Nonfiction chapter book for grades 6–9
Chapter One: Lift Off
The three astronauts lay on their backs in the command module of the Apollo 11 spacecraft, their boots locked in titanium clamps above their heads. Their upper bodies were strapped tight against the couches. Inside their bulky spacesuits, they could barely lift their arms—though now it did not matter much.
Inside the capsule the size of a walk-in closet, the men were perched on top of the most powerful rocket in the world. As tall as a 36-story building, the Saturn V rocket packed as much power as a small nuclear weapon.
For months, the men had endured exhausting training. For almost a decade, 400,000 people had worked toward this moment. Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins were about to blast off to the moon. The day, July 16, 1969, marked the beginning of what former President John Kennedy had called “the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”1
The men had awakened at 4:15 that morning in the dormitory rooms of the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building near Cape Canaveral, Florida. After a brief medical exam, they ate their quick breakfast of steak, eggs, toast, coffee, and juice.
At 5:30 a.m., they began the hour-long process of suiting up. With the help of “suit techs,” they struggled into their stiff, white pressure suits. The suits were an essential safety precaution. If anything went wrong during liftoff, the suit was like its own mini-spacecraft, protecting the astronaut against the extreme hazards of outer space. Next, a fishbowl-like bubble helmet was screwed into a metal ring on the suit’s collar. Now the men could only communicate through the radio headsets in their helmets.
After suiting up, Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins made their way to the transfer van that would carry them to Launch Complex 39’s Pad A. They walked down a corridor where their friends and family had gathered to see them off. Through their soundproof helmets, the men watched the silent commotion. They hugged their families and waved their final, wordless goodbyes.
At 6:52 a.m., they arrived at the launch pad. They took a 32-second elevator ride to the top of the launch tower, a red structure attached to the rocket by several long, metal arms.
The astronauts met the “close out” team for one last inspection in the tent-like “white room” by the hatch of the command module. Then it was time to board. They squeezed into their positions inside the spacecraft. The hatch was sealed. The last technicians cleared the area. Now the astronauts were the only people within three miles (5 km) of the launch pad. At the Launch Control Center, panel lights blinked on—green for go.
So much was at stake. Just two-and-a-half years earlier, three astronauts had died during a trial run of this very mission. The rocket depended on the perfect working order of millions of parts—and often with split-second timing. Technicians had run through a checklist 30,000 pages long in preparation for this flight.
“The launch is the time when you are more conscious than any other time of your dependence on machinery,” Collins later wrote. “You worry mightily that the rocket is going to veer off course or stop or explode . . .”2 Were the astronauts safe?
The time was 9:27 a.m.—five minutes until liftoff. Below, at a viewing grandstand, along the beaches and in stopped cars on the highway, one million people had gathered to watch the rocket launch. Millions more watched around the world on television. Some of the people gathered at the Cape had come to protest the launch. Today, most Americans look back at the first moon landing as one of their country’s proudest moments. In 1969, however, when social problems and the Vietnam War troubled the nation, many wondered if the billions of dollars spent on going to the moon would be better spent elsewhere. Would they be proven right?
And, most importantly, what about the Soviets? The Soviet Union (now Russia) was the United States’ most feared enemy. The two nations were engaged in the Cold War. Instead of waging real war, each tried to intimidate the other through shows of superior military and technological power. In 1957, the Soviets had stunned the world by sending the first satellites to outer space. Since then, the United States had been trying to catch up in what came to be called the “space race.”
Achieving more “firsts” in space was a constant spur behind the entire moon program. What could be a better show of power than landing an expedition on the moon? At the same time, what could be more disastrous than trying and failing in front of the whole world? In 1969, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was still a new program. Could the young NASA survive such a public-relations fiasco?
The astronauts themselves could not afford to contemplate such worries. They appeared confident, though, as Armstrong would later remark,
We were certainly not overconfident. In . . . exploration, the unexpected is always expected. . . . On the morning of July 16, 1969, we knew that hundreds of thousands of Americans had given their best effort to give us this chance. Now it was time for us to give our best.3
The countdown rang out at the grandstand and inside the helmets of the men.
T minus twelve . . . eleven . . . ten
At “T minus nine”—nine seconds left—fireballs shot out of the engines and into the fire trench below. An enormous gush of water flooded the fire, creating billowing white clouds of smoke as temperatures reached 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit (1,000° C). Shards of ice cascaded off the rocket—frozen condensation vibrating off the supercooled tanks of liquid oxygen fuel. Everyone within 10 miles (16 km) felt the rocket rumble. At the grandstand, viewers gasped for breath as the sonic roar shook their lungs and grabbed their stomachs.
Aboard Apollo 11, the men heard only a distant roar through their helmets. But they felt the force of the rocket shake them so hard, they could no longer see clearly. The buttons and lights on the control panel were all a blur.
Six . . . five . . . four
The rocket had come to life—a spitting, shaking, fire-breathing beast, ready to rip into the sky. But the creature needed 7.7 million pounds (3.5 million kg) of thrust, or force, to power it into space against the pull of Earth’s gravity. As the rocket approached full thrust, four arms from the red launch tower pinned it to the ground.
Three . . . two . . . one . . . zero.
Explosives fired and released the arms.
Then the rocket rose, at first just slightly above the launch pad. For a full ten seconds, it slowly climbed the height of the launch tower. Just seconds later, though, the rocket was flying at a rate of 6 miles (10 km) per second. The rocket shot through the sky, a stream of fire trailing behind it. The 240,000-mile (386,000-km) journey to the moon was off to a flawless start.
1. John F. Kennedy. “Moon Speech—Rice Stadium, September 12, 1962.” Johnson Space Center. 8 Dec. 2006 <http://wwwI.jsc.nasa.gov/er/seh/ricetalk.htm>.
2. Harry Hurt III. For All Mankind. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988. 48.
3. Edgar M. Cortright, ed. Apollo Expeditions to the Moon. Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1975. 203.