Out of this world: What it's really like to to walk on the moon

Four decades on, Nasa's missions to the Moon remain the pinnacle of human endeavour. For the men who made that incredible journey, the experience was profound, thrilling, and often terrifying. As a spectacular new film tells the inside story of the lunar landings, Apollo astronauts recall the trip of a lifetime

Sunday 18 September 2011 20:14

Major-General Michael Collins

Collins, now 76, was born in Rome. He was recruited by Nasa in 1963, reaching space for the second and final time aboard the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon. As pilot of the command module, he orbited the Moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their giant leap.

I think there was probably more pressure on Apollo 11 than some of the other flights. There's so many things you can do wrong. [With] Apollo 11, I had the feeling the whole world was watching us. I had the feeling that the consequences if I do [things] wrong are gonna be immediately obvious to three billion people and that's a worrisome thought. We were working very hard in the months before the flight. I got little tics in my eyelids, which I think is a classic exemplar of internal pressure.

I always liked Neil, I think he's a fine choice to be the first guy on the Moon. He's a very thoughtful guy, he is not a self-promoter. Buzz seemed to be disturbed at various times, he seemed to be down in the dumps and I'm not to this day sure exactly what his problem was. Today, it seems that Buzz enjoys the limelight in the best sense.

Our interactions were all about "Did you do this?" and "What do you think about the pressure on gauge number 19?" It was not a lot of camaraderie, of sitting around over a beer talking about life in general.

On launch day, it's kind of strange. You go out in a van to the launch pad. When you get out to the base of this gigantic gantry, it's empty and there's nobody there. You're accustomed to scores of workers swarming like ants all up and down and around it. Then suddenly you think maybe they know something I don't know. But anyway, you get in this little elevator and you go up 365ft in the air. Still you have the sense of being deserted and it's a strange environment. And it hasn't really seized you until the last minute or two – at least it didn't me. You feel in the seat of your pants that the launch tower is just a few feet off to one side; [you think] "I hope this sucker isn't gonna [tip] over."

As you get higher, the blue gets darker and darker. Then, when the first stage runs out of fuel, the motors shut down and for an instant you're thrown against your straps and you're weightless for a very short period until the second-stage engines kick in and then, whoosh, you're off again. The trip to the Moon is more of an anticipatory thing; you're looking forward, you're looking at the Earth but your emotions are headed the other way.

The Moon was pretty much as I expected [it] to be up close, because we'd seen a million photographs. It was a little rougher than I thought it would be. I did not sense any great invitation on the part of the Moon for us to come into its domain. I sensed more almost a hostile place, a scary place.

I discovered later that I was described as the loneliest man ever in the universe [because Collins did not land on the Moon with the others] or something, which really is a lot of baloney. I mean, I had mission control yacking in my ear half the time. I mean, had I been some poor soul in a rowboat out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean I'd be a lot more lonely than I was in orbit around the Moon by myself. I felt it as almost a feeling of exultation, I liked it, everything was going well with the command module, I had my happy little home and had the bright lights on and everything, I enjoyed that time.

I was more concerned about getting Armstrong and Aldrin up off the surface. A lot of things could have gone wrong – some problem with their engine where either it wouldn't ignite and they were stuck, or it would ignite but they got up into some kind of a strange lopsided orbit and would crash back into the Moon and I wouldn't be able to get them.

You see the lunar module, [a] little golden bug down there among the craters, and it gets slowly bigger and bigger and then it got right up next to me. It was my job to make the connection between the two vehicles.

I don't remember what I said to them. I can remember I grabbed Buzz by both ears and I was gonna kiss him on the forehead. We immediately started yacking about the technical minutiae, what they saw on the Moon, how big the rocks were, what the colours were. And then you don't have time to sit around and reminisce because you've got to come home.

I think the first time you become aware of your speed is very late in the game when you've turned around and you're coming into the atmosphere. You see pieces of the heat shield and it starts with a very tenuous wispy trail, maybe with some violets and some greens and then as the atmosphere gets denser and your heat shield gets hotter you start getting an incandescent feeling of yellows, and you are literally on fire.

On Apollo you needed at least two good [parachutes] or you're gonna hit the ground or the water at a fatal rate. But we got all three good ones, so that you can see those out the window. And the splat is just kind of luck of the draw, it depends on whether the ocean's calm that day or if you hit the top of the wave or the bottom of a trough. We hit pretty hard and tipped over. It's sort of undignified to come that far and make a nice landing and then topple upside down. I lost a case of beer betting with Buzz 'cos I said that wasn't gonna happen and it did.

I knew my life had changed because of Apollo 11, but I did not know in what way. I guess there was sort of a feeling of "What next?" – what do I do for a job, what's my life gonna be like. And I had a feeling of great optimism but also a feeling of the unknown.

We were meeting people like the Queen of England and the Emperor of Japan. The thing I think that surprised me the most was that wherever we went people, instead of saying "Well, you Americans did it," they said "We did it" – we humankind, we the human race, we people did it. I thought that was a wonderful thing, ephemeral but wonderful.

I kind of have two Moons up there. I look at the Moon just like everybody else who's never been there. But every once in a while I do think of the second Moon, the one that I recall from up close and, yeah, it is kind of hard to believe that I was actually up there.

Now, did I have the best seat on Apollo 11? I'd be a liar, a fool, if I said I had the best seat [not being aboard the landing module], but I can say, with complete equanimity, I never had any complaints before, during or after. I'm perfectly happy with the part that I did play in it.

Colonel Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin Jnr

Born in 1930, Aldrin got his nickname as a child, when his sister mispronounced brother as "buzzer". The former fighter pilot flew two Nasa missions, earning a coveted spot alongside Neil Armstrong inside Apollo 11's lunar module.

After 1961, the President had accelerated our course in space. Instead of just our Mercury astronauts competing with the Soviets in Earth's orbit, we set an even further objective, which was going to the Moon and back before the end of the Sixties. In October 1963, I got a call asking me to join the astronaut programme. There were 14 of us selected in that group.

The Apollo 8 mission was going to be a big Earth orbit. But we thought that during the summer of '68 the Russians had flown two unmanned missions around the Moon. They had an opportunity to send a mission with a human crew on board. So during the summer, unknown to all but a very few people, the mission of Apollo 8 was changed step by step. Eventually, it was decided to put it into orbit around the Moon.

When that mission was over, Neil [Armstrong] got in touch with both Mike [Collins] and I, and let us know that we would be on Apollo 11. I forget exactly when it was that I casually mentioned it to my wife: "Today, we found out we're going to the Moon."

I knew that anyone who was on the first lunar landing was going to be propelled into the public view in an enormous way. Given a choice, I'd just as soon not have to put up with that.

I gave up smoking the pipe maybe three weeks before launch. Having a drink, three days before. I don't think anybody really slept too well the night before. We had what we call a faecal containment garment, which you wear underneath your underwear to contain any bowel movement throughout a prolonged flight, so, early in the morning, I greased the lower portion of my body with diaper-rash stuff. I had decided that I was gonna wear my West Point ring and a Masonic ring of my grandfather's.

People who've not been on rockets continue to ask, "You weren't scared?" No, we were not scared. At the moment of lift-off, there were numbers changing on the dash board, there were sounds indicating in the voice loop that we'd had lift-off, but what did we feel? I think we felt, in those early moments, that we were not attached to the ground anymore, but in flight, drifting.

If I wanted to go to the Moon again, it would be to look out the window during the descent and not be looking at the computer and the abort guidance system and all the other things I was supposed to be looking at.

In retrospect, it would have been unacceptable to the public for the commander [Armstrong] to have stayed inside the module while the junior person [Aldrin] went and got all the credit for being the first step on the Moon. But big deal – who is it a big deal for? Well, for history, for the media, for the public, that's who it's a big deal for. Technically, it could have gone either way, except that they put the hinge on the side of the hatch that would open up and allow the commander to go out first. But I really didn't think that the hinge being on a certain side should be the deciding factor. But the correct decision was made and I'm happy with it – have been from the moment it was made, because I'm a military guy and I do what I'm told to do and I don't feel bitter about it in any way. There are no sour grapes.

Mike was always the easy-going guy who brought levity to things, and I felt kind of bad that he wasn't gonna have the opportunity of being in a lunar lander, but somebody had to do each and every task.

We told Charlie Duke [the astronaut who spoke to the crew from mission control in Houston] that we were gonna call ourselves Tranquillity Base as soon as we touched down. We wanted him to know that, so that it wouldn't be some garbled word that would come back, but he would understand it. I was a little caught unawares when Neil said: "Houston, Tranquillity Base here, the Eagle has landed." We didn't have a tight timeline as to when we were supposed to open the hatch and go out. We took our time and it caused a lot of people in different parts of the world to stay up pretty late that night, I'm sure.

Fortunately, most of us were more compact then than we are now, but you had to go out feet first and you can't really see with that big backpack on your back. The checklist said that as I went out, I should "partially close the hatch". So I said, as I was going out, "I'm gonna reach back and partially close the hatch, making sure not to lock it on my way out..." I just thought that was funny. But then I began to think, what would happen if that door had slammed shut for some reason?

We had no idea how easy it was gonna be to walk around on the Moon. It was just like Earth except much, much easier, because there's less force to deal with. However, we had it in our flight plan that we take the first 10, 15 seconds at the bottom of the ladder to hold on to the edge of the landing gear, and just check our stability and so forth. I soon realised that you don't really have to do that, because it's very easy to move around. So that's when I decided to take care of a bodily function and slightly fill up the urine bag so that I wouldn't be troubled with that later on. Everybody had their firsts on the Moon. And that one hasn't been disputed by anybody.

We got the flag out and put it in the ground and we'd never really practised that one before, so we were professionals but we were also kind of amateurs up there. Of course, there's not much gravity, so we did get it to stand reasonably upright.

Here we were on the surface, and I knew more people were watching us than had ever watched two human beings before in history, and yet we're further away, not just in distance, but in things we gotta do to get back home. We gotta do some difficult things to get out of this desolate place and get back home again. We got a phone call from the President and that was a surprise to me. So I was tongue-tied and didn't know what to say. I got kinda tired of hearing people say as they looked down on the Earth from space how they couldn't see any boundaries between countries and how peaceful this was and, you know, after the fifth time you've heard that, it gets kind of sickening.

After we got clearance to leave, I said, "Houston, Roger, we're number one on the runway." I'm real proud of that one because that's two zingers in one sentence: there wasn't anybody else up there, and there sure wasn't a runway.

Brigadier-General Charles Duke

Born in North Carolina in 1935, Duke flew for the US Air Force before being selected by Nasa in 1966. As capcom – the spacecraft communicator at mission control – for the Apollo 11 mission, his southern drawl became familiar to millions. He took his own steps on the Moon on Apollo 16 in 1972.

I was watching a football game and reading the Los Angeles Times and there was an article saying Nasa's looking for more astronauts. The criteria were to be a US citizen, with a thousand hours' flying, bachelor's degree, less than six feet tall – very general requirements. Next day, I went to Colonel Yeager [the US legendary test pilot, Chuck Yeager] and said, "Sir, I'd like to apply."

We got selected through a six months' process. I didn't know you could be poked and prodded as many times in as many places as we were. It was a very exhausting physical. There was an inkblot test, and I mean the big deal for us was, don't see anything sexual or unusual or weirdo, just pick something you know. I said, "Well, it looks like a butterfly to me." We didn't want to be perverts, you know.

We had some strange ECGs. They'd put your head in a bucket of ice water to see what happened to your heart. I remember they squirted ice water in your ear to see how your heart would respond. They strapped you to this big board like a roulette wheel and you were hung upside down and they'd spin you sideways. It was crazy.

On Apollo 11, my involvement was at mission control. It was probably the second best thing that happened to me at Nasa. Flying was the best, but being in mission control and on the ground side of the missions was really exciting and really challenging.

As capcom, you were really the astronaut representative at mission control. As Neil and Buzz were in the lunar module, the guidance system was carrying them into a big boulder field. They were big rocks and it wasn't a suitable place to land. We noticed their trajectory level off and he [Neil Armstrong] just started flying almost horizontally above the Moon at high speed. This takes fuel, extra fuel. We were getting really fuel-critical. And we had two calls that we were to give from mission control. The first was, "Eagle, 60 seconds." That meant he had 60 more seconds to land. And at the end of that 60 seconds, by mission rule, I would call, "Abort". Now whether he would actually abort or not was their decision but mission control would call an abort.

I called, "30 seconds. Eagle, you got 30 seconds." I can remember looking at my stopwatch as it was counting down and, 13 seconds later, we landed – we had contact.

Buzz said, "Contact. Engine stop." When you hear "Engine stop", you know they're gonna be on the ground, hopefully right side up.

Neil came on the radio: "Houston, Tranquillity Base here, the Eagle has landed." Everybody in mission control was really excited. I couldn't even get out the word "Tranquillity". I said "Twang-quillity" or something like that. Finally I got out: "Roger, Tranquillity, we copy you down. You've got a bunch of guys about to turn blue, we're breathing again."

There was a lot of stress in our families, in my family particularly because we lived in Houston but all the training was in Florida, or it was a geology trip to Hawaii or California or Arizona. Dotty and I had two young children, a big yard, a new house, a dog – those responsibilities of keeping all that going and managing the children.

So they sort of fitted into a routine, and then I'd come in on the weekends, and, now, I'm in charge here, and I had a terrible attitude with my kids. I had an explosive temper, sort of a military drill instructor dad.

Dotty and I began to have problems. The astronaut office was presented as the all-American boys and their all-American families. But that facade began to crumble in 1966. Several years later we had the first divorce and that sort of opened the floodgate.

Before the Apollo 16 mission, I had the flu. It was during that first night of fever that I had this strange dream. I was on the Moon, and John and I were driving the lunar rover and there was this set of tracks. We were stunned. "There's a set of tracks up here, Houston – could we follow them?" And they said, "Yeah, follow the tracks." So we followed them and there's this rover on the lunar surface, with two astronauts just sitting there. I pulled up the visor of one of the astronauts, and the guy in the car was me – and he was dead.

I didn't want to tell [Dottie] about it. I never mentioned it to her until after the mission. In fact, I didn't tell anybody until after the mission was over. I found out from the flight surgeon later on that my heartbeat was 144 at lift-off. John's was 70, so he was very cool and I was very – I can't say fearful but I was certainly anxious. When those engines ignite the vibration down there is transmitted up this 363ft rocket to the spacecraft and it's sitting there shaking from side to side.

During the flight, we had a tape recorder. I took country music put together by a friend who was a disc jockey in Houston. He'd called some of the very famous country music stars, and we had a special half hour by Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton and then Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, and it was all personalised. You know – "Charlie, we don't know where you are but we know you're on the way to the Moon and we hope you like this music. This song is especially for you." We had a lot of serious work to do and we did it but with a good humour.

My little boys, who were almost five and seven at the time, and my wife had they'd put these little greetings and drawings of rockets into the flight plan [the manual the crew took with them]. So you'd turn to the flight plan and there's this little message: "We love you Dad. Have a good trip." And: "Dear Daddy, have a safe trip home. Love Tom."

You can look great on the outside, but be dying on the inside. I guess Dottie was the one that was really dying on the inside. In April of 1978, our marriage was getting better because Dotty had become a Christian and I watched her change from sadness to joy as a result of that.

A friend of ours got us to go to a Bible study at the tennis club and I realised that what my wife was experiencing I could experience. I said to Jesus, "I give you my life and if you're real come into my life," and I believe he did. I had this sense of peace that was hard to describe. This explosive temper went away. Now we're enjoying seven grandchildren that our boys have given us and we've seen some bumps in the road, and some potholes, but not one promise of God has failed us in 28 years.

Colonel David Scott

Scott, now 75, made his first trip to space with Neil Armstrong on the 1966 Gemini 8 mission. In 1971, he was spacecraft commander of Apollo 15, the fourth manned lunar landing mission, during which he spent more than 18 hours exploring the Moon's surface.

I slept very well the night before. You're ready or you're not – and if you're not, you don't want to go. But we were able to build up and train such that we peaked when it was time to go. So it was, like, finally! After the training and all the simulations, it's actually pretty relaxing to know that: OK, tomorrow you get to go.

On all previous days going to the [launch] pad, there were people everywhere, busy, busy, busy. You go out on launch morning, and there's nobody there, it's a ghost town. It's fascinating, to see this 365ft-high rocket standing there, ready to go, and the three of us will get in it and it'll move.

I'm not sure exactly how much time there was [before the launch] – a couple of hours, 90 minutes – but you're busy all the time, setting switches, checking systems, making sure everything works. As an example, I can actually fly the whole booster from the spacecraft using the hand controller. So you go through the tests to make sure that the engines of the launch vehicle respond to a hand controller. And [fellow-crew members] Jim Irwin is busy with the systems and Al Worden is busy with the computer, so there are quiet periods, but in general you're making the final checks and final tests.

Ignition occurs long before lift-off – well, in terms of seconds. You can start to feel the vibration once it occurs, and you can see from the instruments on the panel that the engines have ignited, and then you get lift-off and you can feel the thrust and you can feel the motion slowly and the vibration building up. And it's a pretty comforting feeling to know that you're actually on the way.

You have to pay attention to what's happening because if there's a problem and you have to abort, there are certain things you have to do during certain periods. A lot of people think you're just lying on your back, waiting for it to happen, but not really because every second is something of significance. And during Apollo, we could abort anytime, unlike the Shuttle, which you can't in the early phases. But Apollo had something that you could do in case of a big problem at any time. So you stay on top of it.

Once you leave the darkness of space and you're in lunar orbit, you're right there, you're right on top of it and it's absolutely spectacular. In fact, you know, we set it up – the other crews had chores to do, clean up, housekeeping chores, after getting in lunar orbit. They'd always get behind because there's so much to do, but we set it up so that for the first two hours, we didn't have to do anything except look out the window and take pictures. And it's just marvellous. We'd seen the photos, and studied it, and seen the films from previous crews, but you don't... it's just like anything else.

It's like, you know, if you have only looked at photographs of mountains, then you finally go and actually see them. The magnitude of it, and the variety of the lunar surface. Having studied what you'd expect to see, it's just magnified when you get there and see familiar features because you've studied them. It's a great experience.

The descent is always the critical phase, and the co-ordination and the lunar module have to work exactly right, and the targeting has to be right, and the computer – all these things have to be 100 per cent, and we have to be 100 per cent, too, flying it. It's a very unforgiving situation so you have to be on your best game and the adrenalin is flowing. It all happens very, very quickly.

Our timeline was such that, after we landed, we either had to get out and do a full day's EVA [extra-vehicular activity], or we had to go to sleep. You're not going to go to sleep right after you land on the Moon, but at the same time, we couldn't do a full EVA, we'd already had a full day. So I'd suggested that we do what we call a "stand-up EVA" in which I would stick my head out the top hatch of the LEM [Lunar Excursion Module], pretty high, and survey the local area.

You take it for granted because you have so much to do, but after a while you realise that there's nobody else here on this whole planet. You're the only living things, and it's nice to have the comfort of the pristine environment and no obstructions or interruptions, other than the occasional call from the Cap-Com [mission control in Houston]. You get up the next morning, you turn the light on, and everybody's a little slow, waking up, and you open up one of the shades and look out. I said, "Jim, we're on the Moon". And we were.

One of the problems on the Moon is that there's nothing of familiar size – no trees, houses, roads – so it's very difficult to tell a large rock at a great distance from a smaller boulder nearby. You realise that you're standing next to rocks that have been there for 500 million years. You have three intense days, you don't have enough time to do all the things you'd like to do, and then, all of a sudden, you realise that it's over, you know. Your holiday is over. It's time to go home.

It was difficult when we got back because we needed a period of rest, and previous crews had been put in quarantine, which gave them a chance to recover. I tried to get us a quarantine period but the doctors and management said, no, we've done that and there aren't any bugs to worry about, so immediately, when we got back, we got thrown into society again. It was a tough – your neighbour wants to have a party the night you get home and, well, you can't say no.

People always ask, what was it like? It's hard to describe because you can't take them there, and that's why I think, in the future, you need an artist or poet or writer to go and express it for people in terms they can understand better. I think we should think about the Apollo programme as an advance of mankind into the universe, an adventure. It stretched us as far as we could stretch, figuratively and literally, and the technology at the time was barely good enough to make it out there and back safely. I think humans will go back to the Moon and on to Mars. I mean, Star Trek may not be too far fetched, who knows? But it'll be exciting to find out.

'In the Shadow of the Moon' opens in cinemas on 2 November. For more information, see www.intheshadowofthemoon.co.uk. Interview extracts courtesy of DOX Productions

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