Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong nearly didn’t make it back from the Moon. One of the many startling revelations of Astronaut Aldrin’s two-hour presentation April 1st at Annapolis’ Severn School was his description of seeing a broken plastic switch for a circuit breaker in the command module, the Eagle, on the surface of the moon. He knew they could not take off and rendezvous with Michael Collins in the orbiting spacecraft Columbia without that switch. Buzz hastily improvised; he placed a plastic felt-tip pen in the circuit breaker – and it fit exactly.
None of the estimated one billion people on earth who were watching on TV and listening on radio had any knowledge that such a life-saving action had just been taken by the crew of Apollo XI. The historic mission in July 1969 was the triumphal fulfillment of President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to the Soviets, to America’s NASA, and to the scientific and engineering communities of the United States and the free world.
Our young president had been frustrated in 1961 when the USSR launched the first man into space. Major Yuri Gagarin’s grinning face was on the cover of every newspaper and mass circulation magazine in the world. The brave Soviet pilot had been selected by Communist Party chief Nikita Khrushchev as a prime example of “new Soviet man.”
Khrushchev had told the Free World: “We will bury you.” He spent the late 1950s and early 1960s threatening the Western allies’ precarious position in West Berlin. That bastion of freedom was 110 miles inside the Soviet zone of Germany. And Khrushchev was testing prototypes for a 100-megaton hydrogen bomb. After the USSR launched the world’s first artificial satellite in 1957, called Sputnik, it seemed the United States was doomed to come in second in a very desperate race for the foreseeable future.
Khrushchev was a generation older than Kennedy and, with his bald head, gap-toothed grin, and 52-inch waistline, he was the antithesis of Kennedy’s youthful energy and glamour. Still, this fat man moved with startling speed. And he saw the Space Race as a way to legitimize atheistic communism. Asked what he had seen up in space, Gagarin smiled and said: Nyet boga – No God.
Kennedy had pledged “to get America moving again.” His New Frontier program was all about defending American ideals “with vigah.” Facing a decade of losing to the communists in the Space Race presented Kennedy with a refutation of the very reason he ran for president.
Buzz Aldrin described NASA scientists telling the young president the U.S. could beat the Soviets to the Moon, but that it would take fifty years to do it. Kennedy accepted the goal but, typically, he advanced the deadline. He went before Congress on May 25, 1961, and made it the highest priority of his administration to send a man to the Moon and bring him safely home – “by the end of this decade.”
The Moon Race was on. Once Kennedy had pointed to the Moon and given the world his word, and given NASA its marching orders, the mission was clear.
Initially rejected as a NASA Astronaut, Buzz Aldrin had gone to MIT to earn a Ph.D. in astronautics. His dissertation on the then-arcane subject of manned rendezvous in space proved to be the critical element to completing the mission. But if we sent only one Saturn V rocket into space, there would be no margin for error. If anything happened to the lunar orbiter, Columbia, or the lunar lander, Eagle, no rescue of the astronauts would be possible.
Buzz Aldrin modestly maintained that the success of Apollo XI, and the entire Apollo program, was the result of teamwork. Some 400,000 scientists and engineers labored for a decade to win the Space Race. Buzz even credited the seamstresses who stitched the spacesuits that protected the astronauts’ very lives from a hostile lunar environment.