Buzz Aldrin’s magnificent devastation

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“We came in peace” – and almost didn’t leave again: Before a return from the moon was possible, a – very improvised – repair was necessary.

Our countdown started on the day “minus 10” before the 50th anniversary of the first step on the moon. The first episode, therefore numbered “10”, started here. A space walk to the second is possible here. The sad third is here as countdown number “8” in orbit. The rather earthy fourth can be found here. The fifth one turns its loops here. The sixth one tells about a strong rocket here. The legacies of a Soviet “giant” are thematized here in the seventh episode. The eighth one is about great uncertainties and never spoken words of comfort, the ninth one about a rendezvous. And the tenth and penultimate one here almost doesn’t land on the moon.

The moon program of the Americans brought many achievements and records: largest rocket of all times, first docking maneuver in space, highest cruising speed of humans. First man on the moon. That was Neil Armstrong 50 years ago today. He then spoke his historical words. But as planned – and as often quoted – these did not come through the ether. If you listen carefully to the radio recordings, they read: “That’s one small step for man…, one giant leap for mankind.” It is thus a sentence that is either grammatically or content-wise messed up. Because with “man” – without article – and “mankind” he uses two words that mean almost the same thing: the species man and mankind – which is completely unsuitable to convey what he wants to say. Later, Armstrong said he wanted to say “for a man” – and perhaps also said and the radio signal swallowed the article. Either way – an unofficial record – that sentence is considered the most frequently quoted in the space context.

Short distances, large luggage

Another unofficial record of Apollo 11 is probably the ratio of the size and mass of the backpacks to the distance covered on foot during a hike. Because the backpacks were very large, but the steps of the two astronauts were not only “small”, but also not too numerous. All this would only be a “fun fact” and not worth mentioning if Edwin “Buzz” hadn’t led Aldrin’s backpack to a really critical situation.
Just putting on the moonwalker equipment – suit plus backpack – was a challenge for Aldrin and Armstrong in the very narrow interior of the landing bug. The two were also anything but well-rested. Because they had decided to leave the five-hour rest period before getting off, which was actually prescribed by those responsible on the ground. This was optimal for the American television audience, the big moment came five hours earlier than planned, almost at prime time. In Germany, on the other hand, many set the alarm and went to bed, relying on Armstrong not leaving the landing module until the morning. They missed the historic moment.

“Magnificent devastation!”

The story of those hours on the moon has been told infinitely many times: Set the flag. Setting up experiments. Collecting stones and dust. Phone President Nixon. The pictures are iconic. The quotations that follow later are no less interesting. They also illustrate the different characters of the two astronauts. Armstrong, always mastered and striving for correct, polite, positive communication, points out the “magnificent view out here” to his rather relaxed and always joking colleagues. To which Aldrin replied: “Magnificent devastation!
Whether it had to do with Aldrin’s temperament, or with fatigue, or simply with the far too large luggage in the small capsule, at any rate it was Aldrin who got stuck on the switchboard with his backpack when he turned around and broke a switch when he boarded the ferry again. It was one who had to close a circuit without which the main engine used for the launch would not say a peep. The fact that Armstrong and Aldrin hardly used the peace and quiet they had now been prescribed to sleep – measurable from Earth, for example, from the two ECG electrodes stuck on – was probably precisely because of this. Because after Aldrin had reported the mishap to the ground control, the only request from there was to rest now. In any case, an immediate solution to the problem would have sounded different. Finally, Aldrin pinched the switch with a felt-tip pen, the ground control received the signal from the closed circuit, and they relied on it.

Improvise and hope

Almost 24 hours after landing, of which the two had spent two and a half hours outside, this one available engine actually worked without any problems. During the docking manoeuvre, there were few

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Mette Frederiksen is a The Washington Newsday correspondent. With her coverage of general science, NASA and the interface between technology and society, Frederiksen has been in the Science Desk's Technology Beat since joining Washington Newsday in 2018.

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