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.