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Fifty years ago this Saturday, Apollo 11 successfully landed on the moon. I was 13 years old in 1969. Along with millions of others around the world, I watched intently as Neil Armstrong took his historic first step. The video was horrible, and the audio wasn’t much better, but it was coming from 238,000 miles away, and no one cared about those trivial details. Neil, along with Buzz Aldrin, captivated the world’s attention as they traversed a short distance on the lunar surface, collected a few samples of soil, and planted the flag of the USA. I vividly recall the exuberance of the event, especially that of Walter Cronkite; CBS news legend and space geek. We were all giddy. We had done it!
The arrival to the moon’s surface was anything but tranquil. The powered descent by the LEM (lunar excursion module) was a gut-wrenching series of events normally reserved for fiction. This was real. The overworked onboard computer, with a fraction of the processing power of most of today’s wristwatches, sent out multiple alarms during descent. Neil’s repeated callbacks to Houston regarding these alarms gave no indication of any concern on his part. He was simply business-as-usual.
As the pair neared the surface, it became apparent that the ‘auto-lander’ was heading them straight for a large, deep crater. With barely an uptick in his heart rate, Neil took manual control to avoid a landing abort or catastrophe. With fuel reserves dwindling, Neil and Buzz hovered across a great distance of a bolder-strewn field, searching for a safe landing spot. The only communication with Mission Control at this point was for remaining fuel ‘call outs’: “60 seconds”, an eternity later, “30 seconds”. The world was breathless with hearts pounding. Was this to end in disaster?
As time crept, suddenly, and with seemingly complete serenity, Neil’s voice came across the airwaves: “Contact light” “Engine stop”… “Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed”. Seventeen seconds of fuel remained.
…”one giant leap for mankind” Indeed.
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