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Apollo 11's Momentous Landing Came Down to One Tough Call

This "cheat sheet" created by NASA flight controllers Jack Garman and Steve Bales show alarm codes for the Apollo lunar module, and what each code meant. Among the alarms listed are the 1201 and 1202 alarms that sounded during the final minutes of Apollo 11's descent.
This "cheat sheet" created by NASA flight controllers Jack Garman and Steve Bales show alarm codes for the Apollo lunar module, and what each code meant. Among the alarms listed are the 1201 and 1202 alarms that sounded during the final minutes of Apollo 11's descent.
(Image: © Courtesy Jack Garman as published in Go, Flight!: The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control by Rick Houston and Milt Heflin)

Steve Bales was just 26 years old when NASA's Apollo 11 mission touched down on the moon's surface, and to this day, he told Space.com, he remains astounded that somebody so young would be permitted to make a call that affected history.

Bales, then a guidance officer working on the landing in NASA's Mission Control, heard the call of a "1202" alarm from lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin as Eagle descended to the moon. Only seconds later came even more pressure, he said, when the notoriously laconic commander, Neil Armstrong, felt compelled to ask what was going on. 

"Give us a reading on the 1202 program alarm," Armstrong snapped from the spacecraft, which was roughly 240,000 miles (360,000 kilometers) from Earth. Armstrong was right to be concerned – it was the first human moon landing and everyone was worried about aborting the mission or crashing the spacecraft. 

Related: Apollo 11 at 50: A Complete Guide to the Historic Moon Landing

Only weeks before, the mission controllers had messed up in a simulation when they called an abort and it turned out that it wasn't necessary, according to NASA. After the bad sim, Bales asked his even younger deputy, Jack Garman, to draw up a "cheat sheet" list of abort codes and what they meant. Bales tucked his copy under a sheet of glass; Garman had his right in front of him during landing. 

So, it was Garman, sitting in a back room, who found the list more quickly and could tell Bales that a 1202 alarm was not a concern. The advisory meant that the computer was slightly overloaded, but did not indicate a risk of the spacecraft crashing. Garman told Bales, who told the flight director, and within moments the concerned Armstrong got his answer and proceeded with the landing process. After a few more similar error codes, Eagle touched down safely on the lunar surface.

There were many factors behind Eagle's successful landing, which took place 50 years ago this July, and among them Bales points to the team feeling in Houston's mission control. Flight director Gene Kranz had told his controllers, "When we walk out of this room, whatever happens, we're walking out as a team," Bales recalled Kranz said. That gave everyone the confidence and trust to rely on each other, instead of dissolving into finger-pointing and recriminations when complications arose, he said.

Bales spoke with Space.com in association with the Smithsonian Channel, which is airing original programming about the moon landings. The six-part "Apollo's Moon Shot" premiered June 16 and continues through July 21; "The Day We Walked On the Moon" premiered July 7 at 9 p.m. EDT.

"That was wild"

Bales worked on Apollo 12, and helped the guidance officer on Apollo 13, which experienced an explosion en route to the moon and had to abort, coming back to Earth. But Bales' focus quickly shifted to the Skylab space station, which encountered a series of its own problems. 

During launch on May 14, 1973, a micrometeoroid shield (which was supposed to act as a thermal blanket for Skylab and shield it from space debris) accidentally ripped open 63 seconds into the flight and tore away. The damaged space station survived and made it to orbit with one solar array missing and another solar array damaged.

Bales was there as NASA scrambled to save the space station from overheating. "We had to fly the crazy thing at a place we thought we'd never have to fly," he said, "so we wouldn't heat up the vehicle inside but [could] still get us enough sunlight on the [solar] wing. And also not use too much gas … that was wild." 

After weeks of effort, controllers eventually found an attitude that would keep the space station somewhat stable until a rescue crew arrived led by Apollo 12's Pete Conrad. Astronauts and mission controllers together solved the problem, allowing three crews to stay on board Skylab for months at a time.

Late in his NASA career, Bales was in charge of an office that monitored systems in the space shuttle. "I was lucky enough to see applications first" when deciding whom to hire for the division, Bales said. Among the people NASA brought aboard on his watch were Wayne Hale, who later became a flight director and the space shuttle's program manager, and Bill Gerstenmaier, who has held several senior spaceflight positions, including 15 years as NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations.

Bales left NASA in 1997, but he said he has been pleased to see mission controllers become more diverse, with more women and people of color stepping into the job. To him, he said, this shows that NASA is a place where just about anyone can work, because it takes on people with such different backgrounds. 

As for Apollo 11, Bales said he is glad nearly everyone living back then remembers where they were on that historic July 20, 1969. "It's one of the few times when the world was united and it was positive," he said. 

He still looks at the moon and wonders when we will go back, he said, but even if he doesn't live to see its successor, he's glad Apollo went.

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