Highway to the Moon

It appeared to be from another world. Certainly not a vehicle a sane person would ride in. It was covered in gold aluminum foil, and with its bristling antennas and four spidery legs, it looked like something out of a Japanese monster movie.

In fact, it was the first true spacecraft. It was Apollo’s lunar module, and it could operate only in space. Returning through Earth’s atmosphere, it would burn to a cinder.

Five days after Apollo 9 slipped into Earth orbit, commander Jim McDivitt and crew members Dave Scott and Rusty Schweickart opened hatches in the docking tunnel that linked the Apollo to the LM. McDivitt and Schweickart drifted through the tunnel and sealed themselves off from Dave Scott in the command module. Scott’s job was to keep Apollo 9’s systems purring and wait for the LM flyers to return.

McDivitt and Schweickart ran down the lunar module’s checklists, made sure every system was ready, and then undocked the ugly vessel, becoming the first to fly a craft designed to fly only in the vacuum of space. The astronauts had to fly the LM back to the Apollo command ship if they wanted a ride home.

Now, with two individual craft in space, NASA had to chuck one of its useless rules—naming spaceships. Flight controllers needed names for transmission clarity. The Apollo 9 crew decided to call the LM what it looked like, Spider, and the cone-shaped command module Gumdrop. The kids liked that one.

First on Spider’s flight plan was the testing of its rocket thrusters, and they fired and spat out the amount of thrust asked for, and McDivitt and Schweickart knew they had a winner. They then set Spider’s maneuvering rockets for a distance burn. The thrusters burned for the time needed to take them to a point 113 miles away from Scott and the command ship.

There, they were truly alone, ready for the highlight of the lunar module’s test—the “break apart” of Spider’s two stages. The bottom part of the lunar module was the descent stage. It would be used to lower astronauts onto the moon’s surface. Then, when the astronauts were ready to leave, the top part, the ascent stage, would be ignited to return its crew to a rendezvous with the command ship in lunar orbit.

McDivitt and Schweickart triggered the ascent engine, leaving the descent stage with Spider’s landing legs behind, and they executed the series of maneuvers needed to make the trip from the lunar surface to the orbiting Apollo command ship. Spiderproved to be a good little ship. It flew with precision and nudged itself up to astronaut Dave Scott and his command ship. “You’re the biggest, friendliest, funniest-looking spider I’ve ever seen,” he told the two astronauts docking for their ride home.

March turned into April, and April turned into May, and Charlie Brown and Snoopy, the lunar ships of Apollo 10, eased into the unfiltered sunlight piercing the moon’s black sky. They were circling the lunar surface to perfect navigating to and from future landing sites. The Sea of Tranquility, so named by ancient astronomers who thought it to be a smooth body of water, was the main target.

John Young was the pilot of the big command module Charlie Brown. And when commander Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan drifted away in the lunar module Snoopy for its vital test, Young was all too aware that his ship was the only ticket home his two friends had. Make a mistake, and he’d be returning home alone.

Young triggered a burst from Charlie Brown’s maneuvering rockets and pulled away. Inside Snoopy, Stafford and Cernan saw the command ship leaving, and they held tight for a moment, watching it shrink into the distance.

“Have a good time while we’re gone, babe,” Cernan radioed a good-bye to Young.

Stafford keyed his mike. “Don’t get lonesome out there, John.”

Cernan added, “Don’t accept any TEI updates.”

TEI stood for Trans Earth Insertion, the computer commands Young would need to blast out of lunar orbit and head home.

The command module pilot laughed. “Don’t you worry, Charlie Brown wouldn’t think of leaving without you.”

The banter was fighter-pilot stuff.

The two ships kept drifting apart over the craters and lunar mountains, and then, an hour later, on the backside of the moon, it was time to fire the descent engine that would send Snoopy on its rocket-control approach to the lunar landscape. The moon was blocking radio contact and Mission Control was going through another bout of nail-biting as the astronauts were moving through critical moves out of touch. But not for long. Suddenly, we heard the excited voice of John Young from Charlie Brown. “They are down there,” he told flight controllers. “They are among the rocks, rambling through the boulders.”

My co-anchor, Russ Ward, and I were on the air, live from the NBC Broadcast Studio atop the Nassau Bay Hotel across the street from Mission Control. We were feeding every word from lunar orbit to our anxious listeners. We had flown to Houston minutes after Apollo 10 blasted onto its Trans Lunar Insertion flight course to the moon, and when the astronauts spoke we would shut up. Snoopy came around the moon and an excited Tom Stafford said, “There are enough boulders around here to fill up Galveston Bay. It’s a fascinating sight. Okay, we’re coming up over the landing site. There are plenty of holes there. The surface is actually very smooth, like a very wet clay—with the exception of the big craters.”

Gene Cernan hopped in with unrestrained excitement. “We’re right there! We’re right over it!” he shouted as Snoopy raced moonward to within its planned nine miles above the Sea of Tranquility. “I’m telling you, we are low, we are close, babe!”

Stafford’s voice followed, equally excited. “All you have to do is put your tail wheel down and we’re there!”

This was exciting stuff. Jim Holton, our senior producer, held up a sign he had written: “Stay with this! No sign offs!” And we did—filling in live the details of the astronauts racing through lunar orbit, flying upside down and backward. Then it was time for the critical dismembering of Snoopy—separating the lunar module so the legless upper portion would return them to Charlie Brown. The procedure would begin with casting off Snoopy’s descent stage by firing a set of pyrotechnic bolts. We held our collective breaths, and astronaut Cernan issued a warning. “That mother may give us a kick. You ready?” he asked Stafford as he fired the bolts, only to see everything before him instantly spinning wildly. “Sonofabitch!” he cursed on our worldwide broadcast. “What the hell happened?”

Cernan’s curse sent instant alarm through Mission Control, and Stafford punched the button to get rid of the descent stage. Eight long seconds later Stafford regained control, and Snoopy was still.

Stafford and Cernan took a few deep breaths, and ten minutes later, in darkness, the two astronauts triggered the ascent engine and began their journey back to John Young. They rose in a closing maneuver to dock with Charlie Brown, and Stafford reported, “Snoopy and Charlie Brown are hugging each other.”

Back on Earth, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin were in final training. The success of Apollo 10 meant all but one of the ifs had been blown away. Only landing remained. Millions began gathering on the beaches and roadways around America’s newly built moonport. A site with a clear view of the Apollo launch pad was a premium location. There wasn’t a room to be had in central Florida. It had come down to private families renting sofas, cots, and spare rooms to the hucksters, well-wishers, and complainers.

The NBC phones kept ringing and callers kept complaining. One was certain the launch would bring about the end of the world, while another was convinced his chickens would stop laying eggs and his cows would stop giving milk and wanted to know who would pay, and a third offered his sixteen-year-old virgin daughter to me if I could get him a seat on the rocket to the moon.

My good wife Jo took a breath and then took care of the situation. She snatched the phones out of the walls, and when I went to work, she went along. Her job was to deal with the cranks. She would be nice and syrupy and most of all understanding.

My friend Jack King wasn’t faring any better.

A President Kennedy look-alike, from Boston no less, Jack was the Associated Press reporter here at the Cape in the early days. But, within months, he proved to be a traitor. He jumped fence and went to work for the enemy. He was the first public-affairs officer at the Cape for the newly created NASA, and eleven years later, when Apollo 11 was on the pad, he was NASA’s news chief.

And to say he was in demand was the classic understatement. Every reporter wanted a piece of Jack.

And home offered no shelter. Jack’s young son Chip had plans for his dad, too. He wanted to make a couple of fast bucks. Chip would charge neighborhood kids a quarter each to hear his dad, the voice of Launch Control, do a countdown. Jack would try to catch a fast nap on the living-room sofa only to be awakened surrounded by nine-year-olds waiting for him to say, “We have a liftoff.”

On the morning of July 16, 1969, for Jack King, it was all about going to the moon. As the voice of Launch Control, he was putting out the word:

After a breakfast of orange juice, steaks, scrambled eggs, toast, and coffee, the astronauts boarded Apollo 11 at 6:54 A.M. Eastern time. Commander Neil Armstrong was the first aboard. He was followed by Mike Collins. Buzz Aldrin, the man who is sitting in the middle seat during liftoff, was the third to come aboard…

NASA’s voice of Launch Control Jack King, seated on the end left forefront, is busy telling the world the latest news on Apollo 11’s countdown. King is in Apollo Launch Control with some three hundred members of the launch team on July 16, 1969. (NASA).

The countdown was running on time as a million-plus people were pressing the gates and fences of the Kennedy Space Center, trying to see anything and everything.

Three hundred technicians and controllers were running the countdown in Launch Control. Hundreds more worked through the count at Mission Control in Houston. Thousands of other men and women were on duty at tracking stations around the world, aboard tracking ships at sea, and in tracking aircraft in the sky.

In our NBC house-trailer complex at Press Site 39 on the Cape, I had already been voicing reports for two solid days, sleeping on a cot in the studios that had long ago gotten too crowded with Hollywood stars, sports figures, and NBC bigwigs.

I was seated at my microphone with a perfect view through a wall-wide window. Apollo 11, atop its Saturn V, was only three miles away, being bathed by an early-morning sun. The countdown kept ticking along, and my colleague Russ Ward was moving to his microphone to give me a break when I felt a finger tap me on the shoulder. A hesitant, stuttering voice asked, “Is it, ahh…is it okay if we watch from here?”

I turned. Jimmy Stewart and his wife, Gloria, were standing behind me, smiling pleasantly.

I came to my feet with instant respect. “Mr. Stewart,” I said, “you and your dear wife may stand anywhere you wish.”

He thanked me, they both smiled, and I had to turn my attention back to the business at hand. I often wondered what it would have been like to visit with the Stewarts for a moment, but the countdown was entering the serious stage and we were on the air nonstop.

“This is Apollo/Saturn Launch Control. We are now less than sixteen minutes away from the planned liftoff for the Apollo 11 space vehicle. All still going well…”

The count sailed smoothly down through arming the escape system. Range safety went to “green all the way.” Launch Control tested the systems for power transfer to the Saturn V. The lunar module named Eagle was now alive on its own internal power.

“This is Apollo/Saturn Launch Control. We’ve passed the eleven-minute mark. All is still GO.”

Ten minutes. Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin’s command ship, Columbia, was now on its own power systems, and the massive crowd of a million-plus tensed as one.

“This is Apollo/Saturn Launch Control.” Jack King’s voice was now musical. “We’ve passed the six-minute mark in our countdown for Apollo 11. Now five minutes, fifty-two seconds and counting. We’re on time at the present for our planned liftoff at thirty-two minutes past the hour.”

The launch team armed the destruct system, and the access walkway leading to the astronauts and their ship Columbia swung back out of the way.

“This is Apollo/Saturn Launch Control. T-minus three minutes ten seconds. Apollo 11 is now on its automatic sequencer…”

The long-awaited “initiate firing command” had just slipped the rest of the countdown into computers.

“This is Apollo/Saturn Launch Control. We’re GO. The target for the Apollo 11 astronauts, the moon, will be 218,096 miles away at liftoff…”

T-minus fifty seconds. Saturn V went to full internal power. The dragon was stirring. Butterflies swirled deep in Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin.

“This is Apollo/Saturn Launch Control,” Jack King was now singing. “Neil Armstrong just reported back. It’s been a real smooth countdown.

“Our transfer is completed on an internal power with the launch vehicle. All the second-stage tanks now pressurized.

“Thirty-five seconds and counting. Astronauts reported, feels good.

“T-minus twenty-five seconds.

“Twenty seconds and counting.

“T-minus fifteen seconds, guidance is internal, twelve, eleven, ten, nine, ignition sequence starts.”

Far below Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin, a torrent appeared instantly, exploding beneath the five mighty engines of the first stage. Twenty-eight thousand gallons of water smashing into curving flame buckets to absorb the mighty rocket’s fire.

Apollo 11’s Saturn V roared to life, but it was anchored to its launch pad by huge hold-down arms, chaining it to Earth until computers judged it was howling with full energy.


And chunks and sheets and flakes of ice fell steadily from the coatings formed by the super-cold oxidizers and propellants on the huge fuel tanks. Apollo 11 was ready to leave, Saturn V’s mighty engines were screaming, get the hell outta the way…

“THREE, TWO, ONE, ZERO, all engines running, LIFTOFF. We have a liftoff, thirty-two minutes past the hour. Liftoff of Apollo 11. Tower cleared.”

The astronauts felt a gentle sense of motion, but it wasn’t that way outside.

The earth shook. It shook for all to feel, and in a firestorm of flame and crackling thunder Apollo 11 began its journey. Birds flew for safety, wildlife fled for shelter, and Apollo 11’s Saturn V slammed shock waves into the chests of the million-plus pressed against the moonport’s fences and gates. Suddenly their teeth were rattling and their skin and clothes were fluttering. They were forced to lean into the powering wave of thundering air now splitting the launch center. Saturn V had in fact created its own earthquake. It generated seven-and-a-half million pounds of thundering energy and headed skyward on its hunt for the moon.

From atop its gantry, Apollo 11 is seen beginning its journey to the moon. (NASA).

Inside our NBC broadcast studio, Russ Ward and I thought the walls and ceiling would crash onto our shoulders, but the shaking building held and we kept shouting into our microphones and Gloria and Jimmy Stewart screamed and hollered along with all the people now crowding our wall-wide window for the best view.

Apollo 11 pushed through Max Q while below, the million-plus crowd was seeing a river of fire eight hundred feet long. The energy trail Saturn V left in the thin atmosphere created shock waves that danced in ghostly displays.

Inside Columbia, Armstrong and crew were standing by for the “train wreck.” At this point, the forces of gravity had them weighing four times what they did at launch. The five big rocket engines that made up the first stage had compressed the Saturn’s three stages and Apollo’s two stages like an accordion. But those mighty engines were shutting down. The sudden cutoff threw the three astronauts forward in their seats. The accordion stretched out and then compressed again, and then the astronauts heard metallic bangs and a mixture of clunks and clangs as explosive bolts blew away the now empty stage. They were forty miles high and sixty miles down range, climbing faster than six thousand miles an hour, and they heard more bangs and clangs from the second stage below as ullage rockets fired to settle the propellants in their tanks. Then, the second stage lit off and kicked the astronauts back in their seats with the new increase in acceleration.

The second stage burned and burned and once eleven minutes had passed, Apollo 11’s astronauts were 115 miles high, moving faster and faster, when the second stage emptied its tanks and went silent. Again the moon-bound crew snapped forward in their harnesses, only to be pushed back again as the third stage lit.

Two minutes later, the third stage shut down and the mooncraft raced around Earth at 17,300 miles per hour. Mike Collins and Buzz Aldrin exchanged broad grins, and Neil Armstrong released his harness.

For the next two-and-a-half hours Apollo 11, still attached to its third stage, circled Earth with its crew taking the pulse and status of all its systems, the ones the astronauts would need to reach the lunar surface. Then, the words they wanted most to hear came up from Mission Control: “Apollo 11, you’re go for trans-lunar injection.”

That was it, boy. TLI. Trans-lunar injection, their tickets to the moon. Aldrin and Collins held up gloved thumbs in celebration. They ran through a final checklist and once again lit the fire. The third stage reignited, hurling back a magnificent plume of violet flame.

When they reached the speed needed to break free from Earth’s gravity, 24,200 miles per hour, they were on their way.

They were grinning like kids in a down-home swimming-hole. Even Armstrong.

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