June 2009

FIT 2009 at Le Mans and Le Bourget
Questions to James R. Hansen

Neil Armstrong biographer and aerospace historian

James Hansen is Professor of History at Auburn University in Alabama, USA. He has written numerous books on topics such as the history of aerodynamics in the US (a 5-volume series published by NASA entitled The Wind and Beyond), a biography of Neil Armstrong (First Man) and recently a tribute on the lost Space Shuttle Challenger (Truth, Lies and O’Rings). He was our guest for FIT 2009 at Le Mans and Le Bourget and a key player for the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo XI Moon Landing held in the Air & Space Museum of Paris-Le Bourget. In the aftermath of the forum Jim agreed to answer a few questions for our readers.

James R Hansen
James Hansen lors d'un exposé au Centre de recherche de la NASA de Langley, alors qu'il effectue pour l'agence fédérale des travaux d'investigation historiques à partir notamment d'archives officielles....

James Hansen, we are commemorating this summer the 40th anniversary of the first man on the Moon. Already 40 years we might say! As a man who lived during these years of frantic quest for the Moon, but also as an historian who has focused very much on the details of this complex topic, what are your thoughts about Apollo 11 and the world’s memory of it ?

James R. Hansen : The week of the first Moon landing was an extraordinary moment when the whole world came together as one. Even in the United States there was not so much the idea that ‘We Americans finally did it.’ Rather, it was “we did it.” We human beings felt like we did it as a species. For one fleeting moment as we watched two of us walk on that alien surface, all humankind felt drawn together as never before. Too bad that feeling could not be sustained. We could use some  of that feeling today.

James, could you remind us the state of the world as this extraordinary and extraordinarily brief piece of history unfolded ?

James R. Hansen : The first Moon landing happened during a very troubled time. The years in and around the summer of 1969 were plagued virtually worldwide by social unrest, wars, and major strife of one kind or another. In such a difficult and even malicious time, it is astonishing that one of humankind’s greatest achievements could have occurred. More likely, why didn’t the Apollo Moon landing program fail miserably, one might ask.

How many people were involved in the Apollo space programme? We heard that in the US at the time nearly everyone knew someone who was working for the programme or at least for a company involved in the programme...

James R. Hansen :
At its peak Apollo employed some 400,000 Americans in government, industry, and universities. Twenty thousand industrial firms were involved in a large or small way. My family lived in the Midwest (Indiana) and we knew no one who worked directly for the program. But we knew people who worked for industries like General Electric and Magnavox that were building components for the space program.

How does Apollo compare with the cost of such as the Manhattan Project during the 2d World War or the present Space Transportation System (STS) programme ?

James R. Hansen : Apollo cost $24 billion, which was well within the range of estimates given by NASA to President Kennedy ($20-$40 billion.) That’s some $170 billion in today’s dollars. So landing on the Moon was expensive, but it did not involve budget scandals or result in huge cost overruns. Interestingly, the U.S. Manhattan Project that developed the first atomic bomb  cost roughly the same amount : $20 billion. The total cost to the United States for World War II was much, much higher: approximately $3.3 trillion. The cost of just all the small arms materiel in World War II (not including ammunition) cost the same as the Apollo program: $24 billion.  U.S. bombs, mines, and grenades cost another $31.5 billion. All the tanks cost $64 billion. Going into space costs a lot of money, but the cost is nothing compared to fighting a world war.

Could we imagine today such an involvement, in term of technological dedication, manpower, budgets? Is a return to the Moon or Mars to lead to projects of the same size or shall they have to display narrower scales, with far more limited budgets, even if based on international cooperations ?

James R. Hansen:  Today, at $16.143 billion, NASA’s budget accounts for only 0.58% of the US federal budget. Even during the mid-1960s when Apollo spending was at its height, NASA spending never made up more than 5% of the federal budget. For every $1 the US federal government spends on NASA, it spends $98 on social programs. So in terms of money, the US could afford to spend the money on major human exploration programs to the Moon and Mars. It’s much more a question of political and social will than it is of money.  If NASA’s budget would again reach the 5% of the federal budget that it reached during the heady days of the Apollo program, the budget would be $139.2 billion instead of $16 billion. One can only imagine what the space agency could do—nationally or internationally—if it had that level of support. But that level of spending just isn’t in the cards—not unless some major external factor comes into play, like the threat of an asteroid hitting our planet.

To return to the Apollo Moon landings how does this journey compare with great discoveries of the past such as the discovery of America, reaching the North Pole, etc. Can we find common points and differences ?

James R. Hansen : In my view, Apollo was humankind’s greatest adventure of all time, because it meant leaving our home planet and venturing out into the dark, dark universe. The commonality is in our drive to explore and in our need to know, which is deeply ingrained in who we are. Our species has this wonderful combination of a pragmatic practical spirit and a love affair with the unknown. The Moon landings, I think, reflected that essential character of who we are, even in the midst of a machine, industrial age.

Forty years after the Apollo era, how different the world now seems to be! On a political, strategic, and sociological basis can this be summarized ?

James R. Hansen : You are asking very big questions! Indeed, the world has changed greatly in the past 40 years. As New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman has written, the world is now “flat,” meaning that the people of the world are connected like never before. The exponential technical advances of the digital revolution and the lowering of trade and political barriers have made it possible to do, not just business, but virtually anything, instantaneously with billions of other people across the planet. The world of the Apollo program was very different, no doubt. But, as I said earlier, even without this sort of technological connectedness, the Moon landing in July 1969 united the human family in fundamental, psychic ways that we do not feel today.

Does legend and myth such as the ancient Chinese story of a Moon princess and a rabbit, which were discussed during the Apollo 11 journey to the Moon, still play a part in our discussion of the Moon—at least as a subject for fun ?

James R. Hansen : Right, according to the legend, a princess swallowed some magic pills she wasn’t supposed to take and started to fly, not being able to stop until she landed on the Moon. Nothing was there to keep her company expect for a little jade rabbit. The princess never found a way back. Apollo 11 command module pilot Mike Collins made a charming reference to the Moon princess legend on the way out to the Moon. The Moon landings may have demythologized our concept of the Moon to some extent, but no matter how sophisticated we become scientifically and technologically, the human imagination and our inclination to fantasize will still be powerful. I fully expect that on our next trip to the Moon that there will be another reference to the Chinese Moon princess and her jade rabbit.

James, Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, is someone you know personally, as his authorized biographer. How is it that this enthusiastic young single-engine pilot from a small town (Wapakoneta) in rural Ohio Wakaponeta become the first man to step foot upon the Moon? And did this epochal event drastically changed Armstrong in any important ways ?

James R. Hansen : It took me over 600 pages in my book, First Man, to answer that question! The simplest way to explain it is to say that Neil’s passion for flight and his career in aeronautics and space moved along hand-in-hand with the evolution of flight technology in the 20th century, from subsonic to transonic to supersonic to hypersonic flight, and from piston-engine propeller-driven airplanes to jets and rockets. As for the Moon landing changing Neil, I can’t think of a person who would have been changed less by the experience. After Apollo 11, Neil was still Neil. Interestingly, the bright spotlight of being a global celebrity only accentuated his personality characteristics—his modesty, his desire to lead a normal life, his lack of ego. It’s amazing, but Neil somehow managed to remain Neil, true to who he what he always had been—and wanted to remain.

James, I would now like to ask you a series of questions as if you were Neil Armstrong. Do your best to answer them as if you were Neil. Here is the first of those questions: Even if you, Neil Armstrong, had proved your skills as a combat pilot and a research test pilot, including numerous test flights with the NACA and NASA in different machines such as the rocket-powered X-15 and the vexatious Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (LLTV), from which you ejected in 1968), you still had logged only one flight in space before being selected as commander of the first mission to try a moon landing.

James R. Hansen as Neil Armstrong : I wasn’t chosen to be first. I was just chosen to command that flight. Circumstance put me in that particular role as commander of the first landing mission. If the previous Apollo flights had not proven to be so successful in achieving their goals, then Apollo 11 would not even have been a landing mission. It would have been the first flight-test of the lunar module, in Earth orbit, which Apollo 9 accomplished, or the dress rehearsal of the Moon landing, done so well by Apollo 10. If either of those missions had required another effort, the first landing attempt would have backed up to Apollo 12 or even Apollo 13. Pete Conrad could easily have been the commander of the first landing mission and also the first man on the Moon. Apollo 11 being the first landing attempt was just how things worked out. So my being commander of the first landing mission was a matter of luck and timing more than anything else.

James / Neil: The first manned Apollo flight was Apollo 7 in October 1968. From Apollo 7 to Apollo 11, there were just 5 missions and 14 months! Wasn’t this an awfully short period of time and set of missions to guarantee the success of the first Moon landing? How was it known that the chosen astronauts could sustain such a long trip? Wouldn’t it have been a good idea to have had additional tests of the Apollo systems and techniques before actually trying a landing ?

James R. Hansen as Neil Armstrong : Remember our goal was to achieve President Kennedy’s commitment of landing on the Moon and returning safely “before the decade was out.” Also, the Apollo 1 fire of January 1967 delayed the program significantly, though the delay in the end was a key to the program’s ultimate success as it gave us months to not only fix the design of the spacecraft, but also rethink all our previous decisions, plans and strategies, and change a lot of things for the better. Remember also that the 10 flights of the Gemini program during 1965-66 had given us a lot of knowledge about long-duration spaceflight, orbital rendezvous and docking, and extravehicular activity (EVA). Project Gemini also allowed the agency to work out communications procedures with multiple craft and involved innumerable opportunities to increase the knowledge, experience, and confidence level of everyone throughout the program. Simply put, Apollo could not have worked out succcessfully without Gemini.Still, you are right. Apollo was a crash program and a lot of things had to get done very fast.

Part of Apollo’s success seems to have been the introduction and use of some advanced concepts of systems reliability. What was the calculated probability for Apollo 11 that it would manage to land on the Moon once the spacecraft was launched ?

James R. Hansen as Neil Armstrong : During the mid-1960s the Apollo Support Department of the General Electric Company in Florida conducted extensive mission reliability studies for NASA. These studies were based on very elaborate reliability models of all of the systems. A reliability profile over the course of a mission was generated by computer simulation, and a large number of such simulations were carried out for different scenarios. Based on those studies, the probability of our landing on the Moon and returning safely to Earth never dropped below 90%. A 10% potential for a failed mission did not necessarily mean catastrophe, however. Those statistics also took into consideration all the different scenarios requiring an abort. In my mind, as far as the likelihood that the landing would even be attempted, I always thought that the chances, even once we got out of Earth  orbit, were still no higher than  about 50/50. So many different things could go wrong to force an abort.

With all the tasks to be accomplished aboard the lunar module Eagle during the descent, and with all the computer warnings you and Buzz Aldrin experienced on the way down, how ready were you to abort on the way down? Then when you took over the controls manually for the final approach, were you thinking “I better just land it somewhere.” Was there ever a time you didn’t think you would make it down safely ?

James R. Hansen as Neil Armstrong : Once we were actually on the descent to the lunar surface, my inclination was just to keep going ahead as long as very thing looked like it was fine. There had never been an abort from this situation, and aborting at this point at rather low altitude would not have been a low-risk maneuver. I didn’t want to do that unless I was absolutely out of all other alternatives. So even when we had the computer program alarms, going ahead still looked like the very best thing to me. But I was listening to Mission Control because I had great respect for the information and help it could provide. When you get that close, why go put yourself intentionally in what was expected to be a dangerous situation—an abort—just because you had a warning light saying you might have a problem. 

Describe the last minutes before touchdown and the piloting challenges you faced...

James R. Hansen as Neil Armstrong : When the surface came fast approaching, the landmarks that I was looking there were not the ones that I had studied or remembered well enough to know just where they were, but I was pragmatic about it. I didn’t find it surprising or worrisome that we ended up some other place, a little long from what we intended. Anyway, it would have been surprising on the first try for a lunar landing if we had ended up anywhere very close to where we wanted to be. I didn’t count on that at all. From an objective point of view, I didn’t particularly care where we landed as long as it was a decent area that wasn’t dangerous. It didn’t make a lot of difference where it was. I thought we might just have to find somebody’s backyard to land in.  Initially, I felt that it might be a good landing area if we could stop just short of the crater I saw, because it would have more scientific value to be close to a large crater. The slope on the side of the big crater was substantial, however, and I didn’t think that we should be trying to land on a steep slope. Then I thought that I could probably avoid the big rocks in the boulder field, but, never having landed this craft before, I didn’t know how well I’d be able to maneuver in and between them to a particular landing point. Trying to get into a pretty tight spot probably wouldn’t be fun. Also the area was coming up quickly, and it soon became obvious that I could not stop short enough to find a safe landing spot; it was not the place where I wanted to be landing. Better to have a larger, more open area without the imminent danger on all sides. I might have been a little more aggressive about how fast I tried to get over the crater, but it didn’t seem prudent to be making any very large moves in terms of attitude. I just didn’t have enough flying experience in the machine in those conditions to know how well it was going to react and how comfortable I would be with it.

The engine of your lunar module Eagle was running well but the difficulty of flying the machine was augmented by the fact that the real behavior of the LM was mostly unknown to you and the other command pilots, What kind of other machines could the LEM compare in terms of landing behaviour ?

James R. Hansen as Neil Armstrong : It was almost totally unlike flying—or rather controlling—any sort of flying machine. Those who thought that a helicopter would make a good trainer were very wrong. The helicopter was not a good simulation of the lunar module control, not at all. Had it been, we probably would have configured a helicopter such that it could duplicate the landing—and that could have been done with a great deal less risk than flying the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV) or Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (LLTV). But we could never come up with anything that worked well. The natural requirements of helicopter aerodynamics precluded you from duplicating the LM’s characteristics. The helicopter was valuable to understand the trajectories, visual fields, and rates of motion. You could pretty precisely duplicate the flight paths that you wanted to take; it was just that the controls you were using to do that were not at all the same.

And your fuel supply? It was almost empty at landing ?

James R. Hansen as Neil Armstrong : There’s really no way to know much fuel was left. The fuel tank bottom was spherical, and it’s very difficult to have any kind of quantity measuring system in the bottom of a spherical surface. It’s very difficult to know how much was in there, particularly if the fluid was wandering around. The port was supposed to tell us at typical thrust settings when we would have about 30 seconds of fuel left. I don’t know how accurate that was; if there was sloshing, you wouldn’t know whether the light went on too early or too late. The important thing was that we were close enough to the surface that it didn’t really matter. We wouldn’t have lost our attitude control if we had run out of fuel. The engine would have quit but, from the distance we were at, we would have settled to the ground safely enough.

A few more personal questions now: When you and Buzz began closing out your EVA and were getting ready to leave the surface of the Moon, did you feel any regret for having to leave a place to which you would never return? Or were you too focused on the tasks preparatory for departure to have any personal feelings? Did the possibility of not being able to lift off and being stuck there ever enter your head? Or the possibility of being lost in space or crashing back down into the Moon ever come to mind ?

James R. Hansen as Neil Armstrong : Well, the latter were unpleasant things to think about, and I chose as much as possible not to think about them. I didn’t think that they were very likely situations. They were simply possible ones that, if they occurred, we would deal with when they came. As for regretting leaving the Moon as a place to which I would never return, I wasn’t sure that was even the case. At that point, I was still hoping to fly other missions, potentially back to the Moon again. Unfortunately, I did not get that chance.

Back to you alone now, James Hansen. How did Armstrong handle the return from the Moon and his entry into an iconic, celebrity status back on Earth? Why has Armstrong stayed away so much from the media ?

James R. Hansen : He tried his best to keep living life just as he had before—as an engineer, astronaut, and test pilot. Unfortunately neither NASA nor the public allowed him to live exactly the type of normal life he wanted. NASA did not want to risk the life of the great hero in another spaceflight, so Neil took a position administering the agency’s aeronautics programs. But circumstances did not allow Neil to do the job he thought he had been hired to do. Instead, he was asked to go over to the offices of congressmen and other notables, to have a picture taken or sign an autograph. Quickly he got tired of that, retired from NASA, and took a teaching post in engineering at the University of Cincinnati, back in his home state of Ohio. But he couldn’t lead the life of a normal college professor, either, and left that job in the late 1970s. The Moon landing didn’t change Neil; nothing could. He has always been too rooted in who he is—and what kind of lives he sees as worth living. His post-Apollo life has had some ups and downs for him personally, but the integrity of his character has never wavered.  And, for that, the world should be happy. We really shouldn’t want him any other way. That’s why I began my biography First Man with a quote from the American mythologist Joseph Campbell, “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.”  Without question, Neil has earned the privilege.

Words collected by Bertrand Villeret
Editor in chief

James R Hansen + Bertrand Villeret
James Hansen était en juin l’hôte du forum FIT 2009 (Forum Innovation Transports), sur le Campus Universitaire du  Mans et au Musée de l'Air et de l'Espace du Bourget, forum organisé par l'Association pour le Prix de l'Innovation (API) en collaboration avec ConsultingNewsLine et le cabinet Nodal Consultants

Site d'alunissage d'Eagle (Apollo 11)
Alors que le module lunaire "Eagle" survole à environ 20 km d'altitude la zone d'alunissage (Mer de la Tranquilité), une zone plate basaltique ne comportant que peu de montagnes ou de cratères éruptifs mais seulement des cratères d'impacts météoritiques, laquelle zone est encore sur cette image au niveau du "Terminator" (cette zone de séparation entre le jour et la nuit, d'où des ombres très longues qui attestent aussi bien du soleil rasant que de la forte rotonditée du petit satelllte terrestre), l'équipage se prépare à la descente finale qui durera une douzaine de minutes seulement. Lors de la prochaine révolution les astronautes alumeront leur moteur de freinage et seront sur le sol lunaire pour une "Première" qui restera gravée à jamais dans la poussière sélénite comme dans le coeur des humains...

 First ManEcrite par James Hansen, "First Man" est la biographie officielle de Neil Armstrong. Parue pour sa première édition en 2005 chez Simon & Shuster elle restera 3 semaines durant "Top of the Charts" de la très prisée New York Times Book Review et de ses fameux New York Times "Best Sellers".

Peu sensible aux vibrations, embaumé dans son caisson métallique à l'abris de l'humidité, des fluctuations thermiques, des parasites électromagnétiques comme des redoutables radiations du "Vent Solaire", l'ordinateur d'Apollo XI, fabriqué par Raytheon, fût installé en deux exemplaires, l'un sur le module de commande "Columbia", l'autre sur le module lunaire "Eagle" de la Mission Apollo XI.
L'unité installée sur Comumbia (module exposé au Smithsonian Institute de Washington) est la seule à avoir survécu au périple inaugural.


L'ordinateur Raytheon d'Apollo XI 'est aujourd'hui certainement la pièce de collection majeure de l'ensemble du programme Apollo. Au dela de son incroyable "blindage" (suscité), il peut être observé que dès 1969 (il y a donc 40 ans) il était déjà pourvu d'écrans électroluminescents et de touches sensitives (propres au téléphones portables d'aujourd'hui).... Il devait montrer des faiblesses de mémoire vive lors du premier alunissage mais démontrait toute sa fiabilité lors d'Apollo XIII après qu'il ait été arrêté plusieurs jours durant sans alimentation, et ce à une température assez proche de celle du milieu interstellaire. Son "rallumage" le "troisième jour" restera un grand moment de l'histoire technologique.... Sans lui, l'approche lunaire d'Apollo XI n'aurait pas été possible de même que le retour "sains et saufs" sur Terre des naufragés d'Apollo XIII.

Cratère courte finale
Dans moins de 30 secondes le module lunaire "Eagle" devra se poser sur la Lune faute de carburant... L'ordinateur saturé risquant de "rebouter" à tout moment, Neil Armstrong a pris le contrôle du module lunaire en "manuel". Il va lui falloir pourtant jouer au dernier moment avec ce cratère qui se présente et qui pourrait bien engloutir tous ses espoirs... Dans le doute et avec parcimonie dans le geste il préfère passer doucement au dessus. Dans quelques secondes Eagle va irrémédiablement se poser... et dans quelques heures Neil Armstrong viendra à pieds  photographier "son" cratère. Le respectueux réflexe d'un aviateur qui s'est posé dans le champ d'à côté...

First Step
Dans la nuit (américaine) du 20 juillet 1969 (21 pour les Européens) Neil Armstrong dans l'ombre du module lunaire descend un à un les échelons de l'échelle placée sur le train d'atterisage avant (à l'Ouest) du module lunaire, échelons quivont l'amener au pieds du vaisseau spatial pour accomplir son  "Premier pas de l'Homme sur la Lune"... A small step for (a) Man, a Giant leap for Mankind.; Un petit pas pour l'Homme, un grand pas pour l'Humanité... Le module lunaire qui s'est posé face à l'ouest avec le soleil dans le dos place les astronautes au tout début  du jour lunaire (14 jours terrestres)... avec donc une marge de manoeuvre temporelle considérable. Leurs faibles réserves d'oxygène et d'énergie les obligeront toutefois  à repartir quelques heures plus tard...

James R Hansen + Neil Armstrong
James Hansen et Neil Armstrong dans l'aval de la rédaction de la biographie du premier Homme à avoir foulé le sol d'une autre planète, la Lune... Neil Armstrong, James Hansen,  deux jardiniers dans leur jardin des merrveilles...

Pour info :

Whoswoo :

James R. Hansen

Images :
FIT 2009 at Le Mans and Le Bourget :
Copyright B. Villeret, Quantorg 2009
James Hansen et Neil Armstrong :
Private  collection of James R. Hansen, Copyright James R. Hansen
Apollo programme pictures : source NASA, Copyright NASA

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James R. Hansen & Neil Armstrong
James Hansen & Neil Armstrong