The Men on the Moon

23 July 2019

Interview with 

Amy Shira Teitel, Spaceflight Historian

TELESCOPE

A large astronomical telescope against a dark starry sky.

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And whilst the Apollo program was strictly a national project, there’s no doubt it was a collaborative effort. Apollo 11 was one in a series of missions that had built up to this moment of landing on the moon. Starting in 1961, both crewed and un-crewed launches went ahead to test spacecraft components, communication and more. Answering President Kennedy's challenge of landing men on the moon by 1969 required a sudden burst of technological creativity, and the largest commitment of resources, ever made by any nation in peacetime -  cashing in at $24 billion at the time, which is that’s over $150 billion today. At its peak, the Apollo program employed 400,000 Americans and required the support of over 20,000 industrial firms and universities. It was all the efforts of those that made this mission possible. And at its heart, three very important astronauts; Michael Collins, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. As Spaceflight historian Amy Teitel explained to Adam Murphy…

Amy - The crew of Apollo 11, as we probably know, is Neil Armstrong is the commander, Buzz Aldrin is the lunar module pilot, and Mike Collins as the command module pilot. And the three of them come across as relatively stoic individuals. And I say that I've read the mission transcript a couple of times and you do get a little bit of a sense of them kind of teasing each other a bit. But Neil Armstrong really does come across as the commander, he knows what's going on and his sense of humour seems very dry.

Buzz Aldrin’s whole thing - he did his PhD dissertation from M.I.T. in orbital mechanics and orbital rendezvous and he loved talking about it to the point where people nicknamed him Dr Rendezvous! I've read that Mike Collins said that Neil and Buzz weren't exactly friends, but that they worked very well together and had this sort of happy enough working relationship. And that's I think the strangest thing to think about, when you imagine going to the moon, you're not necessarily going to the moon with buddies, you're going to the moon with people that you work well with. And Mike Collins his memoir Carrying the Fire really kind of brings him out as the more sort of artistic soul onboard. And a  very nice guy. I can say that much.

Adam - What is it that made these three men the right men for Apollo?
Amy - All three of the Apollo crew members were test pilots. That was what you had to be in the 1960s in that era to become an astronaut. Part of it was skill and part of it was things that they'd done to prove themselves. So Neil Armstrong's first flight was on Gemini 8.

Adam -  The Gemini program was the forerunner to Apollo. It took two man crews into Earth orbit and had them do spacewalks or extra vehicular activities - EVAs for short. It helped prepare for the kinds of things you'd expect to deal with on the way to the moon.

Amy - He was the pilot onboard that mission and it was the first time the Gemini spacecraft docked at the Agena. And a stuck thruster on the Gemini started the whole stack tumbling in orbit to the point where he and Dave Scott nearly blacked out, and Neil Armstrong knew that capsule so well he was able to get them out of that. They used their reserve fuel for the re-entry to negate the spin. And he could do it by feel because he knew the spacecraft so well. And he got them out of that, they came home early and everyone survived and that could have been a fatality in space but he did a darn good job piloting that one.

Adam - And what about Edwin Buzz Aldrin?

Amy - Buzz Aldrin’s expertise was orbital rendezvous. And he talked about it ad nauseum apparently to all the other astronauts and their wives. His previous mission was Gemini 12. So that was the last of the Gemini program that kind of did everything that Apollo was going to do, in terms of a rendezvous, in terms of duration in space. He was very technically proficient at a lot of things. Him being the expert in rendezvous was a necessary thing for the lunar module pilot, even though the commander was the one who did the bulk of the flying.

Adam -  And man number three? How did Mike Collins end up on Apollo?

Amy - Mike Collins was another Gemini veteran, his flight Gemini 10 was one of the later missions. He'd actually done two spacewalks on Gemini 10 so he was familiar enough with some of the things that we’re going to happen in space even though he wasn't the one walking on the moon. It's still a skill set that becomes valuable. So these three guys all had backgrounds in Gemini missions that gave them some familiarity that they would need on Apollo.

Adam - But even with these admittedly incredible skill sets, that didn't guarantee them the place on the moon.

Amy - But as to how they ended up on that mission, that's pure luck of the draw. So the way it typically worked was you had a prime crew and then the backup crew and then the support crew and the backup crew would backup a mission, set up for two rounds and then be the prime crew for the following mission. So the Apollo 11 crew was backup crew to Apollo 8 and then that put them in line for prime crew of Apollo 11.

Adam - Even up to the month before Apollo 11 launched, the three men couldn't be sure that they would be the ones who would end up taking those first steps.

Amy - There was still no guarantee until Apollo 11 touchdown that it would be the first mission to land on the moon. So NASA launched Apollo 11 in July of 1969 knowing that Apollo 12 was on deck to launch in November. So if Apollo 11 failed, Apollo 12 would still make it to the moon and make that first landing within the 1960s. Skill got them you know in that flight rotation. Luck got them on that mission.

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