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Thursday, February 22, 2024
Feb. 22, 2024

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Broken switch nearly stranded astronauts

Aldrin used a pen, quick thinking to leave the moon


Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were almost left on the moon — a little-known story rediscovered as the nation prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing.

Originally appearing in the July 30, 1969 edition of the Orlando Sentinel, the front page story had the headline, “2 Almost Left On Moon.”

The story said, “Lunar astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were in graver danger of being stranded on the moon than the public has been told,” and then extensively quoted “a ranking launch official.”

Here’s the rest of the story by then-Orlando Sentinel reporter Charlie Jean:

“There have been stories about what happened, but none delve into the extent of the emergency,” the official said. And because of that, a one-inch switch guard has become one of the most important considerations of the Apollo 12 lunar mission.

“It’s generally been reported that when Armstrong returned the lunar module after the moon walk, his backpack broke a circuit breaker switch,” said the source, an employee of North American Aviation who is one of the last to see Apollo astronauts before they are locked in their spacecraft.

“When that happened, it knocked out the normal ascent sequence firing program.”

Fortunately, Aldrin used a pen on the broken part of the switch to get it to work.

“But if he hadn’t been able to, that would have thrown the whole ball of wax over to the abort guidance sequence,” the story continued.

“And unless he could have activated it, there is no back-up for it — they would have had real problems. The only hope would have been the 16 little jets on the reaction control system.”

“A second problem cropped up in the ascent. The computer handling the normal ascent program erred, and the abort computer, trained to detect and override any such error, began fighting the first computer.

“Armstrong reprogramed the first computer, and the ascent continued without incident.

“But you can bet we will have a switch guard on that circuit breaker for Apollo 12,” the launch boss said.”

That was the end of the end of the Orlando Sentinel story from 1969.

In his book about the moon mission, Aldrin wrote more about how he used a felt-tipped pen to fix the broken circuit breaker:

“Since it was electrical, I decided not to put my finger in, or use anything that had metal on the end. I had a felt-tipped pen in the shoulder pocket of my suit that might do the job,” he wrote.

Fortunately, the historic Apollo 11 mission did not have a disastrous ending.