Saturday, August 25, 2012
Neil Armstrong: "Houston, uh...Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed."
Those were the first chilling words from Neil Armstrong. Later would come his more famous, "That's one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind."
As a young Air Force officer, I was lucky enough to meet Neil Armstrong. He gave a speech to a group of junior officers from all four branches of the military about the role of "calm courage" in leadership. In essence, he said, courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the strength and determination to overcome it. Preparation, study and practice are the foundation for courage . "Fearlessness", he said, was "short for foolish ego". He said that his greatest achievement was not walking on the moon, but rather landing on the moon. Here's the NASA video and audio recording of the 15-minute descent of Armstrong and Aldrin, landing the Eagle.
He took us through a minute-by-minute tour of this recording, describing the background and details of what was happening and what he was thinking about-- "There were all sorts of things going wrong, not according to plan, but the public never really knew anything about it, especially at the time." As you listen to the last couple of minutes of this recording, you hear someone in the background say, "60 seconds" and later "30 seconds". That's mission control warning the crew that they had only 30 seconds of fuel left in the LEM descent propulsion system. As I recall him telling the story, the descent radar was placed in the wrong mode, which overloaded the flight control computer and caused the LEM to overshoot the primary landing zone by several miles and burn more fuel than planned. Neil Armstrong took over manually and was having a hard time finding a place to land, fearful that they would land on the edge of a crater or boulder and the LEM would tip over. Armstrong landed and shut down engines with 14 seconds of fuel remaining. They were supposed to land with 2 minutes of fuel remaining, to ensure that they could safely return to the orbiting Command Module, Columbia. After landing and shutting down engines, Armstrong says his famous words, "Houston, uh...Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed." Mission Control then says "You have a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot."
Apollo 11 was one of humanity's greatest achievements. It brought the world together at a time in the 1960s when the world seemed like it was coming apart. But Apollo 11 was also a hair-width away from one of humanity's greatest tragedies. Imagine how we would have felt if the Eagle had landed, but without enough fuel to takeoff and return to the Command Module. Two astronauts would have died a very slow and gruesome death, stranded on the moon. Neil Armstrong's calm, cool, courage, and thinking was the difference in that hair-width boundary.
For whatever reason, the impact of this story didn't hit me until later, when I worked for TRW. I was lucky enough to sit in on another related lecture, this one by some of the old TRW engineers who were in Mission Control for Apollo 11, in honor of the 25th anniversary. They designed and built the descent engines for the Lunar Module ("LEM"). In their lecture, they spent more time emphasizing the significance of the disaster that Apollo 11 avoided, and how cool and level headed Armstrong was during the intense pressure to land.
Armstrong was not comfortable with the attention he garnered from what is still the greatest adventure of humankind. He could have been the total opposite...the most arrogant man in the world. I wish we had more corporate and political leadership that were uncomfortable in those roles-- the reluctant leaders, pushed into the role, not pushing others out of the way to get there.
We had our share of trouble in the 60s and 70s, when Apollo brought the world together. Even with those problems, I think there was always an underlying sense of confidence in ourselves and from the rest of the world that the US could eventually overcome any challenge. We need to get that attitude back. We need to earn it back.
Update to this blog: A dear friend of mine, Susan Pollack, found a detailed write-up about this story that you can read here: Apollo 11's Scariest Moments: Perils of the 1st Manned Moon Landing.
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