In celebration of 45 years since the Moon landing, Supercompressor took a deep blast into outer space and assembled 10 reasons why the Apollo 11 astronauts were among the most badass human beings on—and circling—earth. Equipped with only early versions of the technologies that would later make space travel routine, the crew battled unseeable enemies such as solar radiation and Moon dust which threatened their lives nearly every moment of the trip.
Considering such, let's let's take a look at how gutsy the Apollo 11 guys were.
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1. The crew was sitting on a bomb.
Apollo’s Saturn rockets—which uh, propelled the astronauts into space—were packed with enough fuel to shoot 100-pound shrapnel up to three miles. To make sure everyone outside the rocket was safe during launch, VIP spectators were seated almost four miles from the launchpad site.
2. They could’ve been eternally stranded in the Moon’s orbit.
They knew how to get there. Getting back, well, that was trickier. (Isn’t it always?) A central issue the crew faced was the threat of being caught in the Moon’s orbit—the astronauts would be perpetually stuck circling the Moon if the Command Service Module’s engines had failed. That would’ve meant a slow, painful death from depletion of food, water, and oxygen; pretty much all the worst ways to die 238,900 miles from the nearest hospital.
Another issue was this: upon entry, the guys could have simply burnt to death in a matter of seconds because they didn't have the advantage of the space shuttle's thermal protection system, created over a decade later. This included no fewer than seven advanced materials such as "fibrous refractory composite insulation tiles" and "reinforced carbon-carbon" (not a typo), all of which protected them from up to 2,300-degree heat.
3. Getting smacked with asteroids and trash.
In 1946, a climatologist collected small magnetic particles that had descended to earth from a meteor shower and studied them. His findings confirmed the existence of “micro-meteorites,” which are dust-sized meteorite fragments left over from the tails of comets. This cloud of dust continuously orbits the earth, but loses velocity when it reaches the upper-atmosphere.
As a spacecraft leaves Earth's atmosphere, it encounters this cloud of microscopic meteorites and needs protection. The Whipple shield, named after astronomer Fred Whipple, was invented and implemented as a hypervelocity bumper that protects the aircraft from these tiny asteroids.
It’s difficult enough leaving Earth’s atmosphere—what with about the million things that could go wrong—and worrying about pieces of debris rocking your vehicle might be among the most annoying.
4. The Van Allen belts...Solar particle radiation...Cosmic rays...
There’s a terrifying amount of radiation in space just aching to zap anyone who comes close to touching it. Here are three:
Van Allen belts: These are giant clouds of high-energy particles trapped by the Earth’s magnetic field, and this was the first time any humans ever passed through the clouds’ space.
The sun: Our glorious, star-away-from-home blasts our solar system with a “solar wind” of charged particles which will occasionally send out large spikes in activity that pose serious threats to space travelers.
Cosmic rays: Of unknown origins, these rays emit deadly levels of carcinogens onto (and into) any living organism that comes into its path. Yes, this includes humans.
So how did the Apollo boys stay safe, all things considered? Basically, they hauled ass through the Van Allen belt, and the exposure was so short and they were so well insulated, they avoided significant damage. For solar wind, NASA monitored the weather constantly, and planned to abort the mission if a flare occurred. The radiation? Luckily, since the trip was so short (is there ever really a “short” trip to space?), the radioactive rays didn’t have time to cause any physical harm to the astronauts.
A year ago, research by Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Co. confirmed the long-held suspicion that plastics are among the most effective of materials in protecting astronauts from deep-space radiation. Yay plastics!
5. Neil Armstrong had to manually steer the module with just seconds of fuel left.
During the final descent to the surface of the Moon, the ship’s high-gain antenna lost contact with Houston. The computer that controlled the landing became overloaded with data and crashed, so Armstrong overtook the manual system control to fly the crew through a large field of boulders and land without the aid of a computer.
Computers in 2014? Frustrating. Sixties-era space computers that held only 74 kilobytes of information? Gulp. The extra fuel burned from dodging the Moon rocks had the crew literally running on fumes when they touched the Moon’s surface. They had about seven seconds of fuel left. Seven seconds.
6. The lunar module was pretty freakin’ dinky.
Not only were the walls of the module about the width of aluminum foil, but the module itself was consistently wrought with difficulties. It only had one ascent engine (which failed on multiple occasions during testing back on earth) and during ascent, Buzz Aldrin noticed the switch for the circuit breaker had snapped off. Aldrin had to improvise by using a felt-tip pen to push the circuit breaker and start the module up. Had it not started, they would’ve been trapped on the Moon.
7. Moon dust will destroy you.
What’s clingy, oppressive, and will kill you if it gets the chance? My ex-girlfr—, whoops, I mean Moon dust. With a flour-like consistency, composition of microscopic glass fragments, and a smell akin to gunpowder, the erosive soil can clog the joints of spacesuits and eat through layers of material, while causing a congestive disease called “lunar hay fever.” Fun! On top of that, it’s lethal to human lungs if breathed in for long periods of time. Several years ago, researchers at University of Tennessee began experiments with "dust-suckers" which used magnets to pull on tiny specs of iron metallics within Moon dust particles. But since the technology's not exactly an industry standard, don't start inhaling Moon dust just yet.
8. The Moon was dark and scary.
The looming threat of alien territory didn’t end when the guys got off the lunar module; the Moon itself was dark and shadowy. Armstrong, while trouncing around the landscape, communicated back to Earth: "It's quite dark here in the shadow [of the lunar module] and a little hard for me to see that I have good footing.” It’s hard enough to see where you’re walking in the dark of your hallway. So try to do it in outer space on the surface of the Moon.
9. The threat of extra-terrestrial pathogens.
One of the biggest threats was that of the unknown. Simply put, no one really knew what kind of pathogens were on the surface of the Moon. Though the chance of bringing back any type of “alien sickness” was remote, NASA took great precautions to make sure the Apollo 11 crew didn’t bring anything devastatingly apocalyptic back from their little lunar vacation.
After returning to Earth, each astronaut was rubbed down with a sodium hypochlorite and the Command Module was coated in Betadine. They were then airlifted to a Mobile Quarantine Facility where they spent 21 days in quarantine. Shortly after, the Extra-Terrestrial Exposure Law was implemented.
In 1991, this understandably-paranoid law was revoked, and astronauts are no longer required to go through this process. Now, if you go to space you can come home the next day. All's good. This
10. No one knew if they were ever coming home.
President Richard Nixon had a letter drafted up in the event the crew of Apollo 11 perished. In fact, no one in America knew what was going to happen—including the astronauts. There were so many unknown elements that it was entirely possible that the men could’ve been the first to die on the surface of the Moon. A cool death, sure, but still tragic.