Imagine you were selected to take a trip from New York City to Hong Kong. You spend 16 hours flying to Hong Kong, then, after landing, an additional 30 minutes stuck inside the sweltering plane. When you finally get off, you spend all of 11 minutes wandering around the gate area (and planting a flag) before re-boarding. You catch an hourlong nap while your plane sits on the runway, then you fly another 16 hours back to New York. Oh, and the cost of the entire trip is $25.4 billion. In 1973 dollars.
This is essentially what that astronauts of the Apollo 11 mission did.
Of the 196 hours the mission lasted between blast-off and splashdown, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent a total of two hours and fifteen minutes on the moon. In addition, after touching down on the surface of the moon, they spent six-and-a-half hours cramped inside the seat-less compartment of the Lunar Module before opening the hatch and taking that one small step.
No one is going to mistake the plushness of a Cathay Pacific lounge at Check Lap Kok Airport with the barren landscape of the moon, but this is the moon we’re talking about, the muse of scientists, poets, and lovers for centuries. After the Herculean cost and effort that went into the mission, why did the astronauts stick around only long enough for the proverbial cup of tea?
“The quickie answer: To ensure no one ended up dead,” reports Craig Nelson, author of the 2010 book, Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon.
“Life is cosseted on earth by our atmosphere and the minute we leave it we encounter a universe wildly hostile to living things.”
In his book, Nelson chronicles the many threats that the astronauts faced, both real and imagined. The most famous one being how Armstrong manually landed the craft to avoid crashing into a crater the size of a football field, touching down with just 17 seconds left of fuel to burn.
Shortly after landing, a clogged fuel pipe threatened to blow up the Lunar Module, but the astronauts were blissfully unaware of this complication as they went through their regular systems check to ensure everything was in working order. Much to the relief of the freaked-out Mission Control staff, the pipe cleared itself within ten minutes.
Initially a rest period was scheduled for the astronauts before they descended to the surface of the moon, but, understandably, Armstrong and Aldrin were excited to proceed with the moonwalk as soon as possible and they were granted permission to do so.
Still, it took another three hours for them to don and troubleshoot various issues with their bulky spacesuits. The suits had been designed to thwart any potential hazards that outer space offered, like cosmic rays, solar radiation, and the threat of being struck by a micrometeorite. They’re only the size of a marble and the odds of it happening are 10,000 : 1, but with speeds of up to 64,000 mph, getting hit by one of those suckers would not be fun.
There were also the unknown hazards of space, like, perhaps, a chance encounter with an alien. No worries, the gold visors of their helmets, designed to protect their eyes from from the harsh glare caused by sunlight unfiltered by an atmospheric layer, would have the additional benefit of shielding them from the menacing glare of any aliens camping on the moon.
Then there was the very real risk of their spacesuits becoming punctured or torn while they were prancing around the moon. Were this to happen, they would have lost consciousness within 15 seconds from a lack of air and their bodies would have swelled up like a helium balloon from the lack of atmospheric pressure. The good news is they’d suffocate before being being frozen to death by the negative 280 degrees temperature the moon plummets to when in darkness, which might be a slightly better fate than being boiled to death by the 260 degrees Fahrenheit temperature the moon reaches when in sunlight.
So perhaps staying on the moon for just a few hours was not such a bad idea after all.
Of course, as harrowing as landing on the moon was, taking off from it was even more challenging. And it wasn’t helped by the fact that they had accidentally broken off the switch that powered up the ascent engine. Having been awake for 22 hours straight, the astronauts slept, or, more accurately, vainly tried to sleep in their bright, freezing, cramped quarters for around seven hours while Mission Control worked feverishly on how to fire up the engine without the switch.
None of the scores of engineers working on the problem, though, could figure out how they could start the engine without the switch. This was not good.
When the astronauts awoke, Buzz Aldrin took a look at the problem. He could see the stem of the switch recessed inside the instrument panel. The hole was too small to fit his finger, but a pen might work. Not a ball-point pen because the metal tip might short-circuit the switch. Fortunately, he had a felt tip pen, which he inserted inside the hole and wiggled around until it flipped the switch that powered up the engine.
And, because of that felt tip pen, the first humans to walk on the moon were not stranded on the surface forever.
So, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the most epic journey of our time, perhaps the greatest takeaway to remember is, when you’re embarking on a long, harrowing journey, be sure to pack a felt tip pen.