“Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.”
“Roger Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch a guys about to turn blue. We’re breathin’ again. Thanks a lot.”
As long as the Hut is running American history week, it’s well worth noting that today is the 42nd anniversary of Apollo 11’s splashdown, bringing home with it the first men to walk on the moon. Stop and think hard about that one. Atop a bazillion gallons of rocket fuel, we sent a crumpled can to the moon; two guys got out, walked around the surface, then got back in and came home.
The men selected for these missions were among the top specimens America had to offer. Drawn from the pool of military test pilots – those brave and risk-seeking enough to fly aircraft nobody had flown before – they were too young for World War II, although some had seen action in Korea.
Sometimes arrogant and petulant, always confident and ready for the challenge, they had deep respect for each other and for their Russian cosmonaut counterparts; but they were fiercely competitive at the same time. Were disaster to befall any of them (and it did), without a doubt the rest would be racing back from the funeral to get in line for the next flight. Even in one of the most exclusive groups in history, no one wanted to be second place.
“The first man to walk on the moon walked into this room today.”
“FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION”
The alphatude necessary to go to the moon doesn’t stop with the guys in the capsule. The flight controllers running the mission from the ground had their own needs for serious leadership and gravitas.
The guys with the pocket protectors and slide rules weren’t just geeks off the street; they were exhaustively trained technical officers whose job it was to act as emergency responders for any – any – issue that might come up during a flight, guiding the mission through its flight plan and its contingencies.
If a controller patched into the flight director loop, his words and tone of voice had to reflect his absolute confidence that he knew what he was talking about – whether it was rocket burn data, a go/no-go on a critical mission step, medical information or whatever, it was his job to be the expert, and he better act the part. The best of them were dubbed “steely-eyed missile men.”
And when Gene Kranz, Chris Kraft or any of the other flight directors responded, everyone listening had to hear that he was in complete control of his staff and his flight, rapidly assimilating often-conflicting reports against the mission rules and making a sound, well-informed, quick decision that more often than not had better turn out to be right.
When the capsule communicator (CAPCOM, the only person who actually spoke to the spacecraft and always staffed by an astronaut) spoke to the crew through the ether, they had to hear in his voice the absolute certitude of the entire flight control enterprise.
The technology of the Apollo program is famous and continues to be studied and applied; we would not have gone to the moon without the Saturn V rocket and the Apollo guidance computer. But we also would not have been able to go without the tremendous interpersonal achievements of the astronaut, controller and engineering teams, strong, courageous personalities on the ground and in the air. (While we’re at it let’s not forget the domestic teams, the astronaut wives.)
If you don’t have time for all these videos, just watch this one which half the time describes my reaction to the whole thing: