August 2009

From Mojave to the Moon

Before they landed on Earth’s nearest neighbor, they practiced here


Practicing lunar module landing in the Mojave Desert, NASA

Forty years ago this summer, three men—Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins—left planet Earth in Apollo 11, headed for the moon. Their mission, with its predicted 60 percent chance of success, was to be the first humans to set foot on another celestial body. Getting to the moon’s orbit was not the hurdle—we’d done that with Apollo 8. It was the second part of the equation—how to physically land on the moon—that presented unknowns and made the odds so dramatic.

For starters, there would be no air on the moon. This meant that the existing principles of aerodynamics wouldn’t be in play. The lunar landing vehicle would have to be controlled entirely by propulsion—or thrust. And because the moon is covered with refrigerator-size boulders and pockmarked with asteroid craters, ranging from a few feet deep to hundreds of yards wide, it would have to be piloted by an astronaut and not controlled robotically by NASA scientists back home.

“There were no runways, lights, radio beacons or navigational aids of any kind,” Neil Armstrong said. Which is why, beginning seven and a half years before the big event, a bevy of scientists and engineers got to work, largely in California’s Mojave Desert, planning, designing and ultimately flying a contraption called the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV). In case you’ve never seen one, it can only be described as looking remarkably like the flying bedstead from the Disney movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Ugly or not, so important was the LLRV to Apollo 11’s success, a poster still welcomes visitors to the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base north of L.A. that reads, “Before we landed on the moon, we practiced here.”

When the first assembled LLRV arrived at the center (although built by Bell Aerosystems in New York, Dryden was chosen to assemble the vehicle because of its solid history in researching and testing the landing behavior of high-performance aircraft), right around the same time, NASA was testing the X-15 rocket plane there. Employees were bewildered by what “looked like a giant Erector set,” recalled NASA engineer Gene Matranga.

A year later, in the summer of 1964, President Johnson stopped by to commemorate what was about to be the LLRV’s first flight. NASA officials leaped at the PR opportunity with the commander in chief, whom they hoped to photograph in the moon cruiser’s cockpit. They even wired up some red lightbulbs and attached them to the rocket nozzles for effect— à la Hollywood. But the Secret Service vetoed the photo op, saying the president’s life would be endangered by having him on a rocket-propelled ejection seat.

It was drama in the desert. To make sure tourists didn’t get in the way, testing took place before dawn. Had onlookers shown up, there may have been some explaining to do. Suited up, the LLRV crew looked like Martians. They wore head-to-toe protective space gear to prevent caustic burns from the hydrogen peroxide–based fuel. For the first official flight, a caravan of 28 support vehicles accompanied the flying bedstead to the test site located eight miles from the Mojave base.

Never mind the tourists. In the excitement of the test, NASA forgot to notify the control tower at Edwards, which resulted in a posse of air-police vehicles descending on the LLRV and its parade. Out swept commandos in full battle gear, complete with M-1 rifles. After a brief exchange of ID cards, the matter was cleared up. But the hurdles didn’t stop—next up was the wrath of Mother Nature. On the first night of testing, it snowed eight inches. Then came the windstorms. No one said it would be easy getting from the Mojave to the moon.

Two years and 204 flights later, a fleet of LLRVs left Southern California headed for astronaut training in Houston. There, the original LLRV—ship No. 1—met an inglorious end when its instruments failed in mid flight. Armstrong was at the controls but managed to bail out successfully, thanks to the very ejection seat the Secret Service had been so wary of. Lucky for mankind, Armstrong had no such landing problems when he finally touched down on the Sea of Tranquility on July 20, 1969, at 4:17 p.m. EDT. Never mind that he had less than 30 seconds of landing fuel left in the tank.

Forty years and a whole lot of mind-boggling scientific advancements later, it’s impossible not to look at the moon and wonder, What’s it like up there? I asked Aldrin this while sitting with him in his L.A. high rise surrounded by moon paraphernalia and presidential awards. Perhaps it seems like too obvious a question—then again, Aldrin is one of only 12 people on a planet of roughly 6.7 billion who has actually walked around up there.

Magnificent Desolation, the title of Aldrin’s compelling new memoir, is exactly what he felt. Standing on the moon, he recalled that “there was an indescribable feeling of proximity and connection between us and everyone back home. Yet we were physically separated and farther away from home than any two human beings had ever been.”

That’s for sure. The moon is some 250,000 miles away. During that historic first visit, Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon for 2 hours and 15 seconds—never straying more than about 100 feet from their funny-looking landing craft. They gathered rocks and kicked up lunar dust. They set up a TV camera and broadcast footage back to Earth so that 600 million humans around the world could feel the excitement, too.

It took 400,000 people to get man to the moon. In the three and a half years following Armstrong and Aldrin’s flawless touchdown, five more crews would park lunar landing vehicles on the moon’s tricky surface. From the rugged highlands at the Fra Mauro asteroid crater to the jagged slopes of Montes Apenninus to the solidified magma dust blanketing the Ocean of Storms, each delicate landing went without a hitch.

Practice makes perfect. Armstrong would later say the LLRV test flights “absolutely” prepared him for the lunar landing. The trials and tribulations of 204 such sessions in the Mojave Desert paid off in spades. This was no small feat. When it comes to a moon landing, there is no room for a bad parking job or a crash landing, because the vehicle that got you there is also your only ride back to the spaceship that will carry you home.