Most of us know three or even four astounding facts about Apollo 11. And yet these do not exhaust the subject. There are over twelve different things about this legendary space mission. Let’s review some of them.
Did you know, for example, that Apollo 11 had the first automatic dishwashing machine brought into lunar orbit? The Westinghouse corporation was proud to make the cramped Command Module at least as livable as an efficiency apartment is. Unfortunately the system failed shortly before the first midcourse correction burn. This was after breakfast but before full testing. Still, we owe the development of dishwashing gel packs to NASA’s need not to have powder floating all over the cabin. Thanks, Moon landing!
Many of us think of the poignancy of Michael Collins, remaining alone in lunar orbit while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the surface. But do you ever consider poor Ronald Evans, who had to remain in earth orbit on the S-II stage while the rest of the crew went on to lunar orbit? Do you remember Ken Mattingly, who had to stay behind on the launch pad while everyone else from the mission went on to earth orbit? And that just because he wasn’t willing to split the tolls. And then there’s poor William Pogue, who had to stay behind in the room where they put all their spacesuits on, because he misunderstood the question. He felt awful about that for years. He can’t even remember what he thought they were asking at the time. “What could it have been, besides `do you want to come to the moon with us?’ he said, in the 1974 debriefing. `Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid’.” Well, live and learn.
The date for the landing was not settled until late in mission planning. The later the landing, after all, the more chance to train, although the less time to launch another mission in case something went wrong. All they knew was it had to launch before the 31st of December, 1969. And for that there was a heated debate about whether that meant Washington, DC, time or Houston time. “What if we need that extra hour,” was the point of contention. Anyway the date was set in May of 1969 when someone pointed out they had already inscribed on the plaque that men first set foot on the moon in July 1969. Sometimes it’s the littlest things that settle the hardest questions.
Do you know what held the crew and some people exposed to lunar dust for three weeks after the end of the flight? It was the Mobile Quarantine Facility. And it’s still out there. It’s still roving, too, and no one can stop it. If you encounter it, know that you are not in specific peril. But you aren’t going to have any in-person encounters for 21 days except for whoever else it’s caught. The facility got Wi-Fi in 2004, but it’s not good enough to stream HD video.
Not a single one of the crew returned from space transmogrified in any way. Granted, nobody seriously expected major changes. Like, someone coming back as a cool gelatinous blob. Something. There could be some cool field of strange energy. They could pass through and grow these cool retractable antennas. Maybe eyes some weird, brand-new color like neopurple or techneteal. I know what you’re thinking and no. We know they weren’t a weird color only while they were in space and we were watching in black-and-white. They were checking.
Also a disappointment: while, again, nobody was seriously expecting it? A lot of people hoped the astronauts would make contact with some incredible species of, they don’t know, magic otter aliens. Beings with technology and concepts of space nudity as much as five centuries ahead of anything known to Earth science and pants. No good, though. Despite the breakthroughs of the early 70s we still just have taking off clothes.
It’s true that the Lunar Module touched down with less than a minute of fuel remaining. They avoided this problem on following missions by launching them a minute later. “I don’t know why we didn’t think of that sooner,” said Buzz Aldrin in the 1989 debriefing. “But, hindsight, you know?”
While Apollo 11 was seen as quite the big deal at the time, the opinion of space historians has changed. While it’s still seen as important, that’s less for what it was by itself. Most in-the-know now see Apollo 11’s real legacy being its service as full dress rehearsal for the legendary Apollo 12 mission. So we’ll come back in November and do this again.