CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin undocked their lunar lander Eagle from the command module Columbia 50 years ago, they knew they were headed for an adventure. But several problems popped up that nearly kept them from landing on the moon.
"I remember almost every word said during the descent while we were in Mission Control,” recalled astronaut Charles Duke, who served as Mission Control's link to the crew during the landing. “There was a lot of tension because we were having a lot of problems."
The first problem -- as they were coming down at 3,000 miles per hour, their signal back to Earth kept cutting out.
Then, the computer kept sounding the same type of alarm. Calls of “1202 alarm” and then “1201 alarm” rang out across the radio.
The computer was overwhelmed, so they decided to ignore it.
“We’re go. Hang tight, we’re go,” Duke told the crew.
As they pressed on, the astronauts noticed the computer was steering them toward a boulder zone and the side of a crater. Armstrong had to take over manual control – just as he did during his perilous Gemini 8 mission – then look out the window and try to find a smooth place to land.
And that's when the fuel light came on because they were running on fumes.
“Houston was biting their nails at the time, because they’re counting down the seconds of fuel left for that engine that's hovering them for a landing site,” engineer Jim Ogle recalled.
The Eagle finally landed in a flat dusty field we call the Sea of Tranquility. Experts have estimated that Armstrong and Aldrin had only 17 seconds of fuel left.
“We copy you down, Eagle?” Duke tentatively radioed to the crew, who returned the famous declaration, “The Eagle has landed.”
“We copy you on the ground,” Duke responded. “You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue; we’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”
In Mission Control and in living rooms around the world, cheers broke out and even a few tears were shed.
“I probably came really close to crying during that time,” recovery engineer Milt Heflon remembered with a smile. “I don’t know, I probably did. I probably teared up.”