot would be forced to heavily apply the brakes at the far end of the runway. A firm touchdown quickly spins the wheels, but not so hard that the impact causes the aircraft to bounce up again on impact. Well, most times…
So how did this aeronautical procedure affect the Apollo 11 landing? As evidenced in the footage and transmissions from Eagle, Armstrong and Aldrin noticed as they descended to the moon that due to a slight navigational error and a faster-than-intended descent speed, they would overshoot the intended landing site by around four miles, and were headed instead for a massive crater filled with boulders. If Eagle landed on a tilt, they would not be able to launch back into lunar orbit. They had to find somewhere more suitable, and meanwhile the Lunar Module was slowly being drained of precious fuel. Armstrong’s experience and training now came into play as he coolly maneuvered away from the crater with a subtle touch honed by years of flying some of the hottest jets in the sky.
As Armstrong and Aldrin reported every move back to Houston their voices were confident, but the problem still existed. No place to land. Huge rocks and prohibitive surface debris strewn everywhere. Fuel was being depleted and becoming critical, while alarms were sounding to distract them.
Armstrong finally spotted a suitable landing area, the thrusters responding nicely to his gentle touch. Aldrin kept calling out the numbers, steady and clear. “Thirty feet, faint shadow.” Then came the call that an anxious Mission Control had been hoping to hear: “Contact light!”
It had been a close thing, with only seconds of fuel remaining before the thrusters cut out. Had that happened, Eagle would have plummeted to the surface.
Armstrong gently touched down in the Sea of Tranquility. “We copy you down, Eagle” was the relieved call from fellow astronaut Charlie Duke in Mission Control. The two men quickly scanned their instruments; every light was green and they were sitting level on the moon’s surface. The two astronauts exchanged congratulations before quickly preparing the lander to launch off the surface in case of an emergency. Then Armstrong took a deep breath and reported in. “Houston,” he declared, “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
So why do I say that Neil Armstrong was too good a pilot when landing Eagle on the moon? Simply put, his touchdown was far too gentle. The Lunar Module was specifically built with lightweight aluminum honeycomb struts designed to collapse/crush on landing, thus absorbing the shock. Procedurally, Armstrong was supposed to cut the engines when Eagle was a few feet above the lunar surface, but instead he set down too gently, and the legs never compressed. This left the Lunar Module several feel higher than intended. As a result, the bottom step of the ladder was much higher, which meant that a descending astronaut had to perform a little jump down to the footpad. As a result, Neil Armstrong’s first “small step” would actually follow something of a “giant leap.”
But in light of all that followed on that incredible day—wherever you were in the world when it happened—I guess we can forgive Neil Armstrong for simply being too good a pilot.