|"The Eagle has wings!" The Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle shortly after separating from Apollo 11 Command and Service Module Columbia in lunar orbit, 20 July 1969. Image credit: NASA.|
The descent engine fired for a little more than 12 minutes. At the beginning of the burn, Eagle, Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong, and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin Aldrin were in a 54-by-66-nautical-mile lunar orbit. At the end of the burn, the 16.5-ton, 23-foot-tall lunar lander and its occupants were in an elliptical orbit with an apoapsis (low point) 50,000 feet above the Moon's Earth-facing Nearside hemisphere.
Apollo 11's target landing site was known officially as Site 2. Selected because it was flat and equatorial, Site 2 was a 10-mile-long east-west-trending ellipse on the Moon's Sea of Tranquility centered at 0° 42' 50" north latitude, 23° 42' 28" east longitude. Eagle descended to 50,000 feet about 260 nautical miles and 12 minutes of flight time east of Site 2, at which time its computer ignited its descent engine again to begin braking and final descent.
As the LM dropped below 7000 feet, its computer fired attitude control thrusters to tip it slowly upright so that it pointed its descent engine and footpads at the Moon. This maneuver also aimed Eagle's twin triangular windows forward so Armstrong and Aldrin could see Site 2 up close for the first time.
The astronauts immediately realized that they had a problem. They should have been above the eastern edge of the Site 2 ellipse, about five miles from their target landing point at the center of the ellipse. In fact, they had already flown past the center of their target ellipse and were descending toward its northwestern edge.
Apollo 11's flight plan called for Armstrong, an experienced test pilot, to let the computer do the flying until Eagle was about 500 feet above the Moon and 2000 feet east of the target touchdown point. He would then take manual control and lower Eagle almost vertically to the surface. He quickly realized, however, that Eagle's computer was steering it toward a boulder-strewn impact crater the size of an American football field. This was later identified as West Crater.
His heart rate leaping from 77 to 156 beats per minute, Armstrong assumed manual control early. Gripping his hand controller, he leveled Eagle's descent, then scooted the LM almost horizontally across the black lunar sky at an altitude of several hundred feet.
While Aldrin read off descent and translation rates, the LM computer flashed erroneous alarms and Capcom Charles Duke in Houston warned that Eagle was running low on propellants. Armstrong flew past West Crater and an adjacent smaller crater, then lowered to a safe touchdown just inside the Site 2 ellipse. At 4:18 p.m. EDT, he radioed his immortal words to hundreds of millions of people: "Houston, Tranquility Base here — the Eagle has landed."
|The Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle on the Moon at Tranquility Base. Note lunar dirt stirred up by astronaut activities on the surface. Image credit: NASA.|
Mission rules called for an abort if propellants for fewer than 20 seconds of flight remained in the descent stage propellant tanks. What if, as Armstrong anxiously sought a safe place to land, flight controllers on Earth had mistakenly estimated an even slimmer propellant margin? They might then have done as mission rules dictated and called on Armstrong to abort the Apollo 11 lunar landing.
In June 1966, Charles Teixeira, with the Engineering and Development Directorate at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, completed an Apollo Program Working Paper on the hazards of a landing abort during the 45-second period spanning from 65 to 20 seconds before planned touchdown. He assumed that the LM would be no more than 338 feet above the Moon 65 seconds before planned touchdown and about 100 feet high 20 seconds before planned touchdown.
As soon as an abort was initiated, the LM's Descent Stage engine would shut down. Nearly simultaneously, four explosive bolts linking the descent stage with the Ascent Stage would fire. A fifth pyrotechnic device would drive a guillotine that would cut the wiring umbilical linking the two stages. The Ascent Stage engine would then ignite to propel the astronauts toward lunar orbit. The abandoned Descent Stage, meanwhile, would fall to the lunar surface.
From abort initiation to Ascent Stage ignition, the abort procedure — which, apart from occurring at altitude, would duplicate the normal LM Ascent Stage launch procedure — would last from two to four seconds. During that time, the Ascent Stage would follow the same path as the Descent Stage; that is, it would fall toward the Moon.
Teixeira assumed that, following an abort during the 45-second period from 65 seconds to 20 seconds before planned touchdown, the four-legged Descent Stage would strike the Moon with enough force to rupture its propellant tanks. An abort within 20 seconds of planned touchdown — when the Descent Stage was at or below 100 feet — would leave the tanks intact.
If the tanks ruptured, either of two things might occur. The nitrogen tetroxide and aerozine 50 they spilled might boil and evaporate rapidly in the lunar vacuum. Evaporation would cool, then freeze, the propellants, so they would remain safely separated. Alternately, the propellants would come together. This might occur, Teixeira wrote, if after impact enough of the Descent Stage structure remained intact around the ruptured tanks to contain the propellants as they boiled.
Propellant mixing would cause an explosion that would drive gases and fragments of the Descent Stage outward at several thousand feet per second. Teixeira estimated that gases and debris would envelope the LM Ascent Stage less than one-tenth of a second after the explosion.
The extent of the damage this might cause would depend mainly on how long the abort procedure lasted; that is, on how quickly the ascent engine could ignite. The faster the ascent engine ignited, the farther away the astronauts would be when the Descent Stage impacted and exploded.
For a two-second abort procedure, gas pressure from the explosion would damage the Ascent Stage if the abort began between 32.6 and 20 seconds before planned touchdown. If the two-second abort began between 44 and 20 seconds before planned touchdown, then the Ascent Stage stood a greater than 20% chance of being struck by a Descent Stage fragment.
For a four-second abort procedure, gas pressure from the explosion would damage the Ascent Stage if the abort began between 53.7 and 20 seconds before planned touchdown. The Ascent Stage stood a greater than 20% chance of being struck by a Descent Stage fragment if the four-second abort began between 65 and 20 seconds before planned touchdown; that is, throughout the period Teixeira considered.
|After the Landing: The Ascent Stage of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle as viewed from the Apollo 11 Command and Service Module Columbia during rendezvous in lunar orbit. Image credit: NASA.|
He recommended, however, that a Descent Stage propellant dump "at as high a rate as safely possible" become a part of the standard LM landing abort procedure. After due consideration, NASA elected not to follow his advice. Had Armstrong and Aldrin been forced to abort the Apollo 11 landing while above 100 feet of altitude, Teixeira's recommendation might have come back to haunt the U.S. civilian space agency.
Hazards Associated with a LEM Abort Near the Lunar Surface, NASA Program Apollo Working Paper No. 1203, NASA Manned Spacecraft Center, 24 June 1966.
Apollo 11 Mission Report, NASA SP-238, Mission Evaluation Team, NASA Manned Spacecraft Center, 1971.
Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft, NASA SP-4205, The NASA History Series, C. Brooks, J. Grimwood, and L. Swenson, NASA, 1979, pp. 343-344.
What If an Apollo Saturn Rocket Exploded on the Launch Pad? (1965)
What If Apollo Astronauts Became Marooned in Lunar Orbit? (1968)