Following up on last Friday's Apollo 11 theme, it wasn't all fun and tiny silicon disks.

As some commenters debated last week, the moon landing was seen as an enormously risky proposition, even within NASA. It makes sense when you realize that the operation was executed with 1960s microcomputing technology, i.e. that the Apollo Guidance Computer had but a tiny fraction of the capability of a modern cellphone. NASA's odds, at the request of the Nixon White House, were 50/50. In reality NASA probably had somewhat more confidence in the mission but tried to err on the conservative side. I find it hard to believe they really would have attempted it with coin flip odds on the lives of two astronauts.

Regardless, they were worried enough that Nixon prepared (more accurately, speechwriter William Safire prepared) an address in the event that Aldrin and Armstrong had to be left behind. Additionally, Michael Collins, the Command Module Pilot, was allegedly briefed extensively on scenarios that involved abandoning them. The speech itself is pretty jarring, but what they planned to do in the event of the astronauts being stranded on the moon was downright disturbing.

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by the nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.
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In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home.
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Man's search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

Pretty somber, to say the least. But…


The President should telephone each of the widows-to-be.


A clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to "the deepest of the deep," concluding with the Lord's Prayer.

Yeah. So the plan was to cut off communication with them and just leave them there. Like, "OK, bye guys!" Their choices at that point would have been to wait until their oxygen ran out (perhaps a few hours, counting what was in the lander) or open up their suits and have a faster but remarkably unpleasant death.

Personally I find it very hard to believe the people in Houston would actually have ended communication with them. On a personal level that seems unlikely at best, given how small of a community the early space program was. It seems more plausible that they would have cut off communication for public consumption but left open a line in the control room, giving the astronauts the choice of when to end contact.

In any event, it is a substantial understatement to say that I'm glad we did not have to find out how this process would work by experiencing it.

26 thoughts on “NPF: OK, THAT'S JUST WEIRD”

  • One of the great things about living in DC is the unfettered access to the various Smithsonian institutions; the Air & Space Museum is particularly excellent, and I can never go there without passing the lunar lander thingy in the entrance foyer and shuddering at its primitive wiring and tiny interior. Honestly, it looks like something Uncle Norman built in his shed. The fact that America managed to convince a bunch of its best and brightest to get into that fucking thing and land on the moon is impressive in and of itself.

  • Ach, you've just made me go and read that Rupert Brooke's 'The Soldier'. That poem always brings tears to my eyes. (Although I suspect, like most UK citizens my age, I do collapse it on top of the painfully moving season finale of Blackadder Goes Forth where our heroes go over the top in WWI and die horribly and needlessly.)

    "IF I should die, think only this of me;
    That there's some corner of a foreign field
    That is for ever England. There shall be
    In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
    A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
    Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
    A body of England's breathing English air,
    Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home. […]"

  • This is kind of a macabre question, but do you not think they would have had something to, er, hasten the process along?

  • Elle –

    We may never know, but I kinda doubt it. Given the small quarters and truly limited storage space I would think the mission engineers were more likely to cram in items necessary to prolong life and give the best chances for return – mission success is more valuable than mission failure when there is no opportunity to critically assess what the failures were using first-hand accounts.

    Besides, are you going to be the guy telling Buzz to get in that tin can, that everything is going to work out, but hust in case here's a couple of cyanide pills? Kind of a mixed message in an environment where that's not usually tolerated.

  • Thanks for the quotation, Elle — I think Safire should have credited his use of the phrase. And I do think our men were given an Rx exit option, or at least a tranquilizer. I hope they were.

  • Besides, are you going to be the guy telling Buzz to get in that tin can, that everything is going to work out, but hust in case here's a couple of cyanide pills? Kind of a mixed message in an environment where that's not usually tolerated.

    I know absolutely nothing about how things work in the air force / NASA, but it strikes me that Buzz et al must have known that this was a fairly risky endeavour upon which they were embarking.

    I can speak only for myself, but I think that I would be more inclined to physical courage were there a (relatively) painless way of hastening death in the event of a hideous injury/abandonment. I can't think of many worse things than waiting to die, far away from every other human, and praying your oxygen runs out first so you won't be the one completely alone, holding a dead man's hand.

  • They all knew how risky it was. Are you familiar with this Gus Grissom quote?

    "If we die, we want people to accept it. We're in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life."

  • party with tina says:

    Suffocating isn't that painful or anything, a person just slowly gets weak passes out, then dies. If I were trapped on the moon, I think I'd rather just wander around checking stuff out, thank taking my "way out".

    Carbon Monoxide poisoning is basically the same thing, it creeps up on people, they get tired go lie down and quietly expire. It's definitely one of the better ways to die, IMO.

  • Elle, I'm with you on your "macabre question." I'd be surprised if they didn't have the cyanide (or whatever they are) pills that spies and other behind-the-lines types have occasionally been provided. Of course that very fact would be highly classified.

  • Elder Futhark says:

    Elle, I can neither confirm nor refute the mythical black capsule question. Chances are good it was an option offered to them. Given the ten thousand different ways to die, the answer was probably a hearty guffaw and a "You're kiddin' right?"

    On a counterfactual note, had the crew of 11 died, I suspect we just might have a moonbase up there right now. Granted, rather absurd, but it have appealed to the "Moon! For the Space Martyrs! Monster trucks and Bulldozers up there! Eleventy!" crowd enough to keep the momentum.

  • @Jon — that's what They WANT you to think. And by They, I of course refer to the shiny-side-out tinfoil hat crowd, a false flag operation set up by the NSA. Those of us in the know keep the shiny side facing inwards, to seal in the juices.

    @partywithtina — that's not really true. In a sealed spacesuit, you'd burn up the remaining oxygen and then start to suffer hypercapnia, carbon dioxide poisoning. You'd suffer an array of unpleasantness progressing from headaches and confusion to panic and heart arrythmia and convulsions before you finally passed out and expired.

    Carbon monoxide poisoning is similarly terrible, unless the concentration is quite high.

  • BK,
    My argument against your theory that NASA would have tried to ensure survival of the men is refuted by the briefings to Collins and the speech that was prepered for Nixon to give in case of mission failure. I too would like to think that there would be an attempt to save the men, but our country has a very long and storied history of abandoning men sent on missions (i.e. Bataan). Just a thought.

  • 'NASA ends communication with the men' is a polite way to refer to the men dying. I'm not sure where you came up with the assumption that NASA would just switch off the radio. Nowhere in the statements you pasted in your post does it state that.
    The whole idea of disaster scenarios for NASA missions is an interesting topic. Thanks for posting it. It would make sense for NASA to go over these situations; one for the men in the space to ensure that they would do what they could to ensure survival as much as possible and two for the government to have a coherent plan to deal with disaster as these events were huge live media events in the US.

  • Given the fact that these guys were military, test pilots and hard ass Type A personalities, I think they were fully prepared almost all the time to die during their missions and training.

    These were some of the best of the best in the warrior breed and death was an ever present fact of life for them. Not much different than any explorer that went before them.

    In a semi peaceful world we often times forget that for many generations death was constantly lurking right behind you. Any soldier in combat knows and accepts that.

    What the Apollo crew did was remarkable but we have people doing the same thing every day in Iraq and Afghanistan and their bravery cannot be overstated.

  • I find it hard to believe they really would have attempted it with coin flip odds on the lives of two astronauts.

    You're kidding, right?

  • @Strangepork: Thank you, that was vividly informative; I'm crossing "dioxide/monoxide poisoning" off my to-do list now.

    @Michael: Well, yes and no. Lots of bravery has happened and will happen, but, in my experience, the vast majority of occupation is that of boredom, bureaucracy and waiting for something to happen.

  • I find it exceptionally unlikely that communication would be cut off; to the contrary, both Armstrong and Aldrin are superb engineers and would have spent their dying breaths trying to fix the lander or work out engineering improvements or just talked about the view out the window.

    In addition, they would likely set the equipment to send as much data as possible for as long as possible.

    A lot of what they would do depends on whether the guillotine separating the upper from the lower stage had fired; if so, that substantially shortens their remaining time.

    I like to think that, in a similar situation, I'd spend my last moments trying to fix it or provide information that would prevent the same problem from happening to the next guy.

  • The argument that we have to accept GM food because many people eat poor diets is in a way an admission of guilt. There is a tacit assumption here that GM products are unsafe or at least questionable but that people have to put up with this because they are not consistent. Isn't this damning with faint praise? If GM foods are not safe or if there are questions they should be banned. By the way, I eat mostly organic food. If there is at least one person who eats a healthy, diet, doesn't that also invalidate the argument? That person can say, "I am being persecuted by this food".

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