The 13 minutes that defined a century

In total, no fewer than 400,000 people were involved in Project Apollo. Nearly all of them felt deeply connected to the mission and, although only a handful of people finally flew to the Moon, in a very real sense the factory workers, engineers, technicians and scientists that worked as part of the Apollo programme felt that, on 20 July 1969, part of them landed on the Moon, too.

As Armstrong and Aldrin descended from 50,000ft above the Moon, radio communications with Earth broke down; the lunar module was running long on its target landing site; the onboard computer – on which the astronauts absolutely depended – started flashing up error codes that the crew had never before seen; and in the final few seconds, it looked like Armstrong and Aldrin might actually run out of fuel.

In the audio recordings from mission control of those final 13 minutes, you can hear the tension in every spoken word, every phrase and every silence. And so series producer Andrew Luck-Baker and I set about the task of trying to unpick those fraught moments and explain how the furious race to get a crew to the surface of the Moon – before the decade was out – conspired to create those exhilarating final moments.

When President John F Kennedy set his nation on course for the Moon, to arrive in the course of a single decade, Nasa had to scrabble together a workforce capable of delivering that promise. They hired quickly and often without interview, choosing instead to get people who had the requisite skills and then evaluate them on the job.

The flight controllers in mission control were incredibly young – for Project Apollo their average age was just 26 years old. And while it seems strange that such huge responsibility would be given to a bunch of fresh-faced employees, not long out of university, their youth was for the most part regarded as a significant asset.

Fearless and prepared to give themselves entirely to the task, they were exactly what the space programme needed.

Steve rapidly worked his way up, from a technician’s position, supporting missions from the back rooms, to a seat in mission control as a flight controller for Project Gemini. By that time, he was only 23 years old.

In mission control someone was always watching, even if you weren’t sure who and, as attention turned from the Gemini’s orbital flights to the business of Project Apollo and a landing on the Moon, Steve was assigned to the Guidance, Navigation and Control team. These were the people responsible for shaping the spacecraft’s path as it flew through space.

During exhausting simulations in the months leading up to 20 July 1969, Steve continued to impress. As the mission managers began to assemble the team of flight controllers who would be in the room for Apollo 11’s historic first attempt at a landing on the Moon, Steve – now all of 26 – found himself somehow in the mix.

For the landing, he would take his seat as the guidance officer, one of mission control’s most critical roles. And the enormity of that task was not lost on him.

In the midst of Armstrong’s and Aldrin’s descent in those final 13 minutes the crew and their essential support team in mission control were beset by problem after problem.

They were travelling too quickly across the lunar surface and in danger of overshooting their planned landing site.

Their radio communications with Earth became patchy and then, as they sank still closer to the surface, their onboard computer threw up a series of alarms that the crew had never seen before, alarms that they didn’t understand.

For the landing on the Moon, the crew depended almost entirely on their onboard auto-pilot – the Apollo Guidance Computer. And although today we like to joke about how limited the processing power of that computer was, at the time it was by far the most complex and sophisticated device aboard the spacecraft. Its ability to assist the astronauts in this near impossible feat was absolutely essential to the success of the mission.

The on-board computer display and keyboard together resembled a giant calculator and its rudimentary display was able to flash up only a series of numbers to display information and help identify problems.

On the mission audio, recorded from the cabin, you can hear Buzz Aldrin and then Neil Armstrong call out the string of digits appearing on the display: 1202, which they read across the void as, “Twelve-oh-two.”

In mission control, nobody understood what was happening. Was the computer about to fail? Were they going to have to abort the landing? Were Armstrong’s and Aldrin’s lives in danger?

There was a pause of a few seconds while the team scrambled to try to find an answer and in that time, the normally ice-cool Neil Armstrong broke into the radio transmission again, almost gabbling the words: “Give me a reading on the twelve-oh-two.”

It is the only time anyone that we spoke to can ever remember hearing a note of urgency in the astronaut’s voice.

In the 15 seconds that passed from Armstrong and Aldrin first spotting the alarm, Steve Bales talked with his backroom support team, desperately searching for a response to Armstrong’s urgent question.

The seconds ticked by with the lunar module still falling toward the Moon and with the crew still unsure if their vital onboard computer was still up to the task of guiding them through the landing.

This was the essence of mission control. The Apollo flights threw up problems with complex systems, that arose in real time, and which had to be solved by human operators in the moment. And while Armstrong waited all eyes turned to Steve Bales, the boy from Iowa.

From the backroom, Steve’s colleague Jack Garman recognised the 1202 code as being similar to something they had seen in a simulation from several weeks earlier.

It told them that the computer was struggling but still working and able to perform its mission-critical tasks.

On that occasion, when the alarm occurred during their dress rehearsal, Steve had aborted the mission unnecessarily and had been admonished for doing so.

So, when the 1202 alarm flashed up during the final minutes of Apollo 11’s descent, Steve Bales quickly had an answer: “We’re go on that flight.” And the rest of course is history.

Someone once said of Neil Armstrong that he’s one of the few people of the 20th Century who has a chance of being remembered in the 30th Century. But Armstrong was merely the tip of the spear, and our podcast series gives us a chance to celebrate not only him and his astronaut brethren, but also the genuinely remarkable army of people without whom we would never have set foot on the Moon.

Source: BBC

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