When'one small step changed history books

July 10, 1994|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Sun Staff Writer

Twenty-five years ago next week men walked on the moon.

Then all hell broke loose.

Duke Ellington composed "Moon Maiden." Brazilians and Poles hunted for Americans, eager to shake their hands. The Pottawatomie Indians of Kansas staged a victory dance. Laplanders composed folk poems. So did Baltimore Comptroller Hyman A. Pressman. "Our astronauts have won the race/With Russia out in outer space," he wrote.

Fan letters and accolades flooded NASA -- including an offer of honorary memberships in the Camel Drivers Club of Kabul, Afghanistan. Even President Nixon, who later called Watergate a "third-rate burglary," was in no mood for understatement.

"This is the greatest week in the history of the world since creation," he said.

What was all the excitement about?

It was about trinkets and three-stage rockets, Newtonian physics and geopolitics, spaceship housekeeping and heroics. It was exhilarating and tedious and terror-filled and hard to grasp, sometimes all at once: It was history.

The journey began before dawn July 16, 1969. The suited astronauts -- Edwin E. "Buzz"Aldrin, Neil A. Armstrong and Michael Collins -- walked out of their training compound into the muggy Florida morning, lugging portable oxygen tanks. Television lights blazed. Colonel Collins, in his book "Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys," said he waved to the cheering crowd, but heard nothing but the squish of his yellow galoshes and the hiss of escaping oxygen.

At the launch pad, the astronauts squeezed inside their 13-foot-wide Apollo command module perched on top of the 36-story, 6.4-million-pound Saturn V rocket.

All had the cool reserve of veteran military pilots.

But they knew their lives, the success of the $25 billion Apollo program (in 1969 dollars) and the nation's honor were at stake. Colonel Collins was so nervous that in the weeks before the mission he developed tics in his eyelids, which didn't go away until after liftoff.

At 9:32 a.m. the huge engines ignited, tossing the explorers left and right against their straps as they accelerated toward space. In the middle of Apollo 11's second Earth orbit, ground controllers fired Saturn's third stage, slinging the craft toward the moon at 24,200 mph.

En route, the astronauts entered and inspected the lunar lander, delicately corrected their course, staged live TV broadcasts, drank coffee in plastic pouches and ate packaged chicken soup, salmon salad and peanut cubes. They listened to tape recordings of popular songs with lunar themes, including

"Everyone's Gone to the Moon."

Each astronaut carried a personal preference kit stuffed with scrawled prayers, poems, medallions, coins, envelopes, brooches, tie pins, insignia, cuff links, rings and other knickknacks. Colonel Collins also carried a diaper pin and a hollow bean containing 50 tiny ivory elephants.

Saturday, July 19, the moon loomed outside Apollo 11's windows. The craft fired its rockets, slowing down and easing into an orbit that, at its closest point, skimmed just 60 miles above the surface.

The next day, Mr. Armstrong and Colonel Aldrin crawled into the lunar lander, named Eagle, then separated from the cone-shaped command module, called Columbia.

They soared in the airless silence overpale mountains and ridges they had earlier nicknamed "Boot Hill","Duke Island" "Diamondback" and "Sidewinder".As Mr. Armstrong steered the spidery craft clear of a football-field-size crater strewn with boulders, his heart rate jumped from 77 beats per minute to 156.

Eagle's four bowl-shaped footpads bumped onto the Moon's Sea of Tranquility with about the force of an airliner landing on a runway.

"Houston, Tranquility Base here," Mr. Armstrong said.

"The Eagle has landed."

During their stay, the two moon-walkers quietly celebrated Communion with consecrated bread smuggled aboard by Colonel Aldrin, an elder of his Presbyterian church in Houston. On Earth, Colonel Aldrin's church celebrated with part of the same loaf.

Early plans called for Colonel Aldrin to be the first on the moon. But Mr. Armstrong, weeks before, had "exercised his commander's prerogative to crawl out first," Colonel Collins asserted in his book.

About 6 1/2 hours after touching down, Mr. Armstrong opened the hatch, stepped cautiously down a short ladder and became the first person to tread on alien dust.

"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," he said to millions of fascinated earthlings. (Apparently, he goofed. He later said he meant to declare: "That's one small step for a man . . .")

His first task was to pick up rocks and put them in a bulky pocket on his left leg. Fifteen minutes later, Colonel Aldrin climbed down the rungs.

For the next 2 1/2 hours, Earth watched on TV as the astronauts hopped around like stiff-legged bunnies. They planted and saluted a nylon American flag, took photographs, gathered rock samples, set up scientific experiments and chatted with

President Nixon.

Returning to the Eagle before 1 a.m. EDT Monday, they took a snooze. So did tens of millions of Americans, grateful that Monday had been declared a national holiday. Monday afternoon, after 21 1/2 hours on the moon, Eagle blasted off and docked with Columbia. Then the lander was jettisoned.

Tucking 48.5 pounds of precious lunar rocks in Columbia's hold, the astronauts returned to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific. On board the USS Hornet, they were sealed inside an aluminum trailer, due to unfounded fears they might have picked up interplanetary germs. They emerged from quarantine in Houston days later, and were the toast of the planet.

Six-year-old Michael L. Collins was asked what he thought of his dad going down in history. "Fine," he said. "What is history, anyway?"

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