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The Apollo program conjures images of Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon and the massive team effort involved in getting him there. But a fundamental decision that led to the successful lunar landings came largely as a result of one man's determination to buck the system at NASA.

That man was John C. Houbolt.

Houbolt's vision of how to get to the moon prevailed over ideas pushed by NASA's heaviest hitters, including the German-born rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who designed the Saturn V, and Max Faget, an émigré from British Honduras who was responsible for the Mercury capsule that put the first Americans into space.

Chris Kraft scared the hell out of me — in all the right ways, yes, but still. During the Apollo program, Kraft, who died at age 95 on July 22, was NASA’s director of flight operations, and later ran the Johnson Space Center in Houston. I first met him in the early 1990s, when I was writing Apollo 13, and I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. I’d heard he was blunt, profane and brilliant and did not suffer fools easily. What I actually found was that he was, well, blunt, profane and brilliant and did not suffer fools easily.

Even after half a century, people still don’t know much about the little broken switch that nearly stranded Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface in July of 1969.

No one will ever be certain how the switch broke, but Aldrin is pretty sure it happened after he and Armstrong reentered the lunar module following their two-and-a-half hour moonwalk. The flight plan called for them to seal the hatch, repressurize the cabin, disconnect their backpacks and connect their suit hoses to the spacecraft’s life support systems. Then they would vent the cabin once more, open up the hatch and chuck the backpacks and other unneeded equipment onto the moon’s surface, reducing the weight of the ship for liftoff.

Without the computers on board the Apollo spacecraft, there would have been no moon landing, no triumphant first step, no high-water mark for human space travel. A pilot could never have navigated the way to the moon, as if a spaceship were simply a more powerful airplane. The calculations required to make in-flight adjustments and the complexity of the thrust controls outstripped human capacities.

The Apollo Guidance Computer, in both its guises—one on board the core spacecraft, and the other on the lunar module—was a triumph of engineering. Computers had been the size of rooms and filled with vacuum tubes, and if the Apollo computer, at 70 pounds, was not exactly miniature yet, it began “the transition between people bragging about how big their computers are … and bragging about how small their computers are,” the MIT aerospace and computing historian David Mindell once joked in a lecture.


The words spoken by astronaut Neil Armstrong when he became the first man to step foot on the moon — at 10:56 pm Eastern Time on July 20, 1969 — have since become one of the most famous sentences ever uttered.

But NASA’s Mission Control staffers in Houston were moved by a different line, spoken about six hours earlier. Shortly after 4:05 p.m., the words came across from Armstrong’s fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin, as the astronauts were looking for their landing spot: “Picking up some dust.”

When astronaut Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon 50 years ago, it was a giant leap for functional fashion. The spacesuit he wore was an unprecedented blend of technology and tailoring.

Take the metal fittings that connect the helmet, air tubes and gloves. They're brightly colored — for example, vivid red metal for the right glove, neon blue for the left. Patriotic, yes, but also exceptionally functional. That's because NASA wanted to make sure that in all of the excitement of landing on the moon, Armstrong was able to easily connect his gear.

Nearly a half-ton of moon rocks were collected by the six Apollo missions to the lunar surface. And as the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 first landing mission approaches, NASA has decided to open a still-sealed, never-studied moon rock sample that has been carefully saved for decades, waiting for technology to advance.

In 1969, Greg Force lived in Guam, where his father, Charles Force, worked as the director of a NASA tracking station that helped connect the capsule with NASA Mission Control for voice communication. After Apollo 11 began its departure from the moon, a problem arose — a bearing had broken in the dish antenna needed to track the ship. Without it, NASA risked losing the ability to communicate with the capsule as it approached Earth.

Scrambling to find a solution, Charles called home, hoping that Greg's child-size dimensions could be of assistance. He asked Greg to come to the tracking station and squeeze his arm through the antenna's access hole and pack grease around the bearing. The 10-year-old rose to the challenge and scampered up the ladder.

Fifty years ago, two astronauts became the first humans to set foot on the moon. Like many explorers, they documented their accomplishment in photographs. The images they took are some of the most enduring of the 20th century, traveling from Life magazine to MTV to Twitter.

For most of us, the photos brought back by Apollo 11 are iconic and a little difficult to comprehend. But for astronauts, they represent something more: hours of training, risks taken and the many people on the ground who worked to make the journey possible. NPR spoke to five former NASA astronauts who flew on space missions to learn how they see these photos. Their answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

In the summer of 1962, Walter Schirra — who would soon become America's third man to orbit the Earth — walked into a Houston photo supply shop looking for a camera he could take into space.

He came out with a Hasselblad 500C, a high-end Swedish import that had been recommended to him by photographers from Life and National Geographic.

Look at a picture of the Apollo 11 launch and you'll probably notice the rocket's pointed tip and the fire coming from the five giant engines in the first stage of the 36-story-tall Saturn V rocket. What you might miss is arguably the most important part of the entire thing: the command module.

It's the tiny, gumdrop-shaped vehicle sitting just below the tip. It holds the astronauts, their clothing, sleeping bags, food and — along with a companion service module — all of the systems needed for a round-trip journey to the moon. It's also the only piece of the spacecraft to complete the entire trip and splash down back on Earth.

On the eve of history, perhaps men do not sleep well, or perhaps they are not meant to. Before they slept Saturday night, their rest period was delayed an hour-and-a-half because of a pesky communications problem, finally tracked down. They were awakened at 7:02 a.m. Sunday, Armstrong with five-and-a-half hours sleep, Collins with six, Aldrin with five. It was the shortest rest period of the flight. They spent half an hour on breakfast. Mission Control beamed up the latest on their families, and the morning news.

Then it was time to get down to business.

The role Australia played in relaying the first television images of astronaut Neil Armstrong’s historic walk on the Moon 50 years ago this July features in the popular movie The Dish.

But that only tells part of the story (with some fictionalisation as well). What really happened is just as dramatic as the movie, and needed two Australian dishes. Australia actually played host to more NASA tracking stations than any other country outside the United States.

Senators Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) have introduced a bill — the One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act — that seeks to preserve and protect the historic Apollo 11 landing site. The bill notes that the lunar landing sites of the Apollo 11 spacecraft, the robotic spacecraft that preceded the Apollo 11 mission, and the piloted and robotic spacecraft that followed "are of outstanding universal value to humanity."

The Act explains that such landing sites: are the first archaeological locales with human activity that are not on Earth; provide evidence of the first achievements of humankind in the realm of space travel and exploration; and contain artifacts and other evidence of human exploration activities that remain a potential source of cultural, historical, archaeological, anthropological, scientific and engineering knowledge.

It turns out NASA keeps a running tally of the most interesting innovations that came out of the space program on its website "NASA Spinoffs."

While NASA takes credit for thousands and thousands of these innovations, here's a look at some of the most interesting.

Five decades ago, as astronauts traveled to the moon for the first time, TIME watched closely, along with the rest of the world. The magazine documented not only the moon landing but also the hopes and fears in the lead-up to the journey. This week, TIME looks back to that era and ahead to the new space race. To mark the anniversary, all readers — not just subscribers, who always have access — can get a free look inside the original issues that ran shortly before and after Apollo 11.

The July 18, 1969, issue of TIME, with its special supplement on the moon, provides a detailed account of the original plans for the journey. The July 25, 1969, issue (for which the editors delayed the magazine’s usual print time in order to get the Sunday event into its pages) reports what actually happened — and how reality deviated from the plans, even if in small ways.

At 4:17 p.m. Eastern time on July 20, 1969, Mike Epstein stood 90 feet from home plate and some 238,000 miles from the moon. With the Washington Senators and New York Yankees tied at 2 in the eighth inning of their series finale at Yankee Stadium, Epstein, a Bronx native, had one thing on his mind. It wasn’t Apollo 11's lunar descent.

“I wasn’t concerned with it,” Epstein, now 76, said from his home outside of Denver last month. “I was concerned about scoring a run.”

An estimated 650 million watched Neil Armstrong take man’s first step on the moon more than six hours later, but during the lunar landing, 32,933 were in the stands at Yankee Stadium on the Sunday before the all-star break. Ken McMullen dug in against Jack Aker with Epstein on third, a man on first and no outs. Most scheduled sports programs were preempted by coverage of Apollo 11's progress, but Washington’s WWDC Radio carried the Senators-Yankees game with short reports on the moon mission.

As the umpires, according to prior arrangements, waved their arms and stopped play, an urgent voice came over the radio: “Here is a bulletin from WWDC News, Apollo 11 is 100 feet from the surface of the moon. We now switch live to the manned spacecraft center.”

Sending astronauts to the moon and returning them to Earth took thousands of people solving problems no had faced before. One of those people was Stanley Schmidt, chief of the NASA Ames Dynamic Analysis Branch in California.

The computers on board the Apollo 11 mission would need to allow for navigating the trajectory to the moon and back, the angle of reentry, and complicated maneuvers in between. But they weren't anything like computers today and lacked processing power.
When studying the upcoming lunar mission, Schmidt thought of mathematician Rudolf Kalman.

Who has enough Apollo 11 remembrances to last him another month...

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