The Great First Step Mystery


It is now almost exactly one month until the fiftieth anniversary of that “One Small Step”. It is a couple of months since I have posted anything here about it. Life has been rather busy. However, the events of fifty years ago are ever present. Over the last few months we have seen the fiftieth anniversary of the various flights that prepared the Moon landing, in particular, the most recent, the Apollo 10 flight that was the final dress rehearsal.

Last week, my mind was rather forcibly brought back to one particular aspect of the first Moon landing when, I read a short article on Apollo 11[1] that made the comment that “Armstrong pulled rank and decided that he would be the first man on the Moon”.

This topic has caused a lot of discussion over the years and it is an open secret that Buzz Aldrin has never forgiven, nor forgotten the fact that he was not the first although, in “First Man”, Armstrong’s biographer speculates that the root cause of the problem was the way that Aldrin’s father put massive pressure, both on his son and on NASA, for Aldrin to be the First Man.

There are various ways of viewing this. Andrew Chaiken, author of “First Man”, naturally, takes a point of view highly sympathetic to Armstrong and, at no point, suggests that the decision for Armstrong to emerge first was Armstrong’s initiative. Instead, he rationalises that the decision was the only sensible one. Of course, though, there was a third person in the equation. Michael Collins, the Command Module pilot, was an observer of events and wrote his own version of them in “Carrying the Fire”, which was re-edited in 2009.

Collins recounts events from his own, unique perspective. Many are familiar, some, were completely new to me. He speaks, in a completely matter-of-fact way about how, before Apollo 11 launched, Deke Slayton came to him to talk about future crew assignments. The deal on offer was the standard three-by-three assignment. Serve as Command Module pilot on Apollo 11. Act as back-up commander, three flights later, on Apollo 14. And then Command Apollo 17, stepping on the Moon. In fact, he would have been the last man on the Moon, an honour that finally went to Eugene Cernan. Collins says that, after all the fuss around Apollo 11, he had decided long before launch that he would never return to space. Collins turned Slayton down flat, although he added that, if Apollo 11 aborted at launch and never even got into orbit, he might change his mind but, if it got to the Moon, even without a successful landing, that would be his lot.

One of the remarkable revelations that Collins makes is that NASA considered seriously taking the first landing away from Apollo 11. After the remarkable success of Apollos 8 and 9, which proved all the necessary elements of the Moon landing, the question was asked “why risk sending Apollo 10 all the way to 15km above the lunar surface without attempting a landing?” NASA even offered the first Moon landing to Tom Stafford, Apollo 10 commander. This seems incredible when Armstrong was given his flight on the understanding that Apollo 11 would, most likely, be a repeat of Apollo 10’s lunar landing rehearsal profile. Even more remarkably, Michael Collins says that he was gung-ho for Apollo 10 to attempt a lunar landing, even if it meant that his own flight would be downgraded by it. Stafford though, had long-argued that NASA had to test the Lunar orbit rendezvous thoroughly in a variety of situations – he was firmly in the “make Apollo 11 a second dress rehearsal for landing” camp. However, consistency was not the only consideration: the Apollo 10 Lunar Module had an issue: it was slightly overweight. In other words, it was slightly heavier than intended for a Moon landing mission. The surplus mass was tiny – about half the weight of a naked astronaut – but introduced a factor of risk into the landing and, especially, into the return to lunar orbit by reducing the margins (remember that Apollo 11 landed eventually with only about 15 seconds of fuel left in its tanks).

There is though, a strange irony in the fact that, Eugene Cernan was so remarkably close to walking on the Moon in Apollo 10 rather than commanding Apollo 17, as he did ultimately. Stafford thought it over and, in the end, decided that he could not, realistically, change his mission profile. Even so, at the time there was media speculation still that Apollo 10 could attempt to land, something that the astronauts had not even trained for. Unlike Cernan and John Young, his Command Module pilot on Apollo 10, Stafford never did walk on the lunar surface, although he had the consolation later of commanding the very last Apollo flight: the Apollo-Soyuz mission.

What of the “First Man Mystery”? Why Armstrong and not Aldrin?

Collins is very diplomatic – and brief – in his recollections and notes that some early versions of the lunar landing checklists did have the Lunar Module pilot as first to emerge onto the lunar surface. When discussing the possibility that Apollo 10 could have made the first lunar landing itself, he also makes the aside comment that Eugene Cernan, Apollo 10 Lunar Module pilot, might well even have been the first man on the Moon himself. In other words, he is hinting that maybe, had another mission been first to land, the decision that the Commander and not the Lunar Module Pilot should be first to step out, might just have been different.

He mentions various other things too that are not such common knowledge. There were severe problems in the training for Apollo 11, so severe that there was a real possibility that the launch might be delayed for a month and, maybe, longer. In particular, the Lunar Module simulator, an essential training tool, was so unreliable that the astronauts struggled to complete their training programme in time, as the deadline for the go/no go for a launch attempt approached. Elsewhere, Gene Kranz has admitted that Mission Control had severe issues of their own and that their own simulations of the landing, including the final dress rehearsal, suffered from multiple failures and wrong calls being made by the controllers in simulated emergencies. There are hints too that relations, especially between Armstrong and Aldrin were strained by the issue of who would take the first step on the lunar surface. Collins simply comments that he suspected that the issue of which astronaut would be first out was eating at Aldrin and makes no bones of his view that Armstrong did pull rank on the issue. There is also a darker hint that the problems with alcohol that were to plague Aldrin after Apollo 11 were already emerging during training. On one particular occasion, after a landing abort scenario was run, it was found on examining the data, that Armstrong had, in fact, crashed on the lunar surface in the simulation. Aldrin took this particularly badly and, accompanied by a bottle of whisky – according to Collins, a regular companion of Aldrin in end-of-day conversations, which led to him becoming increasingly animated as the level in the bottle dropped – held forth on Armstrong’s failure until late in the night, first with Collins and then, with the bottle beginning to empty, Armstrong appeared on the scene and Collins made good his escape, while his two colleagues continued debating Armstrong’s error until deep into the night.

Did Armstrong make the call and pull rank on Aldrin? Or, did Armstrong take the fall on the issue, with someone else making the call? Or was there, in reality, never really any issue and it was simply an operational matter?

Given the well-known shy and retiring nature of Neil Armstrong, it is hard to believe that he actually craved being the First Man in the way that Buzz Aldrin did. Indeed, Michael Collins makes the telling comment that “Aldrin resented not being the first man on the Moon more than he appreciated being the second”.

There is certainly a good reason to believe that NASA management preferred Armstrong to be the First Man. Although from a military background, he was a civilian and the first civilian astronaut to fly. Armstrong had been in the Navy, fought in Korea and held the rank of lieutenant, but had passed to the reserve in 1952 and then resigned his commission in 1960. In a mission that had “we come in peace for all mankind” as its watchword, that had seen the eagle on its mission patch pacified by giving it an olive branch to carry in its beak and, even then, with feeling in NASA that the eagle’s spread talons were still too threatening, the patch was further modified to have the olive branch held in its feet, the symbolism of having a civilian and not an active military officer making those first steps, was lost on nobody.

A second and very considerable factor, is that the Lunar Module layout made it very difficult for the Lunar Module pilot to exit first. The hatch was alongside Neil Armstrong on the left hand side of the cockpit. The available space between the control panel and the wall behind the astronauts was just 1.07m (3 feet 6 inches in NASA measures). For the Lunar Module pilot to exit first, fully-suited, wearing a backpack and with helmet (itself 36cm across), he could have to pass behind the commander in that very restricted space and then shuffle positions to allow him to access the hatch mechanism that was by Armstrong’s knees and, all this in unfamiliar lunar gravity. Given that more than once during preparation of the Lunar Module, a screwdriver dropped by a technician penetrated one of its walls (yes, it was that fragile), the danger of an accident when moving around inside was all too real; the astronauts were all-too-conscious of the fact that they could, quite literally, punch a fist straight through the delicate structure. Practicality, if nothing else, stated that the Mission Commander had to exit first, whatever may have been thought when the first drafts of the checklists were prepared.


This is one of the issues where the full story may never be known. If someone in management made a suggestion to Armstrong that he “pull rank”, it is unlikely that anything was ever set down in writing. The official NASA history is that it was simply a matter of making the exit from the Lunar Module as simple as possible for the astronauts. It was not the first time that a procedure changed between first draft and final reality. Even so, it is surprising that no one thought, when the checklist was drafted, just how hard it would be to manoeuvre two astronauts with bulky spacesuits and backpacks in such a limited space, leading to Buzz Aldrin getting unreasonable expectations of having priority.

Neil-Armstrong-008There is also, maybe a little tongue-in-cheek, another factor. There has always been a military maxim that “you do not expose your commander to danger”. In other words, the natural reaction is that, when there is a potentially dangerous situation – in this case, exiting the spacecraft into a hostile environment – you send out an advance party first and only then, when safe, does the commander follow. When Ed White made the first space walk by a NASA astronaut, mission commander, James McDivitt stayed safely inside, while his subordinate exposed himself to a potentially hazardous situation. However, at the time of Apollo 11, times and perceptions were changing. In 1969, Americans had become habituated to seeing Captain James T. Kirk being the first to beam down, week after week, from the Starship Enterprise into danger (OK, so you pay your show’s star a lot of money, so you want him to get plenty of exposure, in the safe knowledge that your script-writer will ensure that nothing fatally bad ever happens to him despite such reckless behaviour). Star Trek had and has a huge following in NASA and has been a significant influence on NASA decisions over the years, such as naming the first Space Shuttle, Enterprise.

It is not difficult to imagine that whoever had made that first draft of the checklist, maybe a couple of years earlier, was thinking in the old way of not exposing the commander to danger and was ignoring the fact that the exit hatch was the wrong side of the capsule to make this solution really practical. When theory changed to reality, Star Trek had helped to convince everyone that such excessive caution was unnecessary and that the commander should, after all, lead the landing party.

My suspicion, given all that happened, is that NASA management were probably not unhappy at the way that things worked out but, in practice, it was mainly a completely logical, operational decision. Had the Lunar Module pilot’s post been on the left hand side of the cabin instead and not the right, Buzz Aldrin would, indeed, have got his wish to be First Man.

[1] The crew decided specifically to call their flight Apollo 11, rather than Apollo XI, to avoid confusion with Roman numerals. Later crews though sometimes preferred Roman numerals and sometimes classic numbers.

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