It was not just another day in the life of a reporter. I was covering Apollo 11 for the New York Daily News in 1969. For the first time, men from Earth were trying to land on the moon, on the dusty plains of the Sea of Tranquility.
I had flown to Houston from Cape Canaveral, Florida, where a monstrous Saturn 5 rocket had thundered off right on time, at 9:32 a.m., on July 16, and disappeared over the Atlantic carrying the Apollo 11 spacecraft into earth’s orbit.
It was the sixth launching of a Saturn 5. I had covered all of them. It was the third time Americans would blast out of earth’s orbit, using the third stage of the Saturn 5, and head through space to the moon. This time, however, the plan was for them to set the spidery-looking lunar module Eagle on the surface and make history.
A small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind. Or disaster.
The whole world was focused on Apollo 11 on July 20. For me as a reporter, however, it was becoming almost routine. I had done most of this before. On Christmas Eve in 1968, Apollo 8 took Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders into orbit around the moon. In May of 1969 — just two months earlier — Apollo 10 took Tom Stafford, John Young and Gene Cernan into moon orbit, where they did a dress rehearsal with the lunar module to within 50,000 feet of the surface.
Now, with Apollo 11, it was much the same — launch at the Cape by a Saturn 5, a flight to Houston to cover the mission, three press conferences a day to keep abreast, splashdown. It was all getting a trifle stale. Yet even for a jaded reporter, this one was something else: that giant leap for mankind — if they made it.
I wasn’t always so jaded. The first time I showed up at Cape Canaveral as a fledgling journalist to cover an American spaceflight, it was March of 1965. I was working for Reuters. By the standards of the press site of the day, I was late getting into space coverage. I had missed covering the chimps — Ham, who had made a suborbital trip to the fringes of space, and Enos, his successor.
They paved the way for the six one-man Mercury flights, featuring Alan Shepard and John Glenn, among others, that mesmerized Walter Cronkite. The Soviet Union led the way, of course, by doing everything first. I was at the Cape for Gemini 3, the first of the two-man Gemini missions. I was in way over my head, but I stumbled through it, and my bosses let me cover Gemini 4 as well. Soon I was considered a veteran.
There were 10 Gemini flights, each demonstrating rendezvous and space-walking steps that would be needed for the Apollo missions, to fulfill the 1961 pledge by President John F. Kennedy to land men on the moon and return them safely to earth by the end of the decade. I covered all the Geminis. Slowly but surely NASA caught up to the Soviets and passed them in the so-called space race to the moon. I found that I had learned to speak NASA fluently. I could describe the difference between an orbit of the earth and a revolution. I knew, or thought I knew, what state vector meant. I knew that gimbal lock was a bad thing. Don’t ask me now.
So by January 1967, with Gemini in its rear mirror, it was full speed ahead for NASA. Apollo 1 was being readied for an imminent launch. Then, disaster. Fire in the spacecraft. Three astronauts died in a countdown rehearsal, and for NASA it was back to basic assumptions. For me, it was grist for the journalistic mill. How could this happen? Congressional investigations. A powerful story enhanced by tragedy.
Basically, the Apollo command module was revealed to be a fire trap in a 100% oxygen environment, with no quick-opening escape hatch. The whole spacecraft was extensively redesigned, and NASA lost 18 months. But the moon-landing craft, the lunar module, was also way behind schedule.
Apollo 7 in 1967 in earth orbit got NASA back on track with the redesigned command module, and, with the overweight lunar module still awaiting sign-off, Apollo 8 went on its moon-orbiting trip without it. The Christmas Eve moon orbit by Borman, Lovell and Anders was arguably even more dramatic than the Apollo 11 landing six months later. The Apollo 8 spacecraft was recovered in the Pacific by the USS Yorktown. The command module is on exhibit in Charleston harbor.
On July 20, 1969, I was at my desk in the overflowing newsroom of Building 1 in the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. I was 30 years old.
By mid-1969, I had covered a score of manned and unmanned spaceflights, all leading up to this: the first attempt by men from earth to land on the moon. I had become science editor of the New York Daily News, the newspaper with a circulation of more than 2 million, the biggest in the country. July 20 was a Sunday, a steaming hot day. It was just past 4 in the afternoon. My desk was next to a window on the ground floor of Building 1, within shouting distance of a bank of Western Union teletype machines with keyboard operators, the best of the best, who had been recruited from all over the country to file stories to newspapers in dozens of languages all over the world.
A couple of hundred yards away was the windowless, hurricane-proof Building 30, which housed mission control on the third floor. There, astronaut Charlie Duke, a South Carolina native later to walk on the moon during Apollo 16, relayed communications and status reports to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on their way to the lunar surface. Duke took his orders from flight director Gene Kranz, whom we in the press called General Savage. Kranz, in turn, listened intently to his flight controllers —EECOM, FIDO, GUIDO, GNC and all the rest who were deep in the weeds of systems data from the lunar module Eagle.
I was wearing heavy black rubber earphones and I strained to hear every word from Armstrong and Aldrin, as they descended aboard the lunar module Eagle toward the Sea of Tranquility.
Suddenly, computer alarm 1202.
“What is that?” I thought to myself. After all the months and months of briefings we reporters had from NASA, and the contractors who built the hardware for NASA, the countless hours of reading flight plans, how could I not know what a 1202 alarm meant? Did it mean a computer failure, and a landing abort was about to occur?
I rolled a fresh sheet of Western Union copy paper into my portable typewriter and looked at the black rotary-dial phone on my desk. How would this day turn out? Would the Eagle crash? Would astronaut Michael Collins, remaining in orbit around the moon aboard the command module Columbia, have to fly back to earth alone, with Armstrong and Aldrin perished on the moon? To me, as a reporter, success or failure for Apollo 11 didn’t matter. Either way, no matter what happened; it was the biggest story of my life, at age 30.
A half-century later, nothing has changed. I am still waiting for a bigger story.
As we all know, the 1202 alarm was no deal-breaker, and Armstrong landed the Eagle with less than a minute’s worth of fuel remaining. And he, a few hours later, followed by Aldrin, made that giant leap for mankind. In those days, newspapers published several editions a day. My first-edition story began: Houston — Man landed on the moon today.
No way to hype the first landing on the moon.
I had not expected that to happen. I fully anticipated two or three tries before lunar-landing success, perhaps even a tragedy. Space travel is unforgiving, too exacting, to expect constant success. Too many things can go wrong, as shown by Apollo 13, and the two Shuttle disasters — the Challenger explosion, and the Columbia reentry breakup. And that’s only in earth orbit or, in the case of Apollo 13, not even as far as the moon. Crewed space travel is also obscenely expensive.
Nevertheless, I did not anticipate, in 1972, when the final Apollo landed, that a half-century later we would not be back on the moon, or that the Russians would essentially abandon their space ambitions. I fully expected that earthlings would have walked on Mars by now.
Now, semi-retired and sitting on our back porch in downtown Charleston, South Carolina at age 80, I am not so sure that will ever happen — or should — despite the continual hints of possible pre-life from the NASA propagandists, based on ephemeral evidence sent from Curiosity and other machines on the Martian surface. The likelihood of humans surviving cosmic rays and other hazards of deep space on a round trip of three years or more to Mars is vanishingly thin. And with no space race to win — the only real rationale for the Apollo program — there is no demonstrable payoff for success.
The machines that have landed on Mars have told us all we need to know, scientifically. Mars is a dead planet, and we should take better care of the one we live on. It’s all we have.
Mark Bloom, a lifelong journalist, primarily in New York, became a medical writer and editor after Project Apollo concluded. Before that he covered the United Nations and the Beatles, among other good stories. Later he covered the advent of human heart transplantation and the health of presidential candidates.