Apollo 11 — One Small Switch, One Giant Problem

The world is celebrating 50 years of humans in space, considered by many to be our species' greatest achievement. Nothing may be more spectacular than Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the Moon. What makes it especially amazing is how much of that feat was done with slide rules and basic engineering.

And circuit breakers.

Which broke.

In what may be one of the most fascinating pieces of space history, two sheets from the checklist Armstrong and Aldrin had on the Moon is up for auction next month at Bonhams. The sheets include handwritten notes by Aldrin scribbled as the two astronauts were on the lunar surface, shortly before Aldrin discovers a potentially fatal development (this after they'd almost run out of fuel landing).

Source: Bonhams.com

The checklist, expected to fetch $30,000 to $40,000, looks almost primitive.

My father used to test the Mark 46 torpedo electrical systems when he worked for Bendix back in the same era, and it looks like something he'd work off of.

The list starts with steps the two astronauts were supposed to go through "after completing our rest period."

You've gotta be made of tough stuff to "rest" while being the first men on the Moon.

I would be a little amped up.

The scribbled notes on the checklist were written by Aldrin, detailing instructions from Mission Control on what to do if they had trouble with computer programs tracking the orbiting Columbia command ship, where Michael Collins waited for the Eagle to return.

"This is one of the few sheets that actually has some mission notes made during our lunar surface stay," Aldrin says in a letter that comes with the items. "They were written just hours before leaving the Moon after history's first manned lunar surface exploration."

But it turns out the pen was mightier than the checklist. After scribbling the notes, as he and Armstrong prepared to leave the Moon, Aldrin writes, "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 was not good.

"Mission Control verified that the switch was open, meaning that the engine was currently unarmed. If we could not get the engine armed, we could be stranded on the Moon."

One small switch. One giant problem.

So Aldrin quickly started thinking of a solution. He didn't need help from a complex computer analysis, because the situation did not involve a complex computer. It was a simple switch. "As it turned, out," Aldrin says, "the very pen I used to record these notes was the perfect tool to engage this circuit breaker." Which is exactly what happened.

Who says modern technology is necessarily better?

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