Apollo 11 -- forty years ago

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I was five years old, but I got to stay up late to watch the moon walk. We were at my grandparents' house in Nowata. My grandpa sold and repaired TVs, radios, and appliances (Johnny's Electronics), so he had a color TV. (We wouldn't have one for a few years yet.) Not that color TV mattered -- the only picture was a ghostly black and white image of Neil Armstrong descending the ladder.

To this preschooler, the Apollo missions seemed like a regular TV series: Apollo 7 in October 1968, Apollo 8 at Christmas, Apollo 9 in March '69, Apollo 10 in May. (Of course, there was a NASA TV series -- I Dream of Jeannie -- and that space program seemed to have a mission every week.) I knew the names of the spaceships -- Gumdrop and Spider, Charlie Brown and Snoopy, Columbia and Eagle. The Gulf station at Washington and Frank Phillips Blvd gave away very intricate cardboard lunar module models -- the kind you put together with tab A and slot B. (We didn't know it at the time, but it's funny to think that the thin cereal-box cardboard was thicker than the LEM walls.) Like all five-year-old American boys in 1969, I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up.

I've been reliving those eight days in July through a series of YouTube videos -- excerpts of ABC and NBC coverage of Apollo 11. While it's interesting to learn more about the behind the scenes, through newly released and restored film and interviews, it's been fun to experience the events and to share them with my children as most of us experienced them four decades ago. (Someone else posted the videos; I just created a playlist.)

The videos cover the launch, moon landing, moon walk, rendezvous, splashdown, and arrival on the USS Hornet. ABC used animations -- hand-inked cartoons -- and simulations -- guys in spacesuits in mockups of the CM and LEM -- to accompany mission audio and show what couldn't be shown by live video. Both ABC and NBC commentators left room for the astronauts and Houston to be heard. (I saw some of the CBS coverage on the History Channel; as others have observed, Cronkite didn't know when to be silent.)

Frank Reynolds anchored coverage for ABC, with science reporter Jules Bergman. The NBC coverage includes David Brinkley, Chet Huntley, and Frank McGee.

One of the excerpts has a long discourse by Huntley, with McGee chiming in, about priorities, about whether America's space program was just a series of bad decisions triggered by Sputnik. The two suggested that just as government had engineered a successful trip to the moon, government could fix hunger and homelessness if only the political will were there. (McGee said, "We have the technology -- the software and the hardware.") After watching this, my son and I had an interesting discussion on the fallacy behind the lament, "if we can put a man on the moon, why can't we solve complicated social problem X?"

Another segment has Frank Reynolds throwing it over to a very young Peter Jennings for a short ABC newscast with stories on Vietnam, Chappaquiddick, and a possible air traffic controller strike. The story on Vietnam was interesting -- the report insisted on referring to the Viet Cong as the "National Liberation Front," making it sound like an indigenous guerrilla movement rather than the arm of the Communist North Vietnamese government that it was.

In another segment, Rod Serling led a panel discussion on the moon landing with science fiction authors Frederick Pohl and Isaac Asimov, asking whether any of the authors had predicted a moon landing in their books.

An interesting historical note: After the moon landing and before the moon walk, Buzz Aldrin took communion on the moon in conjunction with his congregation (Webster, Tex., Presbyterian Church) back home, using bread and wine and a chalice provided by his pastor. In 2003, the Episcopal Church recognized the occasion by making July 20 a lesser feast day in the church calendar: "First Communion on the Moon."

Here is the collect for the feast:

Creator of the universe,
your dominion extends through the immensity of space:
guide and guard those who seek to fathom its mysteries [especially N.N.].
Save us from arrogance lest we forget that our achievements are grounded in you,
and, by the grace of your Holy Spirit,
protect our travels beyond the reaches of earth,
that we may glory ever more in the wonder of your creation:
through Jesus Christ, your Word, by whom all things came to be,
who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.
Amen.

The Rev. Mark Cooper, current pastor of Webster Presbyterian Church, tells more of the story:

At the time of the lunar landing Aldrin was an elder in our church. A communion kit was prepared for him by the church's pastor at the time, the Rev. Dean Woodruff. Since Presbyterians do not celebrate private communion, the communion on the moon was structured as part of a service with the congregation back at the church. Aldrin returned the chalice he used to earth. Webster Presbyterian continues to possess the chalice, which is now kept in a safety deposit box. Each year the congregation commemorates the lunar communion on the Sunday closest to the anniversary of the landing.

Finally, an excerpt from Charles Krauthammer's recent column, The Lunacy of Our Retreat from Space

Michael Crichton once wrote that if you told a physicist in 1899 that within a hundred years humankind would, among other wonders (nukes, commercial airlines), 'travel to the moon, and then lose interest . . . the physicist would almost certainly pronounce you mad.'... Fourteen months from today, for the first time since 1962, the United States will be incapable not just of sending a man to the moon but of sending anyone into Earth orbit. We'll be totally grounded. We'll have to beg a ride from the Russians or perhaps even the Chinese.... But look up from your BlackBerry one night. That is the moon. On it are exactly 12 sets of human footprints -- untouched, unchanged, abandoned. For the first time in history, the moon is not just a mystery and a muse, but a nightly rebuke.

MORE: How They Built it: The Software of Apollo 11:

The Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) systems on each craft were designed and built by teams of researchers and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), led by the late Dr. Charles Stark Draper, under contract with NASA. Garman was one of the many NASA workers who helped run, test and debug the fledgling MIT code that would run the Moon mission from launch to splashdown. Some dedicated hobbyists have even designed and built their own computers to replicate the original Apollo devices.

"The AGC was very slow, but very reliable and very small for that time in the history of digital computers," Garman said. "It was the earliest to use integrated circuits."

The software as it was designed was built basically from scratch by MIT, he said. How did they know what to start with? "MIT didn't really--they sort of made it up as they went along. Neither NASA nor MIT had built software for digital flight control and guidance systems in the past--no one had near this magnitude. So it took some soul-searching on both NASA and MIT's sides to write down requirements and create hard schedules and test plans."...

Jerry Bostick was 30 years old and was a member of Kranz's White Team for Apollo 11.

"I started out in the mission planning division, designing missions," he said. "We would write the requirements for all of the software in both the ground-based and the onboard computers, working primarily with MIT and IBM."

"We would give instructions to the programs by punching cards," Bostick said. "You had to wait at least 12 hours to see if it would work right." The early programming was done in the real-time computing complex in Houston using IBM 7094 computers with 64K of memory. There were no hard disks. All the data was stored on magnetic tape, with each computer having about eight tape drives. Most programs used for the mission were written in Fortran, Bostick said. "After Apollo 1, we upgraded to the biggest and the best equipment that government money could buy, the IBM 360 with an unheard of 1MB of memory. We went all the way from 64K to 1MB."

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4 Comments

Bob said:

One of the more interesting aspects for the near continuous TV coverage of the moon landings was Walter Cronkite's interviews with two of the Icons of the Science Fiction Writers Hall of Fame:

Arthur C. Clark, and Robert A. Heinlein.

Since there were many, many hours of TV time to fill without a lot necessarily going on as the 3-day Apollo 11 space trip to the moon progressed, CBS spent many hours with live commentary and interviews with these two Sci-Fi luminaries as the space voyage and landings continued.

Especially noteworthy was the participation by Heinlein, who had a reputation as an intense recluse.

Heinlein, an enthusiastic nudist, appeared on this occasion fully clothed.

Jeff Shaw Author Profile Page said:

Thanks for all of this Michael. This is very important to all of us, in my opinion.

Jeff Shaw Author Profile Page said:

Oh, By the way. I asked my son what was wrong with the man on the moon / hunger argument above with my eight year old, over dinner tonight. He picked it up right away, I'm proud to say.

Mick Fine said:

Regarding the fund NASA or 'feed the hungry' argument, I've searched in vain for the exact quote from Carl Sagan but it went something like: Any nation that chooses public welfare over scientific advancement abandons any chance of becoming an advanced technological society.

I was nine when Neil, Buzz & Mike achieved the impossible. I remember how proud we were then and for a decades afterward. The timing was uncanny. It seems now that our greatest technological achievement came at the last possible chance for it.

As our priorities change, Dr. Sagan's thought comes back to me (if not exactly). Instead of setting a goal to inspire a new generation of innovators, we watch our leaders apologize to the world for our past greatness. Kinda hard to feel very proud these days.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on July 20, 2009 9:38 PM.

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