Fifty years ago, two men walked on the moon and proved human beings are capable of just about anything.
“It was a huge deal,” recalls central Alberta author Sigmund Brouwer, who was 10 years old at the time of the Apollo 11 moon mission.
He remembers being glued to the television set on July 20, 1969, as his family and millions of others around the globe watched history being made by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.
Brouwer recalls the thrilling 3-2-1 countdown, the spectacular blast off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and later, the grainy black and white images from far, far away.
The now 60-year-old admits the spectacle of the Apollo 11 moon landing didn’t change his goals in life — as a kid, he still aimed to be a hockey-playing superstar — but it made an indelible impression.
“It was mind blowing,” said the award-winning author of Deadman’s Switch, Thief of Glory and nearly 100 other titles.
Brouwer hopes to expand more young minds through his retelling of this monumental journey in his first non-fiction book for youths, Moon Mission: The Epic 400-Year Journey to Apollo 11.
After six months of research, he remains struck by how hard it was hit a moving target some 400,000 kilometres away when NASA computers had less capacity than our average smartphones.
“It’s like somebody throwing an orange 50 kilometres down the road, and your job is to hit it with a bullet,” said Brouwer.
To plan the trajectory, NASA scientists had to use “human computer” Katherine Johnson.
Brouwer discovered that calculations done by this African-American mathematician (featured in the film Hidden Figures) were more trusted by some astronauts than the numbers spit out by a computer.
Yet surprises inevitably arose in the Apollo 11 mission.
Brouwer said one of the most hair-raising moments was the landing of the lunar module, the Eagle, on the moon. Astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin were coming down too fast and were at the very end of their fuel supply for landing. They overshot the planned touchdown site.
Brouwer said Aldrin had to quickly jump in and manually steer to avoid hitting giant boulders that might have killed them.
The author was surprised by how many times the astronauts — including the more unsung Michael Collins, who piloted the orbiting ship Columbia — closely avoided disaster.
For instance, once Armstrong was done taking his giant step for mankind and gathering lunar rocks, he and Aldrin were to lift off from the moon in the Eagle and reconnect with the orbiting Columbia to return to Earth.
Of all things that could go wrong, the handle of a circuit breaker for the one-and-only switch needed for lift off in the Eagle had broken off. This meant their small window of opportunity to reconnect with the mother ship was slipping away, said Brouwer.
Aldrin seized a felt-tipped pen and jammed it into the space left by the broken part — and the rockets fired. He and Armstrong lived to eventually splash down in the Pacific Ocean.
Brouwer was fascinated to recount the 400-year history behind the lunar landing. It stretches back to Galileo and encompasses a German scientist who disobeyed Hitler’s orders and joined the American efforts to travel to outer space.
The author said he tried to highlight in his book how Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins made their journey to the moon with the help of thousands of people — both at NASA and in the global scientific community.
Readers will discover a Canadian invention — the insect-like legs of the Eagle module — was the first man-made object to touch the lunar surface.
“I’d like to leave people with a sense of wonder and amazement that we were able to accomplish this,” adds Brouwer.
As for the conspiracy theorists who doubt the moon landing happened, the author has a chapter dispelling these myths.
Brouwer said a mirror was left on the moon. Those who know its co-ordinates can aim a laser at it and see light reflected back to Earth.
With this mirror, scientists learned the moon is gradually moving away from the Earth at about eight centimetres a year — or “about the same rate that your fingernails grow,” said Brouwer.
His Moon Mission book is available through Chapters and online booksellers.