Two men were about to land on the moon, and Mission Control in Houston was thrumming with tension. In the science-operations room, Gerald Schaber, a geologist, needed something to do while he waited for the lunar module to touch down. Schaber had come from northern Arizona, where engineers had warped the desert with dynamite to make a cratered landscape where the astronauts could train. His job didn’t start until Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out of the lunar module and began to explore the slate-colored surface. And the wait was getting to him.
“Our hearts were beating [fast], of course, everybody’s was,” Schaber told me recently. “So I figured I might as well watch theirs.”
Schaber switched his monitor to the channel displaying biomedical data for the astronauts. Armstrong seemed calmer than some of the folks in Mission Control. The commander’s heart was ticking along at 75 beats per minute, a remarkable rate for someone who was about to, you know, land on the moon. An adult’s normal resting heart rate is between 60 to 100 beats per minute. My heart rate right now, writing this story, is 75, according to a fitness tracker.
Schaber wasn’t surprised. Neil Armstrong, everyone knew, was one of the best flyers in the country. This was the pilot who had ejected himself from his damaged fighter jet in the Korean War with so much force he felt “as if all his body parts had been squeezed into the space the size of a bread box.” The astronaut who once managed to right his capsule in space as it spun ferociously, one revolution per second, and his vision blurred from the tumbling. The lunar commander who ejected himself, once more, from a failing lander simulator less than three seconds before it crashed into the ground and was swallowed in flames—just a year before he’d have to fly the real thing.