Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series reflecting on the Apollo 11 mission, 50 years later.
Apollo 11 was all about the destination, but there was more to the mission than the landing itself. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins took an eight-day-long journey punctuated by a series of complicated procedures to reach the moon and make it back in one piece. And in between these tense maneuvers were easy conversations and playful jokes. After all, the crew was stuck with one another for hours. It wasn’t going to be business all the time.
The Apollo 11 flight transcripts capture these buoyant moments in a sea of jargon about spacecraft systems. These exchanges feel familiar in an environment that is anything but. The astronauts drink hot coffee and eat sausage for breakfast; they listen to music; they make fun of one another and of Mission Control. Reading through the transcripts, it’s easy to forget these three men are actually hurtling through space at thousands of miles per hour, with no guarantee they’d get where they were going, and no guarantee they’d come back. Sometimes, they sound just like a group of guys on a road trip. “If we’re late in answering you,” Collins told Mission Control several hours after they launched from Cape Canaveral, “it’s because we’re munching sandwiches.”
Forty-five minutes after the launch, the astronauts tried to get comfortable, sounding rather like friends settling in for a long car ride. Collins attempted to find a star named Menkent to help the spacecraft’s guidance systems figure out their orientation in space.
Collins: Menkent. God, what a star.
Aldrin: Nobody in their right …
Collins: Menkent’s good …
Aldrin: … nobody in their right mind would pick that one.
Collins: … Menkent’s a good star.
Aldrin: Hey, I sure wish you’d get out that—that star chart.
Armstrong: Can’t see a thing, huh?
Collins: No. It’s in the …
Armstrong: Did you look in the telescope?
Collins: … in the sextant. Yes, but I can’t see it in the telescope. In the sextant—I can’t.
Collins: I believe it’s at the angle we have to mark on it.
Aldrin: It’s a little on the chilly side in the cabin. Would you like …
Armstrong: Feels comfortable to me.
Aldrin: … would you like it a little warmer, anybody?
Armstrong: I don’t think so. I think it’s a little on the …
Aldrin: The manual one.
Armstrong: It sure doesn’t look, sure doesn’t feel like—actually, it may be a little, it may be a little warm.
Aldrin: Well, my, my feet are a little chilly.
Right away, the views were gorgeous. All three of them had seen the Earth from here on previous flights to space, but it’s no less breathtaking. As they watched the sun come over the horizon of the planet, they realized they can’t find a camera.
Collins: Jesus Christ, look at that horizon!
Armstrong: Isn’t that something?
Collins: Goddamn, that’s pretty! This is unreal. I’d forgotten.
Armstrong: Get a picture of that.
Collins: Ooh, sure, I will. I’ve lost a Hasselblad. Has anybody seen a Hasselblad floating by? It couldn’t have gone very far, big son of a gun like that.
Armstrong: Now, what do we have—is that all the … ?
Collins: You had the switch on inside. [Garble]. Oh yeah. Okay. [Garble] automatic light control features.
Collins: Well, that pisses me off! Hasselblad gone. Find that mother before she or I ends the [garble]. Everybody look for a floating Hasselblad. I see a pen floating loose down here, too. Is anybody missing a ballpoint pen?
Aldrin: Got mine. Is it ballpoint, or is it [garble]?
Collins: Yes, ballpoint. Here it is. I mean felt tip.
Collins: [Garble] much embarrassed to say they’ve lost a Hasselblad. I seem to be prone to that.
(Collins was referring to his previous mission, Gemini 10, where he lost a camera during a spacewalk.) As the Apollo 11 spacecraft drifted farther from Earth, the crew members settled in for their first sleep. When they woke up, they warmed up some breakfast and listened to Mission Control relay the news of the day. Mealtimes were peaceful times, perfect for some light ribbing.
Collins: I’d like to enter Aldrin in the oatmeal eating contest next time.
[Bruce McCandless, in Mission Control]: Is he pretty good at that?
Collins: He’s doing his share up here.
McCandless: Let’s see. You all just finished a meal not long ago, too, didn’t you?
Aldrin: I’m still eating.
McCandless: Okay. Does that, that …
Collins: He’s on his—he’s on his 19th bowl.
As they approached the moon, they started picking out features on the surface, like kids pointing out horses on a drive through the country. This time, they had the camera.
Armstrong: What a spectacular view!
Collins: God, look at that moon!
Collins: Fantastic. Look back there behind us, sure looks like a gigantic crater; look at the mountains going around it. My gosh, they’re monsters.
Armstrong: See that real big …
Collins: Yes, there’s a moose down here you just wouldn’t believe. There’s the biggest one yet. God, it’s huge! It is enormous! It’s so big I can’t even get it in the window. You want to look at that? That’s the biggest one you ever seen in your life. Neil? God, look at this central mountain peak.
Collins: Isn’t that a huge one?
Armstrong: Look at the [garble]. Did you get some pictures of that?
Collins: Yes, I just took one. Can take another one here when he gets around a little better. It’s fantastic!
Armstrong: That’s kind of a foggy window.
Collins: That’s a horrible window. It’s too bad we have to shoot through this one, but—oh, boy, you could spend a lifetime just geologizing that one crater alone, you know that?
Armstrong: You could.
Collins: That’s not how I’d like to spend my lifetime, but—picture that. Beautiful!
Aldrin: Yes, there’s a big mother over here, too.
Collins: Come on now, Buzz, don’t refer to them as big mothers. Give them some scientific name.
When it was time, Armstrong and Aldrin clambered into the Eagle lunar lander while Collins stayed behind in the Columbia command module. The spacecraft separated, and the Eagle began its descent to the lunar surface. The two passengers sound like two travelers making sure they brought everything, with Aldrin jokingly chastising Armstrong for “overpacking”—bringing some items from the command module.
Aldrin: Where’s your watch? Got your stopwatch?
Armstrong: Got it in my pocket.
Aldrin: Well, the [garble] us over, huh?
Armstrong: And, one thing I’d appreciate if you could—see if you could—find the …
Armstrong: The map.
Aldrin: Yes. Which one do you want? I’ve got …
Aldrin: That it? Where do you want it?
Aldrin: Trade you that for a piece of gum. There it is.
Armstrong: When do we have to get these? Alright, go on.
Aldrin: What do you mean by bringing—bringing CSM trash in here?
Armstrong: Well, that’s stuff I had left over in my pocket.
The Eagle nearly ran out of fuel just before they touched down. Back in Mission Control, Gene Kranz, the flight director, had told Charlie Duke, with 30 seconds left in the tank, that “you’d better remind Neil there ain’t no damn gas station on that moon.” (This frazzled moment doesn’t appear in NASA transcripts, and comes from an Armstrong biography by the longtime space journalist Jay Barbree.) On the surface, during humanity’s greatest pit stop, Armstrong and Aldrin stretched their legs. They twisted their torsos from side to side, jumped up and down, and shifted their weight from foot to foot. Armstrong nearly fell over after one particularly high leap.
Aldrin: (Garbled) very fine powder, isn’t it?
Armstrong: Isn’t it fine?
Aldrin: Right in this area I don’t think there’s much of any (garbled) fine powder some (garbled) clods together, and it’s hard to tell whether it’s a clod or a rock.
Armstrong: Notice how you can kick it out.
Aldrin: Yeah. And it bounces and then (garbled).
Aldrin: Reaching down is fairly easy. (Garbled) get my suit dirty at this stage.
Aldrin: The mass of the backpack does have some effect in inertia. (Pause)
Aldrin: There’s a slight tendency, I can see now, to (garbled) backwards due to the soft, very soft texture.
Armstrong: You’re standing on a rock, a big rock there now. (Long pause)
After they lifted off from the moon and returned to the command module, Collins bombarded them with questions about what they’d seen.
Collins: How was lift-off? How did lift-off feel?
Aldrin: Well, there was a little—little blast—then we started moving. Then we could see all those …
Collins: [Garble] were you very stable? I mean, you just sort of floated up or was there a bunch of rattling around?
Aldrin: … The floor came up to meet you. I think it multiplied g by [garble] it was about—at lift-off—maybe—half a g or two-thirds of a g.
Collins: Well, you know, well, just looking at that one sample, it was—I’m surprised you didn’t have a lot more dust. Now you saw dust during descent, I think, around 40 feet, something like that, 30 feet maybe.
Aldrin: Yes it was …
Collins: But its pattern is such that it sprays out horizontally, and it doesn’t really come up and engulf you, huh?
Aldrin: All the stuff looks like very light tan and gray, you know, that’s—that’s the color of it. When you get right up there to it, when you see it, why that isn’t the color at all.
Collins: Dark—battleship gray, isn’t it?
Aldrin: Maybe not—I don’t know …
Collins: Well, what kind of …
Aldrin: … what stuck to the spacecraft, I think you can see afterwards …
Collins: What do you think it is from the—geology standpoint, is it basalt dust?
On the way home, they put on some tunes. Armstrong picked this time: “Radar Blues,” a jazzy number that featured the ethereal sounds of a theremin. And, as with any road trip, not everyone enjoyed the selection.
[Charlie Duke, in Mission Control]: Thank you, 11. We appreciate you turning that off. [Laughter.]
Armstrong: Charlie, could you copy our music down there?
Duke: Did we copy what, Neil?
Armstrong: Did you copy our music down there?
Duke: Rog. We sure did. We’re wondering who selected—made your selections?
Armstrong: That’s an old favorite of mine, about—it’s an album made about 20 years ago, called Music Out of the Moon.
Duke: Roger. It sounded a little scratchy to us, Neil. Either that or your tape was a little slow.
Aldrin: It’s supposed to sound that way.
Duke: That’s one of those …
Collins: … it sounds a little scratchy to us too, but the czar likes it.
At one of their last meals in space, Collins, the mission comic, decided to poke some fun at the next crew that would make the same journey—Apollo 12. Their own dangerous reentry was still ahead, but they had completed the purpose of their mission, and they were almost home.
Collins: Breakfast was magnificent as usual. I had sliced peaches, sausage patties, two cups of coffee, and I forget all what else.
[Owen Garriott, in Mission Control]: That does sound pretty good. As a matter of fact, I’m way overdue for a meal myself, here. I could use some of that.
Collins: Why don’t you get Milt to give you five minutes off and grab a hamburger?
Garriott: I suggested that a while ago. He was pointing out about the weight problem here. Got to keep the calories low, so I’d better stand by without it.
Collins: Houston, Apollo 11. We—We’ve been doing a little flight planning for Apollo 12 up here.
Garriott: Roger. Go ahead.
Collins: We’re trying to calculate how much spaghetti and meatballs we can get on board for Al Bean [the lunar-module pilot for Apollo 12].
Garriott: I’m not sure the spacecraft will take that much extra weight. Have you made any estimates?
Collins: It’ll be close.
Garriott: 11, Houston. The medics at the next console report that the shrew is one animal which can eat six times its own body weight every 24 hours. This may be a satisfactory baseline for your spaghetti calculations on Al Bean. Over.
Collins: Okay. Thank you. That’s in work.
Eventually, it was time to plunge through the atmosphere and parachute down to the Pacific Ocean. The crew members were travel-weary, ready to sleep in their own beds and feel the gravity of their own planet. They took a good look at the moon behind them in the distance.
[Fred Haise, in Mission Control]: Apollo 11, Houston.
Collins: Go ahead.
Haise: Roger, Mike. We recommend the left VHF antenna for VHF.
Haise: And this is your friendly backup CMP. Have a good trip, and [garbled] remember to come in BEF [blunt end forward].
Collins: You better believe. Thank you kindly.
Collins: We can see the moon passing by the window and it looks what I consider to be a correct size.
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