Many details of the Apollo missions were not revealed or discussed publicly at the time of the flights because they were private, embarrassing or politically inappropriate. NASA was keen to project a squeaky-clean, flawlessly heroic image of its astronauts, and the press was somewhat complicit in this patriotic intent, so the unsavory or less uplifting aspects of Moon missions were left untold. This chapter is just a teaser of the some of these rarely shared stories.
13.1 Aldrin’s pause on the LM ladderFor decades, people who studied the recordings of the live TV broadcast of the first moonwalk were puzzled by Buzz Aldrin’s long pause halfway down the ladder (Figure 13-1) before he joined Neil Armstrong on the surface of the Moon.
Was it dictated by fear? Was it a moment of disorientation caused by motion in an unconfined environment with unfamiliar one-sixth gravity? Was it an instant of spiritual contemplation of the amazing site? No such thing. Aldrin explained the true nature of this mysterious pause in the 2007 documentary In the Shadow of the Moon.
We had it in our flight plan that we’d take the first 10-15 seconds down at the bottom of the ladder, sort of hold on to the edge of the landing gear and just sort of check our stability and so forth... So that’s when I decided to take that period of time to, uh, to take care of a bodily function of slightly filling up the urine bag... so that I wouldn’t be troubled with having to do that later on... Everybody has their firsts on the Moon, and that one hasn’t been disputed by anybody.
13.2 Suspicious corrosionIn a complex endeavor such as space launch, countless things can go wrong. Usually it’s the unexpected problems that cause the greatest trouble.
For example, the Reliability Bulletin of March 8, 1968 (Figure 13-2) reported serious corrosion problems in the stainless steel pipes of pads 34 and 37 at the Kennedy Space Center.
The report revealed the cause of the corrosion: the combined effects of uric acid and chloride. While the chloride came from the launch site environment, the uric acid did not:
The occasional practice of personnel relieving themselves from the umbilical tower has been suspected for some time... Personal interviews at the launch site confirmed the likely human source based on observed practices.
In another somewhat similar case, reported in Memorable Moments - My Years with the Apollo Program by John T. Everett, the hydrogen leak detector of the launch tower was triggered, causing the activation of the water sprinkler safety system, which led to several million dollars’ worth of damage. It later emerged that the highly sensitive detector had reacted to the “gaseous emissions of [a] robust engineer” from Chrysler who was changing a component in the vicinity.
13.3 Smuggling on the Moon: the Sieger coversScott, Worden and Irwin, the astronauts of the Apollo 15 flight (Figure 13-3), took to the Moon 398 stamped letters in addition to the 243 authorized by NASA for commemorative philatelical purposes.
They did this on behalf of H. Walter Eiermann, who in turn was working for a German stamp collector, Hermann Sieger. The agreement was that one hundred of these covers would be sold by the astronauts to Eiermann for 7,000 dollars, deposited on a foreign account for each astronaut, while the other 298 would be kept by the crew as souvenirs.
Eiermann, however, sold his covers to Sieger, who put them on sale shortly after the Apollo 15 flight. Financial gain from the flights by the Apollo crews was no longer permitted (contrary to what had happened with the Mercury astronauts), and the event led to a public scandal that also involved Jack Swigert (Apollo 13). Swigert, Scott and Worden were removed from service as astronauts and Irwin left NASA to start religious preaching.
13.4 Secretive commemoration
Near the end of their historical moonwalk, while Neil Armstrong was still on the surface and Buzz Aldrin had already reentered the LM, the two astronauts had a rather cryptic exchange of words over the open radio channel. Armstrong asked Aldrin, “How about that package out of your sleeve? Get that?”
“No,” answered Aldrin tersely. “OK, I’ll get it when I get up there,” Armstrong replied. After a brief pause, Aldrin asked “Want it now?” and Armstrong answered “Guess so”. Another pause and then Armstrong asked “OK?” and Aldrin answered “OK”. Nothing more was said about the “package”.
They were referring guardedly to a set of commemorative items to be left on the Moon: an Apollo 1 patch, in honor of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, who had died in a fire in their spacecraft during a preflight test; an olive branch sculpted in gold, identical to those that the two Apollo 11 moonwalkers had taken to the Moon for their wives and for Michael Collins’ wife (Figure 13-4); and a small silicon disk that contained written messages from several heads of state from all over the world and other data.
This was the official content list of the package, as reported in NASA press release 69-83F on July 13, 1969. But according to Aldrin’s book Men from Earth, published twenty years later, there were also other politically very sensitive items: two Soviet medals, one in honor of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, who had died at the end of his Soyuz 1 flight due to parachute failure, and one for Yuri Gagarin, the first man to orbit the Earth, who had perished in a plane crash in 1968.
This was a gesture of chivalry among spacefarers that at the time of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was seen as a deadly enemy, might not be appreciated by many and therefore was kept confidential.
13.5 Naked women on the MoonIn November 1969, Apollo 12’s Alan Bean and Charles “Pete” Conrad landed on the Moon while Richard Gordon remained in lunar orbit. It became clear immediately that this was not going to be a solemn expedition. Conrad’s first remark as he stepped off the ladder of the LM set the tone by referencing humorously Neil Armstrong’s timeless words: “Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me!” Conrad was referring both to his own short stature and to a bet made with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci to prove to her that the astronauts’ words were not scripted by NASA.
But roughly two and a half hours into their moonwalk, things took a strange turn: the two astronauts began giggling so much that there was some concern that their oxygen supply might be malfunctioning or that they had been affected by some mysterious space sickness.
Conrad explained the somewhat alarming laughter in the December 1994 issue of Playboy. The two lunar astronauts had a so-called cuff checklist (basically a small ring binder with laminated fireproof sheets, strapped to their left sleeve) as a reminder of the procedures to be performed. It was a simple and effective solution.
However, Dave Scott and Jim Irwin, members of the mission’s backup crew, had arranged a prank: they had inserted Playmate photographs, photocopied onto fireproof paper, among the pages of the cuff checklists, adding captions full of double entendres.
Conrad found Miss September 1967, Angela Dorian, with the caption “Seen any interesting hills & valleys?”, and Miss October 1967, Reagan Wilson (“Preferred tether partner”); Bean found Miss December 1968, Cynthia Myers (“Don’t forget – describe the protuberances”, Figure 13-5), and Miss January 1969, Leslie Bianchini (“Survey - Her activity”).
Richard Gordon, in the Command Module orbiting the Moon, also found a Playmate hidden on board, in the form of the current month’s Playboy calendar page, featuring DeDe Lind (formerly Miss August 1967), which had been fixed with Velcro inside one of the Command Module’s cabinet doors.
This is not a legend or a colorful anecdote: the Playmate pictures from the cuff checklist are on NASA’s website and the calendar page provided to Gordon was auctioned among the Apollo 12 memorabilia in January 2011.*
* Apollo 12 Playboy Stowaway to be Auctioned, by Ian O’Neill, Discovery News, January 11, 2011.
While this might be seen as just a curious case of nudity on NASA’s usually very prudish website and as the first instance of erotica taken to another world, it also shows that despite the hype and heroic rhetoric that often surrounds them, astronauts are, after all, very human beings, with the same urges and weaknesses as the rest of us.
And this is what makes their accomplishments so great.
13.6 The President’s speech in case of Moon disasterIn 1999 it was disclosed that famed journalist and presidential speechwriter William Safire had drafted a message that then President Nixon would have read to the nation if Armstrong and Aldrin had been stranded on the Moon with no way to get home. H. R. Haldeman was the Chief of Staff of the White House at the time.
To: H.R. Haldeman
from: Bill Safire
July 18, 1969
IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER:
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.
These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.
These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.
They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by the nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.
In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.
In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.
Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.
For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.
PRIOR TO THE PRESIDENT’S STATEMENT:
The President should telephone each of the widows-to-be.
AFTER THE PRESIDENT’S STATEMENT, AT THE POINT WHEN NASA ENDS COMMUNICATIONS WITH THE MEN:
A clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to “the deepest of the deep,” concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.