The Apollo 11 crew
THE HAND OF FATE
It was Saturday, 21 December 1968, and some 2 hours 27 minutes into the mission when astronaut Mike Collins made the call, “Apollo 8, you’re Go for TLI.” This cryptic one-liner relayed the momentous decision that Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders were cleared to attempt the translunar injection (TLI) manoeuvre that would make them the first humans to head out to the vicinity of the Moon. If all went to plan, in three days the spacecraft would enter lunar orbit to conduct a reconnaissance for the missions that would follow, one of which would hopefully accomplish the challenge made by President John F. Kennedy on 25 May 1961 “to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon, and returning him, safely, to the Earth’’.
By a cruel irony, Collins had been assigned to Apollo 8. In early 1968 he had been the astronauts’ handball champion, but his game had deteriorated. “My legs felt peculiar, as if they did not belong 100 per cent to me. I had heard prize-fighters talk about their legs going, and I thought, well, instant old age.’’ On seeking medical advice, he was told that a disk had worked completely loose from its vertebra, fallen down into the spinal tunnel, and was impinging on his spinal cord. He suspected this derived from ejecting in 1956 from an F-86 which caught fire. Not only would it be necessary to undergo surgery, but if he was to retain flight status in jet aircraft then the adjacent vertebrae would have to be fused together to enable his weakened neck to withstand another ejection. The surgery in July was completely successful. In the meantime, he had been dropped from the Apollo 8 crew and replaced by his backup, Lovell. While recovering, Collins read in a newspaper that NASA had decided to send Apollo 8 out to orbit the Moon at Christmas, instead of simply orbiting Earth. On returning to work in October, he was assigned as one of the CapComs for the mission.
The commander of the backup crew was Neil Armstrong. On 23 December, as Apollo 8 was nearing the Moon, Deke Slayton, Director of Flight Crew Operations at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas, took Armstrong aside in the Mission Operations Control Room and enquired whether he wished to command Apollo 11; the answer was enthusiastically in the affirmative. To the next question – What did he think of flying with Buzz Aldrin, who was also on the Apollo 8 backup
crew? – Armstrong had no objection. Finally, Armstrong was asked if he would retain Fred Haise, who was the third member of the backup crew, or would he prefer Mike Collins? When the assignments had been made Aldrin had been the lunar module pilot (LMP), but when Lovell replaced Collins as the command module pilot (CMP) and Fred Haise was added, the fact that Haise was a lunar module specialist had resulted in Aldrin being reassigned to back up the CMP. If Haise were to fly on Apollo 11, Aldrin would remain as CMP, but if Collins were to join the crew then he would do so as CMP and Aldrin would revert to LMP. Armstrong first had a word with Collins, who was very enthusiastic, then he told Slayton, who submitted his recommendation for the Apollo 11 prime crew of Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin. This crew was endorsed by Robert R. Gilruth, Director of the Manned Spacecraft Center.
When Apollo 8 entered lunar orbit as planned, the crew were awed by the spectacle of Earth rising over the lunar horizon. Prior to heading home, they marked Christmas Eve by reciting the opening verses of the Book of Genesis. On their return, Lovell and Anders were teamed with Haise to back up Apollo 11; but as Anders intended to leave NASA soon after this assignment, Ken Mattingly was assigned to shadow him, with a view to joining Lovell and Haise as the prime crew of a subsequent mission.
On Monday, 6 January 1969, Slayton called Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin to his office, confirmed their flight assignments, and told them to assume that their mission would involve a lunar landing. Thomas O. Paine, NASA’s Administrator, made the announcement three days later in Washington, and the following day, in Houston, the crew gave their first press conference.
At that time, Armstrong was by no means confident that Apollo 11 would make the first lunar landing. The lunar module (LM), whose development had been so protracted, had yet to be tested in its manned configuration, Mission Control had yet to show that it could operate the LM in parallel with the command and service modules (CSM), and Apollo 9 and Apollo 10 would have to demonstrate many procedures and systems before Armstrong’s own mission could be finally specified. Collins estimated that Apollo 10 had a 10 per cent chance of attempting the historic landing, while Apollos 11 and 12 had, respectively, a 50 and a 40 per cent chance.