A few weeks ago — March 29th, I think — I re-shared the story about the Apollo 11 moon landing. We all know the basic story of Apollo 11 — Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (with Michael Collins, who remained in the command module and took the picture above) — became the first two people to walk on the moon. It went fantastically well; all three men were heralded as heroes when they arrived back on Earth. But that wasn’t a given; there was a very real chance that the mission would go awry. The story I shared — here, if you want to read it again — is about the backup plan, and specifically, the speech that President Nixon was prepared to give had Armstrong and Aldrin not been able to make it back to the command module. The speech, of course, was never used — the picture above shows them returning to Collins and the command module.
But until this week, I didn’t know that the pair came very close to being stranded. Normally, I’d have shared this story as a regular Now I Know — not a Weekender — but given that I just shared the “marooned on the moon” speech, I figured it’s a decent Weekender option. History.com covered it back in 2019, here, and it demonstrates that the pen is mightier than the sword:
Following the Apollo 11 historic July 20, 1969, moonwalk, Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were preparing to return to command from their lunar module when they discovered that a 1-inch engine arm circuit breaker switch had broken off the instrument panel.
[. . . ]
“The broken switch had snapped off from the engine-arm circuit breaker, the one vital breaker needed to send electrical power to the ascent engine that would lift Neil and me off the moon,” [Aldrin] writes [in his biography].”
The broken switch was reported to Mission Control, but after a fretful night trying to get some sleep, Houston had not figured out a solution the next morning.
“After examining it more closely, I thought that if I could find something in the LM to push into the circuit, it might hold,” Aldrin writes. “But since it was electrical, I decided not to put my finger in, or use anything that had metal on the end. I had a felt-tipped pen in the shoulder pocket of my suit that might do the job.
“After moving the countdown procedure up by a couple of hours in case it didn’t work, I inserted the pen into the small opening where the circuit breaker switch should have been, and pushed it in; sure enough, the circuit breaker held. We were going to get off the moon, after all. To this day I still have the broken circuit breaker switch and the felt-tipped pen I used to ignite our engines.”
History asked a NASA historian what would have happened had Aldrin not been able to fix the issue, and most likely, they would have been stuck. I had no idea. You may want to read the whole article linked above.
The Now I Know Week in Review
Monday: Why Soda Cans in Hawaii Look So Weird: It’s all about the economics.
Tuesday: Google… Sheep View?: This is about the Faroe Islands and their efforts to increase tourism. The day after I wrote this, a New York airport announced that it would provide the first-ever nonstop flights from the United States to the Faroe Islands. I get to take credit for this, right? Thanks to reader Tom for flagging the follow up for me.
Wednesday: The Epidemic That Saved Lives: Well, the false positives, at least.
Thursday: With Great Currency Comes Great Responsiblty: That’s not a typo. No, it is a typo, but it is not my typo. (I have plenty of my own.)
And some other things you should check out:
Some long reads for the weekend:
1) “How NYC’s Bakery Lines Became as Fierce as Streetwear Drops” (Eater, 8 minutes, April 2023). When I saw this headline, my first reaction was “oh, they’re going to talk about cronuts” (which are a croissant-donut hybrid from a decade ago). I won a box of cronuts that fall; I shared them with my officemates and it was a big deal at the time. But they weren’t anything special and I never ate another one. I remember the experience but not the food itself. Anyway, the article did not disappoint; if anything, it reinforced my experience. Here’s how the article starts: “nIn 2013, a friend and I decided to try our luck and see what all the Cronut hype was about. We arrived at Dominique Ansel in Soho at 7:30 a.m.: A decade later, I couldn’t tell you what flavor Cronut we had, but I do remember the roughly 40 customers in line, a handful of those who even brought folding chairs.” I agree 100%, except that cronut shouldn’t be capitalized; it’s not that special to warrant being treated as a proper noun.
2) “How the Armed Services Editions Created a Nation of Readers” (Literary Hub, 5 minutes, February 2023). I didn’t know this program existed during World War Ii. And I’ve always taken book ownership for granted, so this quote jumped out at me:
Before the war, access to novels was limited. Even if someone was lucky enough to have a bookseller in town, the cost was prohibitive to the vast majority of people who had just lived through the Great Depression.
3) “The $1 million shot that changed sports contests forever” (ESPN, 20 minutes, April 2023). This is the story of a regular guy who had a chance to take a “million-dollar shot” at a Chicago Bulls basketball game; he had to throw the ball into the basket from three-quarters of a court away. And he succeeded. Here’s the shot, if you want to see it, but the real story is what happened afterward.
Have a great weekend!