Getting Apollo 11 Right
Commemorating What Really Happened
S U M M A R Y
Jim Oberg sheds some light on the first moonwalk, the Apollo missions, the race to the moon and other misconceived events.
After 30 years, it is imperative we know the facts of the Apollo Moon landing out of respect for humankinds greatest, farthest adventure.
A R C H I V E
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By James Oberg
Special to ABCNEWS.com
Proper celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing demands proper remembering of what really happened. Yet in the last three decades, much of the common knowledge about that voyage has strayed from the reality.
This is understandable, since that event glares so blindingly bright in our history that it conjures up dazzling mirages and casts stark shadows. But out of respect for our farthest venture, we owe it to ourselves to get it right.
For example, purist historians have long argued that the Apollo flights did not blast off from Cape Kennedy (renamed Cape Canaveral in 1971) at all. They insist correctly that the launch pads for Saturn moon rockets (and for todays space shuttles) are really on Merritt Island, north of the more famous cape. That is what maps do show, but nevertheless the term the Cape has overwhelmingly come to denote the entire space center, and theres no longer any point in nit-picking this long-lost argument.
One Small Step
But it remains worthwhile to battle widespread misconceptions about Neil Armstrongs first words on the moon, both what was said and when and why it was said.
This dispute is not about the first words right after the Eagle lunar module landed. They were okay, engine stop, followed by several additional technical phrases before Armstrong first used the Tranquility Base call sign. No, this dispute concerns what really happened several hours later when he descended the ladder.
The astronaut came to the bottom rung of the ladder, several feet above the ground, and then jumped the rest of the way down, landing on the two-foot-wide footpad of one of Eagles legs, but he was not yet touching the moon itself.
After jumping back up to the bottom rung, and then slipping back down onto the footpad, Armstrong slowly moved his left foot out a few inches and pressed it into the lunar dust.
Along with half a billion others, I was listening to the noisy radio transmissions, and I distinctly recall hearing him say just what he always has insisted he said. It was one small step for a man, with the a practically inaudible in the static and microphone cycling. He was there too, so when he wants the words to be a man, I suggest we go along.
Voice and Picture Dont Line Up
A far more serious distortion appears in most but not all television documentaries of the mission. Since the small step was really so small and his body movement so subtle, the video of this event is not dramatic enough for some programs. Instead, the audio track of the first words is transferred forward about a minute to coincide with Armstrongs first jump down the ladder to the footpad. This turns the poetic small step into an awkward big hop.
That may satisfy action-oriented entertainment values but it is false history. It is untrue to the significance of Armstrongs words.
Viewers, be warned! Better yet, when you see such careless falsification, complain loudly!
On the other hand, some aspects of the Apollo program, which were obscure at the time, have come into sharp focus through the miracle of hindsight. The biggest controversy back then was whether or not the moon race with Moscow was even real.
Throughout the 1960s and for years after, it was the conventional wisdom of the wests intellectuals that NASA had invented the moon race as a budget ploy. Leading news organs such as the New York Times and Parade Magazine, and public figures from J. William Fulbright to Walter Cronkite to Leonard Nimoy asserted that there never actually had been a race to the moon. The Russians, it was said, were too smart to waste all that money on such a stunt, while NASA encouraged the fiction to keep its finances flowing, after Apollo 11, Moscow said exactly that If they had really wanted to race, they would have won.
The Truth Comes Out
Today we know that Moscows post-Apollo rationalizations, and the views of so many western experts, were false. Russia did compete, and tried to build the rockets and spaceships to beat Apollo. They failed, and the American victory was genuine.
Or was it so genuine? It may not have been surprising that such an astonishing feat should find many people unwilling to believe it had actually happened. Today, however, the extent of such persistent skepticism is truly astonishing.
Its not just a few crackpots and their new books and Internet conspiracy sites. There are entire subcultures within the U.S., and substantial cultures around the world, that strongly believe the landing was faked. Im told that this is official dogma still taught in schools in Cuba, plus wherever else Cuban teachers have been sent (such as Sandanista, Nicaragua and Angola).
At the other extreme there are also very widespread beliefs that Apollo accomplished far more than was claimed. Beyond mere moon rocks, the astronauts are supposed to have brought back descriptions and photographs of alien vehicles that followed them and alien structures found on the moon itself.
Science Becomes Sci-Fi
Sometimes these bizarre claims are based on photographic aberrations, such as window reflections of ceiling lights on one Apollo 11 move sequence, or the starkly sunlit end of the just-discarded Saturn third stage on Apollo 12 (a structured disk, it is called), or on common film emulsion smears. Sometimes they are based on misunderstood space jargon, as when Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad joked about company on the way to the moon when the crew was actually watching parts of their discarded booster rocket, drifting nearby (some nuts make a big deal of these jokes, Conrad told me later). But most often they are based purely on imaginary leaks, on hoaxed transcripts, on enthusiastic self-deception and on delicious delusions of space cover-up conspiracies.
In honor of this anniversary, at least one persistent myth deserves to be strangled at last. Despite the cuteness of the story, Armstrong did not say good luck, Mr. Gorski during his moonwalk.
The charming urban legend alleges that at as a teenager Armstrong overheard a family argument about a husbands unusual sexual suggestion to his wife. Youll get that when the kid next door walks to the moon, Armstrong supposedly heard Mrs. Gorski proclaim. Sorry, it never happened.
In the end, we need only remember that humans walked on the moon and will do so again. The mythological attachments clinging to this event are similar to what has happened with every previous great period of human exploration. They humanize a frightening, alien frontier. As long as we also remember what really happened, we can enjoy and exploit the new myths.