Neil Armstrong's Apollo 11 Close Call

Posted on Fri, July 19, 2019
  • by: Andrew Frisicano, Smithsonian Channel

This guest blog from our friends at Smithsonian Channel explores one of the stories featured in their new documentary series Apollo's Moon Shot.

July 20 marks the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s lunar landing, but the journey to the Moon started long before the summer of 1969. Apollo’s Moon Shot, a new series on Smithsonian Channel and featuring curator and artifacts from the National Air and Space Museum, traces the events following President Kennedy’s momentous 1961 declaration that the U.S. would land a man on the Moon, and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade.

In the years leading up to Apollo 11, astronauts went through rigorous training—and in some cases, those exercises were just as dangerous as the missions themselves. On May 6, 1968, astronaut Neil Armstrong had a close call while flying a test module called Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV) at Ellington Air Force Base near Houston, Texas. Armstrong, a longtime test pilot who had flown the LLRV more than 20 times before, lost control of the vehicle due to a mechanical malfunction. As it veered wildly off course, Armstrong launched himself free seconds before catastrophe, hitting the ejector 200 feet above ground and parachuting down.


Astronaut Neil Armstrong flying LLRV-1 at Ellington AFB shortly before the crash (left) and ejecting from the vehicle just seconds before it crashed (right).

A closer look at the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle tells the story of how dangerous training could be and how essential it was for space missions to succeed. The test vehicles, referred to by astronauts as “flying bedsteads,”were designed to replicate the 1⁄6 Earth gravity of the Moon. Armstrong later called the LLRV and its successor, the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle, “a contrary machine, and a risky machine, but a very useful one.” And the risk paid off. On July 20, 1969, Armstrong piloted its space-worthy counterpart successfully to the Moon’s surface, saying “[the lunar module] was easier to fly than the simulator, because we were expecting something that was somewhat more cantankerous and contrary than it actually turned out to be.”

The landing wasn’t the only thing the Apollo 11 astronauts trained on obsessively—they practiced everything from planting the iconic American flag on the Moon’s surface to wilderness survival skills in case their return to Earth missed its mark—but successfully piloting the lunar module was one of the hardest things to get right. Because of the complexity of the flight and the fact that the equipment had never been tested in space, Armstrong later called the landing itself “the most difficult part from my perspective, and the one that gave me the most pause.”

The accident itself didn’t give Armstrong much pause, though. The astronaut, having just ejected next to a fiery wreck, went back to his desk to finish out the day. He would go on to fly dozens more test landings, which he credited with the success of the mission.

The series finale of Apollo’s Moon Shot premieres Sunday, July 21 at 8pm ET/PT. And to catch all six episodes in a row, tune in on Saturday August 10 at 5pm ET/PT for our full series marathon.

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