Saturday, July 18, 2009

Where were you when we landed on the moon?

And how many blog posts/Web essays/printed articles will be showing up over the next few days that ask that question? Zillions, I tell ya, zillions.

On July 20, 1969, I was in the MOCR, the Missions Operations Control Room, at MSC, the Manned Spacecraft Center, in Houston. (Later renamed the Johnson Space Center.)

Mind you, this wasn’t the MOCR that was controlling the Apollo 11 mission. This was the other MOCR. I always seem to be in the other place. Because of the time required to prepare the control center for a mission and to clean and fix it up afterwards, there were two control centers, and they alternated. So strictly speaking, I wasn’t really in the MOCR at all, if you want to be picky. Similarly, not every NASA employee worked on every mission. So some of us were working on Apollo 11 but a lot of us, including me, were working on later missions and weren’t required to be in the (real) MOCR or on call during 11.

Everything was turned off in the backup control center, but lots of us were allowed to cram into it and the conversation between Houston and the astronauts was piped in over the speakers, so that we could feel part of the live excitement.

My job focused on the the rendezvous phase, after the Lunar Module lifted off from the moon and was heading toward rendezvous with the orbiting CSM, so I didn’t know what the terse phrases I was listening to meant. I think it was mostly the astronauts reading off speed along various axes and remaining fuel. I don’t think most of the other people in the room knew, either. We all had our specialties. Dividing those enormously complex missions into numerous small phases and having each team focus just on its tiny aspect of the huge whole was one of the main secrets of NASA’s success.

At the end, after some technical jargon having to do with the LM engine, Neil Armstrong said, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” A lot of people in the room started cheering and clapping wildly. Some of us – including me – didn’t get it at first. I had expected him to say something like, “LEM on the surface.” (A lot of us still referred to the Lunar Module as the LEM, from the earlier name, the Lunar Excursion Module.) Or, in the worst case, no sound from the astronauts at all, ever. Or just possibly, “Oh, shit.”

And then we all left the room and went back to work.

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot more about moon-landing deniers. I thought those had mostly faded away long ago, but apparently something like 14% of the US population either think the whole thing was a hoax or aren’t sure. Well, idiocy will always be with us. I have to say that if the landings were a hoax, I wish I had known that at the time. I was in my twenties with a wife and child at home whom I yearned to be spending all my time with, and if my work was pointless anyway, I’d have spent far fewer extra hours at the office.


Lahdeedah said...

Not born for the moon landing. Do remember the moment, the time, the place, of the Challenger explosion. Things you NEVER forget!

TGirsch said...

I was about 18 months away from being a twinkle in my Dad's eye. Sorry! :)

David said...

Golly, you people are so young!

TGirsch said...

Go ahead and look at it that way if you must. :)

David said...

The alternative just won't do.

Chris said...

Hell of a story, David. Or whatever your REAL name is, you lunar-landing faker you.

You know what strikes me most about the conspiracy folks on this one? Usually, conspiracies are full of wonder. This one is so cynical and devoid of wonder, it's downright sad. Apollo 11 was one heck of an accomplishment, and one that all humankind could share in. Why would one opt out of that?

David said...

I'd never thought about that, but you're absolutely right, Chris.

I guess what it does have in common with, say, the belief that aliens built the pyramids is the inability to believe that human beings can accomplish such wonderful things. But in this case, the conspiracy types are rejecting wonder itself.

Anonymous said...

Very cool reminiscence, David. In response to Chris, I understand your point, but I don't think that all moon-landing-conspiracy-types come by their beliefs because of deficiency in optimism or belief in human potential. One of my closest friends is unashamedly a "conspiracy type" and we've talked about the moon landing on a number of occasions. I've made all the stock arguments about why it is ridiculous to believe that the moon landing was faked, but he doggedly sticks to his position. I don't think that he's rejecting wonder; I think he feels that a world where the government perpetrates a widescale hoax is more amazing than a world where engineering and imagination put a man on the moon. I think that there must be folks who are "rejecting wonder", and it's interesting to consider their motivation, but I think there are also people that just find Occam's razor depressing and like to believe that all sorts of things are shrouded in mystery. Personally, I don't doubt that human beings constructed the pyramids, but I think the universe would be a more interesting place if I learned that I was wrong, and aliens were responsible...