Our Moon Poem
You’re sitting on top an erupting volcano that’s blowing down. That’s the only way I can describe the mountain of a rocket roaring under us as we lifted off for the moon. The teeth-chattering vibration, that incredible roar making me giddy—we’re on our way!—to the moon! To stanch the giggle-fit I feel coming on I burst into singing the Star Spangled Banner the way they do at the start of baseball games, or a Hockey Game—against the Russians—going for Olympic Gold—now here we were in Sudden Death and it was me with the chance to shoot the puck into an open net to win not just the game, not just the battle, but the whole friggin’ war. Yes, war, that’s what it was, a war to the moon, not a race as they call it. That was the reason they gave Eagle, the Lunar Lander we were going to use to actually land on the moon, the ability to be flown by a pilot—me!—without any help from mission control: they were afraid the Commies would try to jam Houston’s signals just as it was turning on Eagle’s engines and instead of a slow descent—Smash-o! With Buzz and me as bugs squished against the inside of its windshield. But now the Commies were the ones who were going to get it, the moon up ahead as big and wide as an open net, the puck on the tip of my stick, and all I had to do was shoot it in. I was the every kid who ever imagined winning the World Series, or the Super Bowl, or the NBA Championship with that last shot right at the buzzer—all rolled into one and raised to an exponent of a gazillion. I mean, this was the friggin’ moon! The moon that Galileo and Kepler and billions of poets and philosophers and lovers and the hopeful and the hopeless, and werewolves, and regular wolves, had looked up to longingly since slime evolved enough to wonder. All that history. The entire human history of wonder and yearning and dreaming and I, Neil Armstrong, was going to be the first person to touch it because thousands of other people had worked so hard to put me in position to get the ball to make the shot—the position where you are either hero or horseshit as my mother used to say—the only two options—like a field-goal kicker about to either win it or lose it all—all he’s got to do is kick the ball between the uprights like he’d done 980 times in practice. Nine hundred and eighty hours. That’s how much time we’d logged in the Eagle simulator, rehearsing the final 10 minutes of landing on the moon. All I had to do was to not fuck up.
The ride there went as expected, the moon growing larger as we neared. After we’d slingshot around the earth, we’d been losing speed, coasting so to speak, but then I saw our speed start to inch up again: we were being pulled in by the moon’s gravity, and as weird as this sounds, that’s when it really sunk in that we really were going to the moon, would crash right into it if we fell asleep at the wheel, and I just knew that the docs monitoring our biometrics back on earth were seeing an up tick on my pulse. When the moon was right there, so big if filled the triangular windows, making them look like wedges of cheese, we fired retro rockets to put us into moon orbit.
Around and around we went, the moon’s pale light flooding the capsule. Down below, we could see the area where we were supposed to land, bare and smooth as salt flats. Then, on the next time around, it was time to go there. Buzz and I crawled into the Eagle, leaving what’s his name—I can never remember the name of the third guy who stayed behind in Snoppy’s Nose, I mean Columbia, the main capsule. We fired the rockets to separate the Lunar Lander from Snoopy’s Nose, I mean Columbia, then let it do a slow spin so Collins!—that’s the guy’s name, Michael Collins, back in Snoopy’s nose, could give it a visual, make sure nothing got damaged etc. Then we did a Descent Orbit Insertion (DOI) burn to put the Lander into a 60 x 9 nautical mile orbit, that is an elliptical orbit with the high point being 60 miles above the surface of the moon, and the low point being only 9 miles above the surface, the point at which we were supposed to begin a Powered Descent.
While we were coming around the dark side of the moon, Buzz gets the idea that we should moon the moon. It’s a dumb idea, dumb as hell, but he won’t let it go. I mean, when we’re rounding the front side where Houston can hear us he’s all business—‘CAPCON this and ‘slew rate’ that. But as soon as we’re on the dark side, and out of radio contact, he starts in, saying how funny it would be, trying to convince me, assuring me it would be our little secret. That guy!--turns out he had a lot of little secrets on that trip, a secret chalice so he could be the first Christian to have communion on the moon; a Masonic document, claiming the moon for the Masons…. I mean, I’m out there putting up an American flag to claim the moon in the name of all Free People on Earth and he’s claiming it for the Masons. Can you believe it? How’d that get past the psych guys? Anyway, he’s on me to moon the moon, telling me how much fun they used to have in high school driving by a school dance, or basketball game and mooning the girls coming out, his big ol’ white ass hanging out the window of the car as they zoomed by, the sight of it making the girls scream…. Remember this would have been back in 1948, back before all that bra-burning business. Him and his buddies thought it was so dope that they had names for different kinds of mooning. Mooning as they drove past the victim was called—duh—a drive by; what do you expect from someone who called our capsule Snoopy’s nose? If he or his friends pressed their buttocks against a window, like to moon someone inside an ice-cream parlor, it was called pressed-ham. If it was pressed against a screened window, that was a waffle…. On and on and on, all the way around the far side of the moon. Finally, I had to say, Shut up, Buzz! I’m not going to moon the moon! Which pissed him off, made him sulk. But I didn’t care. We had work to do!
Thankfully, we were coming around back onto the side where we’d have radio contact again. What’s-his-name—Collins—was already there, the orbit he was on higher than ours so he could see the earth before us. …Houston, this is Columbia, he’s saying. Like hearing one half of a telephone conversation, we couldn’t hear Houston, but from what Collins was saying, we could tell they’d reestablished radio contact. Listen, babe, he said, Everything's going just swimmingly. Beautiful. And we know he was talking about our DOI burn. Silence. Then, “Okay. Eagle’s coming along.” They must have told him that they were standing by, waiting for us to emerge from the dark side. Roger. More silence. You don't much care do you? he says, and to this day I wonder what that answer referred to. Suddenly we could hear Houston: No, sir, Duke, the ground controller in Houston, was saying.
Buzz gets on his Push-to-Talk (PTT), squeezing a comm switch when he wants to be heard in Houston, and back to his normal astronaut voice says: Houston, Eagle here. How do you read?
Five-by-five, Eagle, Houston says, telling us the signal is clear. We're standing by for your burn report. Over.
And Buzz gives it to him: Roger. The burn was on time. The residuals before nulling: minus 0.1, minus 0.4, minus 0.1, X and Z nulled to zero….
From here it was the expected management of problems, yawing left 10 degrees, yawing right 3 degrees to keep the high-gain antenna aligned with earth. For a while we had a hard time doing so and there was a lot of static. A couple of times Houston dropped out completely and we had to rely on Collins in Columbia to relay messages. But then it settled down and we get the word: You're Go for PDI.
We go into the routine we’d rehearsed a thousand times before, with Buzz reading off the check list of positions all of our switches were supposed to be in for our final descent, while I check the switches themselves: DECA Gimbal AC, Closed? Circuit breaker? Command Override, Off. Gimbal Enable. Rate Scale, 25. Thrust translation, four jets. Balance couple, On. TCA throttle, Minimum. Throttle, Auto CDR. Prop(ellant) button, Reset. Prop button. (Pause) Okay. Abort/Abort Stage, Reset. (Pause) Att(itude) Control, three of them to Mode Control. (Reviewing the present situation) Okay, Mode Control is set. AGS is reading 400 plus 1. Standing by for…arming.
After Buzz gets through the long list, and I’ve flipped the switches into their correct positions, we get the mark from Houston for when we’re to fire our rocket to begin our descent: Eagle, Your alignment is Go on the AGS. On my mark, 3:30 'til ignition.
Roger, Buzz says.
Mark. 3:30 'til ignition.
Now we go from busy to super busy because time has accelerated. Or rather, we have accelerated through space, or say instead that space and time have suddenly shortened—for us—which is the same thing since from this point on our options have narrowed to three: Abort, Crash, or Land. Soon they will be two. Then one—with the time to do so rapidly shrinking since we’re traveling 2,000 miles per hour, rocketing down, more meteor than rocket, headed right at the moon, with one chance to get it right. Both of us our doing our jobs, Buzz, getting the sequence camera rolling, the 16 mm camera pointed out his window, Houston, streaming pitch and yaw instructions for me to roll the Eagle to keep our antenna aligned with theirs, Buzz reading me the raw computer data of altitude, angle of descent—we’re flying with our engine forward, laying face down with the moon sweeping along below while I’m trying to pick out landmarks, simultaneously working to get Eagle upright to land. Using the grid etched on the window I take a few barnyard measurements of prominent features to see if these jive with where the computer says we are, and I see we’ve overshot crater Maskelyne W three seconds early, so we’ve just begun and are already off by 6,000 feet. Just as I’m arming the descent engine, two indicator lights on the DSKY come on indicating that the landing radar is not providing adequate data to calculate the LM altitude and rate of descent. Imagine having to step gently down off a mile-high ladder without knowing if you’re on the bottom or top step. That’s what it’s like.
Logically, we were flying into a death trap. Or at least that’s what the odds makers would have put it 60 – 40, 50-50 odds at best to not make it. With odds like that protocol was to abort the mission, live to fight another day.
But there’s something perverse in people that makes them want to go for it in situations like this, something animal that takes over and makes the fireman rush into a burning building, the experimental chemist inject himself with an untested drug, and without thinking I switch over from VOX to PIT communication, that is, I make sure Houston can only hear me when I push the com button on my sleeve instead of whenever my voice activates the mic in my helmet, and I tell Buzz, Fuck it. Those things never worked well at this altitude for Apollo 10.
Proceed, Buzz says, right with me. And he gives the countdown to fire the descent rocket: One, Zero.
Ignition, I say, flipping the switch. And it’s blast off! Or rather slow down! The rocket putting on the brakes, slowing our descent.
Buzz reads the numbers: Ignition. (Thrust) 10 percent (Pause; static)
I glance at the time. We lit it up just about on time. I lean on the throttle at 10% for the next 15 seconds…
…Buzz is reading the rocket’s force: 24 percent, 25, 26, Throttle up. Looks good!
When we were at 40% I let it run for another 15 seconds.
Buzz is monitoring the data, and the AGS and PGNS agree closely, meaning that our position as calculated by our computer and our position as calculated from actual measurements are pretty close. Except, he says, our altitude is too high.
We got all these terms left over from the days when pilots in biplanes would go buzzing through open barns—barnstorming—flying by the seat of your pants, high gating, and etc., but flying a rocket’s nothing like flying a plane: it’s more like working an abacus—accurately and fast—flipping a series of switches to get rockets to turn on or off at the right time; or entering lines of code and data into the onboard computer, which is a also a lot like flipping switches. I mean, the computer only had 1 Meg of memory, so if we wanted it to figure out our position we had to load in the program that would do that: 23 lines of numbers; and then the data for the best calculation for our last position: more numbers. If we wanted to then calculate our angle of approach for docking, we had to dump the position program, load in the docking program, and start over. Actually, it was both simpler and more complex than this—simpler because there were automated systems to do a lot of things for me, like feed data from the radar into the computer; more complex because the computer could use that little bit of memory to run 7 programs at once: but you get the idea, constantly loading programs and data in, the computer sharing its tiny memory with all the tasks it had to do. It was like having fifty mathematicians, each dedicated to a single problem or calculation, but only seven of them could work at a time and they had to share one abacus, which meant that they took turns using it while the others waited to calculate the next line in their program. My job was to manage them: determine which seven should be working at any given time, which of the seven should have priority, constantly feeding them the data they needed to do their job to make sure we had enough fuel, were going in the right direction, rotating at the right speed, angle of descent, etc…. All the while using the grid etched on the window to spot landmarks, make rough estimates to see if the answers the mathematicians were coming up with seemed to reflect reality, keep up with the chatter from Houston, and Buzz, giving me instrument readings that would affect my abacus management, that is, piloting decisions.
So when Buzz says our altitude is higher than it’s supposed to be, he means were going to land somewhere we hadn’t planned. I switched on the Rendezvous Radar. You're Slew? Okay.
As soon as I do, Buzz sees an unexpected fluctuation in the AC voltage. Could be our meter, maybe, huh? he asks hopefully.
Coming up to the three-minute mark, Houston reminds us. Just as he says this I see the Taruntius Crater go by, the crater we were supposed to be directly over at the three-minute mark, so I know for sure that we’re going to overshoot our landing site and radio back that we’re going to be down-range long.
Then Buzz pipes up that we’re also falling faster than we’re supposed to be: two feet per second greater than the PGNS (Primary Guidance and Navigation System) says we should be.
Okay, okay, I say, then I tell him to keep an eye on the strength of the signal between our antenna and Houston, because I’m going to begin rotating us into a face up, feet forward position. I give it the gas, but we’re not rolling over. Or not rotating as fast as we’re supposed to: only a couple of feet per second instead of the 5 to 7 feet per second we had practiced. The scale on the computer would inch up to 3, then jump back to 0, even rolling us negative, that is back toward our starting position. You know, I said, This is much harder to do than it was in Simu— Out the window, I could see the moon at about the same angle it was before I began the roll. So I start check my switch configurations again, and holy shit, I see that the Rate Scale knob is in the wrong position: I was supposed to have turned it to 25, but had somehow left it at 5 degrees per second. When I went to 25, and punched in a 5-deg/sec command it went right around.
Keep it going, keep it going… Buzz says, watching the scale that showed the angle of Eagle… Finally, it came around, with us rocketing down to the moon, feet first now, back side to it, but this had taken more time than it was supposed to—remember, we’re still traveling 1,000 clicks per—and so we’re lower than we’re supposed to be—39,000 feet instead of 41,500.
Thankfully, the Altitude warning light switched off as soon as we came around, indicating that the radar knew where we were now, now that it was pointing at the moon, and it had a good lock on the surface, so we could read directly how high up we were.
Houston must have seen this too, because they come on right away with You are Go to continue...
...at 4 minutes, Buzz is saying.
Roger. You are Go, Houston repeats, You are Go to continue powered descent. You are Go to continue powered descent.
Roger, Buzz says, a little pissy. And I know what he means. In the simulator, either something was working or not working. Everything was either Yes or No, Go or No Go, One or Zero. None of this rotating at 5 degrees when it was supposed to be 25, or hearing 50% of a burn report. You were either in communication because the antenna was in synch, or you weren’t because it wasn’t. You were crashing or landing, not ‘crash landing,’ or not being sure if you or Houston was in control, and if they were or weren’t because it was planned, or because the antenna got out of alignment again, or if the Russians had managed to jam the signal. The signal strength I told Buzz to keep an eye on kept dropping—down to 3.7 from 5.0, and I could see by the switches he’s flipping and knobs he’s turning that he’s working to align the antenna manually. The antenna was supposed to do this automatically; it was supposed to keep adjusting its position to maintain the strongest signal, but Buzz had to keep tweaking its position by hand, just one more thing to do on top of a million other little details to take care of.
How you doing over there, Buzz? I ask. No reply. I can’t see the moon anymore since we’re flying along, feet first, our backs to it now, and I make a mental note to tell Buzz later on that we actually did moon the moon so he won’t stay pissed at me. For the moment, though, I just say, At least we got a lock on, thinking that with that, even if we lost communication with Houston, we’d be okay.
Yeah, Buzz finally says. Altitude light's still out, he adds, meaning that the altitude warning light is still out because the radar knows we’re high enough to not have to worry about it. Delta-H is minus 2,900, he adds, giving me the specific difference in altitude between what our radar says, and what the computer calculated: 2,900 feet. Which seems a lot, and the thought goes through my mind, what if the radar is the one that’s wrong? What if the computer’s calculation is the right one? What if they’re both wrong and because of that extra time I took rolling us into a feet-forward, back-down position, we’re flying along not knowing how high or at what angle we’re really at. It’s hard to tear your eyes from all the instruments and controls we’re supposed to be monitoring, but I steal a glance out the window and there’s the earth, straight above, and the thought flashes through my mind that this could well be the last time I see it. Computer clock flashes by 3 minutes: 3:00:00, 2:59:00... In less than 3 minutes we’re either going to be landing or making a new crater, and seeing that clock race toward 00:00:00 was like having your life flash before your eyes….
Houston, I say, I hope you're looking at our Delta-H.
Long pause. What are they talking about down there? Then, That's affirmative.
Are they? Are they really? I wonder, or just saying that? Then holy shit!—a computer alarm goes off. Program Alarm, I say, trying to not sound like the robot in Lost in Space that would always start shouting Danger! Danger! whenever something went wrong.
It’s a1202, I tell Houston.
1202, Buzz confirms, and the dread in his voice just made me sick to my stomach, the way a guy in court must feel when he’s just been given a death sentence. We’re at 33,500 feet, now, arcing down. Gyro says were still angled back by about 77 degrees, but from the way Earth keeps tilting relative to the window I don’t need the instruments to tell we’re rapidly becoming more upright, feet forward, for our landing. What is it, Buzz, I say, a bit too urgently. What’s a 1202 mean?— In our 980 hours of practice for these ten minutes not once did we see this alarm. At least not that I can remember.
It means the program crashed, Buzz says flatly. Duhhhhh!!!!!!! I almost lose it, but instead say to Houston in that steady voice all those military types use when the shit really hits the fan, Houston, give us a reading on the 1202 Program Alarm. Meaning, what the fuck????!!!!
The thruster jets that are supposed to keep us flying straight and have been going nuts—pop, pop, pop—their igniters making that firecracker sound every time they kick in. The Eagle’s shaking harder than those carnival rides I used to puke on as a kid, shaking more than it should, and I hoped that this was just because of the fuel sloshing around in the tank. Fuel gauge on 50%, there was still a lot of weight to slosh and a lot of room for it to slosh in. But what if the wiggle was related to the computer crash? Were we going to abort? We had one chance to get out of there: go into abort mode, fire ascent rocket, and take off before even landing. That’s what we trained to do: all those hours in the simulator were supposed to spring load us like Pavlov’s dogs—stimulus response—see a warning alarm and ready the abort mode. But we weren’t dogs. And we knew that if we didn’t make it to the moon now, it would be two other guys some other day. And I could see in Buzz’s eyes that he sees the same thing in mine: Abort my ass! Put us down!—no matter what Houston says!
So I’m like 23 years old, right? But I know more about programming than all the old, solder-gun and volt-meter engineers in the building put together. Which isn’t saying much—to them, a computer is a slide-rule. I mean, when these guys were in school there wasn’t even any such thing as code to be good at. But NASA!—I mean, what are the odds that I, or anyone, would be writing code for NASA? Freaking NASA! Spacemen, and rockets, and all that stuff every kid plays at—it wasn’t so long ago that I was one of those kids!—but then suddenly here it is all around me and it’s real. First they put me on the job writing the code for a prototype navigation computer. A whole Meg of RAM—I mean this is science fiction stuff—the first computer to use integrated circuits—and it’s so cool; then the computer moves ahead and gets installed in the Apollo spacecraft, which is super cool, and then the Lunar Lander—awesome!—my code is going to the moon!—and I’m writing code for the landing sequence, blink two times, and I’m sitting there in mission control monitoring the Fail Safe Computer on the ground that is running the same program that Eagle is running to land on the moon. The program that I wrote!
The program that suddenly crashes!
Everyone turns to me with one of those deer-in-the-headlights stares. I break into a sweat. Error Code 1202. What the fuck is that? goes the voice in my head. But it’s not in my head. It’s Steve, the mission controller, at the other console, boring a hole through me with his eyes. He’s the guy who supervises all the systems and gives the order to abort or continue, and I know he needs to know what 1202 means—now! As soon as it came on I remember where I’d seen it before—in the last simulation before the launch, with two other astronauts doing a mock landing, a 1202 error message had come up which spring-loaded them to abort the landing. And in training, that’s what Steve did: gave the order to abort the landing. Except afterwards, some of us figured that he’d fucked up—he’d aborted the simulated landing when he didn’t have to: reviewing the data, we found that what crashed the computer had been an overload caused by a display refresh which wasn’t needed for landing. Now here was that error message again, but we weren’t play-acting this time, and my mind raced through the possible causes as my finger raced down the crib sheet I’d taped under the glass on my desk; even before I found 1202, though, I knew the definition wasn’t going to be any help: “Executive overflow - no vacant areas,” a general alarm code for computer overload.
Lots of things could overload the computer: the computer could be running slower than it was supposed to; or sensors could be choking the memory with too much data, like punching the buttons on a calculator faster than the processor could take them…. Lots of things. Reams of telemetric data were being generated, of course: pages and pages of code describing exactly what gadget was outputting what data, which were feeding the computer their data when, and what the computer was doing with it at every cycle. But it would take days to work through it to find the string of 1010010100001001s that would have the answer. But Buzz and Neal were shooting down at the moon at 2,000 miles per hour. We didn’t have days, not hours, not minutes. During simulations, after 3 seconds of delay a red light would come on indicating that we’d killed everyone, and already the clock in my head said we were way past ten seconds. Was the error message being generated by the same sequence of non-essential events or something VERY essential. There was no way to tell but I had to make a call, abort or go, abort or go. And it was my call—Hero or Horseshit as my mother used to say—with no other option. Abort the mission needlessly, and a billion dollars goes up in smoke along with millions of man-hours in training, engineering, building…. The door would swing wide open for the Russians to get in there, claim the moon, before we could get another attempt ready—and it would be my fault! I’d be remembered forever as the asshole that lost the moon for America. But if I gave it the go and they slammed into the moon—with a world-wide TV audience watching….
I felt like I was going to puke….
Heads or tails went the coin flip in my mind. Heads would mean abort, think it through, live to fight another day. If it came up tails—the tail of an American Eagle that’s on the flipside of all quarters, mind you—I’d go animal, go with my gut instinct.
There’s something perverse about people in these kinds of situations, the whole world, literally, waiting to hear what I was going to say even though only Steve, and Duke, who was the one actually talking to the astronauts, and a dozen other people knew what was actually going on. While the coin was coming down, doing one of those slo-mo rotations in my mind—head, tails, heads, tails—I began to nod in rhythm; I could tell from the way Steve was staring at me that I was the only question mark, that he could tell that the other operations were running okay, doing the important stuff like steering the descent engine—and the way the computer was SUPPOSED to work was for it to lose the nonessential stuff first, that is, if it crapped out, it was supposed to crap out on the nonessentials, but keep going on the important stuff needed for landing. Heads. The coin in my head came up heads: Abort.
Go! I told Steve. Steve immediately shouted to Duke and Duke relayed to Armstrong, Go! You are Go on that alarm.
Like I say, there’s something perverse about people in situations like this.
Fifteen seconds—an eternity—then Houston’s voice crackles back over the radio, We got you... I couldn’t tell if there was static or if his voice was choking up. You…static… Go on that alarm.
Roger, I say, then inform Buzz, 330, meaning, game on.
It wasn’t like in the movies when two guys both put a hand on the pin in the grenade and pull it together. But in a way it was.
He nodded solemnly. Got back to business. Reset the computer; the software rebooted and started steering the descent engine again. Again, Buzz punched into the keyboard VERB 16, then NOUN 68, to load the program that was to supposed to calculate our Delta H, that is the difference between our altitude as measured by the radar on the Eagle, and our altitude as the computer calculated it from our last position.
Computer Error. But who was telling us this?—the Computer!— Was the error in error? That is, was the computer working right and telling us it was busted, or was it busted and telling us, incorrectly, that it was busted, or was it busted and working right when we thought it was in Error, or busted and giving us garbage which we mistook for reliable data…. It was like suddenly finding yourself trapped in that logic puzzle they always give in Programming 101 where a traveler comes to a fork in the road and has to ask directions from a native who always lies and one who always tells the truth, and the class has to write a program for the traveler to use to figure out which native to believe by asking questions that can only be answered by a Yes or a No. Only there was no class here, just me, and like Alice down the rabbit hole, my book was suddenly real and all around. But instead of facing the two natives of the problem, I’m facing three Computers: one that works and always gives the right answer; one that always gives the wrong answer; and a third one, one that thinks it always gives the right answer but in fact gives answers that could be right or wrong and so are completely useless. Only here they were all the same computer! And I didn’t get to ask any questions.
Goddamn analog and the gray areas it creates! Binary—Yes or No, 1 or 0—you had to have faith in the binary. Down any other way lies madness.… And the computer was its own god in a binary world.
As long as the alarms don’t become continuous, I reassure Steve, the computer should be good to go….
A few seconds later the computer error flashes on again: 1201. 1201. 1201. 1201.
Buzz is on top of it this time, must have been watching for it. Same alarm, he says. He resets the computer, loads the Delta-H program again, then it goes off again. It appears to come up when we have a 16/68 up, meaning whenever the computer is displaying Verb 16 Noun 68, or in other words, computer command 16 and data set 68, which tells us the computer is crashing whenever it brings up our altitude, which is to say, our range to the landing site, which is to say the time remaining till we have to enter the braking phase—essentially, the time remaining before pitch-over—and so the Eagle’s velocity. For the second time, the thought occurs to me: We’re screwed.
Houston again tells us not to abort by saying, We'll monitor your Delta-H.
Can they? I knew they had an identical computer back on Earth—Fail Safe is what it’s called, every part in space having a backup twin on earth, so their computer must be running okay. But was Buzz able to keep our antenna in sync with theirs so that they can read our radar data, compare it with the position their computer has calculated we’re supposed to be at, rectify the difference and get back to me in time for me to make the adjustments? Or were they just saying this because they wanted us to try a landing as bad as we wanted to give it a try. There’s something that makes people go animal in situations like this. And I had the gut feeling that some general back on earth decided we were monkeys, that is, expendable.
Were we?… I was afraid to ask, but I ask anyway, Did they have Deta-H readings coming down?
Yes, Buzz says, it’s coming down beautifully.
Okay, then, I say, taking a breath. Throttle down, and I start to give it the brakes. Okay. Okay, okay…. No flags. RCS is good. DPS is good. Pressure... Okay.
At 21,000 feet, while I’m giving it the brakes, I realize, there’s no way Buzz is going to be able to manually keep our antenna aligned with the one on earth as I finish rolling Eagle into the feet-down position we have to be in to land. No antenna link, no Delta-H. And if we had to depend on our onboard computer for altitude, we could be aiming for a touchdown spot 50 feet below the surface of the moon. So I tell them, Let me switch on the antenna auto positioner again and see what happens.
Buzz keeps his eye on the signal strength as I do it, then says, Okay. Then, a moment after I do, Looks like it's holding.
Out the window I see the moon at our feet, like we’re in a glass elevator, plunging down.
16,000 feet, Buzz announces, probably seeing the same thing. 13,500….
Give us an estimated pitch-over time please, I ask Houston, asking them for data I should be able to get from our own computer, but am afraid to try because every time I do it crashes.
Eagle, you've got 30 seconds to P64, meaning 30 seconds until the computer enters Program 64, which will tilt us half way upright, then continue to fire thrusters to tilt us the rest of the way upright as we descend. …5, 4, 3, 2, 1…. Pop-pop… The thrusters ignite right on time, telling me that that part of the computer is running as its supposed to.
Okay. 5000 (feet altitude). 100 feet per second (descent rate) is good. Then I realize I was supposed to have tested the manual controls before P64 put us on auto so I could use the time now to check the landing site, make sure there weren’t any boulders to hit or craters to fall into. But all those damn alarms distracted me so much I forgot to do it. I give it a try anyway—better late than never—what good is having a smooth landing surface if I can’t control the bird?—and I flip the PGNS Mode-Control toggle switch from Auto to Att Hold (Attitude Hold) so I can manually command attitude rates to the Digital Autopilot (DAP). I push on the control stick, then let go, and smooth as silk, it returns to the attitude I’d set.
Okay, I tell Houston, Attitude control is good, Eagle, You're Go for landing, they say again, more as an order than a reminder, as if seeing me try out the joystick they thought I might be changing my mind.
Okay, and I give them our altitude: 3000 at 70.
Roger, Buzz repeats, Understand. Go for landing. 3000 feet.
The Computer crashes again: This time it’s Program Alarm 1201.
We can still abort. In fact, we were spring-loaded for it: Load Verb 47, the command to initialize the Abort Guidance System.
Buzz keeps glancing over at me, worried that I was going to do it.
Another one of those long pauses before Houston says, We're Go. Same type of alarm. We're Go.
By then we’re at 2,000 feet, and coming down hard at 23 feet per second, less than a minute later and we’re only 750, the moon racing by beneath us, 700 feet, 21 (feet per second) down, 33 degrees; 650, 600, Buzz is reading off and all I’m seeing is a field of boulders, not the smooth stretch of beach we were supposed to land on—we must be miles down range of the target landing area—but the computer’s still trying to put us down. An image looms up in my mind of one of Eagles legs coming down on a boulder—or the cliff edge of a crater—then us tipping over, falling into it, or just cocked at some angle that would bust open pressurized seals or hoses, or not let us shoot us off at some weird bottle-rocket angle when we tried to take off… 350 feet; 300…..
I'm going to... Gently, I push the joystick just to make sure I can move it and I can feel the computer push back, trying to force us down where it had been programmed to land. Except we weren’t where it thought we were. So I just did it: I switched off Program 64, switched to P66, that is I switched off the landing program—
The Eagle lurched to the right, like a helicopter, tipping to bank hard. Okay, you're pegged on horizontal velocity, Buzz says, in that calm tone that means, Are you like nuts!—he glances up from his focus on the instruments and looks at me with one of those disbelieving looks they use in Hollywood movies, like when everyone in the Rebel mission control realizes that Luke Skywalker shuts off his computer and lets The Force guide him on his bombing run—the last chance to sink a shot at the buzzer before the Evil Empire can obliterate everyone back home; only I wasn’t relying on any Force; I could see out my window, could use the horizon to judge our level. The landscape itself was real deceptive—no atmosphere, so things in the distance looked as sharp and as in focus as things close up, but it was still a landscape, and I was still a pilot. And I’d rather die flying—boots on, so to speak—than stand there twiddling my thumbs while some flaky computer drove us into a wall.
I could tell from Buzz’s voice that he’s with me. Ease her down, he says, continuing to read out our altitude, 270, 250. We’re at 8% fuel, he reminds me, his way of saying hurry up, get us down before we drop out of the sky like a rock. Suddenly both the Altitude and Velocity warning lights come on, telling us that we’re either too low and moving too slow or the radar’s getting a crappy signal. But I can’t put it down. Not here, there’s too many boulders…
200 feet, 4 1/2 down; 160 feet, Now we’re over a crater, and I still can’t put it down. 120 feet, 100 feet. Five percent (fuel remaining), Buzz says, squirming like someone who really needs to wee. The fuel warning light switches on, which is the first warning to ‘Bingo’—that is land in 20 seconds or abort. But I can’t put it down. Not here, not now—we were still over the crater. My heart is racing. Please dear God, I can hear Buzz pray in his head, and I join him: Please, oh please, I pray, even though the fuel gauge is on empty, please dear God let there be enough fumes in the tank to get us down. In that moment, the thought of having come so far, only to drop like a rock the last hundred feet into a crater, was more horrible than the idea of dying….
As we clear the crater, I ease it down and forward to make sure I don’t back into the crater we just passed.
Drifting to the right a little. 20 feet, down a half. It’s actually flying better than the simulator, no wind, no gusts knocking me out of alignment. But if the engine cut out because it ran out of fuel, we had to be lower than 10 feet; otherwise, the impact would be harder than Eagle’s legs could survive. The dust kicked up by our engine was so dense, I couldn’t see where we were; I could see jagged outlines through the blowing dust, but it was like trying to tell how fast you were moving from inside a sandstorm, like sitting in a train next to another train when one of them starts to move but you can’t tell if the train you’re in has started moving forward, or if the one next to you is moving backwards. Peering through the dust storm swirling by our windows, I tried to keep my eyes focused on a spot just past the point I’d picked out to land—that way I’d know we wouldn’t hit a rock. I pitched down, trying to at least get us below ten feet. Then again, and again…. Picking up some dust, I say. Faint shadow…
Suddenly Buzz sings: Contact Light! But I couldn’t tell if we were down or not, even though, according to the light, one of the sensors hanging from the pad on one of the Eagle’s legs had touched the moon. Could the contact lights be off too? When I shut down the engine, though, you could feel the Eagle settle, you could feel the gravity of the moon, like the springy legs of a helicopter settling under us once the rotor is shut off. But I did notice that the little thrusters that were firing like crazy to keep us level were suddenly silent. My first thought was that they were running continuously—really I could never hear the rockets, only their igniters pop on—and they’d been popping on faster than firecrackers on Chinese New Year—but then I realized I didn’t hear them firing anymore because they’d quit; they didn’t have to work to keep us level anymore.
I give the command, Shutdown.
Okay, Buzz answers, Engine Stop. As the haze outside the window thins, I can see we’re down, the moon stretching out like desert landscape instead of the way we’ve always seen it, from above. It was really the first I’d seen it. I mean, till then, catching glances of it out the window was more like looking at fence posts from a speeding car, trying to use them to get my bearings, but this was the fist time it I saw it as a countryside, and I spotted little stones that had been blown away by our rocket just continue on all the way over the horizon, out of sight. Weird. Like a sci-fi movie. Buzz was still all business, launching the P68 Landing Confirmation Program, reading out its progress: Mode Control, both Auto. Descent Engine Command Override, Off. Engine Arm, Off. He hits the clear button on the keypad, then 413, then Enter, then +10000, the memory address, and Enter again: 413 is the address in the program that tells it we have landed, so that the computer knows if we abort the landing now, we’ll be taking off from the surface.
Houston saw this on their readouts, and says, We copy you down, Eagle, almost more like a question than a statement.
But I’m too busy to answer just now. We have to get this all set up in case the ground begins to give way under us, or we hit too hard and snapped a fitting on that reinforced rubber hose connected to our air supply, or any of a number of things that could go wrong makes us need to take off in a hurry. When it’s secure, I say, Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.
Roger, Twan... He chocked on the word, gathered himself, and repeated, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot.
They’re all breathing, backslapping…. Behind the glass partition that screened off all of the generals and politicians and reporters from those of us in the pit, we can see them crack open champagne, light cigars. But I’m just shitting brick after brick. One computer error after another, every 10 seconds, till Armstrong shuts the thing off and flies by the seat of his pants. Everyone in computer guidance goes ballistic as soon as the Eagle is down—and I don’t mean in a good way. It was our responsibility, our machine, our software, our alarms, our problem.
What the hell was setting off those alarms?! the control guys are all screaming at us. We’re launching in less than 22 hours, one yells, and we’re not leaving with the cockpit lit up by amber computer error lights!
Of course, that was hyperbole. It’s not like the astronauts could stay. But his point was taken: We MUST have an operational computer!
But we were as clueless as anyone. By then we’d figured out that the computer was only running at 80% of its normal speed, but why? How? A 1201 error was buried so deep in the program—a flag only meant for programmers to use in debugging—that it was never supposed to come up for an end user. For them it would be like typing along on a word processor when suddenly all the letters on screen turn into 1s and 0s.
Through the night, while the astronauts erected the American flag, took samples, frolicked on the moon, then slept, a team of us used the simulator to try and trigger a 1201 or 1202 computer error. Nothing.
Every fifteen minutes a contingent from Mission Control would be breathing down our necks: Have you figured it out yet? Now? Now? We poured through reams of paper data, searching for a clue. Nothing. Then more calls: Now? You haven’t?!!! You HAVE to! They launch in 10 hours. Then nine hours. Then eight, then seven. Then the calls started coming every few minutes. But you can’t wish a solution into existence, no matter how bad everyone wants it.
The sun was already high the next morning, when one of the M.I.T. engineers, George Silver, bleary-eyed, remembered another time when a guidance computer ran slowly. It happened when the computer kept looking for data from a sensor that was supposed to turned off but had been left on. That time the sensor had been the Rendezvous Radar, he recalled. The computer kept looking for radar data, but couldn’t find any so just kept looking, using valuable computer cycles to basically do nothing. It would be like someone making a phone call to a disconnected number. First the computer would get a busy signal, then after this went on too long, it would hang up, and then a minute later dial the number again, while all the other programs that were sharing the memory waited—like other callers in line at a payphone—for it to finish.
The Rendezvous Radar was used by the Eagle to return to the mother ship, Columbia. It was supposed to be shut off during descent to the moon. We ran upstairs and looked through the reams of telemetry printouts. Then there, packed into a string of 101001000100101s, was the position of the Rendezvous Radar Switch. And it was ON. Armstrong had left the switch ON during the descent. The guy had fucked up. Left the switch in the wrong position, and the overload kept crashing the computer, which could have crashed the Eagle.
There must be a call box somewhere, like a FIRE alarm with a glass bubble over the switch, and a tiny brass hammer on a chain so someone can use it to smash the glass and pull the alarm like they do when the school bursts into flames. But instead of calling a fireman, this alarm summons a poet. That’s the only time they seem to need me: when things are so fucked up that only words can fix it. Just look at the NASA’s descriptor for my job: Reality Alteration through Language of Non-Reversible Fact-Based Emergency Situations. POET, in layman’s terms. So when I got the call, I knew something had gone horribly wrong. I’d already written the lead for a number of scenarios, of course: World Prays for Miracle to Start Eagle’s Take-Off Rocket… World Mourns Our Space-Age Magellans… Or, more hopefully, Apollo 11 Successfully Tests Mission-Abort Plans…. But I hadn’t considered the scenario they laid on me when I got there:
ASTRONAUT’S FUCK-UP BEFORE LIVE,
WORLD-WIDE TV AUDIENCE JEOPARDIZES MOON LANDING.
In fact, they discovered, he’d screwed up twice: once by putting the slew switch to the wrong setting so that he couldn’t roll Eagle fast enough to get it into the proper position for its approach; and then the big screw up—leaving the Rendezvous Radar Switch in the ON position….
Of course, no one watching on TV would realize how bad he’d screwed up. It took the programmers and guidance people all night to figure it out themselves. But sooner or later, everyone knew, it would come out. And mud would be slung. Smears would be made to place blame elsewhere. That’s how it always goes. The astronauts weren’t even back yet and already the simulator guys were blaming the programmers for writing a program that could skip parts because it was overloaded with useless data; the programmers were blaming the hardware guys for letting seven programs share a single memory address; the hardware guys blamed the guidance guys for setting up landing simulations that didn’t reveal the possibility of this programming error because they never had a live computer in the Eagle simulator; the guidance guys turned on the bean counters for not giving them the money to have a live computer in the Eagle simulator; the bean-counters blamed the hardware guys for not being able to afford a third computer to give to the simulator guys because of cost overruns, and on and on and on…..
Through all of this, the unspoken answer that would get everyone off the hook was that Armstrong was the one who had fucked up. If the mother had flipped the switch to the right position, the position Buzz told him to put it in when going through their final descent checklist, the position Armstrong SAID he had placed it in, none of this would have ever come up. But of course, no one even bothered to bring up this reason because the one thing everyone understood was that every epic needs a hero, and ours, America’s Epic Poem, had to have a real, clean-cut American Hero: an Astronaut—Captain America, who had to come out clean (even if it was his fault).
So I went to work. The FBI wanted me to blame the hippies. The suits wanted me to blame the taxpayers. They thought this screw up could be turned into more funding, knowing how difficult it would be for NASA to get funding once the euphoria of the moon landing wore off, and they had to go back to doing boring science instead of popular stunts like a moon landing. An air force general insisted we blame the Commies—the obvious choice. If we could blame the Russians for jamming the radar—something he knew they tried to do, though he couldn’t reveal his sources—this would give us a pretext to nuke them. Didn’t Armstrong say he had put the switch in the right position? The data says he didn’t, someone pointed out. Are you calling Armstrong a liar? the general demanded. Then a creepy guy from an unnamed department asked if there was a way to blame Fidel. Or the Negros, the FBI guy added, seeing he wasn’t going to get his way with the hippies.
Right or wrong, 1 or 0…. God, I hate the binary way these guys think. Give me analog every time; it’s only in the gray areas where any sort of truth can be found. And wasn’t that what the computer was telling us?— Wasn’t that what the computer was in the end?: an unreliable narrator, as they call it in literature….
My own thoughts had been running along the lines of the technology, all along, turning equipment failures into piloting successes; a catastrophic launch, becoming in my mind a successful test of emergency procedures…. I really liked the phrase “successful failure.” As the others in the room argued amongst themselves, their rancor made it more and more apparent that blaming others (so binary!) no matter how justified, would just set the wrong tone; the nation, indeed the whole world, wanted a celebration—of the human spirit!—not a blame fest, not a downer or pity party…. Not having any use for art except when it could be turned to their purposes, none of them, of course, had seen the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, though it had been a big hit the year before. So I explained to them how Dave, the astronaut in the movie, gets it over HAL, his spacecraft’s computer, by falling back on his human instincts. In the movie, HAL the computer is way smarter than the humans, is infinitely more logical, has an infinitely superior memory—almost like god, it beats Dave at chess every time—but it can’t anticipate the capacity humans have to go ape-shit—to throw away logic, to make illogical, even horribly violent leaps to creative solutions…. After HAL uses logic to trick Dave into going outside the spaceship, Dave does something crazy to get back in, something no computer in its right mind—those ultimate binary thinkers—would even think of: he basically shoots himself out of cannon—or rather into a cannon—by firing the explosive bolts on an outside door of the ship, letting the high-pressure difference suck him in, bounce him off the walls from the impact. But it works. He uses his creativity to defeat the hyper logical computer; after he disconnects HAL, he can’t fly the ship anymore, and so he dies in space anyway, but we get it: a tragic celebration of the Human spirit—what makes us unique….
And it’s the same with Neil Armstrong, I tell them, only his voyage can still have a happy ending. It’s win-win: he sees that the computer is unreliable, then makes the ballsy call to shut it down, to fly manually like a fighter pilot, going on gut instinct. He takes control, puts his life on the line to thread the needle and get the Eagle down between the rocks and craters that the computer was trying to land him on top of, nerves of steel while his fuel is running out, then just as it does run out, in the very last second before his ship is about to drop like a rock, crash and burn, he sets it down perfectly…. The Eagle has landed (I cupped over my hand to recite this line, faking that staticy, radio sound). And the crowd goes wild! Just like they do when a basketball hero lets it fly right at the buzzer—time seems to freeze, then—swish! Victory!
Basketball is a Negro sport, the FBI guy says.
All right then, Baseball: All-American Babe Ruth hitting a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth, only this time the stadium is the whole world, and the homerun is a moon landing. People all over the world explode into a celebration of bravery. Of creativity. Of the human spirit…. An American Epic with an American ending, that is, a Hollywood ending, that is a Happy ending. And all because of a real, live American Hero.
Of course, this was all assuming that they’d get off the moon.
By the time we figured out the error message, they were already into the countdown for blasting off from the moon’s surface. There’d been a delay: turns out that after getting back inside the Eagle, Aldrin accidentally broke the switch that was used to ignite the engine for lift off. Without the switch, they’d be stranded, but he was able to work a pen into the slot, and use it to turn on the engine. But now we were afraid that he’d flip the radar switch into the OFF position, since he obviously thought it was now in the ON position. If he switched it off, the radar wouldn’t be able to lock onto Columbia; if it couldn’t lock onto Columbia, they would miss their rendezvous with their ride home; even if they managed to get close enough for Armstrong to fly by sight, the Eagle depended on that radar for docking. Without docking, the Eagle would become a mausoleum in space, holding two corpses in eternal orbit around the moon they had walked on just hours ago….
I got on the phone to mission control, who got to Glenn Lunney, the Flight Director, who said over the countdown to the astronauts, just before ignition, in the very last message to reach them before liftoff, Please ensure that the Rendezvous Radar Switch is in the ON position. At that moment the Eagle’s rocket ignited wiping out communication. But just as it all went to static, we heard Armstrong yell, Oh shit!—it already is!
Watching them blast off from the moon, I knew who wrote the Odyssey—not Homer, that’s for sure; as scholars who have looked at the poem hardest have said all along, it was the Greek people, Homer merely being the man (some say woman) who wrote it down. A national epic like that only able to come into existence through the efforts of thousands upon thousands of people, after all, one man (or woman) unable to launch a single ship, let alone build it, Homer’s history blooming out of little histories, the history of ship building, city-state building, wars and peace and the forum and arguments and petty squabbles too. The length of Helen’s nose. It’s not like he invented Greek after all. No, it was a national effort, though most of his or her coauthors—men and women and slaves (who didn’t otherwise count, but still) and everyone else who brought the Greek language into existence just by speaking were no more aware that they were also contributing to what would end up as an epic poem than colonial Americans were aware that they were birthing an American way of speaking (as opposed to English English) just by saying, ‘Hey George, how’s it hangin’?’ Or ‘Check out Johnny Appleseed, living naked in a hollow tree—What a dork!’—or other such things that would bring into existence America itself, the way they say epic poetry helped create the Greek people—a sense of identity—Hey, that’s us!—instead of just a bunch of people standing around in a field—the way they say singing O say can you see helped bring America into existence, lots of Americans singing it into existence, the way Walt Whitman heard them singing, except the singing Walt Whitman heard was actually work, dock workers, and farm hands, and blacksmiths, still, if you’ve ever been at a football or baseball game where thousands of people all sing together you get the idea, or better still, a hockey game where our side stands and sings O beautiful for spacious skies but sits on our hands, mute as fish, while the other side—Those people!—stand and sing O Canada: you can see how the things we say and the things we do, lots of voices and actions, can come together whether we know it or not, the way Americans in the ‘50s never thought they were bringing into existence a Cold War just by being afraid of commies, or contributing to the space race in the 60s, as they did, just going about their work-a-day lives, the space race, the race to the moon, being our epic poem, some say, thousand upon thousands of people contributing to it by the things they said, and the things they did, building our ships, engineers, rocket scientists (ex-Nazis, even)—someone had to invent Teflon—and Tang, to make it all work, though the astronauts get all the credit, like Homer, all the face time, parades even, the way they say the Pharaohs built the pyramids even though it was actually the slaves, thousands upon thousands of slaves doing the lifting, the grunt work, the pulling and dragging to get those stone blocks up the scaffolding, which they also built, putting one block on top of another (unless they were placed there by aliens, as some say—no, not illegal Mexicans, though living in America you might think that since they do so much of our heavy lifting), block by block, the pyramid rising, the way we got a man to the moon by adding one thing to another, wings on bicycles, rockets on wings, men on rockets; Newton of course, with his law of gravitation and all of that, and Kepler who figured out how to calculate orbits, and the engineers who designed the IBM 360 computers, 1 Meg of memory, that ran the Fortran programmers developed to run the spherical trigonometry mathematicians used to calculate where in the earth’s orbit the rocket should blast off so that 4 days later it would intersect with the orbit of the moon. Nor should we leave out the publicity people at IBM who prematurely announced the readiness of their new computer to trick NASA into buying them instead of computers from CDC, IBM’s competitor, as NASA had planned, or the IBM lawyers who talked CDC into settling out of court instead of tying up the space program in litigation though CDC would eventually go bankrupt, which is probably why you never heard of them. Which is to say, who knew? Not the lawyers at CDC, or Newton’s mother, making sure he went to school and did his homework, or making his breakfast, before going to work herself, maybe scrubbing floors, and washing other people’s laundry, like so many of our mothers do. Well, maybe not Newton’s mother, Sir Newton being more of the lacy-collar class, but still, someone had to iron those collars. Same with Neil Armstrong. And his mother, I’d bet, and the mothers and fathers of all those astronauts before him, making sure he did his math, played his scales. And his science teacher. And his art teacher, and especially his English teacher, who also wrote poetry, though her taste probably tended more toward rhyming poems, more Longfellow than Whitman, but still…. Only a fool would leave out the driver of his school bus, who got him there, or the mechanics who kept the bus rolling, or the lifeguard at the Y who taught him how to hold his breath so that years later he was able to do so long enough to get through the astronaut screening process, and don’t forget the operator of the carnival rides that gave him practice in not puking. A few coaches were involved, no doubt, maybe a baseball or football coach. But not a soccer coach, soccer being too alien back then, too much of a game for Castro, Che or Mao, there not being enough ball stoppage in soccer to insert commercials for beer, and pickup trucks, and McDonald’s, though all that’s changing now. A hockey coach, maybe, if he lived in one of those states with ice where they do such things. Minnesota or Michigan, but not Virginia or Kentucky. Depends. Not to say those people weren’t involved too, even if they were no more aware than anyone else that they were building a stairway to heaven by tunneling into the earth, for example, to mine the coal that would feed the fire that would melt the ore that would become the steel that would go into the rocket. Maybe even the truck drivers who brought fuel to the rocket itself didn’t think of it this way, or the grunts dressed like astronauts so they could stand the fumes of an oil-refinery tank while they were inside cleaning it, or the guys who should have been dressed like astronauts but, because their employer didn’t want to spend the money, only wore paper facemasks that didn’t do jack to keep out sulfur dust so dense they couldn’t see two inches in front of their faces as they rodded out the boilers that kept the factory warm during the time of year kids were out playing hockey on the ice because that was the only job they could get in the summer of 1967, or the machinists who cut every screw thread, and the designer of the screw, and the foundry worker who avoided being crushed by an ingot to make the steel for the screw, and the one who didn’t avoid getting crushed by an ingot, or be overcome by fumes and fall into a vat of solvent, or the old Polish women who emptied the wastepaper baskets in their offices each night; the Mexicans who risked their lives to sneak over the border to pluck the chickens that were made into that chicken goo all of the astronauts ate out of squeeze tubes, and the philosophy dropout who ran the floor cleaner in the plant that processed that chicken, finally finding his courses in Existentialism relevant as he ran the floor cleaner backwards, its motor in reverse so he could use the exhaust as the intake and the intake as the exhaust because that’s the way his boss, who dropped out of grade school to take a job in that plant was shown how to do it 30 years ago and wouldn’t hear of any other way; and the cops who wrestled down the guy who was too drunk or too stupid to not fight back when they came to see about the noise a neighbor was complaining about, the neighbor needing to get some sleep so she could get up early and go to her job at NASA where the next morning she put in the order for space helmets. And the shipping clerks and tool-crib managers, and the people who taught these people their jobs, if you want to go back, or Robert H. Goddard if you want to go way back, working with U.S. Army money to make the first liquid-fueled, modern rocket—and the race was on though no one realized it yet—Mrs. Goddard turning on the movie camera the instant the rocket ignited though movie cameras in 1929 were only able to record 7 seconds of action and the rocket continued to burn for another 13 seconds after the film ran out when thrust exceeded weight and the rocket shot off into its historic 2-1/2 second flight, which some, like the Russians, said was faked since the movie only showed the rocket sitting there burning—but not others, not Nazis, of course, who knew a good idea when they saw a way to make the V2 Rocket, a weapon of mass terrorism that wanted to be a weapon of mass annihilation when it grew up, and got so good at turning liquid fuel into airborne death that when they surrendered, a battle erupted between the U.S. State Department, which wanted to try them as war criminals, and the U.S. Army, who said that yes, even though they were Nazis, and yes, even though they used slave labor to build the rockets they rained down on civilian women and children in London, and yes, though they were indeed working on much bigger rockets named New York, and Washington D.C., they weren’t ardent about it, and anyway, a good idea is a good idea, and in the end a new category of war criminal was invented—non-Ardent Nazi—so that some 1,700 of them could take up baseball and residence in the U.S., celebrate the 4th of July and eat pies made from apples from trees planted by Johnny Appleseed and the year after that, the first star-spangled V2 Rocket lifted off into the blue skies of Texas.
But let’s not think about that. Let’s think about Astolofo and St. John and Domingo Gonsales flying to the moon 300 years earlier in a chariot pulled by geese (even though a lack of photos leads some to claim it was a hoax); and let’s think about kids lighting bottle rockets on the 4th of July, and Jules Verne, and those whacky silent movies of men trying to get airborne in planes that flapped their wings or bounced up and down before crashing in those hilarious ways—cue the slide whistle!—that made Neil Armstrong think being a test pilot looked like fun. Let’s think about ceramic tiles and the unsung efforts of thousands upon thousands of men and women that it took to go from the terracotta tiles that the ancient Greeks invented to replace thatching on the roof of their temple to Apollo to the ceramic tiles in the wind tunnel NASA engineers used to test the fins on the Apollo rocket. As well as the tiles on the walls of Neil Armstrong’s shower. Someone had to put them there. Let’s think about all the stuff that doesn’t end up in the parade: all the men and women who had to figure out how to make a milkshake on earth go up a straw in space, or how to keep cookie crumbs out of the gyroscope, or invented—need it be said?—the Space Toilet!—yes! it need be said!—because no one ever wants to talk about the grunt work let alone put the grunters behind it in their parade though everyone knows that the Space Toilet didn’t make itself, didn’t grow on a bush, wasn’t found under a rock; someone had to think it through, build the prototypes, be the test pilot while men in white lab coats stood around with stopwatches and clipboards, someone had to write up the results, make the recommendation, make the call. No. 1 or No. 2. Same with every single shingle, seatbelt, strap, buckle, shoestring, o-ring, hinge, handle, solar panel, escape hatch, light bulb, fuel gauge, shock absorber, spring, window, heat shield, parachute, thruster, dethruster, glove, hoodie, kneepad, computer; let’s think of the people who wrote the software, and the editors who proofread the code—Don’t mix centimeters with inches, guys!—And don’t forget the dogs in space. Or the monkeys. And the guys and gals who walked the dogs, and dressed the monkeys. Someone had to pick out a wristwatch for the astronauts to wear. Someone had to realize that there’s no wind on the moon so the American flag they planted would have to have a curtain rod along its top like those popguns that shoot out a flag that says BANG! if it was to stand out straight like they drew it up. Photo-op! Someone had to pick a camera. And load the film. Someone had to sew the flag. And make the curtain rod. Someone had to figure out how much an astronaut breathes; how much air to take; how many lunches to pack. Someone had to pick the music mission control played to wake up the astronauts each morning (the rousing Air Force theme song, or Barry Manilow). No. 1 or No. 2? Someone had to make a study, write a report. Make the case. Lots of cases: cases and cases of feasibility studies, on auxiliary power, and the size of the lunchbox, the volume of the air tank, and the size of the backup air tank, and the hose between the air tanks, and the rubber in the hose between the air tanks; let’s think about the men and women working in hose companies in Utah and South Dakota and Kentucky competing to land the job to make the hose between the air tank and the backup air tank that would kick in if there was a problem; the engineer who figured out the exact length and diameter of the hose; and how much it could shrink without popping off its fittings; the draftsman at his drafting table, using a compass to draw a circle that would represent the exact diameter of the hose; the intern who would carry his drawing down the hall to the office in charge of making the mold for the hose, and the tolerances that had to go into the mold so that when the rubber cooled, and hardened, the hose that was taken out of the mold would have a diameter that was the exact shape as the O that the draftsman drew from the specs the engineer wrote, based on the pressure created by the amount of air that someone figured an astronaut would breath in four days, squeezed into the size tank that a puzzle master figured would fit under the seat; let’s think of the women in companies calling other companies for bids for the rubber their company might use if awarded the contract; the committees back at NASA that reviewed theirs and lots of other proposals for the hose on the air tank, and the managers who would compare the prices, and the quality, and award the contract; and the chemists who would formulate the rubber, set the mold makers in motion, set in motion the whole chain of people needed to make and deliver the rubber hose, then the inspectors who would first report a problem with the hose; the committee to determine whether the problem was with the number of breaths counted, the specifications, tests, engineers, chemistry, rubber, mold, or the draftsman; did the draftsman label his circle correctly but draw it the wrong size, or draw it the right size but label it incorrectly or draw it the right size but do so with a compass whose lead was so dull it drew its line too thick?; let’s talk about the lead in his compass, and how it got there, and whether the problem was serious enough to bring it to the attention of Level 1 or Level 2 Management or the CIA—a commie plot to sabotage our space program that set in motion a whole chain of spies and counter espionage when really it was probably just the fault of the engineers, who often only get a ‘C’ in English, the one who read the specifications thinking that “reinforced rubber hose” meant that the “rubber-hose” was supposed to be “reinforced” but the engineer who wrote the specifications meaning that they were supposed to make the “hose” out of “reinforced-rubber”; let’s talk about the engineer who came up with a fix to the problem, and the technicians who would conduct tests on the effect of heat on the fix to the problem; and those who conducted tests of the effect of cold on the fix to the problem; the quality assurance investigators who tried to duplicate the results of the tests, the late-night calls to discuss the discrepancy between the tests and the duplicate tests of the effect of cold on the proposed solution to the possible problem with the “reinforced-rubber-hose” between the primary and backup air tanks; let’s talk about every feasibility study and proposal for every one of the 4 billion, 7 million, one-hundred and twenty-nine parts in the rocket and the Lander and the space suits, and all the men who stayed up late writing them, and all the men and women who stayed up later rereading, and checking, and auditing them, and the secretary who scrunched her nose trying to make out the fine print so she’d know where to file the last report, the one with a big, green OK on it, as she sat beneath posters of cute kittens—one kitten hanging by its paws from a clothes line—Hang In There!—says the caption—and maybe that gave Neil Armstrong a smile, a little pick-me-up on an otherwise shitty day. Another shitty day in Paradise, as women who file papers, pick pineapples, or Hula dance for tourists sometimes say on their way to work in Hawaii—I mean, someone had to make that poster, take that photo of the kitten—why not Hawaiians?—maybe even someone who hated his or her job, hated what they had to do to those kittens to make those stupid posters but manned up anyway, did their bit to get our guys up there first so the rest of us wouldn’t have to spoon by the light of a Communist moon, gritting their teeth as they strung the clothesline, then held the kitten up to it, then let it go, the kitten clinging to the clothesline for dear life, meowing it’s head off, too, which was probably what made Neil Armstrong smile, high-wire walker that he was, able to relate as he could, dependent on the tightrope of technology he and his shipmates walked, Hawaii so far below as they whipped round the earth to slingshot their way to the moon that the islands appeared no bigger than a green blotch on a blue globe, the whole people-filled planet shrinking, shrinking, shrinking, receding into the distance behind, becoming far too small for him to see the secretary and shipping clerk, the chicken processors, coal miners, truck drivers, draftsmen, mold makers, looking up at him, or the teachers, and engineers including the industrial designer who dreamed up those crazy rocket-like tailfins on Cadillacs that made lots of us think it would be cool to drive in space, Neal Armstrong not so much driving, or flying to the moon as climbing this pyramid, a ladder of thousands of computer programmers and chemists and janitors and mathematicians, and technicians, and accountants, and managers, and safety inspectors, security guards, inventory trackers, biometric analysts, meteorologists, insurance adjustors, attorneys, clerks, paralegals, ceramicists, refinery workers, miners—do you know that there’s not a single person on earth who knows how to do everything that needs to be done to make a ballpoint pen?—communications specialists, and navigation experts, and policy planners, and low-Earth orbit specialists and psychiatrists, and experts in bone density, and socio-consultants on human isolation; and security clearance investigators, and industrial health and safety compliance experts, and union reps, and pipefitters, and the people who cleaned the pool they trained in to feel weightless, and the guide who led them to the desert crater where they practiced climbing; and the professor who studied the effects of radiation on instruments, and mechanical engineers who worked out the kinks in the steering linkage till it was smooth as silk; lead investigators of anomalies and mishaps, authors of standard procedures for document modifications, missile range scheduler, test facilities roofers, data-entry operators, launch cycle authors, database managers, nutritionists, wiring-harness specification writers, typists, risk-assessment statisticians, contract lawyers, bio-hazard specialists, biologists, the guy who oiled the treadmill, hospital physicians who read their EKGs, and nurses who monitored their blood pressure, the graphic designers who made the logo for NASA, and the ads for the cigarettes everyone smoked back then, the guys who painted the No Smoking signs around the rocket fuel, and guys or gals who put up the signs, or fried the eggs or poured the coffee that morning—maybe, if Neil Armstrong ate a Greek diner that morning, his eggs and toast and coffee had even been made by a descendent of Homer himself—and don’t forget the guy who practiced counting backwards from 10 till he got it just right, which was important, maybe not as important, but somewhat important, and especially don’t forget the last few rungs—the other two astronauts who went with him—what were their names?—one staying in the capsule orbiting the moon so Neil Armstrong would have a ride home, and the one in the Lunar Lander who lost the coin toss, got to be the second man on the moon, that is, the guy who held open the door so Neil Armstrong could step out onto that ridiculous toy, playground-slide ladder he needed to cross the last few feet, taking one weightless step, then another, and then, and then, and then, when he’s finally there, finally at the top of the heap, point of the pyramid of thousands upon thousands of engineers, rocket scientists, fuel specialists, lathe operators, carpenters, mothers, fathers, and others Walt Whitman heard singing, when he’s finally standing on the shoulders of all those people, so close to the moon he could reach out and touch it, and is about to step off this moon-high ladder onto the moon itself, he recites a line of poetry: “That’s one small step [static] for [static] man, one giant leap [static] for mankind.”
Makes you think, doesn’t it? Makes you wonder if the whole point of the space program wasn’t to put a man, but poetry, on the moon, though no one ever puts it that way. Yes, the most convincing argument for a conspiracy or cover-up about the moon landing is the obvious fact that the line was too good for an astronaut to make up on the spot. That Armstrong was really a poet in disguise. Or that some other poet in the employ of NASA secretly wrote it for him before he left, and all he had to do was recite it as he stepped onto the moon, the Russians (again) claiming there’s no way he could have written that, that he must have gotten help from a poet or a Hollywood studio, which doesn’t seem as crazy as it sounds when you consider that the name that the astronauts used for their capsule was “Haystack,” because it looked like one, until some guy in NASA PR told them to stop it, to come up with something better, something more meaningful, and the best they could think of was “Snoopy,” because it looked like that cartoon dog’s nose. That’s when PR came to me, and “mysteriously,” the astronauts and the rest of NASA began to refer to the capsule as “Columbia,” the female personification of the U.S. traditionally used in poetry.
My lips bound to secrecy but even I had to wonder. Not about the landing, but the static—just a little editing—Neil Armstrong muffing his line, saying, That’s one small step for ‘A man,’ not ‘man,’ when some poet-engineer back on earth, monitoring the transmission and seeing the chance to tighten the line, improve the poem—be the Pound to Armstrong’s “moon poem” that Pound was to Elliot’s “Wasteland”—thinking quick, hitting a switch, or pressing a button, or jiggling the rabbit ears or whatever to add the static that would obliterate the ‘a’ and save the poem, save our epic, before it went out to the rest of the world, went down in history, came down to posterity, us, like the Iliad or the Odyssey.
Fail Safe is the code NASA has for redundancy, every system having a backup system, the computer in the spaceship having a twin on earth, the poet they put on the moon, having a backup poet back home, and a poet inserted between the poet on the moon and all of the listeners at home, just for this eventuality. It could happen. Even if by accident. Even if they don’t realize they’re poets, the way lots of little droplets of water can come together to make a rainbow. If there’s such a thing as a warrior poet, then why couldn’t there be an astronaut poet? And engineer poets. And garbage-person poets. I, by myself, must know at least 10 waitress and waiter poets, so why couldn’t there be accountant poets? I know one bank-teller poet. And two cashier poets. Just yesterday I saw a van for a moving company named “Gulliver’s Travels, We’re Swift Movers.” What do you think those tollbooth operators or pinsetters do when they’re waiting for a car to drive up, the bowling ball to get stuck? Same with policewomen, or firemen, or nurses, people with time on their hands before they have to rush into a burning building, arrest a drunk, change a diaper, walk a dog, dress a monkey, empty a bedpan, or otherwise clean the shit of the world, do the heavy lifting that allows the world to turn, get us from day to day, or to the moon? Same with draftsman poets or foundry worker poets, or gas station attendant poets. Safety-Inspector Poets. Chemist poets. Inventor-of-Tang poets. Maybe they were all poets: every last employee at NASA a poet. Every last one of us, poets, like the Greek people, though we might not know it.