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The Four Curves That Put Us on the Moon

Apollo Engineers Discuss What It Took to Land on the Moon

After everyone else had finished speaking at the Caltech gathering, Neil Armstrong calmly rose and went to a chalkboard. He drew four bell-type curves, spaced slightly apart, and labeled them: Leadership, Threat, Economy, and Talent. And he said to the room, “My thought is, when you get all these lined up, you can’t stop something really big from happening.” Indeed, the early 1960s had it all: a bold (and in some ways, desperate) president; the threat of the Soviet Union; flush federal coffers; and an unprecedented number of college-educated youngsters. When the curves aligned, Armstrong suggested that an Apollo could rise. According to Gerry Griffin, engineer, flight director and eventual director of the Johnson Space Center, everyone in the room was nodding in agreement, as if to say “Of course, that’s it.”

The analysis of rarely aligned curves can help explain why we haven’t yet sent humans back into the cosmos. But four peaks fail to fully capture the miracle: 400,000 souls uniting in peacetime on a project so ambitious as to appear ludicrous. As humanity makes ample noise about restarting these journeys to other worlds, it’s worth looking under Apollo’s hood and asking the surviving engineers how they did it. Based on scores of recent interviews, their most frequent and fervent responses follow.

Earth, moon and the Apollo 11 lunar module, Eagle, in lunar orbit after return from the moon and before rendezvous with the command and service module Columbia. Mars is visible as the red dot on the right-hand side of Earth. It is often said that Michael Collins, who took this photo from the command module, is the only human in the world not in this picture.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Casey Klahn July 18, 2019, 7:43 AM

    I was listening to the story Whittle told about NA piloting the LEM to the surface of the moon; how it was a dicey thing. I remember very well that the pilot was Buzz Aldrin. I wondered why NA was piloting the craft, but then I realized this is what the leader does when it’s absolutely for all the chips.

    Did I tell you that I recently held in my hands a pastel painting done by Bean: the lunar surface and footprints? It sends chills down your spine. These photos are stunning – I remember being thrilled by them and I probably had a poster or two in my room as a teenager.

  • leelu July 18, 2019, 8:42 AM

    Another great series to binge watch is Tom Hank’s “From The Earth To The Moon”

  • Eskyman July 18, 2019, 6:27 PM

    A small correction: Michael Collins, who took that photo, was the only human being in all of creation who was not in that picture.

  • Terry Kirkpatrick July 19, 2019, 5:10 AM

    And today we can’t even build a wall.

  • James Stephens July 20, 2019, 9:32 AM

    “I remember very well that the pilot was Buzz Aldrin. I wondered why NA was piloting the craft, but then I realized this is what the leader does when it’s absolutely for all the chips.”

    Casey Klahn, this is a quirk of NASA terminology. No astronaut is ever referred to as a copilot. The commander was the pilot by mission design, the LM pilot was actually the copilot. Same on the space shuttle, the commander was always the pilot, the pilot was in the copilot’s seat. NA wasn’t taking any special role, flying the vehicle was his mission designated job.

  • Bill Peschel July 20, 2019, 12:56 PM

    Saw this yesterday and it’s worth seeing: NASA put out “The Complete Descent,” a 20-minute vid combining footage of the landing with subtitles showing who is saying what, with annotations describing what they’re talking about.

    It’s dangerous enough to be in the capsule heading down to the surface, but it was hair-raising for the men at Mission Control who played a crucial role in passing along critical information, responding to alarms, reacting to events and keeping their cool. Several times near the end, Control is polling the heads of the major stations, whether the crew should Go or Abort, and you can hear the restrained energy as they’re saying “Go,” each guy knowing that if he screws up, he’s going to be remembered as The Guy Who Funqued Up and Killed Them.


  • Niblick386 July 21, 2019, 1:26 PM

    Whatever, those 3 guys had ice water in their veins. Aldrin and Collins still have it.