Apollo 11: Mission Out of Control

Shortly after noon on July 20, 1969, as they orbited some 70 miles above the surface of the moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin detached their lunar lander from the Apollo 11 command module in preparation for descent. From his opening aboard the dictation bowl, Michael Collins watched as the lander revolved away and pitched itself downward. In the lander’s cramped room, Aldrin and Armstrong could see the moon’s surface through small triangular spaces. At joint level was the console for the invention that they are able to address the final stage of their approaching: the Apollo guidance computer.

For most of the trip, the cosmonauts had been fares. The spacecraft had been steering itself, relaying its position to Mission Control’s IBM mainframe–a gizmo the dimensions of the a walk-in freezer, which in 1969 was what people thought of when they heard the word computer. Something called a “minicomputer” had recently been introduced; it was the size of a refrigerator. The Apollo guidance computer–there was one on board the command module and another on the lander–was a fraction of that sizing. At simply 70 pounds, it was the most sophisticated such device humanity had yet conceived.