Apollo 11: A Bit of Alternative History

Today marks the 53rd anniversary of that famous flight that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins took to the Sea of Tranquility. I wrote a bit some time ago of where I was that day – in the back country of Sequoia National Park, flown in by helicopter, and clearing the trails of fallen trees. That evening, I was in my sleeping bag, looking up at the moon through these massive redwoods. I had a little 6 transistor radio, and was listening to the scratchy station in the Central Valley that it was pulling in. To hear Armstrong’s voice and looking up at the moon through those redwoods, filled me with wonder and awe.

I’m in a Facebook group that I have come to learn is filled with a lot of “movers and shakers” of NASA, past and present.

I posed the question, “where were you on that historical day?”

I’m reposting a few of their (anonymous) answers.

“I was flying a combat mission during the Vietnam War. Listened to the lunar landing on one of our radios that was broadcasting Voice of America. Back on the ground at the O-Club to watch Neil come down the ladder. A never to be forgotten sense of pride in being an American.”

“I was ten. My sister 13. We were sitting on the couch under the window air conditioner, covered in a blanket because we were cold as we watched on the black and white console tv. Somewhere before the landing I was annoying my sister who called for mom. She was on the phone with someone, and the cord wouldn’t reach us (thank goodness for corded phones!). So she threw a shoe at me to get me to stop. And the Eagle has landed! 😉 “

“It was first day of 2 weeks at Boy Scout camp with no TV. …That night in the tent, I listened to first half of moon walk on my transistor radio until the battery died.”

I was 9. Four days earlier, we’d been to the Cape to watch the launch. Now I was trying to stay awake for the first step. I can’t remember if I actually saw it live: I was dozing in and out.”

“I was a 16 year old space nerd. We had gone to my 5th grade teacher’s house (who was my mother’s best friend) to watch the moonwalk. I was absolutely transfixed by what I was seeing…humans were walking on the moon (and I knew better than to say “I wish I was up there”). After the walk was completed, I got my telescope out to see if I could find the LM. No luck but it was worth the try.”

“Our family had recently moved into a brand-new townhome in the Denver suburbs. That was the day the patio was poured, and I was allowed to carefully write the date and a little drawing of the moon in the fresh concrete.”

It always amused me to think that there are people who believe that the whole thing was a hoax. To them I must say, thank the 400,000 people from small companies to North American Aviation and Grumman Aerospace, to those at Aerojet General who were working on a rocket engine in my home town (on a still summer night, I could hear them testing it over 30 miles away), who all had parts in making the millions of parts that went into that massive Saturn V rocket.

400,000 people who all had to do their part and “make it right” or suffer a catastrophic launch, who all have kept quiet keeping this “conspiracy”.

For 53 years and counting.

But it very nearly ended in failure. Neil Armstrong, mission commander and commander of the LEM (that’s Lunar Excursion Module, for you young-uns) discovered, once they were approaching the surface, that the terrain was too rocky for a safe landing. Ever the calm, cool test pilot, he took manual control and patiently looked for a more suitable place.

Estimates are that he had 30 seconds, or even less, fuel remaining by the time they touched down on the moon.

Told by NASA to take the rest of the day off after this harrowing escape from an earlier earth-bound test, he was seen at his desk an hour or so later. A fellow astronaut who had heard of this escape asked him if it was true, and he simply said “yes”.

He was cool under pressure.

Like the famous letter Eisenhower had prepared in the event of a disasterous D-Day defeat, Richard Nixon had a letter prepared to address the American people should that moon landing be a failure.

If the lunar module failed to launch from the surface, death for the two stranded astronauts could come from either slow starvation or from what Safire termed “deliberately ‘closed down communications,’ the euphemism for suicide.”

The tragic situation would require Nixon to first contact the widows to express his condolences before addressing the nation in the prepared speech.

To H. R. Haldeman

From: Bill Safire July 18, 1969.


Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.


The President should telephone each of the widows -to-be.


A clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to “the deepest of the deep, ” concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.

The events of Apollo 13 showed us how close that letter could have been read.

What a day that was 53 years ago. I am glad that I was alive to witness it.

07-21-228 little-known facts about Apollo 11

1 Comment

Filed under History

One response to “Apollo 11: A Bit of Alternative History

  1. Here’s a 1964 film that uses (mostly-traditional) music to put the space program in the context of the American history of exploration. Produced by North American Aviation.

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