Celebrating 45th anniversary of the moon landing: Covering the Apollo 11 moon landing at NASA

It's hard to believe that 45 years have gone by since man first set foot upon the moon.

In 1969, I was a wide-eyed, 20-year-old radio reporter in Texas, covering the moon landing from the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) outside Houston. I was one of more than 3,000 reporters covering the event in the special area set aside for the press that had gathered from all over the world.

This was NASA's heyday, as far as budgets go and the NASA public relations team bombarded the assembled press with stacks and stacks of material related to the flight. There were separate loose-leaf manuals on each of the spacecraft components used in the mission: the Saturn V rocket, the Command Service Module (CSM) and the Lunar Excursion Module (LM).  We were also given copies of the complete, second-by-second flight plan, which was about five inches thick.

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In the months leading up to the mission, I spent hours trying to learn as many of the acronyms that NASA used as I could, so would understand what was being said in communications between MSC and the astronauts.  The list was daunting for me to memorize.

The media for the larger organizations had their own booths in and around the press room.  For those of us from smaller, low-budget organizations (I represented a three-station radio network), we were assigned chairs on long tables. Most everyone had telephones installed at their work space but the stations I worked for wouldn't pay for that expense. Instead, I was forced to use a pay phone down the hall to phone in reports on the landing. To ensure there would be a pay phone available, I had snatched a Southwestern Bell "Out Of Order" card that I put on the end payphone -- hoping that would keep anyone from using it. 

We all tied in to the NASA Mission Control audio feed by way of something called a "Mult Box."  They were large wired boxes with multiple terminals that we clipped into in order to hear the NASA audio feed. Because my "phone" was down the hall at the pay phone bank, I had to run a long line from the mult box to a battery operated speaker with a volume control. I couldn't just leave the speaker near the phone because someone might knock it over or trip over the line, so I hid the speaker behind a soft drink machine next to the pay phones. When the time came for my live coverage to start, I pulled out the speaker, removed the "Out Of Order" sign from the phone and called the telephone number that hooked me into the three-station network I was reporting for.  I had no television monitor near me, so all my cues came from the NASA audio feed I had going on in the background.

My live radio commentary began when the lunar module fired its descent engine and began its 12 1/2 minute controlled de-orbit trajectory that would take the spacecraft to the lunar surface in the Sea of Tranquility.  In a practice run, Apollo 10 had dropped to within 50,000 feet of the lunar surface before firing its ascent engine to return to the Command Service Module.  This time, the Apollo 11 crew was going all the way to the surface -- if everything worked as planned. It is a credit to all involved that the landing was successful, despite things not going as planned.

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One my very distinct memories was the increase in overall noise from all the reporters in the press area.  As the lunar module got nearer the moon's surface, the decibel level of the background noise increased as excited reporters were practically yelling into their microphones.

There were several problems as the lunar module descended: the landing radar that was supposed to tell the astronauts how far they were from the surface overloaded the tiny Apollo Guidance Computer several times causing several 1201 and 1202 (data overflow) alarms.  Despite that, Houston gave the astronauts the go ahead to continue the landing mission.

While Neil Armstrong was manually guiding the lunar module in the final minutes, Buzz Aldrin was calling out speed and altitude. NASA would occasionally interrupt to tell them how much fuel they had left for the descent. 

I was describing the final seconds of the descent when I heard "Contact Light!" and I relayed that the lunar module was 5 1/2 feet above the surface of the moon.  The "Contact Light" illuminated on the control panel when any one of the three 67-inch probes below the footpads touched the surface. That is the point where the astronauts were supposed to cut the engine and drop to the surface.  Neil Armstrong later said he didn't hear Buzz Aldrin call out "Contact Light."

When Armstrong called "Shutdown" and Aldrin called "Okay, engine stop," I knew they were on the surface. Mission Control then confirmed by saying "We copy you

down, Eagle."  At that point, there was pandemonium in the press room and everyone was yelling, including me.  I pulled the phone from the NASA audio feed speaker and yelled, "They're on the moon! Apollo 11 is on the moon!"  Unfortunately, I was yelling so loud about Apollo 11 landing that I didn't hear Armstrong say, "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."  Yes, I had talked over the historic declaration from Apollo 11 and the people listening to my broadcast never heard it. 

The PR folks from Grumman Aircraft, the company that built the lunar module, ran around handing out green "Contact Light" pins to the media.  I still have mine, along with other souvenirs from that historic event.

The next day, The Houston Post ran a caption beneath a picture that said "First Word Uttered From the Moon Was Houston." That seemed to reinforce the myth that "Houston" was the first word uttered from the lunar surface, even though Buzz Aldrin later claimed that "Contact Light" were really the first words from the lunar surface. For Neil Armstrong, the first word spoken on the surface was "Shutdown" (meaning he had shut down the engine because the lunar module had landed).

Another discrepancy occurred some hours later when Neil Armstrong stepped off the landing pad and placed his boot on the lunar surface.  The astronaut's radios were voice operated -- called VOX -- so the first part of first words were sometimes clipped because the VOX wouldn't turn on until the astronaut started speaking.  We heard Armstrong say "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."  Armstrong later said the voice-operated relay cut "a" from the transmission and he really said, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

Either way, covering the Apollo 11 mission from the Manned Spacecraft Center was the experience of a lifetime for me and one I will never forget.

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