Today marks the 50th anniversary of what may be fairly
characterized as the most momentous act to have ever taken place in human
history, namely Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin successfully landing and then
walking on the moon.
The scale of the endeavor was huge. Some 400,000 people were
employed by either NASA or its many contractors. The effort to build the flight
control computer was a significant factor in the development by the integrated
circuit and the modern computer industry. By another estimation, one million
man hours of work were accomplished for every hour of the eight day mission.
Essentially, the first and second stages of the Saturn V rocket
were expended in order to put the third stage in an orbit from which it could
launch the command module, service module and lunar lander into a moon
intercept orbit. Just to clear the launch tower, the point at which control was
shifted from Cape Canaveral to Houston, required 4% of the rocket’s fuel load. Ultimately,
only the command module, essentially the size of a minivan, would return to
Fairly described as the most alone man in history, Michael Collins
remained in the command module while Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the
surface. While some half-billion people watched the broadcast, Collins had no
way to watch the event.
Had something gone wrong, Collins would have returned to Earth
alone. Things could easily have gone wrong. There were fears that the lunar
soil, upon contact with the oxygen in the lunar module, would combust. And that was only one of things that could have
gone wrong. Armstrong and Aldrin carried with them suicide pills, and there had
already been written for then President Nixon an announcement to be read in the
event of mission failure.
But they were successful, and all returned safely to Earth as
challenged by President Kennedy.
When I was an undergrad, I was fortunate to be able to take
a class on space history from Father Faherty, S.J., who had been an official NASA
historian; check out his book Moonport. Not only did he know what had
happened, but he knew all of the people involved and as such had great
anecdotes about the major players