This is the 22nd 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.
Once Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed Eagle on the Moon, the Apollo 11 astronauts and their spaceship were actually lost.
Oh, Mission Control never lost radio contact with them. But NASA was never able to figure out where, exactly, on the Moon they had set down, while they were on the Moon. And NASA sure did try.
The landing area on the Moon that had been picked out for Apollo 11 was about the length of Manhattan and twice as wide. In photo surveys, it looked plain, flat, and bland—not interesting for geologists but a safe place to land a spaceship, the first time human beings ever tried that on a place off of Earth.
But up close, the Sea of Tranquility was anything but tranquil. As Armstrong and Aldrin flew down toward the Moon in their lunar module, Armstrong was looking out the window and the spot the autopilot was flying them toward was, as Armstrong described it, a crater the size of a football field, littered with boulders, some as large as cars.
Not a comfortable place to try to land a gangly four-legged spaceship.
So Armstrong took manual control of where the lunar module was flying to—the spaceship computer still did all the actual flying, but Armstrong was instructing it where to go and at what speed.
In the end, he and Aldrin set down several miles from the original landing spot—on safe, level Moon ground, but not where they had planned to land. Armstrong, in particular, had studied photographs of the Sea of Tranquility in preparation for flying to it and knew the landmarks and the landscape of much of the area.
Andrew Chaikin, in his account of the Moon landings, A Man On the Moon, describes Armstrong’s reaction to landing in unfamiliar Moon terrain: “As he looked out (at Tranquility Base), Armstrong wondered where he and Aldrin had landed . . . . (He) searched the horizon for some feature he might be able to identify, but found none.”
There had been some worry inside NASA about whether, from Earth, they would be able to pinpoint the lunar module’s landing location. The Moon was mapped, but not in anything like fine, up-close detail; there were no constellations of tracking satellites around the Moon in 1969. “With a wry smile, (Armstrong) radioed Houston, ‘The guys who said we wouldn’t know where we were are the winners today.’ ”
In the 22½ hours Armstrong and Aldrin were on the Moon in Eagle, NASA never found them. Their crewmate, Michael Collins, was overhead, orbiting the Moon in the command module Columbia. The command module had a telescope as part of its navigation instruments, and Mission Control asked Collins to search for the lunar module—and his crewmates—every time he flew over.
It was a bit of a wild request, even with a telescope: Collins was orbiting at 69 miles, looking down on a space bigger than Manhattan, trying to find a spaceship that, looking down from above, was just 31 feet across, with himself traveling at 3,700 mph.
According to Chaikin’s account, Collins had just two minutes to search the landing area during each overflight—using coordinates radioed up from Mission Control and which he programmed into the command module’s computer for help aiming the telescope.
“Each time (Collins) went around . . . Mission Control had a new set of coordinates for him to try.” But those search areas were often far off from each other, lending the effort a haphazard air. “It didn’t take Collins long to realize that no one had a handle on the problem. His search continued fruitlessly for the rest of his 22 solo hours.”
Among the tools that proved in vain: Armstrong and Aldrin actually carried with them, in their lunar module cabin, 95 detailed paper photo-maps of the landing area, but as they looked out from the windows of the lunar module cabin, and then walked around, they were unable to connect any of the nearby features they could see with the features on those maps.
One reason to know where you were on the Moon was to make navigating back to orbit–and the flight home–safer and easier. But even without those coordinates, on blastoff, the radar and computers in the lunar module and the command module had no trouble finding each other and guiding Armstrong and Aldrin back to rendezvous with Collins.
NASA was later able to figure out where Armstrong and Aldrin had been, and the Apollo 11 landing site at Tranquility Base has been photographed by orbiting Moon probes, including the bottom stage of the lunar module, along with the sites of the other five Moon landing bases.
The fact that no one actually knew, at the time, where Eagle had landed is a mostly overlooked fact of that first Moon landing, but it did make news at the time. “The Apollo 11 astronauts took off from the Moon today still uncertain of exactly where they had been,” opened the story in the New York Times. Still, the Times reassured readers, “It was abundantly clear that they had been on the surface of the Moon.”
Charles Fishman, who has written for Fast Company since its inception, has spent the past four years researching and writing One Giant Leap, his New York Times best-selling book about how it took 400,000 people, 20,000 companies, and one federal government to get 27 people to the Moon. (You can order 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 effort and the current ones. New posts will appear here daily as well as be distributed via Fast Company’s social media. (Follow along at #50DaysToTheMoon).