This is the sixth in an exclusive series of 50 articles, one published each day until July 20, exploring the 50th anniversary of the first-ever Moon landing. You can check out 50 Days to the Moon here every day.
Among the most iconic images of the Moon landings are astronauts backing down the ladder of the lunar module, from the spaceship hatch to the Moon’s surface. Even in the TV pictures, you can tell the astronauts move with care, as they find their footing on the rungs of the ladder, in their spacesuits, in the one-sixth lunar gravity.
But what if the astronauts had stepped out of the hatch, and then swung down to the lunar surface using a rope? Fly 240,000 miles in the most advanced machines ever created by human beings–and then use the kind of rope you’d buy at the hardware store today for about $40 to finish the last 10.5 feet of the journey. Like Tarzan. Or a prison escapee slipping over the wall.
That may be the strangest–the flat-out wackiest–idea for Moon flight engineering that NASA ever took seriously.
The lunar module was designed and built by Grumman on Long Island, New York, and it would turn out to be a marvel: It was the first spaceship designed solely for flight in space, the first spaceship with a rocket engine that could be throttled. The craft’s basic functions couldn’t even be tested until the astronauts were actually at the controls, in space.
Grumman’s Thomas Kelly was its chief designer and chief engineer, and in the early months of the design process, the rope seemed like a pretty good idea to him. “We had given considerable thought to the problem of egress to the lunar surface,” Kelly said. As imagined, the rope was a marine-grade line, with knots at regular intervals to provide hand holds.
Two of Grumman’s staff–a design engineer and a company test pilot–had been donning spacesuits and, using a special harness that simulated the Moon’s lighter gravity, trying out the rope, shimmying down, and then hauling themselves back up, hanging on with thick-fingered spacesuit gloves. The testers “found it slow and strenuous but feasible,” Kelly said. He thought using the rope would get easier with practice.
It’s not quite clear why this method for leaving and re-entering the lunar module so captivated the folks at Grumman. There was some concern early on that if a ladder was fastened to the outside of the lunar module and it got damaged during landing, the astronauts might be able to land their lunar module on the Moon but then not be able to go those last few feet to the surface. You know what wouldn’t have that problem? A rope!
The rope idea did fulfill some of the important requirements for being a key piece of lunar module landing technology. It was simple. It was robust. It weighed almost nothing. It was reliable. It could be tested to be sure it wouldn’t fail.
But the rope was also ridiculous, a completely unworkable way to come and go from the cabin of a spacecraft while wearing a spacesuit. It was inconvenient, insecure, uncomfortable, strenuous, and also far from fail-safe. What if one or both astronauts wore themselves out to the degree that they couldn’t muster the strength to climb back up? What if a spacesuit started to fail and the astronauts needed to get back to the safety of the cabin quickly? What if one was injured and couldn’t climb the rope?
You don’t even have to imagine an extreme circumstance: An astronaut could easily lose his grip and slip, either going up or coming down. Yes, the gravity on the Moon is low, but no one thought an astronaut tumbling 9 or 10 feet to the rock surface of the Moon would be a good idea.
The rope notion might seem like a joke, except that Tom Kelly was no prankster. There’s a picture of a model of Grumman’s March 1964 mockup, with the rope slung along the side, with enough line so the extra rope coils neatly on the pretend surface of the Moon. Perched at the top, just stepping off the porch outside the hatch, is an astronaut, with the rope between his gloved hands.
On March 24, 1964, 80 NASA managers, engineers, and astronauts gathered with Grumman’s staff at the lunar module factory in Bethpage, Long Island, for a two-day review of the spacecraft as it was then designed. Grumman displayed that full-size mockup, with as much engineering and design detail, inside and out, as possible: interior lighting, environmental control equipment, radar and radio antennas, flight controls in the cockpit. And the “egress rope.”
There’s video of a few moments of the design review, in which someone in a spacesuit is using the rope, and a block-and-tackle rig, to try to get back up to the lunar module hatch from the surface. It does not go well. He looks like a spacesuited longshoreman who doesn’t quite know how to load cargo.
“After a full day of evaluation by [NASA astronaut] Ed White,” Kelly recalled, “Grumman’s proposed use of rope, block and tackle for lunar surface egress was declared unacceptable. White found it too difficult and unnecessarily hazardous for what should be a routine activity.”
In fact, White not only found the whole thing unappealing and impractical, but he also injured the ligaments in one of his feet while trying to hoist himself up with the rope.
And so the lunar module got a ladder, attached to its front leg, with nine rungs, starting just below the hatch and ending well short of the craft’s footpad, to prevent any chance of damage in case of a hard landing.
That bottom rung was high enough off the surface that Neil Armstrong practiced jumping back up to it, to see how hard it would be, before heading off to explore the Moon. Outfitted in their blazing white spacesuits and bulky life-support backpacks, the astronauts dwarf the ladder. But it was the smart solution. It provided a reasonable spot from which to step off onto the footpad at the bottom of the lunar module leg, and from there onto the Moon’s surface.
Indeed, the phrase, “That’s one giant swing for mankind” would not have echoed down through history the way that “one giant leap” has.
Charles Fishman, who has written for Fast Company since its inception, has spent the last four years researching and writing One Giant Leap, a book about how it took 400,000 people, 20,000 companies, and one federal government to get 27 people to the Moon. (You can preorder it here.)
For each of the next 50 days, we’ll be posting a new story from Fishman–one you’ve likely never heard before–about the first effort to get to the Moon that illuminates both the historical and current efforts. New posts will appear here daily as well as be distributed via Fast Company‘s social media. (Follow along at #50DaysToTheMoon.)