For most of his day-long solo orbit, Collins was completely cut off from humankind.
Collins is sometimes called the loneliest man in history, but he notes the great view and hot coffee that made his orbit enjoyable. But there were some team members who suffered loneliness and isolation during Apollo 11 — though not in space. On Earth.
Specifically, documents in NASA’s basement archives in Washington show, loneliness abounded on British-controlled Ascension Island, a rock halfway between Africa and South America, where NASA support staff tracked and communicated with the Apollo astronauts.
A common misconception is that NASA was operating only in Houston and Cape Canaveral. But were it not for a charm bracelet of 16 giant antennas dotting the globe, some on repurposed warships parked in the high seas, most of the Apollo 11 path would have been out of communication reach. Ascension Island was part of NASA’s largely invisible tracking network that was staffed by what Aldrin later called the mission’s “unsung heroes.” Others called them “range rats.”
The Earth’s rotation and curvature meant that launching, controlling and landing via radio communications needed to be relayed from multiple places around the world. By the 1990s, most of the scattered array of ground stations had been replaced by satellites.
But in 1969, NASA couldn’t track anything without a team on the ground in the remote South Atlantic Ocean.
“Ascension Island is known for being NASA’s most remote tracking site. But I couldn’t tell you much else!” said NASA chief historian Bill Barry, with a chuckle.
Historians have largely forgotten the site’s key role in the moon landing, the critical relationship with NASA’s British hosts, and the odd, isolating conditions NASA technicians endured there. This station was the first to receive the world’s most famous radio transmission — “The Eagle has landed.”
The official NASA headquarters reference file for this outpost is just one flimsy manila folder, containing no more than 50 pages. Inside, there are unclassified diplomatic cables, typewriter carbon copies and recently recorded oral histories about the site.
These new statements, and those found in the NASA headquarters basement, describe life working at Ascension as very similar to a military deployment. There were 16-hour work days, no TV, and Ascension was the only site where employees couldn’t bring their families. It was that remote.
“I missed a lot of birthdays and anniversaries,” said Ken Griffin, who now works at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia and served as manager of the Ascension Station in the late 1980s, when it was supporting NASA’s space shuttle missions.
During the Apollo years, NASA’s staff size there varied from 50 to 100. They slept in military barracks and ate at the mess hall in a small operating U.S. Air Force base that was a remnant from World War II. Movies were flown in once a week on a cargo plane from Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. NASA staff and contractors made friends with the Royal Air Force and BBC operators, who shared the island with the Americans. But the population rarely passed 2,000.
Ascension site employees kept a pet donkey just outside the operations building. “J.J.” was an old female, part of the long line of donkeys left on the island by Portuguese sailors two centuries earlier.
“She was there at the tracking station to greet us every morning,” Harry Turner wrote in 2003 for the Ascension Island Heritage Society about NASA’s donkey mascot. “We were in the middle of the Apollo 11 mission and we lost all hydraulics to our antenna, resulting that within a short time we would lose the signal from the spacecraft. We ran out to the antenna and found that J.J. had backed her butt into the emergency stop switch.”
The Apollo 11 astronauts came back to Earth safely a few days later. NASA’s pet donkey went missing and was found dead in the septic tank soon after. The island was and still is a harsh place.
Ascension had only five roads; NASA built a sixth in 1965, a long-winding route toward an extinct volcano called Devil’s Ashpit on the far side of the island.
Today, Old NASA Road is still there, but it’s cracked and potholed. NASA officially closed the tracking facility in 1989. At the Ashpit site, there is still a spectacular, unobstructed view of the South Atlantic Ocean, with loitering clouds that hang above, just shy of the island’s single mountain peak. Wild donkeys still wander about with tattered coats. Perpetual ocean trade winds blow through an open door of an abandoned one-story building. It takes a strong imagination to envision the multimillion-dollar facility built by the Defense Department, with its 100-foot-tall radio tower, power plant and numerous instruments.
Gone is the pale-green carpet from the tracking station floor, packed with consoles and computers that ran on less memory than it takes to send a low-resolution photo over email. Gone is the 30-foot-high Apollo antenna, with its ability to pivot to almost any direction, with an operator guiding it using an enormous, arcade-style trackball. The trackball was literally a bowling ball.
“The equipment seems rather crude” in hindsight, Turner said.
But Turner and the rest of Apollo 11′s range rats on Ascension using that bowling ball heard Armstrong’s words seconds before Houston.
In this way, the range rats of Ascension Island were much like Collins, their NASA colleague and astronaut. They were part of history. Isolated by their roles — Collins in orbit and the range rats on a remote island — and they didn’t even have TV to watch Armstrong’s famous step.
Collins did watch something equally spectacular. “Outside my window I could see stars — and that was all. Where I know the moon to be, there is simply a black void; the moon’s presence is defined solely by the absence of stars,” Collins wrote in his memoir, “Carrying the Fire.”
And the range rats saw something spectacular, too. “NASA hosted a massive party on the beach,” recalls South Atlantic islander Stedon Stroud.
He kept the coffee urns full throughout the Apollo 11 flight and he wouldn’t see the moon landing footage until years later. “I remember the Americans had Miller High Life flown to the island for this one party. Jack Daniels and Jim Bean. All the booze you could drink. A lot of sore heads and an excellent sunset."