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and we have touched you! . . .
Three days and three nights we journeyed,
steered by farthest stars, climbed outward,
crossed the invisible tide-rip where the floating dust
falls one way or the other in the void between,
followed that other down, encountered
cold, faced death—unfathomable emptiness.
U.S. space officials, normally as detached and professionally cool as the astronauts they sent into space, in their own way also grew poetic. "We have clearly entered a new era," said Thomas O. Paine, Administrator of NASA. "The voices coming from the moon are still hard to believe."
For those who watched, in fact, the whole period that began with Eagle's un-docking from Columbia, the command module, and its descent to the moon seemed difficult to believe. No work of the imagination, however contrived, could have rivaled it for excitement, suspense and, finally, triumph.
The Eagle Has Wings
As the orbiting command module and the lunar module emerged from behind the moon, having undocked while they were out of radio communication, an anxious capsule commentator in Houston inquired: "How does it look?" Replied Armstrong: "The Eagle has wings," The lunar module was on its own, ready for its landing on the moon.
Behind the moon again, on their 14th revolution, Eagle's descent engine was fired, slowing the module down and dropping it into the orbit that would take it to within 50,000 ft. of the lunar surface. The crucial word from Houston was relayed by Michael Collins, Columbia pilot, when a burst of static momentarily cut Eagle off from the ground: "You are go for PDI [powered descent insertion]." Again Eagle's descent engine fired, beginning a twelve-minute burn that was scheduled to end only when the craft was within two yards of the lunar surface. One of the most dangerous parts of Apollo 11 's long journey had begun.
Now the tension was obvious in the voices of both the crew and the controller. Just 160 ft. from the surface Aldrin reported: "Quantity light." The light signaled that only 114 seconds of fuel remained. Armstrong and Aldren had 40 seconds to decide if they could land within the next 20 seconds. If they could not, they would have to abort, jettisoning their descent stage and firing their ascent engine to return to Columbia,
At that critical point, Armstrong, a 39-year-old civilian with 23 years of experience at flying everything from Ford tri-motors to experimental X-15 rocket planes, took decisive action. The automatic landing system was taking Eagle down into a football-field-size crater littered with rocks and boulders, Armstrong explained: "It required a manual takeover on the P-66 [a semiautomatic computer program] and flying manually over the rock field to find a reasonably good area." The crisis emphasized the value of manned flight. Had Eagle continued on its computer-guided course, it might well have crashed into a boulder, toppled over or landed at an angle of more than 30° from the vertical, making a later takeoff impossible. Said a shaken Paine in Houston's Mission Operations Control Room: "It crossed my mind that, boy, this isn't a simulation. Perhaps we should come back for just one more simulation."