In the 1980s, my wife and I wrote a book about the Apollo program. One of the many backstories we learned was about the ongoing struggle between the Flight Operations people who ran Mission Control and Deke Slayton, who managed the astronauts. Senior staff in Flight Operations were of the opinion that some astronauts were better than others, and wanted flight assignments to be made accordingly. Slayton believed just as strongly in a rotation system. Once assignments to the rotation had been made, he was adamantly opposed to making substitutions—it would be insulting to the crew that was displaced and destroy astronaut morale.
As a compromise, the rotation for the Apollo flights was set up so that command of the first lunar landing was likely to go to Jim McDivitt or Frank Borman, both of whom were especially esteemed by everyone in the Apollo program. But then came the fire that killed the crew of Apollo 1, which took one crew out of the sequence. Then Apollo 8, the first circumnavigation of the moon, was inserted at a new place in the schedule. And so it came to be that Apollo 11 was the mission that got the first lunar landing and that Neil Armstrong, assigned to Apollo 11 years earlier, was the commander.
I once raised this issue with Jerry Bostick, who ran the Flight Dynamics branch during Apollo—the guys in Mission Control who were responsible for getting the spacecraft from point A to point B. Yes, Jerry acknowledged, it was the luck of the draw. But it was a lucky draw for the Apollo program, he thought.
Jerry began to reminisce about Gemini 8, Neil Armstrong’s previous space flight. Armstrong and his copilot, David Scott, had rendezvoused and docked with an Agena rocket as part of the rehearsal for techniques that would have to be used on the lunar mission. The combined vehicles had started to roll, so they undocked. But once it was on its own, the Gemini spacecraft started to roll even faster. Unbeknownst to the crew, one of the Gemini’s thrusters had locked on. The roll increased to one revolution per second.
I had known all this, but hadn’t thought much about it. And if you watch NASA’s version on You Tube, it is all made to sound as if the roll was a brief problem, never rising to the level of a crisis.
Actually, it was a moment that would have reduced me, and some extremely large proportion of the human race, to gibbering helplessness, no matter how well we were trained.
Imagine an amusement park ride that sits you in a pod, and that pod is twirled sideways at one revolution per second (you’ve never actually been on an amusement park ride remotely approaching that level of disorientation, because it would be prohibited). You have a panel in front of you with dozens of dials and small toggle switches, and you are supposed to toggle those switches in a prescribed sequence. While spinning one revolution per second. Pretty hard, trying to focus your eyes on those dials and coordinate your finger movement under those g forces so that you can even touch a switch that you’re aiming for. Now imagine that the sequence is not prescribed, but instead that there are many permutations, and you’re supposed to decide which permutation to do next based on what happened with the last one. Heavy cognitive demand there—long-term memory from training, short-term memory, induction, deduction. While spinning at one revolution per second. And now, to top it all off, if you don’t do it right, REALLY fast, you’re going to lose consciousness and die.
Jerry Bostick mused, “So there’s Neil, calmly toggling these little banana switches, moving through the alternatives, until he figures it out.” He shook his head in wonderment. “I’m not sure that any of our other pilots, and we had some great ones, could have analyzed the situation and solved it as quickly as he did.” I could forget about trying to make anything of Neil not being the first choice for the lunar landing.
Armstrong displayed the same sang froid during Apollo 11, when the Eagle was heading toward a field of boulders and, with a fuel tank within seconds of empty, Armstrong flew the spacecraft to a safe landing spot. And then, back home and after the obligatory ticker-tape parades were completed, he never did anything to cash in on his fame, living out his life quietly, a good man.
In an age of vainglory, preening, and press agents, Neil Armstrong was that rarest of public figures: The man we can tell our children to admire who truly deserves it, for what he did, how he handled it, and who he was.