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A Team Story

“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” —Henry Ford

One story of a team going into truly uncharted territory and prevailing despite great challenges is that of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. The Apollo 11 crew, led by Mission Commander Neil Armstrong, Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Command Module Pilot Michael Collins, had some challenges that could easily have stopped the successful moon landing of July 20, 1969, or perhaps their safe return. It took many people to make this first moon landing possible; from the vision of John Kennedy saying famously, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” to the scientists who created the instrumentation, the suits they wore, the spacecraft, and the propulsion engines, the flight directors who guided their mission from earth, and the backup crew, there were many people on the Apollo 11 team besides the three astronauts.

From televisions across the globe and from the launch site itself in Florida, millions of spectators watched the launch of the Saturn V carrying the Apollo 11 on July 16. On July 19, the Apollo 11 was ready to make its historic descent to the moon’s surface from orbit. From mission control they were given the go-ahead for the descent. Right at the time the engines started they lost data communications, which then picked back up. Two minutes into the descent, Armstrong noticed they were off course. He said, “We’re gonna be a little long” and noted that they were off of their targeted landing site. Then the alarms started—codes being sent to the computer at mission control. The computer was overloaded with radar information from two sources and it couldn’t process all of the data. During simulations, alarms had resulted in aborting the mission. They did a software restart. Armstrong and Aldrin took over in a “semi-manual” landing, where they maneuvered the spacecraft. The automatic system was controlling the throttle and Armstrong commanded the altitude of the craft in order to scoot along the moon’s surface and find a boulder-free place to land. THEN the fuel light went on. They had been using extra fuel in finding a new landing site. They only had one hundred and twenty seconds of margin. The crew at mission control was glued to their monitors. When Armstrong came on the audio and said, “The Eagle has landed,” the ground crew burst into applause and cheers.

After landing on the moon, preparation to leave the capsule took over two hours. Some of the highest heart rates recorded from the astronauts were during entry and exit, and wouldn’t you know it, they forgot to change the design of the life support backpacks when they made the hatch smaller—oops! Squeezing through the hatch was an ordeal, but they got through, posed on the moon for photographs, and set up a television transmission before beginning the hard work of gathering samples in low gravity. After this momentous first walk on another world, the tired astronauts climbed back into the hatch, tossed out many of their heavier items, and Aldrin,  moving about the cabin, accidentally broke the circuit breaker that armed the main engine for liftoff. At first, they thought they might not be able to arm the engine. Using a felt-tip pen, they were able to activate the switch. After seven hours of much-needed sleep, they launched the Eagle and got back to the Saturn V, returning home to earth.

How did the astronauts deal with the tremendous stressors and unknowns? First, they accepted each reality as it happened and focused on what to do next. They viewed every challenge as temporary, as one more opportunity to succeed. They had strong relationships of trust with their ground crew and each other, and they never broke down into blaming and arguing; they acted as a unit and achieved greatness together. The three astronauts had all the hallmarks of facing their situation with Unfear.

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