Podcast: Francis French on the Lives of the Three Apollo XI Astronauts
President Nixon with the three Apollo 11 astronauts (Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin) aboard the USS Hornet. (NASA)
Francis French is a Writer and Educator Specializing in Space History
On this edition of the Nixon Now podcast, we explore the lives of the the three Apollo XI Astronauts. To answer these and other questions about the historic mission to the moon is Francis French.
French is a writer specializing in space flight history. He is the author of several serious books about man’s rendezvous with outer space. He has worked in the non-profit and education words, and is a sought out expert for commentary about space travel on numerous media outlets.
Jonathan Movroydis: You’re listening to “Nixon Now Podcast.” I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on twitter @nixonfoundation or at nixonfoundation.org.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing. To commemorate this anniversary, the Nixon Library has a brand-new special exhibition on display throughout the year. It’s called Apollo 11: One Giant Leap for Mankind.
Who were the three Apollo 11 astronauts? To answer these and other questions about the historic mission to the moon is Francis French. French is this writer specializing in spaceflight history. He’s author of several books about man’s rendezvous with outer space. He’s worked in the nonprofit and educational worlds and is a sought-out expert for space on numerous media outlets. Francis, welcome
Francis French: Good to be here.
Jonathan Movroydis: To start off, just as a primer, can you give us an overview on the astronauts of Apollo? What went into their selection? What qualifies someone to be an astronaut?
Francis French: Absolutely. I mean, when NASA first started looking at astronauts back in 1959, they are trying to select people for which no job description ever really existed because nobody had ever been into space before. So they were really choosing in the dark. And for a long time, people were saying, “We should have adventurers, such as mountain climbers, or deep-sea divers, or maybe even people who worked in the circus on trapezes, or things where they were used to very weird conditions.”
Eventually, a very sensible decision was made by President Eisenhower to choose military jet test pilots because these are people who are very used to handling cutting-edge equipment and able to do it in moments of extreme danger and yet we’re able to absolutely focus, precisely report on what was happening and do it calmly and coolly. So that was what NASA were thinking about about a decade before Apollo 11. By the time the Apollo 11 crew were chosen, there were two of them with very much of those kind of qualifications, extremely good background in jet test piloting plus a little bit of science background thrown in as well.
Jonathan Movroydis: That’s right. I mean, were they scientists, were they engineers? I mean, you know, once they’re in outer space, I’m sure that there’s engineering aspects that they need to figure out. Could you touch upon that a little bit?
Francis French: Absolutely. The thing about the Apollo spacecraft was it was a three-person spacecraft. The original Mercury spacecraft had been one-seater and Gemini had been two-seater. At the time you get to a three-person spacecraft, you essentially need one and a half pilots. You have a commander who is gonna be in charge of a lot of the piloting, another pilot who’s gonna be in charge of the main spacecraft, and then you really need a systems engineer, somebody who is able to look at both the command module and the lunar module and see what they’re doing, make sure everything’s ticking over, all those the supplies are where they need to be.
So by the time you got the crew for Apollo 11 of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins chosen, you really are getting into two absolute top test pilots. And then Buzz Aldrin, who had been a combat jet pilot, but had never had any test pilot background, he was, however, an expert on orbital rendezvous when…how to make two spacecrafts meet in space. And so it was a little bit more of a scientific engineering background at that point, people with a curiosity in other areas other than piloting. So it made for a very good team.
Jonathan Movroydis: Was the magic number always three? Was it ever two pilots or even more than that, more than three, four or five astronauts?
Francis French: Well, this is something NASA had to decide very early. When President Kennedy said in 1961 that America is gonna land on the moon by the end of 1969, NASA had no idea how to do this. There was no way of knowing how to do it. And if you look at the science fiction movies of the time, that big silvery spaceship with wings that lands on their tail on the moon, incredible problems with that possible design, which is you’re carrying wings all the way to the moon only to use them three days later, a quarter of a million miles away coming back to Earth. No point is there’s so much fuel you have to carry just to carry wings, plus landing on your tail, you imagine landing a 747 on a runway on its tail, except it’s not gonna be a runway, it’s gonna be a rocky terrain, incredibly difficult.
So NASA decided to go a different route after a lot of exploration, back and forward, done very, very quickly. They chose two different spacecraft. There was gonna be a command module, which was to stay in lunar orbit. Essentially, that was gonna be the ride home. That was the one that had the heat shield. That was the one that had all the supplies to get to the moon and back. And then there was a little lunar module, which was a tiny little boxy spacecraft, which was kind of ugly. It didn’t have any aerodynamics to it at all because it was never gonna be used anywhere but the moon. It didn’t have any heat shield. If that couldn’t get back to the command module, there was no way of those astronauts getting back to Earth.
But that really meant three people because you needed one person to stay in lunar orbit and circle around making sure everything was good, try and find those guys coming back up from the moon in the lunar module, if anything went wrong on their spacecraft that they launched. And then that leaves two people who can go down. You’ve got the commander who’s flying it, and the guy who’s called the lunar module pilot. There really isn’t a lunar module pilot. He’s a systems engineer. He’s helping the commander with readings, telling him how far away he is from the ground, looking out the window, finding different landmarks. They’re looking for working with the computer to make sure the computer programs are working well. And then of course, once they’re on the moon, they’re working as a team. So three very diverse positions in a three-person crew.
Jonathan Movroydis: Did any of the three, Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins, had they had been to outer space before.
Francis French: Actually, all three of them had been. And if you kind of look at how the crews were chosen around the Apollo 11 landing time, it looks like Deke Slayton, who was the head of the astronauts, basically chose experienced commanders and experienced crew because there was no guarantee Apollo 11 was going to be the mission that landed on the moon. Apollo 10 could have been, a lot of people have their money on Apollo 12.
Really, everything has to go right before Apollo 11 would make it first attempt. And it would have been an attempt if things had gone wrong and something had not happened in the last few minutes, the crew had waved off and come back. It’s very likely another crew would have been offered the chance to do the next attempt. So if you look at the Apollo 11, the Apollo 10 crew, Apollo 9 crew, they’re mostly veterans. Apollo 10 crew had all flown before and Apollo 11, each of them had one flight before under their belts in the prior Gemini Program. And they had all done incredible things in that program.
Neil Armstrong had been in charge of Gemini 8. He’d been the commander of that back in 1966. And they’d run into some problems on that flight. They had got up there, made the very first docking with an unmanned spacecraft, only to find they were spinning in space.
And if you watched the movie “First Man” that came out the other year about Neil Armstrong, it gives you a very vivid idea of what happened. He and Dave Scott, his copilot, we’re spinning around in space one per second. And if you can imagine sitting in your seat and rotating around your central access one per second, you start to lose the oxygen in your head, you start to blackout.
He was able to be very cool, very confident, very much in command, workout which rockets that were causing this problem to switch off, turn onto another rocket to make the spacecraft rotate in the other direction and bring the spacecraft back home. It was an incredible piece of test piloting in a dangerous, dangerous situation, where most experienced pilots would likely have died. And I think it told the NASA bosses, who really needed to decide, who was gonna be a likely candidate to come in the first lunar landing mission that Armstrong was the guy.
Michael Collins, in the same way, had one Gemini flight. He’d gone up to make a quite perilous spacewalk over to an Agena spacecraft. They really didn’t know how they were going to do spacewalks at that time. They were learning as they went. It was dangerous. But what Collins did was pretty good under the circumstances, and that also gave, I think, NASA a good opportunity to evaluate him.
Buzz Aldrin was the last person on the crew. He almost wasn’t gonna fly on the Gemini missions. He was given the last seat on the last flight only because another crew died and all the backup people got shifted up one place. But he was very well aware that there was this issue with spacewalking. People were not knowing how to do it, and so he went back to the basics. And basically, working with the team, worked out how to make effective spacewalks. So all three of them had contributed greatly to the program before they were put together as the Apollo 11 crew.
Jonathan Movroydis: There were other astronauts who contributed greatly to this program. You had the Apollo 8 mission in December, just a few people off the top of my head, Bill Anders and Frank Borman. Were there any other people considered for the Apollo 11 mission besides these three? Were there perspective alternates, or were there runner ups to this Apollo 11 mission?
Francis French: Oh, absolutely. I think the wisdom of NASA at the time was that any group could fly any mission and that’s certainly the status philosophy of the astronaut office at the time. The truth is a little bit more complicated than that. There were definitely front runners and people who were not necessarily at the top of that list. But there were about four different crews who were put together, who all of them could have had the opportunity to make that first lunar landing attempt.
A lot of people thought that Pete Conrad, who was the commander of Apollo 12, would be a perfect candidate. And certainly, when he made the second moon landing on Apollo 12, turned out to be an excellent person. Frank Borman, as you mentioned on Apollo 8, was informally offered the chance to turn right around and fly Apollo 11, but actually turned it down. The grueling space training and the toll it takes on families is often overlooked. And having flown two flights and seeing the effect it was having on family, I think he wisely decided to get out of that business. He actually went to work for President Nixon as his advisor in the White House.
So I think Armstrong was never the anointed one. A lot of people notice that he was a civilian at the time he was making that flight, though he’d formally been in the Navy, and thinking there might be some possible political reasons to send a civilian as the first commander of the first moon landing. It’s a nice theory. It doesn’t seem to actually hold up because had he broken his ankle the day before, somebody else would have flown that mission and they would have been in military.
Jonathan Movroydis: You said that different crews were considered, the personnel within these crews, did they ever swap crews or exchange personnel?
Francis French: That happened quite a bit actually. And there’s somewhat of an illusion that these guys will have to be best friends to fly to the moon together and train for years before. And that’s not the case. They were all military men on the whole, they certainly knew how to get on the work with anybody they were assigned to. And that was part of the psychological and other testing that they went through as astronaut candidates. They were not just chosen for their background in terms of flying, but also with a all-round sociable people because they were gonna have to do a lot of PR work before and during the mission and afterwards. So that happened quite a bit.
If you’ve ever seen the movie, “Apollo 13,” one of the people get swapped out right in the last few days before the mission. They could have swapped out the entire three-person crew, but instead they took this three-person crew that trained together and become very close for years and traded out one person right before the launch, which the people who weren’t as professional as these guys, that could have been an issue in terms of people getting on. As it was, it worked out fine.
The Apollo 11 crew were not necessarily best friends. Mike Collins, one of the crew members, you know, describes him as amiable strangers and they certainly brought a different kind of aspects to the mission, each of them, bringing their different personalities. They didn’t always get on, but they certainly were dedicated to making the mission work. They all had that in common.
Jonathan Movroydis: You had mentioned psychological testing, what goes into the psychological testing and the physical testing of an astronaut?
Francis French: So in the very beginning of the space program, a lot of emphasis was put on the physical. And if you’ve ever seen the movie “The Right Stuff,” you’ll see some grueling medical testing these guys were put through at various aerospace clinics around the country. I think John Glenn famously described it as, “If there’s any opening in the body that something can be put in, that they would explore it as far as it could be,” which gives you an idea of how painful and nasty some of the stuff was.
By the time of Apollo 11, a lot of that had been relaxed, mostly because people had no idea what space would do to a human body at the beginning of the program. By the time a few people have flown in space and America was also watching what’s happening to the Russians, it was understood that if you were in pretty good shape, you’d be okay.
So at that point, the physical was less important, but the piloting skills definitely became more important. NASA started choosing people such as Neil Armstrong, Mike Collins, and Buzz Aldrin with advanced engineering degree as well as piloting experience.
And the social-psychological side was they really didn’t want loners. And this is something you still see in the space program. Sometimes people who are at the absolute top of their career in some scientific field will apply to NASA as an astronaut today and be rejected because NASA doesn’t necessarily want the outstanding people who have already made their name. They want people who are generalists, they want people who are incredibly good, but they’re also capable of changing, if on a dime, into a different direction. They’ve chosen people who are incredibly good at nuclear engineering and then ask them to become expert spacewalkers, something which has nothing to do with their original background.
So even back in the ’60s, NASA were looking at that and saying, “We need people who can get on, who can take a task that nobody else wants to do and be assigned that, and will go away and come back and report to the whole team, ‘This is an issue with the rocket, this is how I fixed it,’ or ‘I’ve worked with the team to fix it,’ and could just be responsible generalists.”
Jonathan Movroydis: You had briefly touched upon the three Apollo 11 astronauts’ profiles. Can we go in depth on their profiles, starting off with Neil Armstrong?
Francis French: Absolutely. Over the years, I was very fortunate to be able to work with all three of them. We still have two of them with us today. Neil, unfortunately, passed away in 2012. And what really made me interested in the stories were who they are as human beings because there’s a lot of fascinating engineering, there’s a lot of fascinating science facts, but, you know, who are these people? What was it like for them? It’s always something that everybody wants to know.
And in my interactions over the years, I found Armstrong to be a fascinating individual, incredibly frustrating to some journalists who wanted to know the “how did it feel” answer because he was somebody who very kindly deflected all of the attention on him to the wider team, making sure everybody always knew there were hundreds of thousands of people working on Apollo, and he was in many ways just a representative of the national effort.
He was very, very modest. He was somebody who was quite socially shy, but was very determined. You know, anybody who mistook his shyness and his calm demeanor for any kind of weakness soon found out that he was a very, very determined person who would do exactly what he wanted to do and not wanted to do when it came to the immense attention on him after Apollo 11. So he was very, very careful to pick and choose wisely where he put his name. One of the reasons some people speculated that NASA chose him for that role as the first person on the moon was because he was a careful ambassador of that image.
And he had that incredible test piloting career before he’d come to NASA. He flown the X-15, which was the rocket plane that actually briefly could leave the atmosphere and do some suborbital flights in the same way that Virgin Galactic are doing these days. So he had experience flying space rocket planes. And a lot of other experience up at Edwards, which, you know, here in southern California is the place that if you wanted to be a test pilot was where to learn, particularly back in the ’60s when there were so many new aircraft to be tested. So an incredible guy in that way.
Mike Collins, the command module pilot, was a much more rounded character in some ways, still very, very wry and witty and funny. He’s one of those people that…he’s still doing the circuit right now on the 50th anniversary. And he’s doing it with such tact and dignity. It’s lovely to see because he knows exactly how to get a laugh out of the audience, but it’s never going to the lowest common denominator. He’s always very, very funny and an incredibly good test pilot.
He was, in many ways, more experienced than Armstrong, in terms of…he was actually a test pilot instructor when he was chosen, had flown pretty much everything at Edwards Air Force Base as part of his Air Force career, and one of those people that is not necessarily pushing himself forward as a natural leader, but somebody who everybody trusted, which is probably even more important, the kind of person who you just know you can give a task to and it will come back not only completed, but there’ll be another whole aspect to it that he’s done that nobody else even thought about.
Buzz Aldrin, the lunar module pilot had a much more troubled life in many ways. He was chosen primarily because he was the guy who knew how to orbit a rendezvous and done. He was a space expert before NASA chose him. But unfortunately, and Buzz Aldrin admitted years later that he really had no idea how office politics worked. And it was a very difficult situation he came into.
He was chosen as an astronaut. He was an expert in an aspect of flying in space the astronauts didn’t know about. He came into the business to hopefully tell everybody else, “This is how we’re gonna do it” and totally misjudged the situation, and basically have been told to go and sit in the back of the room in the office for a couple of years and watched with incredible frustration as other people try to make space rendezvous, which he knew, the math behind more than anybody in the world. And they were failing. They were making mistakes, and he had to just sit there and watch this.
By the time he had the opportunity to fly, NASA had virtually worked out how to do rendezvous perfectly, but as mentioned before, they did not know how to spacewalk. The trouble was they kept trying to do very complicated, ambitious things on spacewalks. And what Buzz and some of his colleagues realized was somebody should go up and basically just practice how to spacewalk. And that’s what he did. He went up there with a combination of tethers and flip restraints and a almost ballet-like way of moving in space that he trained for underwater, which was a new technique he’d also helped pioneer. And in doing so, he actually worked out how to effectively do a spacewalk, which meant that NASA felt a lot more confident going into the Apollo program because, had there been any problem with the two spacecraft and people had to make an emergency spacewalk between one or the other, that would have been a vital thing for people’s lives to be saved.
So in doing so, Buzz had not necessarily endeared himself to anybody in the office, but he certainly proved his technical merits. And so he came into the office, then came into the program with a good shot of getting a good mission.
The trouble is Apollo 11 definitely had almost a negative effect on his life in some ways. He had a very ambitious father who pushed him relentlessly throughout his life and was almost disappointed that he was the second person to walk on the moon instead of the first, which for anybody else, sounds a ludicrous ambition to have. But in terms of his father, it was almost disappointment. He had problems with depression and alcoholism, eventually was hospitalized for that and took him many years to get his life back after Apollo 11.
So sometimes that kind of pressure or something, that tension you can have, almost like happens to some rock stars, where the pressure is too much. Suddenly, Buzz had similar issues in his life, but he was able to come back from that and then spend the next few decades as an incredible ambassador for the future in space. He’s not really that interested in talking about the moon as much as he is talking about going to Mars, and the moons of Mars, and how America and other countries can create an entire system to explore the solar system and beyond.
Jonathan Movroydis: When did NASA determine that it was gonna be July of 1969 that the moon mission would take place?
Francis French: That’s an interesting question because it was one of those things that nobody was really sure how they were gonna do this impossible task. But for thousands of years, people have talked about going to the moon. And all of a sudden, in the early ’60s, President Kennedy was faced with a circumstance, which he really had to try and work out what to do. The Russians were in Cuba. The Soviet Union had launched the first satellite. They’d launched the first person, and America had 15 minutes of human spaceflight experience. They sent somebody up high enough to say they were in space, but on a rocket that wasn’t powerful enough to keep them in space. So America was literally just beginning to catch up.
President Kennedy spoke to his advisors and said, “What can we do to beat the Soviet Union in space?” And all kinds of ideas were put out there. To go to Mars, but that was considered too far out. To build the space station, but with the Soviets being very secretive, they could have put anything in space and said it was the space station. The idea has to be so audacious and so ambitious, and so out there, that basically both countries should be back at the starting line.
So eventually, Kennedy and his advisors came up with the idea of a person landing on the moon by the end of the decade. And so Kennedy was hoping to be a two-term president and his advisors were telling him the chance of landing somebody on the moon was looking pretty good by around mid-1967, which had he been in office for two terms, that would have been during his career. So he could have made the announcement and then welcome the very first astronauts back from the moon. So it was much less to do with science and engineering than it was to do with politics, and it made total sense as a way of trying to beat the Soviet Union on a world platform in a way that was non-aggressive.
The end of the decade was a very tough decision and a very tough ambitious target because NASA, as I mentioned, had no real idea of how they were gonna land people on the moon, and it was almost like building a car while driving it. They had to work out how to do it when the clock was already running. Fortunately, in those first years, they got a huge amount of money to do that. And by the time they worked out how to do it, it was pretty much in the bag by the late 1960s, how it was gonna work, everything just had to go well. They did have some setbacks, they had some tragedies along the way, but they were still aiming for before 1970. They actually were able to do it twice before the end of 1969, so the deadline actually looked pretty good.
But had there been any major issues with a rocket or a spacecraft that were not fixable quickly, it may not have happened. It may have happened a couple of years later or could have been totally cancelled as things often do happen in politics.
Jonathan Movroydis: You talked a little bit about the training of the astronauts going to the moon, could you talk about the overall preparation, the mental and physical preparation of all three before the July 1969 flight?
Francis French: Absolutely. Astronauts were initially brought into the program, almost considered as medical test subjects. They were gonna be sealed up inside a windowless of spacecraft, shot off into space, and through various telemetry, people were gonna work out what was happening to them. When they brought test pilots into the program in 1959, NASA were immediately told, “You might wanna do it that way, but that’s not how we’re gonna do it”. These were very, very A-list type people, who were at the top of their test piloting careers, and they knew, in many ways, better than NASA how things should be flown. So before long, the spacecraft had windows, they had controls that made sense to a pilot rather than to an engineer just trying to design a spacecraft for the very first time, and the pilot became an integral part of the program. That actually made the astronauts’ jobs more complicated in space.
And when the Apollo 11 crew we’re training, they went through some grueling training. An actual successful smooth flight was almost easy compared to all the simulations they went through, where the people running the simulators would throw every possible thing at them, right? As they were launching, they would pretend an engine has failed. And right as they were doing that, and the crew were looking at very focused on something, they’d have another little light in the corner blink off, which they wouldn’t even notice. And then part of the training would be, “You’ve got to notice everything at all times.” It was very, very brutal. These guys were up for that, and they spent years training to get everything where they needed to be. To the point when the actual flight happened, it was relatively easy.
That’s not to say that it was totally easy when they were landing on the moon in the lunar module, the computer started to say it was getting overloaded and Aldrin had to do some very quick calculations and work out where they were going. They were about four miles off where they thought they were gonna be with a computer that looked like it was gonna fail at any second. And those are the kind of moments where that training comes into play. And Armstrong did an incredible job getting over those challenges and being able to land on the moon. But that kind of training does take it out of them.
A lot of the time was actually spent not far from the Nixon Library, up in Downey, California, which is where the Apollo spacecraft were built, the command module. Most of those astronauts spent a lot longer in the spacecraft on the ground than they ever did in space. They spent hours working with the engineers, making sure all the systems work, every switch and every possible combination, make sure things went right. So they spend a lot of time in Southern California doing all that training. So by the time the mission was about to launch, they’re almost like athletes who have built themselves up to a certain peak readiness to be able to go compete in the Olympics. They’re mentally trained, they’re physically ready, they’re ready to go, and a delay would almost sort of take them off that peak. So they were absolutely primed to go when the time came.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you take us through the Apollo 11 mission. Basically, what was going through their collective mind, starting with the launch? You would spend time with these three gentlemen, could you touch upon that, starting with the launch?
Francis French: Absolutely. As I mentioned, all three had flown in space before. So some of the sensations were not new to them. However, none of these three had ever launched on the Saturn V rocket before. It’s still the largest rocket that people have ever flown into space. It is the size of the Statue of Liberty, including its pedestal. So if you imagine sitting on that, you know, in one morning knowing you’re gonna go somewhere, and all the things that could go wrong with that rocket, certainly, if you’re not somewhat anxious, you are not fully aware of what’s about to happen to you. So a level with anxiety was definitely okay. So these guys are in the mentally ready to go.
Most of these guys are concentrating intensely on their checklist. They have written procedures with them, which will tell them every second of the mission, every step, what’s supposed to be happening. And even though they have it memorized and they’ve gone over it numerous times in training, they kind of know it’s a good idea to go down this checklist just to make absolutely sure.
So there was very little time for these guys during the mission to think about, “How does this feel? What is this like?” It was more a case of, “Let’s just go through all these different aspects and make sure everything happens.” The major thing the astronauts told me when I was speaking to them was, you know, “I could die. This is a thing, which is a dangerous thing, but that’s okay. That’s what I’ve been doing my entire career.” The worst thing that could happen to them, they related was if they made a mistake and the mission went wrong because of them, not necessarily fatal, but the idea they would come back to Earth and something went wrong because of them.
So in some circumstances, some of them mentioned they would rather have died than has pressed the wrong button and managed to ruin the whole mission. So very much a test pilot’s way of thinking, which is “I’m ready to accept death, but I’m not ready to accept personal failure.”
So they launched into space. They had a very small amount of time around the Earth to make sure the spacecraft was working. Everything looked good before they fired up that Saturn V rocket. That was the last stage, again, and headed out towards the moon. At which point, Michael Collins would take over and do a very interesting maneuver. He’d fly out from the main box body of the rocket in the command module, turn it around and come back to go nose to nose with the lunar module, which is still sitting in the top section of that rocket. He then pull it out and then they would forget about the rest of that rocket, which would just fly off towards the moon and crash on the moon.
So now, they had two spacecraft docked together. So while Neil Armstrong was the overall commander, Mike Collins was essentially taking care of the command module. The other two would go into the lunar module, make sure everything works in there. And, you know, it takes quite a few days to get out to the moon, at which point they would have to slow themselves into lunar orbit using a big rocket engine. The danger, of course, is if that rocket engine didn’t fire, again, properly, they will be stuck in lunar orbit forever. So they were relying, at this point, on these rockets to save their lives.
So after making sure everything looks good, Mike Collins stays behind in the command module. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin get into the lunar module and separate. Now, NASA has been quite conservative. They sent Apollo 10 out to the moon just a few months before that flew low over the landing sites. So everything, apart from the last, you know, a few tens of thousands of feet, has been rehearsed before.
Neil Armstrong is essentially following what other people have done up until this moment. And thank goodness everything that could be rehearsed has been because this is where things become quite perilous. They are off course. There’s probably a tiny little bit of air left in the docking tunnel that just pushes them very slightly off the course they want to be. They have a very set idea of which lunar craters they’re looking for.
And as they’re coming down, the computer starts overloading. It’s a very, very primitive computer, much more primitive than any kind of cell phone, any kind of calculator to be honest. It’s a very, very primitive computer. It starts saying it’s overloading. They’ve got their eyes in the cockpit trying to work out what’s happening with the computer, whether it’s still okay to land or not. By the time they look out the window, all the craters they’ve been expecting to see, they’re not seeing any of them. They’re seeing things they don’t recognize.
Armstrong has decisions to make. Is he’s gonna keep going to the landing in an unknown place? He decides to do that. They keep descending. He’s noticing the spacecraft is automatically taking them towards a big crater, which has big rocky blocks, the size of cars around it. It’s not a good place to land.
And so he starts flying over the surface more like a helicopter, leveling out, trying to find a good place to land, somewhere smooth enough just to put the spacecraft down. He’s not seeing anything initially. He’s not saying anything back to mission control, but they trust him. They’re watching the fuel go down in a low, a minute left of fuel after a three-day mission. They’re getting down to this almost like the empty tank to land on the moon, but they trust him. They know that he’s gonna make the right decision. Armstrong is getting closer to the surface of the moon. Buzz Aldrin is reading out numbers to him.
The fuel is getting to the point now where if they ran out of fuel, they’re probably gonna just drop to the surface. They won’t have enough time to launch another rocket and bring themselves back up. If they do that too high, they’re gonna crash fatally. But Armstrong has finally found an area about twice the size of the spacecraft, not very big area, which looks free of rocks. He begins to bring himself slowly down to that area, at which point, something else happens that nobody thought about it.
The descent engine begins kicking up huge clouds of dust and Armstrong can’t really see the surface. He’s trying to work out whether the dust is moving away from him, or if he’s moving backwards, maybe towards a big rock behind him he can’t see. So he decides to fix his eye on one rock sticking out of the dust, kind of like a rock in a fast-flowing river, and decides, “Okay, that rock is not moving.” Keeps his eyes on that, and with probably seconds to spare of fuel, he manages to make that very first landing on the moon. It’s an incredible piece of piloting, and it took somebody like Armstrong to do that, and it was a lot closer to the wire than a lot of people realize.
Jonathan Movroydis: Francis, could you take us through the historic phone call from the White House Oval Office to the astronauts on the moon?
Francis French: Absolutely. So President Nixon had not been in office very long and was being given a wonderful opportunity on the world stage to be able to represent America in this thing that had never happened before in human history. And there was a lot of conversation about what should happen over many different aspects. The Frank Borman, who had flown Apollo 8 was at this time formally advising him and saying, “You know, we can do different things.” And a lot of preparations are made. There’s even a teleprompt that President Nixon had ready in case the astronauts did not survive, he knew what he was gonna say. He had a speech ready. So they were things ready for if things went right and if things went wrong.
There was a fair amount of discussion about whether the president should do anything while the astronauts were on the surface of the moon. There was an idea that the “Star Spangled Banner” should be played while the astronauts stood at attention looking at the flag. But it was pointed out by Frank Borman and others that that would take a number of minutes of time that should be very valuably used exploring the moon scientifically.
So the idea was reduced to a phone call from the president, from the Oval Office, and it was also suggested that it be kept relatively brief. There was nothing to stop Armstrong and Aldrin from moving around while listening to the phone call. However, both of them decided to stand at attention while listening to the president, which did cut into that time on the surface. However, that made sense because this has never happened before, the president making a phone call to people on the surface of the moon.
It had a very unusual beginning, which the astronauts had never heard before because they were not fully aware that this was gonna happen. Buzz Aldrin said, “We had no idea this phone call was gonna even happen at all.” And so they are listening to Houston giving them advice. And at a certain point, Houston says, “Okay, get ready for a phone call. Houston out.” Now, Houston had never signed off in a program before. So hearing Houston out was the sign that something very strange was gonna happen.
So it was a very good moment. It was the biggest live television audience ever to that time and for a long time afterwards. And so when the president made his phone call, you could see him on the screen from one camera angle inside the White House, while the astronauts, you could see them on the surface, in front of the spacecraft with the flag listening. And once President Nixon had made it a really nice little speech, Neil Armstrong replied even more briefly with appropriate remarks, at which time it was time to get back on with the operational side of the mission. They were only on the surface for a very short time. The later mission spent a lot longer, but in this case, it was just one spacewalk for a few minutes or so, a few hours. And so to have a few minute phone call in there was an appropriate way of doing it.
Jonathan Movroydis: While on that moon surface for a few hours, were there any sort of…you had mentioned the scientific aspect of the mission, was there any discovery during that period?
Francis French: Absolutely. Any time people go somewhere for the very first time and are able to bring back samples is gonna be a groundbreaking moment for science and geology. And while the Soviet Union were still trying to stay in the space race and sending unmanned spacecraft to pick very, very small amounts of dust back, which they did successfully just after the Apollo 11 mission, it was nothing like the number of rocks that the Apollo 11 mission brought back. Not only that, but Armstrong and Aldrin had some very good geology training. And Armstrong, in particular, chose a really nice sample of different kinds of rocks, and sizes, and colors, and different ways they were made. And it was able to get the geologists a really nice sampling in a couple of big boxes of rocks they brought back.
He also took the initiative to run over to one of the craters that they flew over right as they were landing, and then take some pictures of that, and take big panoramic pictures of where they landed to give geologists a great idea of where they were. It was not the most geologically interesting site on the moon. It was essentially chosen because it was the flattest place NASA could find to land. And even then, as I mentioned, it was not the easiest place to land in those last seconds. But it turned out to be, as the first place that people landed on the moon, it was an incredibly important place to bring back things from.
The astronauts also did a number of other experiments. They unfilled the solar wind collector, essentially a big sheet that as particles were coming from the front while they were there, they could capture them, roll it back up, bring it back to Earth for scientists to study.
They left other instruments on the moon to…there’s actually a whole bunch of instruments on the moon left by different missions, some of which worked for years later recording moonquakes, the equivalent of earthquakes on the moon. They could actually tell when other rocket stages crashed on the moon because it would set off the moon almost ringing like a bell. And their instruments are still being used today. There’s a reflector on the moon, which can reflect a laser beam back. And so it didn’t need any power to operate that. And so it still works. And astronomers still regularly send a laser beam back and forth to that reflector, and we can tell the moon is actually moving away a couple of inches every year from the Earth.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you take us through the mission back to Earth? Were there any perils in reentry?
Francis French: So the beginning, just leaving the moon was probably the most potentially perilous because when Saturn V rocket takes off from Earth, there are thousands of engineers within three miles of it. There are hundreds of thousands of people who can be brought very quickly who are experts. When there’s two people sitting on the moon in a spacecraft, they’re the only two people there. And there’s nobody else there to help them. If something goes wrong, it’s possible somebody could get out to try and tinker with the engine, and the other person who’s left inside may be the only one person gets off it.
The launching from the moon was a possible danger in the mission. They therefore created a very, very simple rocket. Essentially, you open a valve, two different kinds of propellers come together and it ignites. So it was the simplest rocket probably in the whole mission and it worked great.
Armstrong and Aldrin got off the moon, the rocket fired as it should have. Mike Collins was able to rendezvous with them. They docked and they went into the other spacecraft. At which point, you’ve got the other possible danger I mentioned earlier, which is the big engine on the back of the command module now has to fire to bring them out of lunar orbit. If that doesn’t work, they’re gonna be stranded in the lunar orbit. By the time another crew could possibly come and rescue them, it’s probably not enough time. So had that not worked, they would probably still be at the moon. Fortunately, that rocket worked fine.
Then you’ve got, essentially a three-day coast back to Earth. The mission objectives have been accomplished. There are lots of other science things they can do on the way, but essentially, it’s a case of navigation. We want to make sure that they’re hitting a tiny little window in the Earth’s atmosphere to be able to come down. And they can adjust their course as they went, but they wanna make sure to save fuel to get it as right as they can towards the beginning.
And the reason they’re doing that is because they wanna come down through the Earth’s atmosphere at a very precise angle. If they come in too steeply, it’s gonna be too hot and the spacecraft will burn up. If they come in too shallowly, almost like throwing a stone on a pond, they’re gonna skip out of the atmosphere, and they’re not gonna really be able to control what happens next. So they’re looking for a tiny little precise re-entry corridor to come through.
Not only that, they’re aiming for a very precise ocean because there’s gonna be an aircraft carrier there to get them. They wanna be able to be brought out of the spacecraft.
And then, in those last few minutes as they’re coming down through the atmosphere, another thing has to work. The parachute has to come out, which is gonna slow them down, and slow them down enough that they can then deploy another set of parachutes. If they brought those second parachutes out first, the wind would basically rip them apart. So they need different sets of parachutes to gradually slow them down for a splash down in the ocean. So a lot of things had to go right. Unfortunately, all of those things did go absolutely perfectly.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you describe the national reaction upon their return?
Francis French: It was an overwhelming global response to Apollo 11. This is something that people had imagined in science fiction for thousands of years. And here it was, people had finally landed on the moon. And not only that, people have been able to watch it live on television and follow it in newspapers, and the radio, and other ways before. It was one of these things that absolutely worked.
As President Kennedy, and Johnson, and Nixon had all hoped, it turned out to be something that the world saw America as a global leader in that moment. And at a time where a lot of countries were choosing whether to ally themselves with the Soviet Union or with America, it was a real boost in national confidence. Probably the nicest thing, which then was reflected in the world tour that the astronauts did right afterwards was that even though people saw it as an American achievement, they also saw it as a global achievement.
America was viewed very kindly even by people who were technically enemies as they’ve done it for all of us, they’ve done it for all of humanity. And in that moment, America was loved universally for that achievement. It was something that even though the idea of landing people on the moon had been around for thousands of years, it was probably only for about less than 100 years that people could even imagine watching it on television. The idea that you could actually see somebody doing this was even more, in some ways, outstanding than the fact that people had landed. So to be able to be along with them, which is something we take for granted today with global media, to actually be able to ride along with the astronauts and see that first step on the moon made it a lot more personal to people.
When President Nixon realized this was going to happen, he turned up for the launch of Apollo 12 to keep part of this. He also was there on the aircraft carrier when the Apollo 11 astronauts splashed down, and was one of the very first to welcome them back to Earth. He was very careful for to use them as global ambassadors, not only in White House parties and invitations and various functions around the U.S., but also then to send them on the world stage and do a huge tour of many, many countries right after the mission. So the president was very careful to make sure that this is something that not only the world knew about, but that he could then provide access to the rest of the world to these astronauts because the whole world wanted to meet them at that point.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is Francis French, author and expert on spaceflight history. Our topic was the profiles of the three Apollo 11 astronauts and the legacy of The Apollo 11 Mission. Francis, thank you so much for joining us.
Francis French: Thank you very much.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org or on your favorite podcast app. This is Jonathan Movroydis in Yorba Linda.