First Man and the Accidental Moon

Left: A Saturn 1 test with a dummy payload on October 27th 1960. Right: the Apollo 4 launch on November 9th 1967. Images: NASA.

In previous Blog entries I have explored some of the lesser-known aspects of the Apollo Moon landings. Some of these are explored by the excellent film “First Man”. Still more are explored if you take the trouble to look at the extras that come with the DVD and BluRay release of the film.

One of the questions that many people have is just how accurate is the portrayal of events in the film.

In the majority of cases the film tries to be faithful to events to the extent of using transcripts of conversations between crew and astronauts to ensure that the interactions were correct, calling on Apollo 11 flight controllers to fill in details of events that were not recorded in the transcripts and making every attempt to duplicate existing TV and film footage. Be patient and, right at the very end of the credits, just as a very faint snippet of Gemini 8 comms closes the soundtrack, you can read the names of many of those who were interviewed for their recollection of events and who shaped the script. They include: Neil Armstrong’s two sons; his ex-wife, Janet and his widow; his sister; Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins; CapCom for Apollo 11, Charlie Duke; Ed White’s son; and legendary figures of Mission Control such as Glynn Lunney, Jerry Bostick and Gene Kranz.

Among the extras on the release of the film you find a series of interviews in which Neil Armstrong’s two sons recount their recollection of some of the critical events and we can hear how, for some of the scenes, the film-makers went to extraordinary lengths to find people to tell them the way that things were in reality and how the family of Neil Armstrong commented, corrected and criticised certain proposals for how to treat events.

There are a few liberties taken with events and a few events are out of sequence. The chronological sequence of his daughter’s death and the X-15 incidents (plural) was reversed for dramatic effect. A few events are skated over with some delicacy. The fact that Neil Armstrong was even selected as an astronaut was remarkable as he had not one, but three incidents with the X-15 in quick succession and, it seems, although nothing was recorded formally, even was grounded for a time. Such were his problems that his Commander did not recommend him for the astronaut programme, but he applied anyway, despite not having this critical support and, remarkably, even so, was selected in the Second Group of astronauts. Had the selection panel not overlooked these details, it is extremely unlikely that he would have been selected in that Second Group of astronauts, which would have excluded him from commanding Apollo 11.

One of the events that has been largely forgotten, although extensively documented, is Neil Armstrong’s accident training for the lunar landing flying the Flying Bedstead. Less well known is just how close he came to death in that incident, estimated to be 0.4 seconds. Armstrong ejected at a dangerously low altitude but, remarkably, landed unhurt (his injuries in the film were, again, for dramatic effect).

For many people watching the film, the portrayal of Buzz Aldrin is a surprise. He is made out to be—to be honest—a rather loud-mouthed, not very likeable individual who comes into conflict with Neil Armstrong on multiple occasions by voicing tactless opinions. What Buzz Aldrin made of this portrayal when seeing himself on screen is anyone’s guess. Watching it, you wonder how Neil Armstrong ended-up placing his life when flying down to the lunar surface, in the hands of someone who, quite evidently, he does not like. Again, if you watch the voice-over commentary from the Director, Producer and Editor, you discover that they decided to use Buzz Aldrin’s character to voice, from time to time, uncomfortable truths that no one wanted to say out loud. There is no suggestion that Buzz Aldrin actually did say all these things, but plenty that people were thinking some of them at the time.

One example of such “thinking aloud” is Buzz Aldrin looking at the Saturn V rolling out on the giant crawler and making some loud comments about its safety record and the indecent hurry to fly it. Incidentally, in that scene, although the Saturn V rocket that is being rolled-out (Apollo 8) is a miniature, the crawler that is supposedly carrying it is the real one, which was brought out for filming this scene.

There was a real feeling at the time that NASA was taking a horrible risk with the rocket and with the whole accelerated Moon-landing schedule. This is reflected in Jim Lovell talking about Apollo 8 being given, at the time, only a 50% chance of returning safely and the emotive scene in First Man in which the speech to by read in the case that Armstrong and Aldrin did not return was recorded. President Nixon would have read that speech had things gone wrong.

To see what is meant by risks, one only has to look at the history of testing of the Saturn rocket. While the Saturn 1 (image top left of the page), never flown by astronauts, had ten test flights and the Saturn Ib, that was to be used by Apollo 1 before the catastrophic fire and was later used by Apollo 7, was flown four times before the first manned flight (one of which ended with the upper stage exploding unintentionally as a result of pressurisation tests going wrong), there had been only two Saturn V flights and the second of those, Apollo 6, suffered severe problems. Four other unmanned test flights were cancelled at a previous stage to save time and money.

While the Apollo 4 flight (image top right of page), was a great success, the final test of the Saturn V, on Apollo 6, was plagued with issues of all kinds. In particular, violent vibration—the so-called pogo effect, caused by sloshing fuel—led to the rupturing of fuel lines, a potentially catastrophic issue and the failure of two of the five Second Stage engines. The Third Stage engine then refused to re-ignite, which would have aborted the mission anyway had it been manned, to say nothing of the effect that the violent pogoing would have had on any crew.

NASA studied the pogo issues, decided that they were fixable, made some changes in the Saturn V and, without taking the normal precaution of a further test flight to check that they worked, man-rated the rocket for flight.

Despite the lessons of the Apollo 1 fire, NASA took some huge risks and got away with it: fortune did favour the brave, but it could so easily have been different, which is why the film-makers have Buzz Aldrin’s character pointing-out that fact.

Another seminal moment in which words were put into Buzz Aldrin’s mouth in the script, was when the astronauts speculate who will be “The First Man”. As so many times, the fact that it turned out to be Neil Armstrong was a historical accident. Although nothing was ever stated publicly, Deke Slayton did intend that Gus Grissom, the last Mercury astronaut to remain on active duty [1], be the First Man. As we have seen, he flew the second Mercury flight, the first Gemini and would have flown the first Apollo had the launch pad fire not happened. He was the first choice to command the lunar landing, with Ed White, the first American to walk in space, intended to join him on the lunar surface.

Neil Armstrong was offered command of Apollo 11 when it was still intended to be a dress-rehearsal for the landing. He was told to train as if for a landing and that if everything went right and if several other things, he might get a shot at landing. Here, Deke Slayton was following what became standard Apollo “you understudy a mission and then, three flights later, become the prime crew” rule, although this rule was broken multiple times. In fact, the first Moon landing crew could so easily have been completely different. The reality is that the crew of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins was a consequence of multiple accidents, misfortunes and changes of thought. Let’s have a look at a few of them.

  • It was uncertain, until Apollo 10 flew back successfully, whether Apollo 11 or Apollo 12 would be the first Moon landing attempt, although the decision was taken after Apollo 9 to target Apollo 11 for the first Moon landing in a hell-for-leather sprint to the Moon. No one though knew at the time whether or not this approach would work.
  • Had the delivery of the Lunar Module not been badly behind schedule, Apollo 8 would have been a Low-Earth orbit test of it, flown by James McDivitt, David Scott and Rusty Schweickart. Their back-up crew of Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon and Clifton Williams would have flown Apollo 11 [2] and not Apollo 12 and thus Pete Conrad could easily have been the first man on the Moon and not the third. Similarly, any problem with Apollo 9 or 10 would have seen the Moon landing put back to Apollo 12, again making Pete Conrad the First Man.
  • The original crew of Apollo 9, which flew as Apollo 8, was Frank Borman, Michael Collins and Bill Anders. Their back-up crew was Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell. In other words, Jim Lovell should have flown Apollo 11 as Command Module pilot and not Apollo 8, but was promoted to prime crew when Michael Collins was placed temporarily on the sick list after an operation. This should have put Lovell in command of Apollo 14 [but, as had happened with Apollo 8 and 9, the order of flights was swapped later and the Apollo 14 crew advanced to Apollo 13 to allow the less experienced team of Shepherd, Mitchell and Roosa more time to train].
  • Collins and Lovell thus swapped missions and Lovell took his seat in Apollo 8, with Michael Collins being offered Apollo 11 in compensation which, in the normal course of matters, would have led to Collins commanding one of the big, science missions later in the programme.
  • Deke Slayton had serious doubts about the fitness of Buzz Aldrin to fly Apollo 11 and offered Neil Armstrong the chance to replace him with Jim Lovell. Armstrong considered this offer carefully, but realised that he would be flying with two Command Module pilots, one of whom would have to be “demoted” to the Lunar Module pilot role for which he had not trained, which caused him serious concerns. He realised that Lovell would have to take the Lunar Module pilot role and thus would walk on the Moon.
  • Why did Neil Armstrong turn down Jim Lovell? Strangely, it was his loyalty to Jim Lovell rather than any sense of comradeship with Buzz Aldrin. Having worked with Jim Lovell on Apollo 8, he rated Lovell highly and felt that he should later command his own Moon mission. The route to command was either (a) to be back-up commander on a flight, in which case you would normally expect to command the mission three flights later (this is how Neil Armstrong became commander of Apollo 11) or, (b) the longer route, to serve as back-up Command Module pilot, fly three flights later as Command Module pilot – the so-called third seat – and then, three flights later, command your own mission. Being Lunar Module pilot (although, strangely, the pilot only assisted the Commander in the landing by calling out instrument readings), was the lowest-ranked position on board, a dead-end job that would be an astronaut’s first and last Moon flight. So, Neil Armstrong reasoned the following. With a crew of Collins and Lovell, he would have two Command Module pilots, one of whom would have to be demoted to Lunar Module pilot. Armstrong considered that, of the two, Collins was not ready for the specialist Lunar Module pilot role, so the job would have to go to Lovell but, if it did, even if it allowed him to walk on the Moon, Lovell would never get his own command. So, in a subtle way, by maintaining Buzz Aldrin on his own crew at a time when it was far from certain that Apollo 11 would land on the Moon, Armstrong was blocking Aldrin’s future career and advancing Lovell’s. This was not vindictive, it was a calculating estimation of relative merits. Of course, history was to dictate that Buzz Aldrin was immortalised by becoming the second man on the Moon (how many people remember that Pete Conrad was the third?), while Jim Lovell was destined to be the man in the hot seat on Apollo 13,  who had to work the miracle of bring his crew back alive and became the only astronaut to fly twice to the Moon without ever setting foot on its surface.

Thus, had the dice fallen differently, the first men on the Moon could have been Grissom and White, or Conrad and Bean, or Armstrong and Lovell. There was even a scenario in which it could have been Armstrong and Collins. Had the dice fallen differently, Armstrong might never have become an astronaut, or could have been killed in the Gemini 8 incident – thirteen minutes of terror that were compressed considerably on screen – or in the incident with the flying bedstead.

Similarly, the Moon landing survived five potential abort situations that tested the nerve of the Flight Controllers to the limit [3]. Had the fuel gauge been reading only very slightly too high, the landing attempt would have ended with a shout of “BINGO!!” from Buzz Aldrin, meaning that the tanks were empty, in which case Neil Armstrong would have punched the abort for an emergency return to orbit. The lander was designed to survive a small fall onto the surface: the probes on the landing pads were five feet—about a metre and a half long—and, on touching the surface, lit the contact light in the Lunar Module that told Armstrong to cut the engines. The Lunar Module thus fell the last few centimetres with whatever velocity it still possessed. However, it was most certainly not designed to land at any significant velocity after running out of fuel and, on a bingo call there were just two likely outcomes: a successful abort to orbit, or a crash.

At this distance from events, we tend to believe that it was all inevitable. Neil Armstrong was destined to be First Man. Apollo 11 was destined to be the first successful landing. There was, though, nothing inevitable about it.


[1] Remember that Deke Slayton was Grissom’s colleague on Mercury and was scheduled to fly the second orbital Mercury flight before he was grounded due to a minor heart murmur and his flight was re-assigned to Scott Carpenter.

[2] As recounted in a previous Blog, Williams later died in a plane crash and was replaced by Alan Bean.

[3] Read in a previous blog how, in pre-flight simulation, the 1201 Alarm call had led the Controllers to abort the landing.

2 thoughts on “First Man and the Accidental Moon

    1. Thanks Tim. One of my very first memories was watching a rendezvous in space on a small black and white TV in South Devon, although I have never identified which one it was. I lived the Apollo Moon landings. As for many people, they marked my life.


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