We have an untapped power to improve our world. Neil Armstrong once had a dream about it.
|… for test pilots Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee …
“I mean, the guy was brilliant. He knew the system so well that he found the solution. He activated the solution under extreme circumstances. And I have to say it was my lucky day to be flying with Mr. Neil Armstrong."
David Scott on surviving NASA's first space emergency during the initial Gemini-Agena docking. Armstrong, with blurred
vision and on the verge of blacking out, brought the capsule back under control as it spun at one revolution per second.
Neil Armstrong's Dream
On the night before he was to give a speech from the White House lawn, Neil Armstrong had a dream. Having just completed the Global Goodwill Tour with fellow astronauts Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin, the tour eerily reminiscent of four Liverpool lads who crisscrossed an earlier part of the decade, Armstrong was exhausted from visiting twenty-four countries in forty-five days. In the comfort of the Willard Hotel, on yet one more comfortable hotel bed, he fell into a deep sleep. The dream, no doubt, tapped into his recent viewings of those precious moments when the world became one.
* * * * * *
How did the world become one? It all began four months earlier as daylight broke along the eastern horizon, the eyes of the world focused on launch pad 39A. There, the enormous Saturn V rocket stood attached to its tall, red tower. (The Saturn V — designed, built, and tested by thousands of dedicated people under the vision of Wernher Von Braun — never experienced a failure.) Thirty-five stories up, three astronauts waited to be launched to the moon. A helicopter circled the tower. Its loud blade slaps were a soft mutter to the hundreds of thousands along the Florida coast that historic morning. In the background, seagulls flew silently and effortlessly across shimmering waters. If this spectacular vista had been a painting, it would be known as Peaceful Anxiety.
Two hundred and forty thousand miles later, a blue and white globe held its breath as the astronauts approached the surface of the moon. Gathered in family dens, in diners and bars, at airports and railway stations, around store windows on downtown streets — almost anywhere a television could be viewed — the people of Earth watched and listened. And with seven minutes left until touchdown, viewers heard an unusually tense Armstrong radio, “Program alarm. It's a 1202.” No one, however, knew about the piece of paper on Jack Garman's desk about to play a significant role in the mission's success.
Fifteen days earlier, flight controllers and stand-in astronauts carried out a final simulation of the planned descent to the lunar surface. Three minutes in, twenty-six-year-old Steve Bales, the guidance officer at mission control, saw alarm code 1201 flash on his monitor. The code had never appeared during earlier test runs, and he had no idea what it meant. A half minute later, error code 1202 also flashed on the screen and Bales called Jack Garman in a nearby support room. Garman, a lunar module software expert, was all of twenty-four-years-old.
“Jack, what's going on with these program alarms?”
“It's a bailout alarm. The computer's run out of time to get the work done.”
Throughout these alarm codes, the lunar module systems operated normally on its imaginary descent. Two more codes flashed and with precious seconds ticking away, Bales reached a decision. Flight Director Gene Kranz heard through his headset, “I've got a bunch of computer alarms. Abort the landing.”
With the safety of the men foremost in his mind (Kranz would never forget the cries for help from Gus, Ed, and Roger), he indicated to astronaut Charlie Duke, the capsule communicator or CAPCOM, to abort landing. The stand-in astronauts executed the steps to stop the lunar module's descent engine and fire up the ascent engine. The final simulation ended with no landing, with no first man on the moon, with two astronauts rejoining the command module to return home a failed mission.
When the MIT wizards who designed the guidance software analyzed the data, they determined the error codes were not mission-critical. The computer could not process some of the lower priority data fast enough. If the codes did not continually repeat, the mission could proceed. The final simulation should have ended that day with the stand-in astronauts on the moon.
Gene Kranz was furious. “Our training should have finished with a landing on the moon surface!” he raged. After calming down, he instructed Steve Bales to write out on a piece of paper every possible error code and beside each exactly what it meant; that is, whether to abort the mission or to continue. Bales, with several items on his plate, delegated this task to the smartest man he knew — Jack Garman. That list ended up on the plexiglass of Garman's desk.
Two truths are self evident about this sequence of events: Having as much detail as possible within immediate grasp will lead to better results, and if you ever happen to be in need of a flight director, hire someone with the stature of a Gene Kranz.
With his flattop haircut, trademark white vests (his wife, Marta, always provided them emblazoned with the current mission's patch), and the demeanor of a marine drill instructor, Gene Kranz had become the face of NASA. Mentored by the father of mission control operations, Chris Kraft, and tempered by his time in the Air Force, he had the ability to mold his young flight controllers into a team who believed in themselves. Note the emphasis on young. Older engineers passed on the jobs believing the mission doomed to fail.
On the day of the landing, while the Eagle orbited the far side of the moon out of radio communication, he gathered those young flight controllers together. Dressed in their white shirts and narrow ties, half of them wearing glasses, they heard this from their leader: “I want you all to know that no matter what happens here today, when we walk out of this room, we walk out just like we came in. We came in as a team and we're going to walk out as a team. No matter what. Now, let's do this.” To be told there would be no finger-pointing made the group of young flight controllers more confident of any split-second decisions that might arise. And for Gene Kranz to address his team in this fashion, on this day, at this critical junction of an eight year mission, well, they have a word for it. Leadership.
Garman's finger moved down the paper until it reached error code 1202. He reported back to Bales, “We're go unless it keeps reoccurring.”
Eighteen seconds of silence had followed Armstrong's initial report of the alarm code. For two dependent astronauts in rapid descent toward a desolate, cratered moon with no clue as to what a 1202 alarm code meant, eighteen seconds seemed an eternity. The notoriously laconic Armstrong snapped, “Give us a reading on the 1202 program alarm.” Tension permeated the smoke-filled, coffee cup room.
One person, however, remained relatively calm during these eighteen seconds as an overriding thought controlled the computer inside his mind. Not those binary bits of data coded into hard-wired machines; rather, it was intuition that told Gene Kranz if anyone could pull this off, it was Neil Armstrong. Throughout the modest commander's career, his calmest and clearest moments of thinking seemed to occur when his life depended on it most. Or putting it another way, he was the ultimate test pilot.
Bales, having received Garman's report, relayed it to Kranz and CAPCOM heard as well, 'We're a go on that alarm.” Before Kranz signaled his decision, Duke radioed to the Eagle, “Roger. We got you … We're go on that alarm.” It was the only time CAPCOM issued an order before a flight director's instruction. Kranz ignored the oversight, and the astronauts continued their descent toward the lunar surface.
Next, when Armstrong realized the autopilot was leading them to a crater the size of a football stadium, he took over manual control of the craft. Minutes later, with only forty seconds of fuel remaining, the world heard Buzz Aldrin radio, “Picking up some dust.” Mission Control stopped breathing; the silence in the room was shattering. Eight years of planning and executing, of successes and failures, of friendship and friction, now came down to a half minute.
May 5, 1961 — “Let's light this candle.”
Alan Shepard just before his launch as the first American in space.
February 20, 1962 — “Godspeed, John Glenn.”
CAPCOM Scott Carpenter to Glenn just before launch of first mission to orbit Earth.
September 12, 1962 — “We choose to go to the moon, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”
President Kennedy in a speech from Rice Stadium.
June 3, 1965 — “It's the saddest moment of my life.”
Ed White on having to return inside the capsule after being the first American to walk in space.
March 16, 1966 — "We have serious problems here. We're tumbling end over end."
David Scott during first docking before Neil Armstrong miraculously brought the Gemini capsule under control.
January 27, 1967 — Everlasting in the memory of their countrymen.
December 24, 1968 — “God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”
Frank Borman addressing the world on Christmas Eve as Apollo 8 circled the moon.
July 20, 1969 . . .
“Contact light,” radioed Aldrin, and three seconds later, “Engine stop.”
“We copy you down, Eagle,” responded CAPCOM.
“Houston, Tranquility Base here,” said the commander. “The Eagle has landed.”
Mission Control erupted in cheers, and small American flags waved everywhere in the room. Charlie Duke responded, “You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot!” The relief in the room was overwhelming; even the stoic Gene Kranz had to quickly rub tears from his eyes. He would never ask Armstrong about the fuel nearly running out. Kranz knew his answer would be along the lines of, “Well, I believe we had sixteen seconds of fuel remaining.”
Six hours later, the world viewed Armstrong in the middle of a grainy image as he stood on the last rung of the Lunar Module's ladder. And when he said, “I'm stepping off the LM now,” a half billion interconnected people around the globe did not see an American astronaut; rather, the man in the bulky white spacesuit represented planet Earth and the mouthpiece for humanity. So when he spoke, “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” the cheers around the world did not convey, 'He's done it', or, 'They've done it'; the cheers said, 'We've done it!' For the first time in our history, man had escaped the bonds of Earth to set foot upon another heavenly body. At that moment, we could have accomplished anything together. It was as if the world knew itself for the first time.
* * * * * *
In his dream, after returning from the moon, he strangely retains this mystifying power to unify people. As it begins, he is delivering a speech at his old Little League field in Ohio. The grass is brown, overgrown with weeds; the weather-worn stands dilapidated from years of neglect. The site is selected for sentimental reasons and, despite its shabby state, thousands crowd the field that late summer evening. He stands at the mike just beyond home plate. With orange wisps of cloud in the sky and gentle breezes rolling across the field, Armstrong resembles the Iron Horse delivering his famous July 4th, 1939 speech from Yankee Stadium. He speaks to moving forward with a firm grip on the past, of both building anew and improving on the old. He concludes by thanking everyone for their enthusiasm and support, and adds it is imperative for it to continue to face the challenges of tomorrow. For some reason, the line about improving on the old resonates with the crowd.
Two months down the road in the dream, while visiting Charleston, South Carolina to deliver yet another speech, he notices the power for the first time. Pictures of the ballpark arrive in the mail. Freshly painted stands and fences are now soft green; the manicured grass, healthy; red, blue, and white banners drape over wood railings throughout the stands. To put it in a nutshell, he had delivered a speech from a drabby, dilapidated stadium and now views pictures of a baby Fenway Park.
As the dream continues, he wonders if this power might work on something larger than a Little League ballpark. So he arranges for fliers to circulate in another Midwestern town. The venue this time is a neighborhood square; however, its days of splendor have long passed. Years before, with its bright white gazebo; merry-go-rounds, see-saws, and swing sets; manicured grounds of flowering dogwoods and viburnum shrubs, families gathered there like bees to a honeycomb. But all that changed when the factory five miles away shut down. Now, black burglar bars front the white clapboard homes; park rides are rusted and unused; the abandoned factory is covered in graffiti.
Nevertheless, on a cool autumn afternoon, a larger crowd than at the Little League stadium arrives to hear from the first man on the moon. Yellowish-red leaves swirl across the gray-cracked streets onto the square's worn out grass. Armstrong stands at the gazebo and begins with the importance of space exploration and how it is necessary to have the country's enthusiasm for it. The crowd is right in step. At its conclusion, though, they are a little taken aback with, “If our courage and our determination can take us to the moon, surely we can restore this neighborhood to its former splendor. Thank you.” Scattered applause filters up toward the gazebo.
Network coverage shows highlights of the speech around the country.
As the days go by, Armstrong discovers it does work for something larger. Citizens pour into the town from almost every state. Plans are drawn up, directives made, orders followed. Boy and girl scout troops are enlisted. Following two months of hard disciplined work, both gazebo and rides have been beautifully restored; the grounds are vibrant again; the burglars bars gone. And because the area has been transformed, even the factory slowly returns to life. White smoke curls up from its stack as if a new Pope had been elected.
The bottom line to this dream is that if Neil Armstrong mentions something needs to change, people unite and make the change happen.
So at the end of it, he decides to truly test this power. He requests another visit to Washington DC. The request is granted. Standing before the microphone on the freshly mowed lawn of the White House grounds, with the President and First Lady just behind him, in that careful, deliberate delivery he has used throughout his life, he begins, “Mr. President and First Lady. Thank you for this opportunity to address our citizens once again. Last time here, I summarized our twenty-four country tour around the globe and the enthusiasm Buzz, Michael, and I witnessed everywhere. If you recall, I stated the receptions were simply overwhelming.”
Suddenly, the speech steers a different direction.
“But we crossed over other countries during our orbits around Earth, over famine-stricken countries.” The President visibly tenses up. “If we have the courage and the will to send men to the moon, why can we not change the plight of these famished countries. If you look into the eyes of these hungry children, children with no choice as to where they are born, children completely helpless to change their fate, children who deserve a chance at living just as much as you and I, you will know what to do.” He turns toward the First Lady. “I propose a global fund that will once and for all eradicate this hunger and give these countries the tools they need to achieve real self-sustainment. And that all of its funds be efficiently and effectively used toward that end.” He steps toward the First Lady and hands her a check. After returning to the microphone, he concludes, “If the people of Earth will join together as they did on July 20, 1969 to help our fellow humans in need, then these small steps I have just taken will be one giant leap for mankind. Our lives should not be determined by where we are born. Thank you.” The audience explodes in applause.
The speech dominates the airwaves and spreads like a wildfire igniting the globe. In family dens, in diners and bars, at airports and railway stations, around store windows along downtown streets — almost anywhere a television can be viewed — the world watches; the world weeps; the world gives. From the wealthy Wall Street investor to the child running a lemonade stand — from every corner of the globe — donations flood in at an astronomic rate. Within two years, the children are hungry no more.
Then the alarm clock buzzed in room 646 and Armstrong woke up. He sat up on the side of the bed for a few moments, slowly rose, and walked over to the window. He opened the thick curtain a few inches and saw the first light of day along the eastern horizon. The White House grounds were within view. He pondered his speech to be delivered there in a few short hours. It would summarize the countries visited and the wonderful enthusiasm received everywhere. It would confirm the world's belief in technology and space exploration.
Was Armstrong pleased with the speech?
This remarkable man from Ohio, the state that produced soulmates Orville and Wilbur Wright, this living anomaly — a modest test pilot — transformed into a white spacesuit forever linked to time by a single footprint left on the powdery gray surface of our moon, looked at his melancholy reflection in the window and thought not.
He longed for sleep, and to dream.