87 Steps to the Moon

By Scott Spangler on July 19th, 2019

Journey to Mission Control Enriches Memories of Apollo 11

JSC-53A half century ago, I was one of the millions worldwide who watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bounce and bound across the surface of the moon. But I didn’t fully appreciate their accomplishment until July 10, 2019, 10 days after NASA and the National Park Service dedicated Apollo Mission Control, refurbished to its 1969 lunar landing configuration, as a National Historic Landmark, and 10 days before the 50th anniversary of the fulfillment of the team’s goal.

This journey back to 1969 started at Space Center Houston, the civilian portal to the Johnson Space Center campus. More than a hundred of us climbed into the open-air tram for the flight through Houston’s humid heat to Building 30N, the Christopher C. Kraft, Jr. Mission Control Center . On the way, our guide, Jerry, pointed out the home for the Orion program and the Astronaut Training Center, available for tours with separate tram rides.

JSC-36Closely clustered in 30N’s lobby, Jerry itemized a rather lengthy list of rules, and mentioned more than once, that we would need to climb 87 stairs to the restored mission control. There’s an elevator, he said, but it, too, is original, with room for six 1960-sized humans, “and it is slow.” Cell phones didn’t exist then, either, he said, so turn them off or silence them now. And keep them in your pockets or bags, he said, reemphasizing his repeated warning that we could take no photos or make any video or audio recordings until the presentation was over.

And we should not lean on the counters in the viewing area and, please, to move to the end of the row to theater-like seats in the observation area. It, too, is in its 1969 configuration, right down to the small ashtrays on the back of every other seat. Most of the visitors had no idea what they were for, and many opened the lid and probed the recess with their skinniest finger. Apparently, the restoration was not total because no one I saw found a 50-year-old cigarette butt. Finally, we must be quiet as we climbed those 87 stairs because they passed an active second-floor mission control room, and we must not disturb them.

JSC-48The presentation played on the two 19-inch CRT TVs mounted at the intersection of the ceiling, outside walls, and full-width window that separated the spectator seating from mission control proper. There were color TVs, and I wonder if the originals were black and white sets. The narrator was Gene Krantz, the flight director who told the Apollo 13 mission control team that “failure is not an option.” And on this journey, I learned that he was the flight director for the Eagle’s lunar descent leg.

Ghosts who lived on the other side of the glass did most of the presentation’s talking through original audio recordings. Krantz introduced every phase of the flight, each one illustrated by different images on the big screens that spanned the front wall of mission control. On the rows of consoles that faced them, indicator lights danced and twinkled like some holiday celebration and smaller screens displayed another array of data unreadable from our seats.

The presentation was a déjà vu situation for me; not from a half-century ago (for the commercial TV networks never broadcast the “boring” mission control environment), but from the night before, when I watched the Apollo 11 documentary produced by CNN Films. This opportunity was serendipity. Visiting family who live in Houston, they were showing my wife and me how they cut their cable TV coax with online apps, and Apollo 11 led the list of new content on YouTube TV. (The content was so similar, I wonder if they edited the film into the shorter presentation, and added Gene Krantz.)

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If you haven’t yet seen this film, don’t miss it. It reveals previously unknown (at least to me) aspects and insights to the mission that for too many of us is summarized by the lackluster video of Armstrong taking his first step off the LM. Buzz Aldrin gives us a crisper, better view of this step from his perch in the Eagle. This and other footage, not seen since it was shot a few days short of a half-century ago, separates this film from all the rest. And this, too, was serendipity, when the filmmakers found 160 reels of large format 70-mm film and more than 11,000 hours of uncatalogued original audio in the National Archives.

And then the filmmakers digitally scanned and enhanced this large format film to 4K, 8K, and 12K resolutions. At this level of detail, when you stare into the unblinking eyes and set faces of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins as they suit up, you can viscerally feel their focused apprehensive anxiety. They know that this could likely be a one-way trip. You can see it in each of their faces. In a 2013 TV interview, replayed during this week’s Apollo mania, Buzz Aldrin said they gave themselves a 60 percent chance for success.

JSC-49The trio presented much happier faces from their Airstream isolation on the USS Hornet (CV-12) which plucked them out of the Pacific. Some years ago, I saw an interesting display of this recovery, and that of Apollo 12, in the hangar bay of the Hornet, now a museum floating in San Francisco Bay. At the now-closed NAS Alameda, you’ll find it moored at the same pier where its predecessor, the USS Hornet (CV-8) loaded the Tokyo-raiding B-25s. It seems a safe bet that the faces of those 80 men might have mirrored those of the Apollo 11 crew.

One of history’s many and ongoing rewards is how it transcends time, connecting past and present, as those who pursue it reveal new information that gives it new life and deeper meaning and context—and fuller appreciation. A half-century ago, my impression of our inaugural arrival on the moon focused on three men. Now, it encompasses the hundreds of humans who climbed those same 87 steps every day to make that arrival possible. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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One Response to “87 Steps to the Moon”

  1. Joe Sesto Says:

    Many years ago I read that the error codes that flashed just before the landing were due to Buzz Aldrin’s asking the computer for some additional data. The crew was never told that the computer could not multi-task. It was not Aldrin’s mistake. Was that discussed in any of the NASA presentations? Coincidentally,
    C-172 N8150L landed at Lompoc (CA) Airport with its pilot (me) having successfully completed his Private ASEL check ride. Becuz of these guys it did not make the Lompoc paper.

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