Fifty years after the moon landing on 20th July 1969, an untold story


Moon landing

By Chandima Munindradasa

Apollo 11 was the most significant event of the 20th century, followed by the discovery of DNA, Penicillin, computer chips, that transformed our civilization. In 1961 President Kennedy declared that the USA would go to the Moon. He was committing the nation to something, they could not do, without the tooling, rockets, fuel, launch pads, space suits, computers or micro gravity food, Medicine that was needed was not there. It was said, winning space was a mark of ‘national strength’. "We did not know, what we will need, or how to get there and return. We did not know, what we would find, when you get there, but we will get practical value of technology and development, aspiring American Students to pursue Science and Engineering." A million challengers and problems has to be solved to achieve that. The computers navigated through space and helped astronauts to operate the ship. But, they also carried a sextant and star chart, an 18th century device, to cross check their computer navigation. After the Kennedy assassination in November 23rd 1963, President Johnson said, "no matter how brilliant our scientists and engineers are, how frugal our administrators are, we cannot reach the moon without adequate funds and "there’s is no second class tickets to space." The software for the computer was stitched by a gathering of women, sitting at specialized looms, using wires instead of thread. Most of the Apollo’s work was done by hand, including the space suits. The three staff members who were specialized in folding parachutes, were considered indispensable, and forbade them to ride in the same car. The Lunar mission was basically hand made. Neil Armstrong’s "one small step to man and giant leap to mankind" was not that small. The ladder was more than 3.5 feet tall.

I was listening to the radio, and the instant conversations were translated by a Lankan scientist Dr. Adikaram. As far as I remember, the majority in the country did not have radios, or even electricity. Reddifusion, a cable-powered radio was there in Panadura shops, and anxious people were listening around them. The news media published several newspapers, every two hours or so. So I also bought them to get a clear idea. In the middle of the moon mission every schoolboy’s anxiety was the return trip, if the accent rocket would not start. Some even said, the moon is high above and they could parachute down!

The moon has no air. But its dust had a smell. The moon dust that was clinging to their space suits, came into the Lunar module. Apollo 11 crew member, Buzz Aldrin has mentioned, the smell was like a firecracker has gone off. Before the Moon mission, NASA scientists were worried about the Lunar dust, that had no contact with Oxygen for a long time, to be highly chemically reactive, once inside the Lunar module. The scientists were worried that the lunar dust coming into contact with Oxygen might start burning or even explode. Armstrong and Aldrin was briefed about it, and they were not happy about a fireworks display inside their Lunar module. So they did their own test. They spread some lunar soil on top of the ascent engine, and watched it, while they pressurized the module. If it started to smolder, they wanted to stop the pressurization, open the hatch and toss it out. But, nothing happened. As the dust was irritating and clingy, Armstrong and Aldrin, slept in their helmet and gloves, also to avoid breathing it. Later the six lunar landings, brought 842 pounds of rocks, but by that time it reached earth, the odor was gone, exposed to air in storage boxes. Some other NASA scientists were worried that accumulation of moon dust, 10 feet deep, will bury the landing module, and they will not be able to get out, and also the descending rocket will make up a dust storm, and astronauts will not be able to see their landing area properly. Some of the Moon craters were very deep, and they had to avoid that.

I remember socialist newspapers in then Ceylon said that the amount of money spent on the moon mission, the people in Ceylon could get free food for five years. People in Ceylon and also some Americans, thought that it was an utter waste of money, going to the moon. NASA laid the foundation for digital technology and integrated circuits, first computer chips, for the instant time computers used on the Apollo Command Module and Apollo Lunar module. The Apollo spacecraft was flying to the moon almost at 24,000 miles per hour or six miles per second. At that speed the astronauts could not wait even for a minute for a calculation.

On September 12th 1962, President Kennady said, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win and others, too. A few days later, former President Dwight Eisenhower said to the Congress, "Any-body who would spend $40 billion in a race to the moon for national prestige is nuts", to the applause from 160 Congressmen, and national newspapers said, "Ike calls Moon Race Nuts".

Neil Armstrong’s one small step for man" wasn’t small at all. He had to drop 3.5 feet from the foot of the Eagle’s ladder to the moon surface. When Neil and Aldrin got out for their famous moon walk, Aldrin has to make sure that he did not fully close the Eagle’s hatch (door) because the cabin would start re-pressurizing making it impossible to re-enter. The USA flag that was famously planted on the moon surface, was purchased from a Houston super market by a NASA secretary, but it was knocked down by the engine take off blast. The Apollo guidance computer weighed 70 pounds, yet was less powerful than today’s smart phone. Apollo engineering influenced a lot of technologies and products such as: freeze dried meals. Dust-buster cordless vacuums, Nike air running shoes, anti-fog ski goggles, studless winter tires. The Saturn V rocket that launched Apollo 11, burnt 203,400 gallons of kerosene fuel, and another 318,000 gallons of liquid oxygen to lift the spacecraft just 38 miles into the sky. Just imagine the size of the tank, and if it exploded, the fireball would have been 2,500F. This mission was so dangerous, the astronauts were refused any life insurance. President Nixon’s secretary drafted a "just in case’ letter, "In Event of Moon Disaster". Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace."

The Lunar module was a two-stage space craft. The full ship would land on the moon, but only the small upper stage with crew compartment, will blast from moon, and return to the command module in orbit. The lunar module had two rocket engines, The big one to land with variable power, and the smaller one to blast off from the moon surface that had directional control. The Apollo 11 spaceship that carried Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong from earth to moon, was big. It was 53 feet long. From 1969 to 1971 on all six moon missions, they left behind Rovers, decent and ascent stagers, astronaut boots, and a gold replica of an olive branch to reduce takeoff weight. When the Apollo 11 reached the moons orbit, there was another visitor there that has arrived two days earlier.

Lunar 15 was Russian unmanned robotic craft that was at the moon orbit on a mysterious mission. Luna 15 was launched on Sunday July 13th, before the Wednesday launch of Apollo 11. Russians said, it was simply conducting further scientific exploration of the Moon and space. But, NASA scientists believed it was a scooping mission, designed to land and scoop up soil and return to earth, before the Apollo 11 astronauts could make it home. NASA was mostly concerned that Russian communication with Luna 15 might interfere with Apollo 11.

Commander of Apollo 8, Frank Borman has previously visited Russia on a goodwill mission, and had contacts there. The mission control asked Borman to call his Soviet friends, for data on Luna 15. In an unprecedented move, Soviets sent a telegram, one copy to White House and another to Bormann’s home address, with details. Then at a press conference, the mission control said, Luna 15 and Apollo 11 would not come anywhere near each other.

The Soviet mission made the front page news worldwide, and it was a well-planned effort to upstage Apollo 11. When Luna 15 arrived in lunar orbit on July 17th, two days ahead of Apollo 11, the Russian scientists were surprised "by the ruggedness of the lunar terrain, with its altimeter wildly varying readings. When Armstrong and Aldrin stepped out into the moon surface, Luna 15 was still going round the Moon, trying to find a landing site. Then two hours before the Eagle with Armstrong and Aldrin blasted off the moon, Luna 15 fired its rockets aimed for touchdown. The Legendary Sir Bernard Lovell of British Jodrell Bank observatory was listening to both transmissions, and he was the first to report, of Luna 15 crash. The Soviet news agency Tass reported that Luna 15 has reached moon’s surface and its programme was completed. In spite of taking an extra day to find a landing area, Luna 15 was travelling at 300 miles per hour, when it crashed into the side of a mountain 4.5 Kilo meters high.

On Tuesday 1.15pm, the astronauts woke up from a 10-hour rest, mission control called, "Apollo 11, this is Houston. If you are not busy now, I can read you up the morning news". Aldrin replied. "OK, we are listening." They were told, that President Nixon would head to Romania, after meeting them onboard the recovery aircraft carrier, and Luna 15 is believed to have crashed, after orbiting the moon 52 times.

On their return, Command Module pilot Michael Collins now 88 years old said that ‘going to Mars makes Apollo look like child’s play’. It will take six months to get there and will need a petrol shed, to fuel up at half way. However, when you land, you can’t turn round and come home, because the planets are in wrong alignment. This means, waiting on Mars surface, closer to one year! We are talking about a two year round trip. At Kennedy center, it’s written on the walls, "We chose to go…not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard". There is a lesson for Lankan to learn from here.

Why the Russians


About two weeks prior to the Apollo 11 moon mission, Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman was in Moscow, on a courtesy visit where he met with Soviet cosmonauts. But he did not know that the Soviet moon race was already lost, after their lead in space exploration early on which seems unassailable to Americans. On July 3rd the Soviet secret moon rocket known as N-1 had exploded in a fire ball, at the remote launch site at Baikonur in Kazakhstan, destroying the launch pad, while the Apollo 11 was already sitting on its launch pad. This explosion was observed by the American secret "Corona" spy satellite. The Soviet scientists knew that this failure has put them back, another one to one and half years. The first artificial satellite ‘Sputnik 1" was sent in 1957, and unprecedented firsts, ‘Lica’ the dog in space, first human in space (Gagarin), first spacewalk, first soft landing on moon, first lunar rover, and all these accomplishments were done by very smart people. Then why the Soviet Union could not send a man to the moon?

In 1962, seven years before the Apollo 11, a Soviet plan was set to send a 75ton rocket called N1, to the orbit, and that was after President Kennedy’s speech in May 1961 on sending a man to the moon. N in Russian for "nosityel," meaning carrier. Then in July 1963 plans were changed for a piloted lunar landing. By that time, the Apollo programme was in full swing targeting 690 tons Saturn five. Due to the political situation, the Soviet government gave priority to build ICBMS or Intercontinental Nuclear Ballistic missiles, dissipating badly needed resources and money. The Soviet defense industry was in a chaotic management system, with its economy. The high performance liquid propellant’s priority was the military ICBMS, squeezing the badly needed fuel for the space programme. One of the most fateful judgments of the programme was to forgo ground testing, due to lack of funds, government support and fuel. This resulted in four failures of novel N1 rocket, that had 30 engines at the base. The July 3rd explosion of N1 rocket, brought the moon race to an end.

(Chandima Munindradasa is a Aerospace Engineer working at Boeing in California, USA.

He could be contacted at])


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