Remembering Apollo

Anders, Borman, Stafford, Aldrin, Bean, Gordon, Lovell, Roosa, Worden, Schmitt, Cernan. Eleven astronauts recall the excitement, tension, and delight of getting close enough to touch the moon.

By Buzz Aldrin|Friday, July 01, 1994
RELATED TAGS: SPACE FLIGHT
"Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." Neil Armstrong's terse message to NASA's control center--the first words ever uttered on another world by an inhabitant of Earth--are now 25 years old. After the historic Apollo 11 landing, on July 20, 1969, humans landed on the moon five more times, with Apollo 17 making the last lunar touchdown, in December 1972. Unquestionably these journeys to the moon rank as some of the greatest adventures of all time, and the men who made these journeys among this country's most revered. To celebrate their achievement of a quarter-century ago, Discover asked some of the Apollo astronauts to recount their most vivid memories of the missions.

William Anders, along with James Lovell and Frank Borman, flew on Apollo 8 in December 1968. They were the first people able to see the entire Earth at a glance, and the first to fly to the moon, although they did not land on it.

Discover: What part of the mission stands out most for you?

Anders: The biggest surprise of the mission was to see the first Earthrise over the moon and to realize that the Earth was even more interesting than the moon. I consider the moon voyages a technical feat, a political feat. But looking at the Earth and seeing it floating like--I thought, since it was Christmastime--a little Christmas-tree ornament against an infinite black backdrop of space, the only color in the whole universe that we could see, it seemed so very finite. It was this view of the fragility and finiteness of the Earth that is the impression, frankly, that I hold more in my head than any other.

I find it somewhat ironic that we went up there for the moon, but probably it was the Earth and the perspective of it that impressed hard- bitten test pilots like us--and I guess the rest of the world--the most. Because the pictures of the first Earthrise and the first full Earth floating in space, I think, have been a major contribution in helping people get a better feeling for the Earth's place in our lives and in the universe. You realize that the Earth is about as physically significant as one grain of sand on a beach. But it's our only home.

It's funny, but the one thing we had not planned on or even thought about was photographing the Earth from lunar orbit. And so when we were in the position where we could actually see the first Earthrise, it caught us all by surprise, and there was a mad scramble for the cameras to take pictures of that historic event.

Discover: What about the moon? What did that look like?

Anders: Even though I had probably studied lunar geology more than either Frank or Jim, both on field trips on the ground and through telescopes, I must say that my mental image did not match the actual moon. Maybe I'd been biased by the movie 2001. I expected more sharp corners, more sharp edges, rugged mountain peaks. But the moon looked as if it had been sandblasted through the centuries, smoothed out.

Discover: What did it feel like when you were orbiting the far side of the moon, cut off from all contact with Earth? Did you feel lonely?

Anders: We knew we were by ourselves on one side of the moon, and the other half of the universe was on the other side, including the Earth and all of our human companions. That was kind of a sobering experience.

Discover: Would you like to go back?

Anders: Yeah, I would go again if I had a chance to walk on it. I was always disappointed I couldn't do that. But Apollo 8 was the first time that mankind was able to get away from the planet on which we evolved, so I feel lucky to have been on that.

Discover: Do you think about the mission often?

Anders: Well, I suppose now and then. I guess the thing that triggers memories the most frequently is to look up at the moon, not when it's full, because it wasn't full when we went--it was about as new as it can get. When I see a little sliver of moon as the sun is going down or after the sun has gone down, I will be reminded that that's how it looked when we went.

You see, most of the back side of the moon was illuminated when we went. And that was because we were to photograph and check lighting conditions for a landing site. All the landings had to be with the sun low and behind your back because a high sun would have heated up the lunar surface. So people generally were landing and exploring in the mornings of the moon. And so most of the back was illuminated, and that meant that it was night on most of the front--there was just this little sliver.

Frank Borman commanded the Apollo 8 mission, a voyage that lasted eight days.

Discover: Would you like to go back to the moon, given the chance?

Borman: Would I go back right now? If the opportunity under the same circumstances existed, sure I would. But now, as a 66-year-old grandfather, I don't think it's very realistic. I mean, there's no great romantic thought that I have to go back there to see that view again. I looked upon this mission as basically another battle in the cold war. We were fighting the Russians, and we were trying to achieve a mandate from our president. It was not a romantic moment of exploration as such. We were all extremely nostalgic as we looked back at the Earth on Christmas Eve-- all our thoughts were back there--but the primary motivation was the race with the Russians.

Discover: What would you say to those who criticize the space program, saying we have enough problems at home?

Borman: People were saying the same thing 25 years ago. And I think there are a lot of shortsighted people around. That will never change. People just have to have the understanding as a society that some things are worthwhile, and the research and development spent on the space program, I think, is some of the best money spent.

Discover: Do you feel particularly changed by your astronaut experience?

Borman: No, I really don't think so. It was an exciting period of my life, eight years of total dedication, and everything worked. So I feel very fortunate. And when the eight years were over, I just wanted to get on with life and not simply spend the rest of my life as an ex-astronaut, if you know what I mean.

Discover: Do you think about the Apollo 8 mission often?

Borman: Sometimes I look out at the moon here on a beautiful cold winter night in New Mexico, and frankly, I have a hard time believing I was ever there.

Tom Stafford flew on Gemini 6, Gemini 9, Apollo 10, and Apollo 18, which rendezvoused in Earth orbit with the Soviet Soyuz spacecraft in 1975.

Discover: Tell me about your Apollo 10 flight.

Stafford: On our way to the moon on Apollo 10 we set up this barbecue mode--you're in sunlight all the way out there, so you've got to rotate the spacecraft. We set up perpendicular to the Earth-moon plane and the sun. So we'd rotate once every 20 minutes all the way to the moon. Every 20 minutes the Earth came by our window, and then the sun. After a while the Earth got down to the size of a soccer ball and gradually down to the size of an orange.

When we finally got close to the moon, we could hardly keep ourselves from looking out. But we were busy working all the time. We kept wanting to look out at it. Like three kids in a candy shop.

Discover: You just felt excitement, no apprehension?

Stafford: Oh, no. No apprehension. Just WOW!

Discover: What was the tightest spot you experienced in your various missions?

Stafford: Well, on my first launch with Wally Schirra on Gemini 6, at liftoff the engines shut down at exactly T minus zero. So we've got an all-time record for the shutdown. We had the liftoff signals, but we knew we hadn't lifted off--a fire broke out down below.

And then on the Apollo 18-Soyuz mission, we breathed in rocket fuel from 24,000 feet down to the surface. One guy passed out, we were all overcome by it, and we ended up in the intensive care ward for about a week.

Buzz Aldrin flew on Gemini 12, and on Apollo 11 with Neil Armstrong and Mike Collins. He and Armstrong were the first people to set foot on another world.

Discover: What's your clearest memory of Apollo 11?

Aldrin: I don't think there's any one clearest memory. While I was on the moon, there was a wave of realization, not in words, of us being a long ways away. There was an imperativeness about being there. We were there to get something done. You're there, it's momentous, it's historic, and there are a lot of people watching, and there are lots of things to do. So to me, the general recollection is one of focusing on what's in front of you and wondering what to do next. It takes a degree of spontaneity and impulsiveness away from you. Like being onstage; you know, you're really focused on what that immediate task is.

Discover: Was there a part of your mission that was particularly worrisome?

Aldrin: I guess the aftermath, dealing with the public exposure and everything. I didn't feel as equipped for that as I did for contributing to the mission itself.

Discover: Those of us old enough to remember will never forget where we were and what we were doing when you and Neil Armstrong were on the moon.

Aldrin: I've been trying to understand why people offer me, without my asking, the information of where they were. Why is it that sooner or later everybody wants me to know!? It must be because something happened in their life, something enriched it, made it memorable. But it sure as hell has very little to do with the science and the moon rocks. There's a sense of participation and curiosity. Because a couple of humans were there on the moon and people were here watching, sharing. If it had been robots or chimps, there would be nowhere near the connection.

That memory is valuable to the huge number of people who witnessed the event. Another 20 or 40 years may go by before the world shares something like that again. What does that mean? Well, it means that people 50 years from now might not share something like that, but that some people now alive did. Do they realize how lucky they are? I don't think so. How do you put a value on that? That was the payoff of the investment that this country made in going to the moon. Some people like to talk about the spin-offs from the space program. The moon landing was not a spin-off. The space program's not about little technical gains, developing Teflon and Velcro. That's not why we went to the moon.

Discover: Should we go back?

Aldrin: In some ways, if we look at the efforts to go the moon with Apollo and the fact that we haven't been back there, people could build an argument and say, "Maybe we shouldn't have gone. Maybe it was before its time." And there may be validity to that. But I can't help coming to the conclusion that going to the moon was a most appropriate decision to make at that time. It was a wise choice, and it was superbly executed.

It's regrettable that we didn't have the resolve to retain what we put together and grow more out of it, rather than just stop production, stop using and making the rockets, and making the spacecraft into museum pieces. We should learn from that, that retaining the value of investment-- of people, organizations, and technology--is a responsibility toward the future.

All of that is rather long-range thinking! And if anything, I'd say the tendency is going more toward short-range thinking. What is the tendency of communication, of business and government? Polls and stock markets change hourly. Everything is focused on the short term. Everything! What can I get out of it right now? How do we plan for the long term under these conditions? I don't know. It's a challenge.

People 100 or 200 years from now will look back and will be aware of these shortcomings in our society today. I don't know how they will resolve them, but they will probably think with great dismay, "How in the world could they have operated under such an archaic system?"

In November 1969, Alan Bean flew on Apollo 12, which made the second lunar landing, with Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon. He was the fourth person to set foot on the moon. He is also an accomplished artist and now devotes a lot of his time to painting.

Discover: What were your first thoughts on stepping onto the moon?

Bean: I was just thinking about getting my balance, which took a minute or two, and then getting on the timeline, not falling behind, and doing all the things that we were planning to do. There was not a single philosophical thing on my mind at the moment. In fact, it was only later on, as I was running between exploration sites, that I would think, "This is really the moon; here we are." And I would look up at the Earth and say, "There is the Earth; this is the moon." It still seemed very much like science fiction. In fact, when I think about it now, it seems pretty near impossible!

Discover: Was it hard adjusting to moving around on the moon?

Bean: No. It just took a few minutes. I always felt that if I closed my eyes, I would probably fall over fairly quickly because the bottoms of our feet were not used to controlling such light weight. On Earth you can close your eyes and you don't have any problem with not falling. But when your weight suddenly gets to be one-sixth of normal, your feet aren't really as sensitive with such a light load. So I felt as though if I just closed my eyes and tried to stand there, I'd soon fall over because by the time my inner ear noticed my balance was off or my feet felt an unequal weight distribution, it would be too late.

Discover: Would it have been dangerous to fall on the moon? Was there a risk of damaging your suit?

Bean: No. We did fall. We worried about all this a lot more than we should have, because with the light gravity you fall more slowly and you don't hit the ground as hard. You're able to adjust your body position. The several times that I did fall down--usually I did this when I was backing up for some reason and would hit a rock under the dirt--I would start to fall backward. On Earth, I'd have just gone BONG, right on my back. But up there, usually, as I started falling, I'd just turn around and catch myself. I never felt that I was actually going to bust my suit or anything like that.

Discover: Was it an enjoyable experience being up there and moving around?

Bean: Very enjoyable. Because we didn't get tired quite as much. The thing that I noticed, which was wonderful compared with Earth, was that you tended not to walk. That was hard work. You tended to kind of run because that was easier. You could use your ankles. Walking was rather hard. You had to use your hips and knees more to walk. So you tended to bounce a lot, on your tiptoes, which was easy. All of it was real pleasant because it was just so different. And the interesting thing about it, I thought, was that the effect of lighter gravity was the same feeling a person would feel on Earth if they were suddenly made stronger, could jump higher and move more easily. Your arm, instead of weighing, say, 30 pounds on Earth, weighed 5 pounds, so you felt strong, like, "Boy, this is great. I really feel great. Look how strong I am." And if you'd lift something heavy, man, you'd just lift it so easily you'd think, "God, I'm strong today!"

Discover: About how far would each stride or bound take you?

Bean: Actually, it was about as far as on Earth, even though you felt as if you were going much farther because you were off the ground so long. In fact, one time Pete Conrad said as we were running back to the lunar module, "I feel just like a gazelle." Well, we were off the moon and space-borne just as long as a gazelle is on Earth. But I dropped back and watched him. Because of the light gravity, you can't get the friction that you can on Earth, so even though you were up off the moon a long time, you didn't take really big steps. I'd watch his footprints, and they weren't that far apart, even though it felt as if we were just loping along.

Discover: It sounds very dreamlike.

Bean: It kind of is. And it's fun. You don't get tired. You could just do more than you could on Earth. So it's real pleasant. People are going to like that aspect of it someday.

Discover: Were you struck by the colors on the moon?

Bean: Well, being an artist, I was looking at--trying to look at- -the colors. If the sun was high, then the moon had sort of a grayer look, and if it was low, then it had sort of a yellowish look to it, a yellow tan. So each time we got out, the rocks looked a little different. At first they all looked a little tannish; next time, none of them looked tannish and they all looked a little gray. The effect of the sun is so intense, it's a little bit as if you had an American flag under a searchlight--the light would wash out the colors. Fundamentally you've got black or gray dirt, and black or gray rocks. Mostly that's what it is, like a volcanic field in Hawaii, let's say, and when you put this intense light on it, the light has such a dominant effect on this neutral color.

Discover: What did the sky look like from the moon?

Bean: It looks like a shiny black. It doesn't look like Earth black at night. Up there, space has a real shiny look. It reminded me a little bit of patent-leather shoes. And I kept asking myself, as I looked at it, "Why does it seem so shiny?" And probably it wasn't a shiny effect as much as it was a deep, clean, clear black, the absence of dust, absence of moisture.

Discover: Were you ever frightened?

Bean: While we were orbiting the moon in the lunar module before we landed, a strange thing occurred, to give you an example of how strange it is up there with the clearness. Pete and I were going through our checklist when the moon came into the lower part of my front window. And I about jumped out of my socks! It looked like that moon was just a few miles away. I thought, "My God, something's gone wrong!" Because the moon, it just seemed in the dark, was right outside the window. It really scared me. And I probably said to Pete, "How's our orbit? What are we doing?" I mean, it just really scared me. Then I thought about it a minute, and I thought, "That's not possible." And then I looked out there, and although I looked as hard as I could, the moon just seemed too close. So that lack of light and the clearness of space can trick your eye many times, and you have to trust your computer.

Dick Gordon remained behind in the Apollo 12 command module while Bean and Conrad walked on the moon.

Discover: What's your clearest memory of the flight?

Gordon: Oh, boy. There's a lot of them! Well, the launch, of course, is very clear because we got struck by lightning. That got the adrenaline flowing.

Discover: Did you see or hear anything when the lightning hit?

Gordon: The only thing that Al Bean and I knew was that all the lights came on in the Master Caution Warning System. Pete had the only window available at that time because we still had the boost protective cover on. He apparently saw a blue flash or something, and he surmised it was lightning. Of course he was correct. By the time we scrambled everything around, Al had got the fuel cells back on the line. Fortunately we had backup batteries.

Discover: Was it enjoyable for you, that flight?

Gordon: Oh yes, sure. You bet.

Discover: While Conrad and Bean were down on the moon, you were orbiting by yourself about 60 miles above the lunar surface--

Gordon: Sixty miles too far!

Discover: Would you have liked to be able to actually walk on the moon?

Gordon: As far as I was concerned, walking on the moon was the name of the game. Anything short of that was not fulfilling the desire. I always assumed that I would have my opportunity to fly again, and I probably would have if Apollo 18 had gone to the moon. That was a distinct possibility for me, and I thought it would happen until they finally canceled the Apollo 18, 19, and 20 lunar missions.

Discover: It must have been quite a relief when Conrad and Bean finally came up off the moon and rejoined the command module.

Gordon: Oh, yeah, very much so. Al always says that it was the happiest he had ever seen me. But yeah, it was a maneuver that had to be done or you were going to lose two lives. It impressed me as being the end of a critical event.

Discover: Do you remember what you said to them when they first came back onto the command module?

Gordon: I don't remember that. But I took one look in the lunar module, closed the hatch, and told them they couldn't come into the command module until they cleaned up. Because it was a dust bowl inside that lunar module. Unbelievable. They put their suits in bags and passed them over and came back into the command module unclothed. The first space streakers! The dust was everywhere on 12, and finally it clogged a bunch of filters. We had quite a time with it.

Discover: Twenty-five years ago, where did you think the space program might be today?

Gordon: I thought the pace of human exploration would not subside. I thought that after 25 years we'd probably have a permanent presence on the lunar surface and would likely be well on our way to Mars. But neither of those is the case. Things changed. The political climate has changed; the economics have changed. It's not the same as it used to be.

Discover: Some astronauts have said that even if we wanted to go back to the moon today, it would probably take us ten years.

Gordon: I'm not sure we could do it today. It's a whole different mind-set, a whole different time. The competitive nature of the space race in the 1960s between the United States and Russia no longer exists. If we set out to do it today, I'm not so sure we could do it in ten years.

James Lovell flew two Gemini missions around Earth, and two Apollo missions to the moon. In 1968 he was one of the first to fly to the moon on Apollo 8. In 1970 he commanded the Apollo 13 mission to land on the moon, but the flight was derailed when an oxygen tank exploded in the command module just two days into the flight. Lovell, John Swigert, and Fred Haise narrowly escaped death by using the lunar excursion module as a lifeboat to power their return.

Discover: If someone had described to you the explosion on Apollo 13 as a hypothetical situation, would you have thought the crew could get back to Earth safely?

Lovell: No. If someone had said, "Hey, you're going to have an oxygen tank explosion on your way to the moon. What do you think your chances are?" I'd have said they were virtually nil. As a matter of fact, if the explosion had occurred either earlier or later, it would have been a catastrophe. If the tank had exploded earlier, we would never have had enough electric power and water to go around the moon and get home again. And if it had occurred later, when Haise and I were on our way down to land on the moon, we would have used up the fuel in the lunar module. We could probably have gotten up and rendezvoused with the command module, but we wouldn't have had any fuel to go home.

After the explosion we were trying to figure out what really went wrong and how to control the spacecraft. It was a tough go for the whole four-day trip home. We were cold and sleepless. The temperature kept dropping. We got clammy. Moisture started to form on the metal pieces of the spacecraft, and all the couches and the windows were foamed up and running with water. So it was not a very pleasant journey the last four days.

Discover: Did you ever come close to panicking?

Lovell: I think the fact that I was a test pilot and was used to handling stress allowed me to think clearly without panicking. Because people often ask, "Were you panicked?" and I say, "Well, if we had panicked, we would have bounced off the walls for about ten minutes, and we were still going to be back where we started from." It wasn't like being in an airplane where if the wing fell off or an engine quit, something bad was going to happen immediately. We were actually under the control of the gravity of the moon, Earth, and sun. So nothing could immediately happen as long as the pressure hold remained intact.

Discover: Some astronauts have reported that on their way to the moon they could see flashes of light when they closed their eyes.

Lovell: That's right. About once a minute, if your eyes were closed in the dark, there would be a flash. Sometimes it would be like a nova just blossoming up and then quickly dying out. Other times there would be a streak, like something came in sideways. We're pretty sure it was some kind of cosmic particle.

Discover: As far as flying is concerned, how did the Apollo spacecraft compare with your Gemini experience?

Lovell: In Gemini you were up several hundred miles from the Earth and you always had sort of a horizon, even though it was a much curved horizon, below you. But it still was more like an airplane. You had a day-and-night cycle; we had 50 minutes of day and 40 minutes of night, approximately. Flying to the moon, though, there was no day and night, and the sun was always up; the sky was always black, the Earth was just a spot, and so was the moon for most of the journey. It was entirely different.

Discover: Do you feel changed by the experience?

Lovell: Well, I think that once you go to the moon and look back at the Earth you see how it really is--just a pretty small and nondescript planet, just one of nine in orbit about a rather average star, in one of just billions of galaxies. . . . You got sort of a humble feeling, knowing that you could put your thumb up to the window and completely block out the Earth as you approached the moon. Everything you ever knew was on that planet Earth.

Stuart Roosa flew on Apollo 14 with Edgar Mitchell and Alan Shepard. Among the firsts on that mission: Shepard hit golf balls hundreds of yards with a makeshift 6-iron.

Discover: Were there any problems with the mission?

Roosa: I had trouble the whole mission getting sleep. Our rest period was supposed to be five and a half hours. But I didn't get nearly that much rest. It's hard to sleep when you're weightless. I really didn't get as much sleep as I said I did because I didn't want anybody on the ground to worry. After the rest period ended you always gave a report to mission control of how many hours everybody slept. So I'd listen to what Al and Ed said, and then I'd toss in that I got a few hours of sleep. But I really didn't sleep much at all. I was just running on adrenaline. I sure did sleep a lot when I got back. And it didn't bother my performance. I went through and got everything done.

But I tried my darndest to go to sleep. I had the spacecraft darkened while we orbited the moon. When you go into the rest period, you put up shades over the window because you're going to come around into the sunlight once every two hours. So I had the spacecraft dark, and I was trying to float off to sleep. And I probably dozed off a little bit. But it was difficult. You don't have any place to tuck your head, and you can't put a pillow under your head or feel a bed underneath you. You're literally just floating. They solved that with the Skylab and the shuttle. They have sleep restraints where you float in and zip yourself up, and they put a band around your head and fasten it with Velcro. It holds your head to the bulkhead so your head isn't just bobbing around. Occasionally I'd try to tuck it in underneath where the two seat struts came together. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it wouldn't. And you've got to remember, we had very, very long days. The time between one rest period and the next generally ran around 17 to 18 hours, except for the last day in lunar orbit, when it was over 24 hours. So you get very tired.

Discover: As you were looking at the moon, was there any point at which you were reminded of geographic features on Earth? Or was it just something completely different?

Roosa: I'd hate to say you haven't gone to a totally different environment. You have. The moon is unique. But a lot of those features on the surface--lava flows and craters and so forth--you had trained so hard and had looked at so many pictures that you felt very familiar with them. After the sun popped out during our first lunar orbit, I immediately started picking out craters I recognized, I had studied them so much. I later read an article somewhere that said, "Well, Stu Roosa wasn't all that impressed, because he said it looks just like the maps he studied." But what I was really doing was paying a big compliment to this individual, Farouk El-Baz, who had trained me in lunar orbit geology so well, and he was in one of the back rooms of mission control. But somebody picked it up as, well, he's pretty blasé about the whole thing, which was not the case at all!

Discover: How quickly did the sun rise when you were orbiting the moon?

Roosa: Now, that was remarkable. There's no such thing as a sunrise on the moon. You have darkness, utter darkness, and then you have sunlight. The only reason we have twilight on Earth--that phase between darkness and before the sun actually comes up over the horizon--is because the sun's rays are being bent by our atmosphere. Now, the moon has no atmosphere. So
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