Science  /  Narrative

The Triumph and Near-Tragedy of the First Moon Landing

Across the cislunar blackness, we set sail for a landing that almost didn't happen.

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A vast, gray expanse loomed just a few hundred meters below as Neil Armstrong peered out his tiny window. From inside the spidery lunar lander, a fragile cocoon with walls only about as thick as construction paper, the Apollo 11 commander finally had a clear view of where the on-board computer had directed him to land.

He did not like what he saw there. A big crater. Boulders strewn all around. A death trap.

To make matters worse, Eagle had limited fuel reserves. If Armstrong couldn’t find a safe landing site soon, he would have to ditch the bottom half of the lander and burn like hell for lunar orbit in a dangerous and risky abort procedure. Otherwise, he and Buzz Aldrin would not only become the first humans to land on the Moon, they’d become the first humans to die there, too.

Fortunately, NASA had chosen this crew well. Armstrong, in particular, had a cool head, thanks to his extensive test pilot background. He knew that he needed to focus on the problems he could solve rather than the problems he couldn't, and monitoring the fuel state was the ground's responsibility anyway. Armstrong knew CAPCOM Charlie Duke would tell him when the gas got too low. So he carefully steered the lunar module away from the boulders. And though plumes of lunar dust made it difficult to judge his speed relative to the Moon’s surface, he made a soft touchdown.

No one watched this drama unfolding 240,000 miles away more avidly than a gaggle of flight controllers in Mission Control. “What I remember most is the tension,” said Duke, the astronaut designated to talk to the spacecraft from Houston, in an interview with Ars. “We were literally holding our breath.”

So when Neil Armstrong called to Houston from "Tranquility Base" on the Moon to say the Eagle had landed, Duke's reply flubbed the word "Tranquility" as "Twan...Tranquility," and blurted out the first thing that came into his mind. “We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again.”