A giant leap for mankind


Mick O’Reilly

I know where I was 50 years ago as I watched Neil Armstrong take his first step on another planetary body. And I suspect too that anyone who can remember that moment can recall also where they were.

Humans did indeed land on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969. All those conspiracy theorists perhaps ignore the wonderful legacy of 400,000 people and the support of 20,000 industrial firms and universities who fulfilled the promise of President John F. Kennedy to put a man on the Moon by the end of the swinging 1960s. And how mankind swung into action to pull off this great achievement.

Playtex, most famous for its lift-up brassieres, put its seamstresses to work on the flexible material needed to insulate the spacesuits that would keep the Apollo 11 astronauts alive. They still make spacesuits today. The needlework had to be so precise and each suit required 10,000 stitches, skirting and threading wires, hoses and sensors in place while allowing flexibility of movement as Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon’s surface.

For close to three minutes Armstrong was off the grid. Aldrin couldn’t locate him. Mission control had no contact with him.

Every ounce of weight on any mission to the Moon is critical, and one of the things that had to be sacrificed on that Apollo 11 flight was dignity. 

Armstrong and Aldrin were the first to leave footsteps — they also left human waste behind too. According to Nasa, the pair left a “defecation collection device” and a vomit bag — and subsequent visits now mean there are still 96 bags of assorted human waste on the Moon.

That need to cut down on waste five decades ago has given us freeze-dried food — a culinary travesty that has changed the lives of military in the field or refugees in camps. And those foil blankets that are wrapped over marathon runners or around those in shock of in urgent need of medical attention, are also a result of the Apollo programme.

Moon Plague

The on-board computer had less computing power than today’s pocket calculators, and every wire for every “1-0” switch on every motherboard had to be perfectly soldered by hand with absolutely no room for any margin of error, all overseen by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineers — literally as smart as rocket scientists.

The lives of Armstrong and Aldrin would depend on it. So too the life of Commander Michael Collins, who orbited the Moon as they walked.

The trio’s journey lasted for eight days from blast off to splashdown — but they were faced another 21 days of the strictest quarantine conditions. There were fears they might bring what was termed “Moon Plague” back to Earth — unknown bacterial or biological entities that might cause untold or irreversible damage to us earthlings. Of course everyone forgot those space bugs would have been released into Earth’s atmosphere as soon as the capsule was opened in the middle of the Pacific after splashdown. That’s one for the conspiracy theorists to ponder — and no doubt they are all over the missing three minutes.

Missing three minutes, you say? Yep. Armstrong and Aldrin spent roughly two-and-a-half hours bouncing around the vicinity of their Tranquillity Bay landing spot.

Vast black frontier

They were tasked with collecting those Moon rocks and surface samples, logging their findings and taking note of their geological and physical surroundings. But for three minutes Armstrong was off the grid. Aldrin couldn’t locate him. Mission control had no contact with him.

Nothing. Three minutes went by. What was he up to? Did he see something? Did he meet someone? What happened for those 180 seconds in the most-closely monitored scientific and technologically advanced experiment? Was it a communications blackout? Did he simply ignore those trying to raise him on his communication channels? He never spoke about those missing three minutes and the only record is of nine photographs he snapped at what is now known as Little Crater.

If you believe in the Hollywood version of history, Armstrong carried with him a small gold bracelet that belonged to his daughter Karen, who had died aged two from brain cancer nine years before. And he deposited it on the moon.

Or something else. There is a belief that he simply wanted a few minutes alone to contemplate the significance of what he had just achieved — stepping foot on the surface of a body away from Earth from the first time, literally expanding mankind’s reach into that vast black frontier that surrounds our little blue planet.

Maybe we should all take a moment now too to contemplate the landing 50 years ago — and the fate too of our little blue planet that looks so tranquil and beautiful from those first photographs captured from the Moon’s surface. That would indeed be a giant leap for mankind.


Mick O’Reilly is foreign correspondent and columnist at Gulf News