I was a space geek when I was a kid.
No, I mean it. A real, dyed in the wool space geek. Instead of sports figures on my wall, I had astronauts. Instead of posters I had photos of past space missions. I sent letters to NASA. I really, really wanted to be an astronaut.
Each launch prior to Apollo 11 was interesting, but irrelevent to me. Everyone knew they were practice for the big event, and although each was a marvel of scientific achievement on its own account, I was inevitably left unfulfilled on splash down.
Then came Apollo 11. The world shared in the joy of accomplishment, but for me it was special.
Because I was part of the NASA team.
What most people didn’t know was that back in 1969 there was a real concern by some scientists that the lunar dust would be so powdery that the lunar module would actually sink once it touched down. Potentially, the first landing on the moon could turn to horrible tragedy while millions of people watched.
Alerted to the problem by my grade school teacher, I felt I could help.
After some thought, I sent a letter to NASA with a solution to the problem. It was a concept brilliant in its simplicity, sure to garner the attention of the space agency’s top scientists. It would take some special equipment and additional thrust on take off, but the pure brilliance of the scheme was that it could be done with one of the already-scheduled pre-Apollo 11 missions, and with materials readily available. To further develop the idea, I included a schematic illustration with the letter. Although the original drawing has been lost (almost certainly locked away in one of NASA’s highest security vaults), I was able to re-create it. Now, for the first time ever viewed by non-scientists, here it is.
I know it can be confusing to look at scientific diagrams and formulas and such, especially for those of you who aren’t space experts like me, so through the magic of digital technology, I have animated the diagram to illustrate the plan.
Brilliant! All they had to do was drop a rock from the capsule while it orbited the moon and see what happened. If the rock sank out of sight, then so might the lunar module. If it didn’t, everything was a go. Eventually I received a letter thanking me for my idea, and even got a few more NASA photos. I was sure that there would be an official statement regarding a change in one of the upcoming missions.
I never heard an announcement, but I think that’s because they probably didn’t want to concern everyone who wasn’t in the know like I was. It would have to be our own little secret. (I’m guessing they dropped a rock on Apollo 8 or 10, but nobody’s talking.)
So on July 20th, 1969, the world celebrated the landing on the moon and the first man to walk on the lunar surface. I celebrated that they didn’t sink.
I know they were thinking about it, because one minute and ten seconds before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and spoke his immortal “giant leap” words, he said this: “I’m at the foot of the ladder. The LM footpads are only depressed in the surface about 1 or 2 inches, although the surface appears to be very, very fine grained, as you get close to it. It’s almost like a powder. (The) ground mass is very fine.”
Not many people picked up on that, but I did.
Maybe one day a future astronaut will stumble upon a partially submerged rock embedded in the lunar surface that appears to be from earth – not from space. It will create a media storm, and the world will wonder how it got there.
But not me and NASA – we’ll know.