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A tale of the supreme competence of Neil Armstrong (aei-ideas.org)
203 points by queensnake on Aug 28, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 42 comments

He overcame some computer problems as he landed the Lunar Module as well. His experience, knowledge, and sheer courage were amazing.


ABSTRACT: The Apollo 11 mission succeeded in landing on the moon despite two computer-related problems that affected the Lunar Module during the powered descent. An uncorrected problem in the rendezvous radar interface stole approximately 13% of the computer's duty cycle, resulting in five program alarms and software restarts. In a less well-known problem, caused by erroneous data, the thrust of the LM's descent engine fluctuated wildly because the throttle control algorithm was only marginally stable.

These were the infamous "1201" and "1202" alarms, explained here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Garman#1202

Jack Garman's handwritten quick-reference list of the program alarms, which was under the Plexiglas on his mission control console during the landing : http://klabs.org/mapld05/pics/invited/garman_4.jpg

For those in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Computer History Museum actually has one of the prototypes for the Apollo Guidance Computer:


This story was mentioned in the penultimate paragraph.

That paragraph only said the Eagle was heading towards some boulders. It didn't explain why.

In any case, as was said in the antepenultimate paragraph, it seems Neil Armstrong really was the right man for the lunar landing.

>Although the comparative lack of hands-on control led some astronauts to call themselves ‘spam in a can’, these missions called for both the highest order of technical skill and the steeliest of nerves. Aldrin’s pulse-rate at blast-off was only 110 and, within minutes of landing on the Moon, Armstrong’s was down to 90.


Man, I sometimes have a hard time walking around my office when it's pitch dark and no one else is around.

I can't find it again, but I read somewhere yesterday that Armstrong was up to 150 bpm during the landing. Even the steeliest of missle-men feel stress, it's how they react to it that gives them the edge.

"... Aldrin’s pulse-rate at blast-off was only 110 ..."

Excellent read. John Young had pulse-rate measurement of 70 (probably 16 as told by Al Bean) which meant everything was going OK during launch. cf "In the Shadow of the Moon" ~ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_the_Shadow_of_the_Moon#Apol...

This reminds me of an article [0] I read in the German brandeins magazine some years ago about the improvisations Sowjet Union cosmonauts had to do in orbit (English translation [1]). So whereas US astronauts were not as free (or forced to be as free) as their Sowjet counterparts, they still had their skill set by hand. These were fascinating times.

[0] http://www.brandeins.de/magazin/wir-rechnen-mit-allem-die-ku...

[1] http://translate.google.com/translate?sl=auto&tl=en&...

I once had the opportunity to ask a fighter pilot what flying such an advanced jet in a tactical situation was like. He said, "Like doing calculus while lifting weights."

No wonder getting that sort of job is hard!

Especially impressive to say "calculus", which shows actual awareness of mathematics, and suggests that the speaker really has tried something like that. Usually people say "algebra" when they want a word that just sounds mathy.

Not that unexpected, though. Pilots in general, and particularly fighter pilots, usually have a technical background on par with a four year degree in science or engineering. Often more.

Astronauts, even more so.

If you like reading about this, I recommend "The Right Stuff" by Tom Wolfe.

He also explores the interesting dynamics of how the astronauts using "simple" rockets became more famous than pilots who achieved stick-based flight to near-space levels.

Noteworthy that Armstrong as an X-15 pilot falls in both of these groups.

If you like watching about this, I recommend ``When we left the Earth'' miniseries by Discovery Channel.

Focuses on people of the early space era, with narratives provided by several known and unknown participants.


They should make movies about people like him (and the whole NASA staff actually), instead of another Captain America or whatnot. Real people, with good sides and bad sides, but who did amazing things.


Don't be put off by the fact that it's a "TV mini-series". It's 12 hours of "Apollo 13"-quality shows.

Thank you, didn't knew about that.

Another tribute I very much enjoyed: "Neil Armstrong, In His Own Words" http://www.airspacemag.com/multimedia/Neil-Armstrong-In-His-...

That's a fascinating story. I'm curious what would it actually feel like to rotate 1 rotation per second in space? I guess the bigger factor may be location within the spacecraft (e.g. I imagine if near the center it would be much less stressful).

I just tried the the old spin the office chair, with a buddy counting roughly 1 revolution per second. I was holding my laptop and trying to surf.

I feel sick now.

Don't forget this happened while he was in a spacecraft orbiting the earth when this happened, AKA free-fall or (approximately) zero-g until it started spinning. Here on earth it's probably not even possible to recreate the conditions he experienced.

If you were just sitting there, I think it wouldn't be too bad. The trouble comes when you actually need to do something. Coriolis forces will totally screw up any movement you make. Your reflexes will be all wrong. Imagine reaching for a switch and having your hand get jerked off to one side as you move it. Then as you pull your hand back, it gets jerked off to the other side. Any head movement will cause your inner ear fluids to do weird things, causing dizziness.

If you spin in place at one rotation per second, it'll upset your equilibrium pretty quick; that's the minimum. That said, Gemini was not a large spacecraft; the two crew were sitting side by side in a space that was about the size of a small car's front seat.

This inspires me to try to write on a notepad while spinning in my office chair. I think I can achieve one rotation per second. :) Maybe not a good idea after lunch though.

To present another side: I remember from reading Chuck Yeager's autobiography that Neil Armstrong was also a bit cocky and "know-it-all". However, I cannot find a quote of the passage online.

I did find this interesting anecdote in which Neil Armstrong doesn't appear quite so clever: http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/yea0int-7

It should be pointed out the Neil Armstrong was US Navy and Chuck Yeager was US Air Force, so there is a bit of inter service rivalry. Chuck Yeager did tweet '"Too bad we lost one of our good pioneers. Neil (Armstrong) was a good friend and we'll miss him" - General Chuck Yeager'. Yeager's comments seem to jive with a lot of others that Armstrong was a great engineer.

It kind of freaks me out that Chuck Yeager has a a twitter account.

It kind of freaks me out that Chuck Yeager is still alive (89 and going strong). From The Right Stuff, he seems like he's from an earlier generation than the astronauts, but I guess he was roughly their contemporary.

Lets just skip over the NF-104 mishap? Despite what people think, most of the astronauts/test pilots have done at least one not-so-smart thing in a jet. This was probably not Gen. Yeager's finest piloting. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lockheed_NF-104A#Third_NF-104A

Gen. Yeager was also somewhat bitter that he never made it into the Astronaut Corps.

IIRC (it was a long time ago) CY said he did not become an astronaut because he wanted to be a pilot and not just shot around on the end of a rocket. I took it at face value, not thinking that it might be sour grapes. Needless to say there was some amazing piloting in the Gemini and Apollo programs.

He didn't make Group 1/Group 2 requirements to the Astronaut Corps because he wasn't a college graduate. This was at a different time when not all officers had a 4-year college degree. He could have gotten a degree, if he really wanted to be an astronaut.

During the late 50s, the designers had the plan that the capsule would be flown automatically, and this could have turned off Gen. Yeager from applying, despite his distinguished record.

I'm not saying NA wasn't cocky or didn't get a jet stuck in the mud, but I find it interesting that CY's stories of the man seem so different than everyone else's.

Stories are generally told to reinforce someone's existing narrative. If you think someone is an idiot you will tend to tell stories of them looking foolish. If you think someone is brilliant, stories of them looking clever. All humans, if you looked at their sum-total of actions/decisions, could likely be equally well placed in either camp. Which stories are remembered/repeated is probably as much due to chance as desire for historical accuracy. Not many people, when they think of Newton, think of an alchemist.

This comment should probably be translated into 40 languages, cast in pure gold, and illuminated with spotlights in every major city of the world. Humans need 'stories about the world' to understand it, but we often forget that the stories - and our categorical abstractions in general - are a highly filtered and edited subset of reality.

The closest call was that story where he bailed out of the training LEM a split second before it stalled out and exploded...

Yeah, and from what I've read/heard about the incident, he just casually went along with the rest of his day, like nothing even happened.

Here's a great photo of it: http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2012/08/neil-armstrong-19...

The "16mm documentary motion picture recorded during the mishap" : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Qhcs6qiHLI

A cockpit video from one of the shuttle missions: just after launch, with the boosters still attached and burning at full thrust, the commander turned to the pilot and asked, "Feel that? That wobble is from the wind blowing through the fuel tank strut..." Right Stuff indeed.

His copilot on that Gemini mission, David Scott also praised Armstrong's actions. In the book Two Sides of the Moon he wrote something to the tune of "I don't know how Neil did it, but he did it", but I think it was related to pushing some buttons in an awkward place in an overhead panel in the spinning spacecraft with little time left.

I think that's closest there can be to an original source for that event. Scott was there.

This spring I read Lost Moon, Lovell's account of Apollo 13 co-authored with Jeffery Kluger. There's nothing routine when you're surrounded by a couple of hundred thousand miles of hard vacuum.


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