Put politics aside and focus on America’s can-do spirit. That spirit is about believing, reaching, stretching, hoping and making things happen few believe possible. While we seldom pause on it, Americans are inveterate risk-takers. We take risks because we believe in ourselves – and always have. Nothing illustrates this better than remembering – on this 50th anniversary year – the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Fifty years ago, this month, America put three men on a Saturn V rocket, a 36-story stack of explosive fuels, kerosene, liquid oxygen and hydrogen. The goal was to escape Earth’s gravity, insert that spacecraft into lunar orbit, get to the surface, and safely home.
The pledge was made by President John Kennedy – when the Soviet Union was ahead in space. After October 1957, Americans saw Sputnik 1 crossing overhead. The world’s first artificial satellite, a Soviet “eye in the sky,” was ominous.
When the Soviets then put a man in space in 1961, the urgency grew. In May 1961, Kennedy took the gloves off. He said America would “commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” That pledge was audacious, and a direct challenge to the Soviets. The gauntlet was thrown.
In retrospect, with no experience in space, minimal computing power, an incalculable number of profoundly difficult engineering, physics, biology, material science, research, development, and testing questions unanswered, no understanding of large rockets, big thrust chambers, gimbals, and unbreakable nozzle extensions, no experience with how to live, maneuver, rendezvous, or land on whatever the moon’s surface was – the pledge was an act of extraordinary confidence.
Or one might say bravado, or daring, or even lunacy – a word derived from lunatic, a condition associated in the 1500s with insanity created by phases of the moon. Be all that as it may, the United States took up the mission of getting three men to the moon and home safely.
That is how, in July 1969, three Americans – Neil Armstrong, former Navy fighter pilot, Buzz Aldrin, Air Force fighter pilot, and Mike Collins, Air Force fighter and test pilot – found themselves on a Saturn V rocket, headed for the moon.
The story of this mission, and the entire American space program – Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Shuttle, Space Station – is one of can-do, imagining stretch goals, thinking beyond what has been done to what might be possible, then launching on that goal.
In the case of Apollo 11, launch was so smooth Buzz Aldrin recalls they only knew they were moving by watching instrumentation in the capsule, rate of climb and altitude. But the mission – like those before and after – was fraught with a need for resourcefulness.
American can-do was ready. On descending to the lunar surface, Armstrong and Aldrin twice received abort alarms, but continued flying as the problem was assessed. Asked how he felt about those alarms, Aldrin noted wryly, “it was different.”
As they neared the surface, they realized the scouted landing spot was a crater and boulders. The lunar module skin was tin foil. They held steady, landing half a mile away with less than 30 seconds of fuel remaining. Asked, Buzz said: “Well, I wasn’t going to disturb Neil, we both knew the fuel level … we just needed to get down or it would be a hard landing.” So down they got.
On the surface, beyond those iconic words, Armstrong’s “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” and Aldrin’s “magnificent desolation,” work had to be done. They put out experiments, but not all things went by plan. A level that depended on gravity took longer to work, so Aldrin did other experiments – later rechecking the level.
Climbing down the ladder, Buzz joked about not locking the door, but there was truth in this. If he pulled fully closed, a pressure lock would form. He left it as needed, got to work.
On return to the lunar module, the two discovered a backpack had accidentally broken off the circuit breaker for the ascent engine. That was problematic. If that did not work, they were stuck on the moon. Mission Control told them to sleep. Giving no thought to an eternity on the moon, they did.
Next morning, as Buzz recalls, Mission Control had no answer. It was a compression circuit breaker. Someone suggested a pen. The manifest pen was metal, and Buzz realized that might conduct electricity, leading to a short, leaving them on the moon. Fingers also conducted.
Buzz found a felt-tipped pen, which was not on the manifest. He liked the bright mark on checklists. In it went, and up they came. Ascent engine lit. More American ingenuity, can-do.
On return, the three astronauts managed hundreds of checks and tasks, calculations, calibrations, and communications. They lived in a space not much bigger than an MRI – with leg stretches floating about the command module and when visiting the moon.
Now, 50 years later, we celebrate their can-do, but also America’s can-do – tens of thousands of engineers, scientists, planners and testers, perfectionists who realized the mission depended on them. They did theirs, so Neil, Buzz and Mike could do theirs. Teamwork, unity of mission.
That brings me to 2019. The moon and Mars, together with other missions, lie before us. Obstacles exist and inertia tends to resist those who aim to shape the future. But Americans are those people. We have always shaped the future. We are about can-do. That is part of what remembering Apollo 11’s moon landing should be about – the American spirit of believing, reaching, stretching, hoping and making things happen few believe possible. We have, and we can again.