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50 Years Later: The Apollo 11 Moon Landing And How We Got There (Rebroadcast)

Astronaut Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, Jr. saluting the U.S. flag on the surface of the Moon during the Apollo 11 lunar mission on July 20,1 1969.
NASA/AFP/Getty Images
Astronaut Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, Jr. saluting the U.S. flag on the surface of the Moon during the Apollo 11 lunar mission on July 20,1 1969.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing.

The mission put the first two people on the moon — Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. But it wouldn’t have been a success without one key figure: NASA engineer John C. Houbolt, who’s been merely a footnote in much of Apollo history.

Long before NASA knew it would send humans to the moon, Houbolt was working to convince leaders and colleagues that he knew how to get there. His landmark idea was called lunar-orbit rendezvous (LOR), which entailed linking two spacecraft in orbit to ensure a smooth and successful landing. LOR had never been attempted, and Houbolt’s colleagues dismissed him.

But Houbolt was spot on, and with a little rule and rank-breaking, he eventually convinced NASA’s leading engineers that he was onto something. Apollo 11 blasted off and the rest is history.

Except, not quite. Even with Houbolt’s groundbreaking work, the 13 minutes before touchdown were tumultuous, and as astronaut Neil Armstrong once put it, “rampant with unknowns.”

From the BBC:

As Armstrong and Aldrin descended from 50,000ft above the Moon, radio communications with Earth broke down; the lunar module was running long on its target landing site; the onboard computer – on which the astronauts absolutely depended – started flashing up error codes that the crew had never before seen; and in the final few seconds, it looked like Armstrong and Aldrin might actually run out of fuel.

In the audio recordings from mission control of those final 13 minutes, you can hear the tension in every spoken word, every phrase and every silence. And so series producer Andrew Luck-Baker and I set about the task of trying to unpick those fraught moments and explain how the furious race to get a crew to the surface of the Moon – before the decade was out – conspired to create those exhilarating final moments.

We take a look at how John Houbolt made the mission a success, and then bring you the audio from the 13-minute descent before touchdown.


Todd Zwillich, Political journalist; radio host; author, “The Man Who Knew the Way to the Moon”; @toddzwillich

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