In Lunar Orbit

Seventy-six hours after leaving the earth, Apollo 11 neared its goal. CapCom Bruce McCandless gave the crew the usual "see you on the other side," as the spacecraft went behind the moon. Looking at the surface, Collins said it looked "plaster of Paris gray." Like earlier commanders, Armstrong had to remind his crew not to look at it because they had to concentrate on the first lunar orbit insertion maneuver to get into a nice elliptical flight path. The astronauts agreed that changing sun angles produced different shades of gray and tan. Some of their descriptions of the back, as well as the front, of the moon were graphic. They also hoped no new meteors like those that had caused the lunar craters would fall while they were on the surface. Once Collins mentioned that the desolate Sea of Fertility had certainly been miscalled, and Armstrong gave him a short lecture on how it got its name. They shared the view of the near-earth side of the moon with television watchers back home. Pilots and observers alike could see that the planned landing area was still in darkness but getting brighter each time they flew over it. The astronauts commented that they certainly realized they were circling a smaller body than the earth, but they quickly became used to seeing "the moon going by." Collins complained once that the "LM just wants to head down towards the surface," and McCandless answered, "that's what [it] was built for."*

During the first two revolutions, the crewmen checked navigation and trajectory figures and then fired the service module engine against the flight path to drop Apollo 11 into a nearly circular orbit. As they watched the landing area grow brighter and brighter, they rested, ate, slept, and rechecked the lunar module systems. Because of the discussions, photographs, and motion pictures provided by the Borman and Stafford crews, the Armstrong team felt as though they were flying over familiar ground. Aldrin said that the view was better from the lunar module than from the command module.

At the beginning of the nine-hour rest period before Armstrong and Aldrin crawled into the lunar module and headed for the lunar surface, Collins urged his companions to leave the probe in the command module. Since this would shorten their preparations for the lunar descent, they were not hard to convince. They knew it would be wise to get as much rest as possible before they set out on that trip but none of the three slept as well as they had on previous nights - it was just not possible to dismiss the next days' momentous events from their minds. They were test pilots, but they were human.7

After breakfast on Sunday morning, 20 July, Armstrong and Aldrin floated through the tunnel and into the lunar module. Their preparations had been so thorough that they had little to do except wait for Collins to close off the two vehicles. Collins slipped the probe and drogue smoothly into place and then asked the lunar module crewmen to be patient while he went through the checklist. Feeling that he was part of a three-ring circus and appearing simultaneously in each ring, Collins raced around, setting cameras up in windows to photograph the separation, purging the fuel cells of excess water, and getting ready to vent the air pressure from the tunnel. On the back of the moon, during the 13th revolution, everything was ready, which gave him a short breather before the lunar module left. When he asked, "How's the Czar over there?" Armstrong replied, "Just hanging on - and punching [buttons]." Collins urged the lunar pilots to take it easy on the surface - he did not want to hear any "huffing and puffing." And so they parted, as Armstrong called out, "The Eagle has wings."

Armstrong and Aldrin began checking the lander's critical systems. One of these made everyone a little nervous. They had to turn off the descent stage batteries to see how those in the ascent stage were operating. If they were not working properly, every electrically powered system in the cabin would be affected. But the ascent stage performed beautifully. Next they fired the thrusters and marveled at the ease with which the Eagle flew in formation with Columbia. Aldrin turned on the landing radar, and it also worked properly. Collins broke in to ask them to turn on their blinking tracking light, and Aldrin replied that it was on.

Meanwhile, Collins found that the command ship was also stable. Sometimes the automatic attitude thrusters did not have to make corrections oftener than once in five minutes. Once his vehicle bucked when he inadvertently brushed against the handcontroller, but he quickly stilled the motion. Soon he reestablished contact with flight control and reported that the Eagle was coming around the corner.8


* The lunar module, which weighed more than the command and service modules combined, was feeling the pull of the moon's gravity.


7. Hage memo, "Apollo 11 Daily Operations Report No. 3," 19 July 1969; Hage memo, 24 July 1969; Hage memo, "Apollo 11 Daily Operations Report No. 4," 20 July 1969; Charlesworth et al., "Flight Directors Report," pp. 9-14; "Mission Report," pp. 3-1, 4-5, 4-6; "Apollo 11 Voice," pp. 157, 166-69, 171, 174, 183, 198, 200, 204-05, 210-11, 217-18, 220, 224, 227, 233, 235-38, 247; "Apollo 11 Debriefing," 1: 6-30, 6-31, 6-33 through 6-36, 7-13 through 7-18, 8-1; Collins, Carrying the Fire, pp. 339, 342; "Onboard Voice," pp. 58, 64, 65, 71, 75-77, 85-86, 91, 93, 112, 119-20, 125, 130-31, 136; Collins to Grimwood, 13 Dec. 1976; Kenneth A. Young, telephone interview, 7 Dec. 1977.

8. Hage memos, 20 and 24 July 1969; Hage memo, "Apollo 11 Daily Operations Report No. 5," 21 July 1969; Charlesworth et al., "Flight Directors Report," pp. 12-14; "Apollo 11 Debriefing," 1: 8-2, 8-5 through 8-7, 8-11, 8-15, 8-26, 8-28, 8-29, 8-31; "Mission Report," pp. 3-1, 4-4 through 4-8; Mission Report: Apollo 11, p. 6; "Onboard Voice," pp. 144, 147-49, 156, 158-59; "Apollo 11 Voice," pp. 293-95, 298, 300-01, 306, 307; Neil A. Armstrong to JSC History Off., 3 Dec. 1976.


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