A Bold Eagle Lands on the Moon

The first humans in history walked on ground other than Earth this week (July 20) in 1969, when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin left their lunar module “Eagle” to explore the moon.

It’s a familiar story, but with a subplot worth retelling — one that proves NASA was right to make combat test pilots its first crop of astronauts. Those are the guys who land jet planes on the flight decks of aircraft carriers in rolling seas in the dead of night, and in terms of skill, endurance, focus and that special brand of courage Ernest Hemingway aptly called “grace under pressure,” they are a breed apart from the rest of us.

As Armstrong would prove:  On July 20, Eagle separated from the command module “Columbia” and headed for the moon’s surface where, at 4:10 p.m. EDT, it began its final descent, controlled by the Automatic Landing Mode (ALM) computers. Suddenly — one after the other — two alarms sounded, indicating two computer overloads, and although Command Center in Houston gave the astronauts the go-ahead to proceed, it was not an auspicious beginning.

And at 2,000 feet, as Armstrong looked out at the lunar surface, he saw that their initial landing area was much too rocky for a safe touchdown.  Overriding the ALM computers, Armstrong took manual control of Eagle and began searching for another landing site.

It was 4:16 p.m. and Eagle was less than a football field away from the surface when another warning light flashed, indicating Eagle’s engines were kicking up lunar dust, reducing visibility.  If that wasn’t bad enough, as Armstrong continued his search for a flat surface area, the fuel warning light flashed, telling him he had 90 seconds to land or abort the mission.

At 4:17, Houston tersely warned Armstrong, whose visibility problems have only gotten worse, that he has 30 seconds of fuel left. The world is holding its collective breath, when — at last — Armstrong’s calm voice finally announces, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

Talk about grace under pressure.  During the entire harrowing landing, while flying virtually blind, on manual control, dangerously low on fuel, destination uncertain, with hundreds of millions watching, and the possibility of failure, and even death, very real, Armstrong’s heartbeat barely registered above normal.  Indeed, he was arguably more nervous about what he was supposed to say after stepping on the moon than he was during his moon landing.  His historic remark was scripted to be “This is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” but in his nervousness, he left out the “a,” slightly changing the meaning of the sentence.

But in no way changing the significance of the deed.