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Apollo Expeditions to the Moon



Once it was fairly certain that Apollo 11 was it, newspaper reporters and some NASA officials predicted that Aldrin would be the first man to step on the Moon. The logic was that in Gemini the man in the right-hand seat had done the EVA, and the early time line drawn up in MSC's lower engineering echelons showed him dismounting first. But the LM's hatch opened on the opposite side. For Aldrin to get out first it would have been necessary for one bulky-suited, back-packed astronaut to climb over another. When that movement was tried, it damaged the LM mockup. "Secondly, just on a pure protocol basis", said Slayton, "I figured the commander ought to be the first guy out ... I changed it as soon as I found they had the time line that showed that. Bob Gilruth approved my decision." Did Armstrong pull his rank, as was widely assumed? Absolutely not, said Slayton. "I was never asked my opinion", said Armstrong. "It was fine with me if it was to be Neil", Aldrin wrote, half-convincingly.

Five days before he sent McDivitt and White on that 1965 midnight ride to Paris, Lyndon B. Johnson had thrown a monkey wrench into the Pentagon's machinery by jubilantly announcing that he was promoting those astronauts, both Air Force officers, from major to lieutenant colonel (he didn't bother to find out that both had only recently made major). The astronauts were naturally delighted.

A constant companion to an Astronaut during his training was the graceful twin-engined T-38, a two-seat jet that was fine for aerobatics. T-38's were handy for the incessant travel - to California, New York, the Cape, and way stations - that was called for by the policy of involving astronauts in spacecraft development. And to men who had in the main been expert test pilots, the agile T-38 was both a means of keeping sharp and a resource offering privacy and pleasure.

Mike Collins, left, lands after an exhilarating session of aerobatics. The T-38 was useful not just as a means of keeping piloting skills fine-honed but also to keep up g-load tolerances and inner-ear response to weightlessness. Plenty of flight hours before launch seemed to reduce the tendency toward nausea during initial exposure to weightlessness during spaceflight.

In justice to Maj. Virgil Grissom USAF and Lt. Comdr. John Young USN, who had flown Gemini 3 three months earlier, the President accelerated promotions for them, too, again without saying anything to NASA or the Defense Department. He also went back and picked up some unpromoted Mercury astronauts. Admiral W. Fred Boone, NASA's liaison officer to the Pentagon, noting "some dissatisfaction both among the astronaut community and in the Pentagon", undertook a study. Wrote Boone: "We agreed it would be preferable that meritorious promotions be awarded in accordance with established policy rather than on a 'spur of the moment' basis."

The upshot was a policy, approved by the President, providing that each military astronaut be promoted after his first successful flight, but not beyond colonel USAF or captain USN. Civilians would be rewarded by step increase in civil service grade. Only one promotion to any individual.

That policy came unstuck on Apollo 12, flown by three Navy commanders, Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon, and Alan Bean. Conrad and Bean, having been upped from lieutenant commander to commander after their Gemini 11 flight, were ineligible for another promotion. Rookie Bean was. But should Bean be promoted over the heads of his seniors? Hang the policy, said President Nixon, promoting all three.

A parabolic flight path in a jet transport could create up to 30 seconds of zero gravity, enough to practice exit through a spacecraft hatch (above). Two earthbound simulations of reduced or zero gravity are shown at right and below. Wearing pressure suits carefully weighted to neutral buoyancy, astronauts in a big water tank learn the techniques needed to work effectively in space. Below, ingenious slings are supported by wires running to a trolley high above. The angled panels on which the man walks or runs are offset just enough from directly under the trolley to simulate the sixth of Earth gravity that prevails on the Moon.

Of all the amenities accruing to astronauts, the hard cash came from "the Life contract". Between 1959 and 1963 Life magazine paid the Seven Original astronauts a total of $500,000 for "personal" stories - concerning themselves and their families - as opposed to "official" accounts of their astronautical duties. This arrangement increased the astronauts' military income by about 200 percent. It also simplified NASA public relations, since the famous young men's bylines would be concentrated in one place and the contract called for NASA approval of whatever they said.

There were drawbacks. The rest of the press took a sour view of what it considered public property being put up for exclusive sale (the dividing line between "personal" and "official" was wafer-thin). Since the same ghostwriters put their stories in print, the astronauts (and their families) all seemed shaped in the same mold, utterly homogenized for the greater glory of home, motherhood, and the space program. "To read it was to believe we were the most simon-pure guys there had ever been", wrote Buzz Aldrin in Return to Earth. "The contract almost guaranteed peaches and cream, full-color spreads glittering with harmless inanities", was the way Mike Collins's book had it.