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First Words: Remembering July 20, 1969

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

    30 seconds.

    04 06 45 32 CDR (EAGLE)

    Forward drift?

    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)


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.


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  • ljk July 21, 2014, 9:13

    Houston, we have a myth: Aldrin says he spoke first words on moon

    HOUSTON – Here in Space City, it is the stuff of legend: Houston was the first word spoken on the moon.

    The governor has bragged about it. Advertising campaigns have been built around it. It even turned up in the lyrics of a mayor’s campaign song.
    Only one problem with that idea – sadly, it’s just not true.

    On a hot Sunday afternoon 45 years ago this weekend, Americans sat transfixed in front of their television sets as Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin achieved what had long been the impossible dream of landing men on the moon.

    With no live television coverage of the descent to the lunar surface — the camera wasn’t deployed until later, after Armstrong stepped outside – viewers of network TV coverage heard but didn’t see the landing.

    That caused confusion. CBS News, hailed for its coverage anchored by the revered Walter Cronkite, showed animation of the lunar module sitting on the moon before it had actually landed.

    So perhaps the world could be forgiven for the mistaken belief that the first words spoken on the moon were “Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.”

    Full article here:


    To quote:

    The story got more complicated decades later, when NASA released previously unpublicized recordings from inside the lunar module. Shortly after Aldrin said the word “contact,” Armstrong is heard saying “shutdown.” Chaikin contends the spacecraft wasn’t actually sitting on the moon until that moment.

    “Neil says ‘shutdown,’ which means that he has at that point shut down the descent rocket, the descent engine of the lunar module,” Chaikin said. “And he only did that after they were actually on the moon.”

    Aldrin bristled at the suggestion Armstrong uttered the first word on the moon. He was there, he said, and the first words were his.

    “Let’s not deal with trivia as to what the recording was,” Aldrin said. “Andy may want to do that for his book, but what I recall I just told you.”

    So Aldrin believes the first word spoken on the moon was not “Houston,” but “contact.” Chaikin, the historian, believes it was “shutdown.”

  • ljk July 21, 2014, 9:13

    Probably the most authoritative and detailed source on the subject of who said what first on the Moon:


  • Al Jackson July 21, 2014, 10:50

    It’s odd the voice recordings on the net I have found seem to have Armstrong repeating Buzz’s “Contact Light” as “Contact” , so that must be over the air to ground by VOX. Then that just flat sounds like Buzz saying “Okay, Engine Stop” and Neil repeating something like “Engine stop.” Now the VOX may have cut out Neil’s “Shutdown” .
    Are the cockpit recordings on-line?

  • ljk July 21, 2014, 12:50

    Apollo 11 audio highlights from NASA (MP3 player required):


    The Eagle landing audio with visual aids:


    Hope this helps Al and thank you again for sharing your personal memories.

  • Gregory Benford July 21, 2014, 13:10

    Great stuff, Al!

  • Adam July 21, 2014, 17:02

    Nerves of steel both of them for keeping the operational lingo flowing as they touched down.

  • william July 21, 2014, 20:19

    I’m certainly very glad that today’s topic is about Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon. For quite a while. I’ve had a very pressing question which I didn’t know whom I might turn to to get it answered.

    A little history behind what I’m talking about; I read the book “First Man” which was a biographical book written by an author who had personally contacted and written about Neil Armstrong. In this book Armstrong talks about the fact that Buzz Aldrin was kind of insistent that he be the first man out of the lunar module to step foot on the moon – even before Armstrong.

    Armstrong goes on further to say that Aldrin even went out of his way to have his (Aldrin’s) father pull a few strings to see if his son could be the the first one out onto the moon surface. Armstrong took it all in good graces and for a variety of reasons NASA’s management shot down Aldrin’s request, leaving Armstrong to be the first out of the spaceship.

    Here’s my question, even if it be a hypothetical one:

    If Aldrin had succeeded in convincing NASA’s management that he should have been the first one out of the spacecraft, does Al Jackson or anyone else think that Armstrong would have pulled rank and objected to the NASA’s management decision or would you think Armstrong would have quietly acceded to what was decided by his bosses above ?

    I’ve always wondered about that because Armstrong’s nonconfrontational way of living might have reached its limit if he as the commander had not been the first to go out. Any thoughts here on this question ?

  • Al Jackson July 21, 2014, 22:39

    This is story I only heard years later, at the time among the Apollo simulator instructors it was something we knew nothing about. Even tho we saw all the crews and even astronauts who never few on Apollo, we never socialized with them after work or any other time. We even went on a ‘guidance navigation and control trip’ with them once to MIT and TRW (TRW had the Abort Guidance System (AGS) for the LM, my subsystem), even though we went to dinner with them , at the contractor’s invitation, we did not even sit with them. I remember going to Durgin-Park , the famous restaurant on Boston but the high ups at MIT sat with them. The only time we had interchange with them was the meeting rooms at Lincoln Labs and TRW in Redondo Beach. We , of course, did not fly with them, they few themselves to Boston and LA.
    All I can say is that of the whole astronaut corps at the time, we thought Neil and Buzz were unusual. Buzz especially, I really liked him, since he was a ‘space-cadet’, like me had gotten the space flight bug early. (Also a science fiction reader, tho we never talked about it.) It’s still true of Buzz. There was no one in the Corps who was in Building 5 (where the simulators were) more often than Buzz. We had to work crazy shifts in those days because the crew trained from 8 to 5 (sometimes 6 pm) and Singer-Link who built the LM and CM simulators had it from 5 pm to 8 am in the mornings. There had to be a NASA instructor there when maintenance was being done, in my case when the AGS emulation software was being modified, which was many times. Sometimes I worked from 10 pm to 3am, went home and came back at around 12pm for the afternoon shift. In those days everything ran 24/7/365. Buzz would drive us crazy. We had several Part-Task simulators, cobbled together, gizzys that one could do things like terminal phase rendezvous. Buzz loved doing MANUAL terminal phase rendezvous.
    Neil and Buzz were very cordial to us , but one just did not just shoot the breeze with them, it was always business.
    From working in those days I got the impression that NASA Headquarters in D.C. would listen to your suggestions but Thomas O. Paine (who had taken over from Webb in 68), George Mueller and George Low (a few others) could not be swayed. So , if it happened, Neil stayed out it because it was not going to change.
    I can say this about NASA headquarters. Before the Apollo 11 CM and LM were named we had Conrad and Bean in the LMS and John Young in the CMS one day. We were doing an integrated sim. Young told Conrad over the com that the names would be Columbia and Eagle. Conrad bristled at this, said something like “I bet that had to come down from headquarters.” Now Neil and Buzz may have suggested those names, but last word on that had to come from HQ. Conrad was very funny man and quite, how should I say, self-contained. Conrad, Bean and Young , all Navy men, then proceeded with a blue language discussion that I can’t repeat here (ask me or Paul sometime, he knows the story).
    So it came down from D.C. and not anything Buzz could have done about it.

  • Michael Spencer July 22, 2014, 7:55

    These personal memories are priceless. Thanks.

    I admit that Armstrong’s unwillingness to vigorously champion space travel has always bothered me; after all, he was catapulted into an amazingly unique position through the efforts of countless millions spending billions. I’ve read enough about him to understand that this was entirely consistent with his nature. With so many qualified people one wonders exactly how NASA made the choice of Armstrong and if they discussed post-moon landing activities with him. Clearly the first man on the moon could have been a stunningly effective spokesman had the man with an appropriate personality been chosen.

    Another question, I suppose, from the Land of What If.

  • Neil McAleer July 22, 2014, 12:29


    Thanks so much for your anecdotes from early the Space Age. They are all wonderful to read and enjoy.

    And that’s the very first LEM simulator training form I have ever seen, including Armstrong and Aldrin data.


  • ljk July 22, 2014, 17:37

    If you want to know just how primitive the Apollo Lunar Module computers were, check this out:


    A sample chapter may be found online here:


    The author gave a lecture here:


  • ljk July 22, 2014, 17:41

    This NASA video on the Apollo Guidance Computer is well worth a look:


    You will be hugging your laptop and smartphone afterwards. :^)

    Regarding the first words on the Moon, if you want to get really technical, they happened not in 1969 but early 1946:


  • ajay July 23, 2014, 9:18

    For what it’s worth, Aldrin says that “Contact light” were the first words spoken on the surface of the moon, in his novel “Encounter with Tiber” (he uses it as a chapter heading).

  • ljk July 23, 2014, 9:50

    This huge archive all about Apollo by Kipp Teague has as its name Contact Light based on those first words spoken by Aldrin.


  • ljk August 4, 2014, 10:51

    Here is a piece about who was supposed to be first to step on the lunar surface:


    To quote:

    Aldrin noted that at least one team at NASA supported his argument for why the junior person should step outside first, leaving the more senior person safely behind the controls and in a better position to take action in an emergency.

    “But,” Aldrin explains, “many people felt the great symbology of the commander from past expeditions or arrivals at a destination.” So Armstrong climbed down the ladder first. However, Aldrin notes that once both astronauts were outside the lunar module their roles became more ambiguous even though Armstrong was the de facto leader of the mission.

    Aldrin writes:

    The decision that was made was absolutely correct as far as who went out first, symbolically. However who was in charge of the what happened after both people are outside, I believe, could have been done differently. I was not the commander, I was a junior person, so once both [we] were outside, I followed my leader, because we (NASA) had not put together detailed jobs of people outside. I believe it could have been improved. But it was very successful for what it was. And the decision wasn’t up to me, or Neil, it was up to people much higher up in NASA.

    NASA’s history website, “Apollo Expeditions to the Moon,” tells a slightly different version of the story. The agency originally predicted that Aldrin would be the first man to step on the moon, but the lunar module posed logistical challenges that made this order impossible. The hatch opened on the opposite side where Aldrin was seated. “For Aldrin to get out first it would have been necessary for one bulky-suited, back-packed astronaut to climb over another,” NASA wrote. “When that movement was tried, it damaged the LM mockup.”

  • ljk August 4, 2014, 12:03

    A NASA book definitely worth a look – Apollo Expeditions to the Moon, from 1975 and online here:


  • ljk August 8, 2014, 14:03

    What If Apollo 11 Failed? President Nixon Had Speech Ready

    By Nola Taylor Redd, Space.com Contributor | July 22, 2014 02:20 pm ET

    The entire world was captivated by NASA’s Apollo 11 moon landing 45 years ago this week, but at the time, the mission’s success was far from certain. In fact, then President Richard Nixon even had a speech ready should Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin die on the moon.

    In preparation for possible catastrophe, presidential speechwriter William Safire prepared a statement for President Nixon. Although the speech remained undelivered, given the success of Apollo 11, its existence underscores some of the concerns regarding the hazards of space travel.

    Full article here:


    “All involved knew that the risks of an accident on any flight to the moon, especially the first attempt, were high,” historian John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University, told Space.com via email. “Once Armstrong and Aldrin landed, there was particular attention [paid] to the possibility that they might not be able to launch from the moon’s surface.”

  • Joëlle B. August 14, 2014, 14:27

    A bit OT, but looking at your very cute pictures, Dr. Jackson, I am curious to know why you aren’t wearing your glasses in the LM simulator? Is there a specific reason for this? Were you substituting that day with contacts and/or is eye-wear unfashionable while simulating space environments?

  • ljk August 18, 2014, 10:18

    A New Look at the Apollo 11 Landing Site

    Visualizations by Ernie Wright on July 18, 2014

    Apollo 11 landed on the Moon on July 20th, 1969, a little after 4:00 in the afternoon Eastern Daylight Time. The Lunar Module, nicknamed Eagle and flown by Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, touched down near the southern rim of the Sea of Tranquility, one of the large, dark basins that contribute to the Man in the Moon visible from Earth. Armstrong and Aldrin spent about two hours outside the LM setting up experiments and collecting samples. At one point, Armstrong ventured east of the LM to examine a small crater, dubbed Little West, that he’d flown over just before landing.

    The trails of disturbed regolith created by the astronauts’ boots are still clearly visible in photographs of the landing site taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) narrow-angle camera (LROC) more than four decades later.

    LROC imagery makes it possible to visit the landing site in a whole new way by flying around a three-dimensional model of the site. LROC scientists created the digital elevation model using a stereo pair of images. Each image in the pair shows the site from a slightly different angle, allowing sophisticated software to infer the shape of the terrain, similar to the way that left and right eye views are combined in the brain to produce the perception of depth.

    The animator draped an LROC photograph over the terrain model. He also added a 3D model of the LM descent stage—the real LM in the photograph looks oddly flat when viewed at an oblique angle.

    Although the area around the site is relatively flat by lunar standards, West Crater (the big brother of the crater visited by Armstrong) appears in dramatic relief near the eastern edge of the terrain model. Ejecta from West comprises the boulders that Armstrong had to avoid as he searched for a safe landing site.

    Apollo 11 was the first of six increasingly ambitious crewed lunar landings. The exploration of the lunar surface by the Apollo astronauts, when combined with the wealth of remote sensing data now being returned by LRO, continues to inform our understanding of our nearest neighbor in space.


  • ljk January 19, 2015, 15:24

    The Quagmire of The Apollo Space Program

    Posted on January 18, 2015 by dennis wingo

    Editor Note: Hyperlinks in this article are direct links to referenced documents discussed in this missive.

    Why the Lessons of Apollo Have Still Not Been Learned 50 Years Later

    There is an old saying that history is his-story, or the story of whoever the victors are in war or society. We know that Roman and Greek civilization was superior to others at the time because we have the Roman and Greek records that tell us so. The Celts or Chinese might have thought differently. In some respects the same is true of all history. This is not to indict historians that have written on the subject of space but it is to say that everyone has a viewpoint and sometimes the official history does not fully illuminate a subject.

    I have never been satisfied with the “official” NASA history of the Apollo program. I lived in Huntsville Alabama for a long time and it mystified me to an extreme why we did not at least launch the last two flight worthy Saturn V’s and their payloads, Apollo’s 18 and 19. Over the years since I left the computer industry in 1987 and moved to Huntsville to begin my space career I have collected a pretty good library of space books and I have read them all. I have participated in conferences, talked to and worked with many Apollo veterans, and have been a part of NASA’s attempts at new efforts to get exploration beyond Earth orbit going. None of it has ever made sense to me, so I have spent time researching the history to try to understand why we were able to do it then, and why it has been so hard since Apollo to make progress.

    To me the best history is the Pulitzer prize winning book “The Heavens and the Earth, A Political History of the Space Age” by Walter McDougall. I read the book probably twenty five years ago but did not fully understand its importance. I re-read it often now. The official NASA history, NASA SP-4407, “Exploring the Unknown” edited by Dr. John Logsdon is also a great resource. Chapter two was written by Dr. Logsdon (which is an excerpt of his 1970 book “The Decision to Go to the Moon“) deals directly with the history of the Apollo program. There is an extensive bibliography of histories but these two encapsulate the prevailing consensus. However…..

    Full article here: