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Saturday 20 July 2019

Moonshot anniversary

Go for landing

Apollo 11 still packs an emotional punch

By Lindsay Riley and Giles Whittell

W e came in peace for all mankind.” That was the message left on the moon by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. But did they? Who did they really represent?

Fifty years on the Apollo 11 mission evokes a powerful response in many of those who witnessed it. We were reminded of this in our moon landings ThinkIn (highlights below); and of another thing. Armstrong and Aldrin very nearly didn’t make it.

As their lunar module descended through 30,000 feet towards the moon’s surface it was approaching a point of no return. Any further and it would be impossible to abort the landing. The trouble was, alarms were going off inside the cabin that almost no one understood.

So should the landing go ahead? The decision rested not with the crew but with a 26 year-old guidance officer on duty that day at Mission Control, named Steve Bales.

Bales took his time. After consulting with a colleague he said Apollo was a go for landing. It was the right call but a terrifyingly close one, as Kevin Fong explained in an enthralling session inspired by his BBC World Service podcast, 13 Minutes To The Moon.

In the same conversation we heard from Melanie Vandenbrouck, curator of two big Apollo anniversary exhibitions, about some of the jarring contrasts between life on earth and life in space – contrasts that gave rise to Gil Scott-Heron’s Whitey on the Moon. (We also learned that the first all-female astronaut crew got there, in a manner of speaking, in a photo of the lunar surface shot on a Dutch beach in 1999, although you’ll have to visit the Moonlight exhibition at the Hasselblad Foundation in Gothenburg to view the evidence.)


After landing, Armstrong climbed out and created his famous footprint. “That’s one small step for [a] man,” he said.

So what happened to the “a”?

People have wondered ever since. He may simply have left it out, but Hugh Blair-Smith, an Apollo software writer, has another theory. He says it got eaten by sound engineers. He believes that at the moment Armstrong reached the word “for”, the comms people in Houston flipped a switch to shorten the route the signal took from the moon to the world’s television sets.

The theory goes that the technicians were hoping to make the signal clearer. As the transmission began it was being relayed via a satellite dish at Honeysuckle Creek in southwestern Australia. But in 1969 Australia had no fixed communications link to the rest of the world. The signal had to bounce off the dish back up to an orbiting satellite, adding 50,000 miles to its journey, or 300 milliseconds at the speed of light.

“Shortening the path by 50,000 miles simply chopped 300 milliseconds out of the speech’s perceived time span,” Blair-Smith says. “Neil’s ‘a’ went from Tranquility Base to Honeysuckle and up to [the satellite], but by the time it got back down to Earth, nobody was listening to that path.”

Instead, they were listening to the version coming via a Californian receiving dish at Goldstone, and a landline from there to Houston.

The oddly timed switch from Honeysuckle Creek to Goldstone is conjecture, Blair-Smith admits. “But all the other factors are based on a careful reading of [official Nasa] transcripts. In space flight, the speed of light does matter, a lot.” On this, at least, we can agree.

Further reading

Kevin Fong’s 13 Minutes to the Moon is based on interviews with virtually every surviving significant player in the Apollo programme and is utterly compelling.

For the record, the Houston Chronicle has gone all out with a mini-site within its main site on Apollo 11. Well worth a browse.

The New York Times has a self-regarding but still fascinating story-of-the-story about its front page story of 21 July 1969. The then editor didn’t want “a science story or a flight story or an engineering story”. He wanted “a big adventure story”. Which is what he got.

Melanie Vandenbrouck’s Moonlight exhibition at the Hasselblad Foundation in Gothenburg runs until September 22. The Moon Exhibition at the Royal Museums, Greenwich, in London, opened yesterday.

Books on the moon landings are legion. If you had to pick one from each end of the scepticism spectrum they might be Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon (at the worshipful end) and Gerard de Groot’s Dark Side of the Moon (at the other). In the middle you could put  The First Man, the Robert Hansen biography of Armstrong that became the film of the same name. Off to the left, Matthew Brzezinski’s Red Moon Rising is a proper page-turner on the Soviet side of this whole magnificent epic.