We are starting what is going to be an emotional period of time. We have just passed the fiftieth anniversary of the first of the manned Apollo flights – Apollo 7, although the mission badge showed it as Apollo VII – which launched on October 11th 1968 and landed, after a fraction under eleven days in space, on October 22nd. Over the next few months we will reach the fiftieth anniversary of the first manned Moon flight, the first manned Moon landing and, for the millions of people like me who lived the events with a passion that few these days can imagine, the sadness of celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the very last man on the Moon, still not knowing when we will see another. For many people, no least those few survivors of the Apollo astronauts, now all in their eighties, it will be very emotional.
Over the next few months there will be an endless stream of documentaries, television specials, books and, of course, we have the film “First Man”, which I saw last weekend on IMAX: an experience to be recommended. More of that, later on.
Of course, fifty years on, everyone remembers the names of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, but it could, so easily, have been different. As the film First Man hints, plans changed, flight assignments were unstable and, there was no guarantee until relatively late on, that Apollo 11 would land on the Moon.
What was at Stake in Apollo 7?
Apollo 7 is, for most people, the least remembered of the Apollo flights: it was the only one before Skylab to launch with the smaller Saturn Ib – still one of the very largest rockets ever to be flown; it was not a glamorous mission – it stayed in Earth orbit, it had no lunar module – but it was a mission that saved the Apollo programme. It is the only Apollo mission of which I have no recollection at all, having taken place in term-time when I was eight years old. Far more important to me, at the time, was what my new class teacher in our “terrapin” classroom, Miss Stinchcombe, thought of my maths and English classwork. For NASA though, this was when they took the Apollo capsule, which the Apollo 1 launchpad fire had shown was a badly-designed death-trap and showed that the lessons had been learnt, that the re-design worked and that it could aspire to take three men to the Moon. Had Apollo 7 failed, it is possible, likely even, that there would have been no manned Moon landing by Apollo.
The Apollo 7 flight, in its guise of the first orbital shakedown of the Apollo spacecraft, was to have been flown by Gus Grissom (veteran of Mercury and Gemini – a measure of his standing was that, after flying the second Mercury mission, he flew the first Gemini and was to fly the first Apollo), Ed White (the first American to walk in space, who has a very prominent role in the film First Man) and, rookie, Roger Chaffee. They were to have launched on 21st February 1967. In the rush to get astronauts to the Moon, corners were cut, risks were taken and many mistakes made. Some of the events were depicted in the film First Man, others are not.
Speaking decades later, Gene Kranz, who later rose to legendary status with the Apollo 13 mission, when he led the Flight Team that saved the mission, admitted that the biggest single issue though, was the fact that no one in Operations had planted himself – and it was himself… no women in the team, something that has happily now changed at Mission Control – and said STOP!!! The capsule was a mess, systems were a mess, there was no way that Apollo 1 could have launched successfully three weeks later. Once the initial shock was over, Kranz gathered his Flight Control Team together and told them that whatever else the official investigation found, it was their fault for not standing in front of the NASA juggernaut and stopping the launch. He ordered every member of his team to go away and write two words on the blackboard of his own office and never to erase them. Those words were, tough and competent. Make tough calls and everyone will stand by them. Little was he to know that both Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 would both have been aborted had the word competent not won out over tough in a crisis.
Planning the Recovery
Now, we look at the progression of Apollo flights and see it as inevitable that Apollo 11 would land on the Moon. There was, in fact, nothing inevitable about it. The flight assignments for Apollos 7, 8 and 9 were announced by Deke Slayton in April 1967. The backup crews were also assigned and, with all the astronauts well aware of the rule that the backup crew for one flight would be the prime crew three flights later, the astronauts made their calculations: the backup crew for Apollo 7 would fly Apollo 10, that of Apollo 8 would fly Apollo 11 and the Apollo 9 backup crew, would get Apollo 12.
The crews further knew that the commander of the first Moon landing would be a Gemini veteran who had commanded his mission. And, according to Slayton’s planning, although there was a chance that Apollo 11 would have the first landing, it was more likely to be no earlier than Apollo 12 and might not be until Apollo 13. In other words, whoever was picked as the backup crew of Apollo 9 had every chance of going down in history as the first men on the Moon, with Pete Conrad (his given name was actually Charles, but he was always referred to as Pete) in prime position to be the Commander of the flight.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin counted on their fingers and came up with the Moon landing rehearsal as their likely flight. As we will see though, these initial flight assignments and their likely missions were to suffer multiple changes.
How Apollo 7 Affected Later Flight Assignments
As backup crew to Grissom, White and Chaffee, the Apollo 7 crew of Cunningham, Schirra and Eisele had the tough job of flying a craft that had killed its prime crew just eighteen months earlier and make a success of it. Originally, Cunningham, Schirra and Eisele should have flown a second manned test flight in Earth orbit that would have become Apollo 8 but, when this flight was cancelled as unnecessary, two months before the planned launch of Apollo 1, they were designated back-up crew for that flight which, following the normal NASA rotation, would, in theory, have made them the prime crew for Apollo 10.
As mentioned elsewhere, although operationally Apollo 7 was a triumph for NASA, on another level it had its issues. While, for the public and for the watching world, NASA could trumpet the flight as a great success, it suffered the normal problems that any shakedown flight has: minor equipment failures, annoying little problems and a lot of time under stress in a rather small spacecraft. Despite all quarantine regulations, Wally Schirra became ill with a bad cold during the flight and predictably irritable, leading to the nearest that NASA had ever faced to an on-board mutiny – although the back-chat was, in reality, small beer, it was enough for the staid NASA, for which tight discipline was everything, never to consider Cunningham and Eisele for another flight [Schirra had already announced his resignation from the astronaut corps]. Only in 2008, after the deaths of Schirra and Eisele, with Walter Cunningham the only surviving member of the crew, did an official pardon arrive from NASA in the form of the Distinguished Service Medal, belatedly awarded to the only crew to have flown Apollo hardware that had not received this distinction.
One of the knock-on effects of Apollo 7 was that the black-listing of Walter Cunningham and Don Eisele, who would certainly have come into consideration for a Moon flight later on, left spaces for other astronauts to get high-profile assignments. Eisele was actually named as back-up Command Module pilot for Apollo 10, but it was made clear that this was due only to a lack of suitably qualified alternatives and that he would not fly another mission. As an illustration of the opportunities, the back-up crew of Apollo 7 – Tom Stafford, John Young and Gene Cernan – went on to fly Apollo 10, with each then receiving command of a later mission: Stafford received the Apollo-Soyuz link-up; Young, the command of Apollo 16 and Cernan, as commander of Apollo 17, was the last man to walk on the Moon.
Apollo 7 though, like all the Apollo missions, also had a support crew of three (and sometimes more), who carried out all manner of essential administrative and support tasks on Earth, including developing emergency procedures in the simulators, giving these teams vital skills and experience. With Cunningham, Schirra and Eisele being eliminated from consideration for future flights, two of this back-up crew ended up jumping the crew and getting a Moon flight, albeit in the less glamorous third seat of Command Module pilot. Jack Swigert would have flown Apollo 16, but moved up to Apollo 13 when Tom Mattingly was unwittingly exposed to German Measles shortly before launch. Ron Evans was Command Module pilot for Apollo 17, one of the three “heavy” flights in which the Command Module pilot had a science package to operate in lunar orbit that was retrieved by making a high-profile space-walk on the journey home.
How Apollo 8 Shuffled the Pack Again
Again, unwittingly, Apollo 8 changed the future of crew assignments for the Apollo programme and, at the same time, the names that would go down in history. Initially, before making a Moon flight, NASA intended that there would be a shake-down flight of the Lunar Module in Earth orbit. In other words, the first Moon flight would be Apollo 9, with the backup crew for that mission becoming the prime crew of Apollo 12.
The prime crew for this first Moon flight was intended to be Frank Borman, Michael Collins and Bill Anders, with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell as back-up. This meant that Jim Lovell would have gone to the Moon as the Command Module pilot of Apollo 12, accompanied by Armstrong and Aldrin. Michael Collins though, suffered a herniated disk that required an operation, putting him in a neck brace for three months and removing him from the backup crew. In the crew assignments, Collins and Lovell swapped missions: Lovell to Apollo 9, Collins to Apollo 12.
However, with the Lunar Module delayed and giving many problems, NASA made the courageous decision to swap Apollo 8 and Apollo 9 to avoid losing momentum in the race to the Moon. That meant that their crews were swapped too. This decision was made in August 1968, with prime and backup crews starting to train on an accelerated schedule, but only announced publically after Apollo 7 had flown successfully. It meant that the Apollo 9 backup crew of Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon and Clifton Williams were moved back to being the prime crew of Apollo 12 from being prime for Apollo 11: of such trifles are history made.
Sadly, rookie astronaut Clifton Williams never did get the chance to walk on the Moon as, on a routine flight home to see his parents on October 5th 1967, his T-38 developed a fault and crashed and, despite ejecting, he did not survive the accident. Al Bean replaced him on the backup crew for Apollo 9 and duly walked on the Moon with Apollo 12.
The Decision to Push Forward the First Flight to the Moon
Without the operational success of Apollo 7, NASA would certainly not have taken the risk of launching Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders to the Moon in Apollo 8, a flight so dangerous that Jim Lovell admitted in his biography that their chances of returning were estimated as only about 50-50. At the time, the further decision to advance the launch to Christmas was presented as being due the programme going so well that plans could be accelerated. Indeed, within NASA, the effects on morale of the entire Apollo programme team were a significant factor but, a second factor would become primordial. On September 14th, the Soviet Union launched Zond 5 on a Proton-K rocket. Zond 5 was no ordinary mission: it was an un-manned rehearsal of a Moon flight similar to Apollo 8, although without going into lunar orbit. What its crew of two tortoises and various other, simpler species, did not know is that they were paving the way for the next Zond flight to the Moon to be flown by a single cosmonaut, probably in January 1969. In this way, the Soviet Union planned to be able to claim that they had won the race to the Moon. In fact, in August, the CIA had presented NASA with photographs of the Proton rocket being prepared at Baikonur and, later, the news arrived that a cosmonaut was there, preparing to fly on it. Preparations for Apollo 8 were advanced still further and the launch set for December 21st 1968, with the rocket having been rolled-out already on October 9th. The engineers, who had been stunned by the decision to send Apollo 8 to the Moon, saw the threat of being beaten to get there and became even more determined to make the mission a success and willingly sacrificed Christmas with their families.
Despite the fact that the Apollo 6 flight in April 1968, a test launch of the Saturn V that was intended to demonstrate its capability to fly to the Moon, had gone very badly – two engines on the second stage were damaged by pogo oscillations and failed and the third stage failed to re-light for the trans-lunar injection – the telemetry received allowed the problems to be diagnosed and fixed quickly and the confidence of NASA in the Saturn V was actually increased to such an extent that a third un-manned test flight was deemed unnecessary and cancelled. The Apollo 8 Saturn V worked flawlessly and demonstrated that almost all the technology was ready for the Moon landing, the only missing elements being the Lunar Module (tested on Apollo 9 and Apollo 10) and the spacesuits for the moonwalks (tested on Apollo 9). The Apollo 8 flight gave NASA the stunning public relations coup of both the first manned mission to the Moon and of the televised images of the lunar surface, with the emotional reading from Genesis on Christmas Eve. For one, eight-year-old English boy though, who had just received his first telescope on Christmas Day, it was the special newspaper supplement with the best of the Apollo 8 photographs that really brought the moonflight home to him. Seeing the stunning image of the crater Goclenius with, just above it, the triplet of Magelhaens, Magelhaens A, and Colombo A probably made more impact on me than the images of the first moonwalk.
Apollo 11 to the Moon
There was nothing inevitable about Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. For it to do so, all the previous flights had to work flawlessly. Although the success of Apollo 8 made it likely that Apollo 11 would land on the Moon, Apollo 9 and 10 had to go perfectly for that to happen. Similarly, the crew was far less certain than most people realise. When Deke Slayton took advantage of a quiet moment the day before Apollo 8 arrived at the Moon to meet with Neil Armstrong, it was for him to elect a crew for Apollo 11, with only a remote possibility in Slayton’s view that it would be the first landing.
In theory, the crew would be Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, but Slayton had his doubts about Aldrin as being difficult to work with and offered Jim Lovell as a replacement. At the same time, having replaced Michael Collins as backup for Apollo 8, in theory Fred Haise should have flown on Apollo 11.
So, as late as Christmas 1968, the Apollo 11 crew could easily have been: Commander, Neil Armstrong; Lunar Module Pilot, Fred Haise; and Jim Lovell, Command Module Pilot. Armstrong and Haise would have walked on the Moon, while Jim Lovell waited in orbit.
Of course Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Buzz Aldrin knew nothing of this conversation. Armstrong went away and slept on it. Next day he made his choices. He rejected the offer of Jim Lovell, whom he rated very highly, on the grounds that, given that he had commanded Gemini 12, assignment to the third seat of Apollo 11 would be a demotion and Lovell, deserved to command a lunar mission. A second line of argument was that Michael Collins was a Command Module Pilot too and, with Lovell on the mission, Collins would have to take over as Lunar Module Pilot, a development that made Armstrong uncomfortable. Fred Haise himself would probably felt uncomfortable to know that Deke Slayton did not consider him ready to be prime crew and pushed the case for Michael Collins to be given a flight immediately without passing through the stage of being backup. Similarly, in terms of rank on board, the Command Module Pilot ranks #2 and the Lunar Module Pilot only #3; Armstrong, probably still thinking that his flight was be a low-key landing rehearsal, felt that he could not push Aldrin into an assignment that ranked him above Collins. So, almost by process of elimination, Armstrong decided that Buzz Aldrin had to stay as Lunar Module Pilot and that Michael Collins would get the third seat.
The Apollo 11 crew were told to train as if they were to land on the Moon, but it was only after the success of Apollo 9, in mid-March 1969, that the mission planners started to believe that Apollo 11 would land on the Moon.
The First Man?
One thing that the film First Man steers carefully clear of is the argument over who should be the first man to walk on the Moon. Tradition was that spacewalks were done by the co-pilot, with the mission commander avoiding such extra tasks. The early mission plans for Apollo 11 showed the first man on the Moon being the Lunar Module Pilot, so Aldrin was convinced that it would be him. It was only after Apollo 9 landed that Aldrin started to hear whispers that NASA might have other ideas.
Aldrin’s version of events differs strongly from many others of those involved. Aldrin stated that the lack of definition as to who should be first to walk on the Moon was unsettling the crew and that it really did not bother him who was first. Fellow astronauts and managers recall Aldrin becoming increasingly agitated and at times seemed to be campaigning actively to be the first man, while his father pulled strings in Washington on his behalf. One fellow astronaut and Mission Commander on a later landing, even asked how Armstrong “put up with such nonsense for so long”. It seemed that Deke Slayton’s fears about Aldrin were being more than justified.
In the end, two factors were decisive. NASA decided that having a civilian making the first step on the Moon would be better than having an active military man – George Low, Head of the Apollo Program Office, made this clear by pointedly announcing to the press, in April 1969, that the plans were for “Mr Armstrong to be the first man out… Colonel Aldrin will follow Mr Armstrong”. A second factor was that the simulations showed that, with Armstrong on the left, next to the hatch, it was extremely difficult for a space-suited Aldrin, whose station as Lunar Module Pilot was on the right of the lander, to get past Armstrong, also in his space-suit, to reach the hatch. That should have been that, but it was not. In the weeks before launch reports appeared in the press that the decision for Armstrong to step out first was a breach of NASA tradition and suggesting that Armstrong, as Mission Commander, had pulled rank to get the honour for himself.
It is hard to believe the reclusive Armstrong, who was so overwhelmed that he struggled with his prepared lines both on landing and on stepping out onto the Moon’s surface, would pull rank to put himself in the spotlight. He always denied knowing that Aldrin was campaigning to be first to step out. Had Armstrong not been so quiet, calm and retiring, it would have been very difficult for him to work with Aldrin. It was Michael Collins who perhaps summed up best the crew, calling them “amiable strangers”: unlike some of the crews, they were, most certainly, not close friends either before or after their mission. They were trained to do a job and they did it and then went their separate ways. There was never a possibility that any of the three would get a second Moon flight and all left NASA before the end of the Apollo programme.
An Alarming Landing
What about that lunar landing, played so dramatically in First Man? The events are so well known and have been so commented that it is hard to believe that there are elements of the story that are not well known, but there are. Seen on an IMAX this scene should have knocked your socks off, but it was disappointingly obviously phony, with the lunar relief being deliberately exaggerated to look more impressive.
To see exactly what the astronauts could see through their windows, you should have a look at this wonderful YouTube video built from the Apollo 11 – Apollo Flight Journal:
The communications between crew and mission control appear as sub-titles alongside the film.
The landing had been simulated time and time again, not just by the astronauts, but by Gene Kranz’s Flight Control Team. What was not so well known was that these simulations had not gone well. In his own words “we couldn’t get anything right”: simulations that did not end in a crash, seemed to end in an unnecessary abort.
The first crisis point occurred within a minute of starting to descend, the Guidance Officer in Mission Control noted that the rate of descent was too fast. This was potentially catastrophic and could have led to a crash. Had the discrepancy that he noted – 20 feet per second – reached 40 feet per second, he had to abort the landing. Fortunately, the discrepancy got no worse and the Abort button was not used.
In the final simulation before launch, run on July 5th, things were going fine until a simulated 1201 alarm sounded. The Guidance Officer called the abort, which the CapCom relayed to the crew. Then came the hammer blow. The Simulations Supervisor came into Mission Control and told them that this obscure alarm that no one knew, indicating computer overload, was not a reason to abort because the computer was still working correctly. The team at Mission Control had aborted when it was safe to continue.
There was an investigation and the computer designers assured the Guidance Officer that this alarm could never appear in flight but, if it did, he would have to decide whether or not to abort. However, the Operations Team realised that an abort, being so complex, would be almost more dangerous than a landing.
No one was prepared for the sudden call from Buzz Aldrin “1201”. Steve Bales, the twenty-five-year-old Guidance Officer, had forgotten what this alarm was (after all, he had been assured that it could never sound in reality) and was quickly re-appraised that it indicated a computer overload and that he had just seconds to decide: continue to land with a computer than was struggling to cope or, play safe, and abort. Tough and competent. “Tough” was not to take the risk with the lives of the crew, was “competent” to press on? The alarm repeated and also a 1202 alarm. Now more confident that they understood the situation, the Flight Control Team pressed on.
Things got worse. The landing was overshooting and heading for the boulderfield produced by the impact that had formed a crater towards which Armstrong and Aldrin were heading. Fuel was getting critical as Armstrong tried to find a landing site. Gene Kranz requested that no one speak save to give fuel updates. Soon enough, the call came “low level”. The next call was “60 seconds”. At that point, with the Lunar Module still well above the surface, an abort seemed inevitable. Then “30 seconds”. Just two more possible calls are left: “15 seconds” and then “zero”. At zero, if the Lunar Module cannot land immediately, they must abort. In the simulations, Armstrong had never landed with less than three minutes of fuel. As the call of “15 seconds came”, the astronauts were reporting “contact light” and stopping the engines. Kranz’s team had been tough… and competent, keeping their nerve when it would have been easier to abort the landing.
If you want the inside story of this landing, told by the Flight Controllers themselves – the good, the bad and the ugly – explaining the calls that were made, I commend this second video to you: https://youtu.be/7f51Jzm7M4w
Watch it after the footage of the landing and discover, despite Armstrong’s icy calm, just how close Apollo 11 came to disaster.
 Note that NASA’s numbering of flights was a little ad hoc at the time and Apollo 1 only became designed that way formally after the fire, having been designated at the time, AS-204, the “AS” standing for Apollo-Saturn. There were 3 unmanned test flights before Apollo 1 (AS-201, AS-202 & AS-203 – all with a Saturn Ib, although AS-203 used a modified version with the Command and Service Module replaced by a nosecone). The designations “Apollo 2” and “Apollo 3” were never used and the first Apollo to fly after the fire was designated Apollo 4, tacitly recognising that there had been three previous unmanned test launches in the sequence, while retaining Apollo 1 as a tribute to its crew.
 NASA was in the potentially embarrassing position with Apollo 10 that both back-up Commander, Gordon Cooper and back-up Command Module Pilot, Don Eisele, were on this informal “no more flights” blacklist that would have made it difficult or impossible for them to be moved up to the prime crew had either Stafford or Young needed to be replaced at short notice for any reason. However, had the planned post-Apollo programme that was finally reduced to Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz mission gone ahead, Eisele would most likely have returned to space. In the end though, he resigned from NASA a few months before the end of the Apollo programme.