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Armstrong's Code


    Neil Armstrong
Armstrong in the cockpit of the command module on Apollo 11. (Corbis)

Calling Armstrong taciturn would be an understatement, Aldrin concluded. In his book Men From Earth he said he thought Armstrong had worked his way through his career ''carefully watching everything he did and said.''

Colleagues found all three Apollo 11 crew mates laconic — ''the quietest crew in manned space flight history,'' one said at the time. After they had buckled themselves into their seats before their giant Saturn rocket thundered off its pad at Cape Kennedy, there was 30 minutes of dead silence. Flight director Clifford Charlesworth had earlier speculated about Armstrong's first words from the surface: ''I imagine that he'll call Houston and say: 'We've landed.'''

''Pilots take no special joy in walking,'' Armstrong once told a group of well-wishers at an air show who wanted to hear what it had been like to walk on the moon. ''Pilots like flying.''

For many citizens of Earth, the riveting television moment, and the focus of headlines the next morning, was that first step. But for Neil Armstrong, the moment of exhilaration and relief had come almost seven hours earlier, when he piloted his craft to a safe landing. That ''was a real high in terms of elation,'' he said later. ''It marked the achievement that a third of a million people had been working for a decade to accomplish.''

Landing was the hard part. As they went into their descent over the lunar surface, Armstrong and Aldrin knew that if they wanted to live, they had to keep their ship — the Eagle — in good enough condition that it could take off again and rendezvous with Collins and the command module Columbia, orbiting some 60 miles above them.

They stood inside the Eagle's closet-size cabin, legs braced slightly apart, sealed inside pressure suits, looking out triangular windows as they felt the onset of lunar gravity after four days of weightlessness. At 33,000 feet above the surface, lights started flashing, alarms going off unexpectedly. Ground controllers soon reported to the tense astronauts that this was a cry for help from their onboard computer, which was trying to handle too much data and falling behind. At that point, ''I felt that first hot edge of panic,'' Aldrin wrote later.

At 5,000 feet, Armstrong took partial manual control of the gangly, buglike lander, as planned. But — unbeknown to ground controllers — as he looked out the window he noticed that the automated targeting system was carrying the craft toward a crater strewn with boulders the size of cars. Time seemed to speed up. Now he was manipulating a hand-control stick and flicking a toggle switch, trying to fly clear of the danger zone while searching for a clean landing spot. All of this consumed extra fuel and he was running low. Moreover, the lander's thrusters were kicking up ''a transparent sheet of moving dust,'' he said later. ''It was a little bit like landing an airplane when there's a real thin layer of ground fog, and you can see things through the fog. However, all this fog was moving at a great rate, which was a little bit confusing.''

He felt the craft rocking, skidding through space as its thrusters adjusted its position. (Later he would tell NASA debriefers, ''I don't think I did a very good job of flying the vehicle smoothly in that period of time. I felt I was a little bit erratic.' But the analysts, going over his every move second by second, would report that his maneuvers were ''well within the design control regime despite his apology.'')

As Armstrong concentrated on the job of landing in moon fog, Aldrin called out numbers from the radar: ''Four hundred feet [altitude], down at nine [feet per second] . . . Two hundred feet, 4 ½ down . . . Forty feet, down 2½, kicking up some dust.'' At this point Houston radioed them they had 50 seconds of fuel left. Armstrong balanced his unwieldy craft on a cone of fire from his descent engine, sidling sideways over the thinning field of boulders. After an agonizing wait, Aldrin uttered the words: ''Contact light.''

    Armstrong/Aldrin
Armstrong and fellow Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin E. ''Buzz'' Aldrin plant the U.S. flag on the lunar surface, July 20, 1969. (AP)
At touchdown, NASA measured Armstrong's pulse at 150 beats per minute. You can hear the emotion in the recording of the Apollo commander's words of confirmation: ''Houston, uh . . .''

Here he paused, staring out through his visor at the deceptively benign-looking moonscape. The quaver in his voice was still discernible when he continued, identifying the landing spot in a way that he believed would evoke the tradition of human explorers over the centuries:

''Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.''

This was 4:17:42 p.m. EDT.


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