I had hoped that the anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing would stir up some memories for Centauri Dreams regular Al Jackson, and I was not to be disappointed. Here, spurred partly by weekend news reports questioning who said the first words from the Moon, Al thinks back to a time of Champagne and jubilation, and gives us an inside look at those famous first words. He was also kind enough to pass along some of his own photos. A widely known figure in the interstellar community, Al was astronaut trainer on the Lunar Module Simulator and worked closely with, among many others, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. He is also a man who never forgets a single thing he has ever read, as I learn every time I talk to him about science fiction, which I hope to do again this fall in Houston.
by A. A. Jackson
The 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing was on a Sunday, just as it was on July 20 1969. My wife (of one year) and I lived in the Dijon Apartments in Clear Lake City, Houston. So for most employees this was not a work day at the Manned Spacecraft Center…of course quite a few people were in Building 30, not only Mission Control but also in the back-up rooms that surrounded it. Every flight controller was in contact with at least two specialists who were sitting at consoles across the hall, for instance MIT people who created the software for the CM and LM primary guidance and control system (the GN&C computer, as known then, and the PNGS, pronounced ‘pings’).
Image: A Polaroid shot CBS took of Al Jackson in the 1960s, during filming for Walter Cronkite’s Twentieth Century TV program.
I put a bottle of Champagne in our fridge freezer that morning, took it out around 11 AM and the damn thing had frozen! Good thing it did not explode! Put that in my briefcase, told my wife I was going on-site to listen to the landing. I did that because as an Apollo instructor I knew that the Lunar Module Simulator consoles had the Flight Director’s loop, which was not fed to the TV networks. When I got to building 5, where the simulators were, some of my colleagues said it sure would be good to have a TV, even though there was air to ground video. We knew of only one, it was in Division chief Warren North’s office in Building 5, the next building over from where our offices were. So we went over there — Warren was there, but quickly invited us in.
Image: Al Jackson helping to run a 1968 test of the environmental control system on the LM simulator, with the cockpit of the LM behind him.
Turned out, we may have known this, he had the Flight Director’s loop up on a speaker in his office. So we watched the TV and listened to Gene Kranz’s loop. The nice thing about that was Kranz had not only Cap Com but all the flight controller’s loops open and the ‘air to ground,’ so everything. Listened to the landing,* this was about 2:18 CT that Sunday. I told one of my friends I had a bottle of Champagne and was going for some paper cups. Even in those days we were not supposed to have alcohol in an undesignated federal facility, he didn’t know how a division chief might respond! So after about another hour, knowing that the EVA would not be until 9 pm, we all went home. I put the bottle in the fridge. Later my wife and I and several of my MSC friends gathered at the apartment of my closest friend and we drank that Champagne!
Image: Al Jackson and Senator Hiram Fong of Hawaii in 1967, in a photo taken by NASA public affairs.
Just this weekend I noticed a news article stating that the first words from the Moon were not “Houston….” They were not. I told Buzz this on the 25th anniversary and he said “Nobody cares about details like that.” The first words were technical so I don’t think many do.
I looked at several transcripts on the Web and I don’t think they are right, so I listened to the air-to-ground again and here is what I hear (CC is Cap Com, CDR is commander, and LMP is Lunar Module Pilot), from 30 seconds:
04 06 45 31 CC
04 06 45 32 CDR (EAGLE)
04 06 45 33 LMP (EAGLE)
04 06 45 34 LMP (EAGLE)
04 06 45 40 LMP (EAGLE)
[04 06 42 CDR (EAGLE)
04 06 45 43 LMP (EAGLE)
Okay. ENGINE STOP.
04 06 45 45 LMP (EAGLE)
ACA – out of DETENT.
04 06 45 46 CDR (EAGLE)
Out of DETENT.
04 06 45 47 LMP (EAGLE)
MODE CONTROL – both AUTO. DESCENT ENGINE COMMAND OVERRIDE – OFF. ENGINE ARM – OFF.
In square brackets I put in that Neil repeats “Contact” which may have been ‘Contact Light” which the VOX cut off (this does not seem to occur in the transcripts I have read). I swear though that it is Buzz who says ENGINE STOP and ACA – out of DETENT (ACA is Attitude Controller Assembly). So really if you don’t count the landing probes touching the Lunar surface the first words from the Moon are from Buzz: “ENGINE STOP” (that does not sound like Neil to me).
Image: The first page of an LM simulator training report, one of hundreds Al made out during this period.
* I do remember the 1201 and 1202 Master Alarms on descent. The press about that has always focused on Steve Bales, guidance officer (GUIDO), White Team, but I remember that the core to solving that problem was the back room MIT guys telling Jack Garman, group leader, program support group, Apollo Guidance Software that everything was ok, and Garman was yelling over his headset at Bales about this. Technical details no one cares about.