At Kelly's house, I had the chance to ask him a question about the first landing on the moon that provoked a response that seemed poignant and awe-inspiring.
I asked him, of all of the systems and stages of the mission, which did he worry about the most? He had spoken about the frequently failing autopilot... the reliance on a global network of astronomers to spot solar flares in time to get the warning out... the onboard computers being less powerful than a Furby...
No, none of those. He dove into a detailed description of the hypergolic fuel mixing system for the lunar module. Rather than an ignition system, they had two substances that would ignite upon contact. Instead of electric valves, he wished he had a big simple mechanical lever to open the valves. He kept using his hands to show how easy a big lever could be.
That seemed a bit odd to me at first. So, I asked if he gave that answer because it really was the most likely point of failure, or because it symbolizes a vivid nightmare – having completed the moon mission, pushing the button... and the engines just wont start.
He responded that he had nightmares about that for two years prior to the launch.
It’s a setup for a sequence of tough decisions. What would you do? Go for a long walk? Spend your remaining moments on the radio with loved ones? Have one volunteer try to hotwire it from outside…. Ask Buzz for his air...?
And then, during the Apollo 11 mission, guess what happened? The critical ascent switch broke! Buzz Aldrin later wrote: "A few hours earlier, after we returned to the LM interior once completing the first lunar moon walk, I noticed that the ascent engine arming breaker push/pull switch was broken. Apparently during movement wearing our large space suit 'backpacks,' either Neil or I bumped into this panel and broke off that particular switch. This switch was the direct means of arming our Ascent Stage engine which would allow us to leave the lunar surface. Mission Control verified that the switch was open, meaning that the engine was currently unarmed. If we could not get the engine armed, we would be stranded on the Moon. They advised us to leave the switch in the open position until the timeline called for it to be engaged. I started to think of ways to activate the switch if pushing it by hand failed. As it turned out, the very pen I used to record these notes was the perfect tool to engage this circuit breaker."
And a revelation from one Neil Armstrong's last, and rare interviews that I discovered while researching the Eagle construction log — prior to launch, he thought there was only a 50% chance of successfully landing on the moon, but that they should go for it.
Happy birthday, hero of humanity.