Where No Man has Gone Before
My personal memory of the Apollo program and the Moon landing.
“This storm we’re having? You know what’s causing it? It’s all of those men stomping around on the Moon.”
My Grandma would add a few more colorful words to embellish her pronouncements. Ever since that giant leap for mankind on July 20, 1969, she blamed the astronauts, NASA, the government (with all their covert weather experiments) for every weather event. If a thunderstorm happened during a lunar mission? She believed it was because they were up there drilling holes in the Moon.
Grandma was dead set against the idea of leaving Earth for any reason. I didn’t buy any of her theories. I was on team NASA and Apollo. We were going to the Moon!
Apollo missions 7 through 10 incrementally practiced the steps that would culminate in the landing. Apollo 7 and 9 were Earth orbiting missions. 7 tested the Command and Service Module (CSM). Apollo 8 tested the flight to the Moon, orbit, and head back to Earth. 9 tested the deployment of the LM (Lunar Module). By the time Apollo 11 launched, we had been to the Moon and back on Apollo 8 and 10. I’ll have more on the 10 mission later.
I believe there were two things that fueled my love of spaceflight: heavy marketing on the part of NASA to bring all things Apollo onto TV sets across America, and Star Trek.
Not long before my eighth birthday, NBC launched Star Trek in September 1966. With its space cowboy captain and logical science officer, I was a Spock fan from the start and on board for adventure every week. My younger brother was a fan of that other show, Lost in Space. I could never get beyond the whiny Dr. Smith and ridiculous plot lines that included things like talking carrots. I much preferred the socially conscious plots on Star Trek, even though at the time I didn’t know they were socially conscious—they were just cool.
Fueled by TV’s weekly dose of fictional space exploration, I devoured everything about Apollo. The closer they got to the Moon landing, the more excited I became at the prospect of humans walking on the Moon.
Did you know there was an Apollo launch every two to three months? We didn’t get much of a break after each flight before the coverage would ramp up again for the next mission. Apollo 7 and 8 were in October and December of ‘68. Apollo 9 was in March and 10 in May of ‘69. Apollo 11 and the Moon landing, July 1969. We continued the Apollo missions up to the last, number 17, in December 1972.
The Apollo 10 mission was my favorite. Come on, they nicknamed the Command and Service Module, Charlie Brown, and the LM, Snoopy. I was a big Snoopy fan. When the Sears Christmas “Wish Book” came in the mail, I would dog-ear all of the pages and circled the things I wanted. The Peanuts page had a lot of circles. The whole toy section of the catalog was pretty much circled by my brother and me. We didn’t get everything. I think my parents probably glanced at it and decided to get whatever they wanted since we apparently liked everything. I still have the Snoopy astronaut pennant from Christmas 1969. Yep, I liked that one a lot.
In 1969, there was no internet, no social media, no computers, no cell phones. There were telephones, TV, radio, newspapers, and magazines. All of the news about Apollo 10 came in through the daily newspaper and on the nightly news programs. My favorite newspaper headline was “Snoopy Sniffs Around Moon.” My ten-year-old self thought this was the best line ever. I clipped many articles about Apollo 10 and glued them into a scrapbook. I wonder if I would have done that if they had named the LM Huckleberry Hound. (highly unlikely)
Apollo 10 was the last test before the Apollo 11 Eagle could land. Snoopy was going to make a descent toward the surface. But let me tell you, I was not happy that Snoopy would not actually land on the Moon. Commander Tom Stafford and Lunar Module Pilot Gene Cernan took Snoopy down to just under 50,000 miles above the surface. I was rooting for them to go rogue and land it. (truth!) They stuck to the mission though, which was to descend toward the Moon and then head back and dock with the Command and Service Module. The ascent engine fired and then everything went sideways. The LM was spinning out of control. This was not a “Houston, we have a problem” moment. It was a bit more “Holy crap!”
This account on History.com tells the story best:
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Having demonstrated the LM’s descent engine could successfully control the spacecraft towards the surface, they pressed forward with staging. This was meant to mimic the moment of launch from the Moon’s surface. On a landing mission, the bottom descent stage of the module would serve as a launch pad for the crewed ascent stage whose smaller engine would propel it from the surface into orbit to meet and dock with the waiting Command Module. On Apollo 10, Stafford and Cernan would do the same thing in orbit.
Stafford moved a switch from the Safe position to Stage, activating the small explosives that forcibly separated the ascent stage from the descent stage. But rather than a smooth flight, the spacecraft started gyrating wildly, rolling, pitching and yawing around all three axis in turn. Almost instantly, Stafford saw a yellow gimbal lock light illuminate on a nearby instrument panel. The computer was close to losing its orientation in space, which would mean the crew could have no idea where they were and how to get home.
“We’re in trouble,” said Commander Tom Stafford. (Me here, I think he was either super cool under pressure or a master of understatement)
“Son of a bitch!” Cernan yelled as they got a quick sight of the separated descent stage passing by a window.
“We’re in trouble,” Stafford concurred. (he really was cool as a cucumber)
The spacecraft never went into gimbal lock. Stafford reacted quickly and began manually correcting the spinning and rolling to get the spacecraft back into the correct attitude for their continued ascent. Less than four minutes after the initial staging, everything had calmed down.
“I think we have got all our marbles,” Stafford called down to Houston.
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History.com has transcripts of the audio, and video as the near Gimbal Lock happened. Yep, I watched and read it all while researching this story. I’ve added the links at the bottom of this post.
Snoopy made it back to the Command and Service Module. He was still my hero. The historic Apollo 11 mission and the landing on the Moon’s surface was a go.
The big event, the one for which we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary this year, lifted off less than two months after Apollo 10’s return. President Kennedy issued a challenge for us to walk on the Moon before the end of the decade. NASA was on a tight timeline to get there before the end of the year. If this one didn’t make it, then one more scheduled for November would have their shot.
I was glued to the TV coverage, from the morning lift off on July 16, through the somewhat boring days it took for them to get to the Moon, to the exciting descent and landing of the Lunar Module. Finally, they were ON THE MOON! It was nearly 4:30 in the afternoon on the 20th and these guys were about to step out onto the surface.
It was… disappointing.
No, not the Moonwalk. But the fact that it took six and a half long hours before they opened the hatch and Neil Armstrong descended the ladder. Six and a half hours. That is an eternity for a ten-year-old child filled with dreams of space travel and watching it happen in real honest-to-goodness life. Captain Kirk simply stepped on the transporter and zip-zing, he and a couple of red-shirts were on the surface of some new planet. Man, we had a long way to go if it was going to take us six hours to put on our coat and boots to head outside.
It was 10:56pm when Neil hit the surface and said his famous words. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” I was yawning like crazy. It was a long wait, but there was no way I would have gone to bed and missed the biggest event of the decade. My family watched them bounce around on the Moon for a while and then we went to bed. The astronauts did their thing, collected rocks, left some markers, took lots of pictures, and then jumped back into the LM and took off. A few days later, they were splashing down on Earth.
Three months later, we did it again. And again for five more trips. Today it’s no big deal. Pffft, go to the Moon, whatever. Been there, done that. But back then it was everything.
Think about this for a moment. We went to the Moon, walked around, came back, all using computer technology less sophisticated than your cell phone. We didn’t need no stinkin’ palm size computers. We had math. And physics. And people who took chances and broke barriers. People like test pilots, many of whom died during their test flights. We funded early programs like Mercury and Gemini putting people in orbit, learning how to live for days at a time in space. They all paved the way for the Apollo program to succeed. After that came the shuttle program and space stations and long-range exploration. Fifty years ago we were just getting started.
And don’t forget Voyager 1, launched in 1977. It is on a path to meet up with Captain Kirk sometime in 2273.
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Cool references to check out
Transcript of ascent stage firing and near Gimbal Lock issue. Go to 102:45:16 time mark.
Audio and video of the near disaster. Starts at 1:09 into the video.
Vintage Space YouTube channel – lots of Apollo related videos explaining how things worked.