The moon was just 75 feet away — not close enough to touch, but near enough to kill them.
The Eagle was flying over a particularly nasty stretch of the Sea of Tranquility, an area pockmarked with craters and covered in rocks. They’d missed their landing zone by four miles, and couldn’t find another place to park.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin needed a flat surface if they were going to have any chance of launching themselves back into orbit and rendezvousing with Michael Collins for Apollo 11’s return flight home. But, for the moment, they didn’t see a clearing on the rugged lunar surface.
Problem was, they had less than one minute of fuel left. And at that altitude, they wouldn’t have time to abort. If the descent engine quit, they would simply crash.
More than 230,000 miles away in Houston, Mission Control nervously asked South Carolina astronaut Charlie Duke — the only man authorized to communicate with The Eagle at that moment — to remind Armstrong and Aldrin there weren’t any gas stations on the moon.
“Thirty seconds,” Duke diplomatically radioed to the crew.
Although you couldn’t tell it by the reserved communication between these former test pilots, those 30 seconds were all that stood between history and disaster.
Saturday will mark 50 years since the July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 moon landing. With that mission, the United States met President Kennedy’s goal to put a man on the moon before the decade’s end with five months to spare.
The anniversary of Apollo 11 is a perfect moment to marvel at the truly great things this country is capable of doing.
That year was not the best in U.S. history — the Vietnam War divided the nation and, five years after passage of the Civil Rights Act, not nearly enough had changed for some people. The country clearly did not do everything right.
But for a brief moment, everyone in America could at least feel a little pride in one of the most monumental achievements of the 20th century. Now, we all live in a world where man has walked on the moon.
Some people still argue the astronomical amount of money spent on spaceflight and exploration could be used for more important purposes, and it’s a fair point. We could lift millions of out of poverty, feed the world, perhaps even wipe out homelessness.
But we also used to value science, learn from exploration, treasure knowledge. There was a time when people had heroes who achieved greater things than yelling at one another on cable news. And the discoveries NASA has made in space have led to improvements to life on Earth.
We should aspire to such heights again.
Three decades of journalism has afforded me the opportunity to talk with presidents, movie stars, famous athletes — and, yes, even county councilmen. But when I want to brag, I mention that I once met Neil Armstrong, and have interviewed Buzz Aldrin and Charlie Duke (who would become the 10th man to walk on the moon). It’s no coincidence those are the three men in the above anecdote.
Those guys are inspiring, and we need heroes like that again — people who take “one giant step for mankind.” They don’t particularly have to go to other planets, perhaps they could just save this one.
“The whole Apollo program was designed to get two Americans to the lunar surface and back again to Earth safely,” Michael Collins once said. “The enormity of this event is something that only history will be able to judge.”
History has deemed the Apollo program even more important in hindsight, a reminder of what we can do when not consumed by the petty fighting and lack of action that passes for governing today. We can do great things when we try.
As Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins — as well as the hundreds of thousands of people who got them there — did that day.
A few seconds after Duke’s reminder, Armstrong and Aldrin spotted a break in the rocks and craters. Balancing the Eagle on a single exhaust engine, they touched down safely … with 16 seconds of fuel to spare.
There may have been a hint of relief in the stoic Armstrong’s voice when he confirmed the news to a waiting world.
“Houston, this is Tranquility base. The Eagle has landed.”
Half a century later, it still gives chills.
Reach Brian Hicks at email@example.com.