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kottke.org posts about Neil Armstrong

First Man

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 20, 2018

I don’t know why I’m so skeptical about First Man, the upcoming biopic about Neil Armstrong and the first Moon landing. Oh wait, yes I do: Apollo 11 holds a special place in my heart, as does Armstrong and his role in the historic landing, and I’m very protective of it. It would be so easy and, in my opinion, wrong to load this story up with unnecessary drama when there’s already so much there in the story, even though it might not be naturally cinematic.

On the other hand, the trailer looks great, Ryan Gosling is a terrific actor, director Damien Chazelle’s previous films are really good (Whiplash and La La Land), and the film is based on the authorized and well-received biography by James Hansen. Ok fine, I just talked myself into it!

Live TV coverage of the Apollo 11 landing and Moon walk

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 20, 2018

Apollo 11 TV Coverage

In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy stood before Congress and said:

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.

A little more than 8 years later, it was done. On July 20, 1969, 49 years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon, took a walk, and returned safely to Earth a few days later. And the whole thing was broadcast live on television screens around the world.

For the 40th anniversary of the landing in 2009, I put together a page where you can watch the original CBS News coverage of Walter Cronkite reporting on the Moon landing and the first Moon walk, synced to the present-day time. Just open this page in your browser and the coverage will start playing at the proper time. Here’s the schedule (all times EDT):

4:10:30 pm: Moon landing broadcast starts
4:17:40 pm: Lunar module lands on the Moon

4:20:15 pm: Break in coverage

10:51:27 pm: Moon walk broadcast starts
10:56:15 pm: First step on Moon
11:51:30 pm: Nixon speaks to the Eagle crew
12:00:30 am: Broadcast end (on July 21)

You can add these yearly recurring events to your calendar: Moon landing & Moon walk.

Here’s what I wrote when I launched the project, which is one of my favorite things I’ve ever done online:

If you’ve never seen this coverage, I urge you to watch at least the landing segment (~10 min.) and the first 10-20 minutes of the Moon walk. I hope that with the old time TV display and poor YouTube quality, you get a small sense of how someone 40 years ago might have experienced it. I’ve watched the whole thing a couple of times while putting this together and I’m struck by two things: 1) how it’s almost more amazing that hundreds of millions of people watched the first Moon walk *live* on TV than it is that they got to the Moon in the first place, and 2) that pretty much the sole purpose of the Apollo 11 Moon walk was to photograph it and broadcast it live back to Earth.

I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Andrew Chaikin’s account of the Apollo program, A Man on the Moon, and the chapter about Apollo 11’s Moon landing was riveting.1 I’ve watched the TV footage & listened to the recordings dozens of times and I was still on the edge of my seat, sweating the landing alongside Armstrong and Aldrin. And sweating they were…at least Armstrong was. Take a look at his heart rate during the landing; it peaked at 150 beats per minute at landing (note: the “1000 ft altitude” is mislabeled, it should be “100 ft”):

Neil Armstrong's heart rate during the Apollo 11 Moon landing

For reference, Armstrong’s resting heart rate was around 60 bpm. There are a couple of other interesting things about this chart. The first is the two minutes of missing data starting around 102:36. They were supposed to be 10 minutes from landing on the Moon and instead their link to Mission Control in Houston kept cutting out. Then there were the intermittent 1201 and 1202 program alarms, which neither the LM crew nor Houston had encountered in any of the training simulations. At the sign of the first alarm at 102:38:26, Armstrong’s heart rate actually appears to drop. And then, as the alarms continue throughout the sequence along with Houston’s assurances that the alarm is nothing to worry about, Armstrong’s heart rate stays steady.

Right around the 2000 feet mark, Armstrong realizes that he needs to maneuver around a crater and some rocks on the surface to reach a flat landing spot and his heart rate steadily rises until it plateaus at the landing. At the time, he thought he’d landed with less than 30 seconds of fuel remaining. That Neil Armstrong was able to keep his cool with unknown alarms going off while avoiding craters and boulders with very little fuel remaining and his heart rate spiking while skimming over the surface OF THE FREAKING MOON doing something no one had ever done before is one of the most totally cold-blooded & badass things anyone has ever done. Damn, I get goosebumps just reading about it!

Update: The landing broadcast just aired and I wanted to explain a little about what you saw (you can relive it here).

The shots of the Moon you see during the landing broadcast are animations…there is obviously no camera on the Moon watching the LM descend to the surface. There was a camera recording the landing from the LM but that footage was not released until later. This is in contrast to the footage you’ll see later on the Moon walk broadcast…that footage was piped in live to TV screens all over the world as it happened.

The radio voices you hear are mostly Mission Control in Houston (specifically Apollo astronaut Charlie Duke, who acted as the spacecraft communicator for this mission) and Buzz Aldrin, whose job during the landing was to keep an eye on the LM’s altitude and speed — you can hear him calling it out, “3 1/2 down, 220 feet, 13 forward.” Armstrong doesn’t say a whole lot…he’s busy flying and furiously searching for a suitable landing site. But it’s Armstrong that says after they land, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”. Note the change in call sign from “Eagle” to “Tranquility Base”. :)

Two things to listen for on the broadcast: the 1201/1202 program alarms I mentioned above and two quick callouts by Charlie Duke about the remaining fuel towards the end: “60 seconds” and “30 seconds”. Armstrong is taking all this information in through his earpiece — the 1202s, the altitude and speed from Aldrin, and the remaining fuel — and using it to figure out where to land.

The CBS animation shows the fake LM landing on the fake Moon before the actual landing — when Buzz says “contact light” and then “engine stop”. The animation was based on the scheduled landing time and evidently couldn’t be adjusted. The scheduled time was overshot because of the crater and boulders situation mentioned above.

Cronkite was joined on the program by former astronaut Wally Schirra. When Armstrong signaled they’d landed, Schirra can be seen dabbing his eyes and Cronkite looks a little misty as well as he rubs his hands together.

  1. The book is read by Bronson Pinchot, who played Balki Bartokomous on the 80s sitcom Perfect Strangers. He is a fantastic audiobook narrator.

The calmness of airplane pilots

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 18, 2018

Yesterday a Southwest flight from NYC to Dallas experienced an in-flight engine explosion and had to make an emergency landing in Philadelphia. The explosion tore a hole in the fuselage and a passenger started to get sucked out of the hole before being pulled back in (she subsequently died). As Wired’s Jack Stewart notes in an informative piece about how emergencies like this are handled, the plane’s pilot sounded remarkably calm in her communications with air traffic control:

The pilots don’t reach out to air traffic control until that descent is underway. “Something we teach students from day one is aviate, navigate, communicate — in that order,” says Brian Strzempkowski, who trains pilots at Ohio State University’s Center for Aviation Studies.

“They’d say mayday three times, say their call sign, engine failure, descending to 10,000 on heading of XYZ,” says Moss. The pilot, air traffic controllers, and an airline dispatch unit work to find the best airport for an emergency landing. In less critical circumstances, it may be better to fly a little farther to a larger airfield with more facilities, but in extreme emergencies — such as this one — the pilot can ask for priority, and the controllers will clear the path for her to land at the closest runway, in any direction.

As terrifying as this looks, the pilot talking to air traffic control sounded remarkably calm. “We have a part of the aircraft missing, so we’re going to need to slow down a bit,” she said.

You can listen to the air traffic control audio here:

The pilot, Tammie Jo Shults, was a Navy fighter pilot, so that explains some of her chill. And Neil Armstrong’s combat experience in the Navy surely contributed to his calmness when he took manual control to steer the LM around an unsuitable landing site w/ very little fuel left while trying to land on the surface of the dang Moon with unknown alarms going off — you can read all about it here and listen to Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mission Control discussing the whole thing here as if they’re trying to decide on a lunch place.

But the Navy angle is not the whole story. I’ve talked a bit before about my dad, who was a working pilot when I was a kid. He was sometimes not the most relaxed person on the ground, but at the controls of a plane, he was always calm and collected.

It was a fine day when we set out but as we neared our destination, the weather turned dark. You could see the storm coming from miles away and we raced it to the airport. The wind had really picked up as we made our first approach to land; I don’t know what the windspeed was, but it was buffeting us around pretty good. About 50 feet off the ground, the wind slammed the plane downwards, dropping a dozen feet in half a second. In a calm voice, my dad said, “we’d better go around and try this again”.

The storm was nearly on top of us as we looped around to try a second time. It was around this time he announced, even more calmly, that we were “running a little low” on fuel. Nothing serious, you understand. Just “a little low”.

How these pilots talk is not an accident. That characterless voice emanating from the flight deck during the boarding process telling you about your destination’s weather sounds conversationally beige…until something like losing an engine at 30,000 feet happens and that exact same voice, and the demeanor that goes with it, takes on a razor’s edge of magnificent competence and steadiness and even heroism.

Neil Armstrong’s bag of Moon junk

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 10, 2015

For whatever reason, when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong left the surface of the Moon after their historic space walk, they collected “a bunch of trash that we want to take back” in a small white bag. Upon their return to Earth, Armstrong put the bag in a closet and there it sat for more than 40 years, until Armstrong’s widow discovered it shortly after his death. Among other items, the bag contained the camera that recorded The Eagle’s landing on the Moon and Armstrong’s first step, which was presumed to have been lost or left on the Moon.

Apollo 11 Camera

As far as we know, Neil has never discussed the existence of these items and no one else has seen them in the 45 years since he returned from the Moon. (I asked James Hansen, Neil’s authorized biographer if he had mentioned the items, and he had not.) Each and every item has its own story and significance, and they are described with photographs in extraordinary detail in an addendum to the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal. But two of the items are especially timely. Both have been placed on display as part of the recently opened temporary exhibition Outside the Spacecraft: 50 Years of Extra-Vehicular Activity.

The first is the 16mm Data Acquisition Camera that was mounted in the window of the lunar module Eagle to record the historic landing and “one small step” made by Armstrong as humankind first set foot on another world.

Neil Armstrong, RIP

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 25, 2012

Neil Armstrong RIP

Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon, died today at the age of 82.

Although he had been a Navy fighter pilot, a test pilot for NASA’s forerunner and an astronaut, Mr. Armstrong never allowed himself to be caught up in the celebrity and glamour of the space program.

“I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer,” he said in February 2000 in one a rare public appearance. “And I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.”

A sad day; Armstrong was one of my few heroes. In my eyes, Armstrong safely guiding the LEM to the surface of the Moon, at times by the seat of his pants, is among the most impressive and important things ever done by a human being.