Why NASA Nearly Left Astronauts On The Moon | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio
How did NASA almost lose two of its astronauts? Join us... and find out!

The Apollo 11 moon landings rank as one of the most iconic events in the twentieth century. But, behind the scenes, it wasn't all victory and celebration! In this video, Unveiled takes a closer look at how Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were almost stranded on the moon, never to make it home...

Why NASA Nearly Left Astronauts on the Moon

Between July 1969 and December 1972, NASA sent six Apollo missions to the moon. In total, twelve astronauts set foot on the lunar surface, before returning to Earth as heroes. But for all those missions, there was a constant threat lurking behind the scenes, too… that something could go wrong. And, in the case of Apollo 11 and the first moon landings, it very nearly did.

This is Unveiled, and today we’re exploring the extraordinary story of how NASA once almost left astronauts on the moon.

The Apollo 11 story is well known to anyone with even a passing interest in the history of space travel. While Michael Collins piloted a command module in lunar orbit, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin flew their lander, the Eagle, to what’s now known as Tranquillity Base on the lunar surface. The footage of Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon - taking samples, planting flags, and generally bouncing around in low gravity - easily ranks as one of the most iconic pieces of film in human history. And Apollo 11 goes down as a massive success.

Imagine, then, how the two astronauts must have felt upon returning to the Eagle, after becoming the first humans ever to walk anywhere that wasn’t Earth. Excitement, elation… maybe just extremely tired. In any event, they had surely earned the right to relax for a moment, to try and process everything they had just achieved. To let the momentous occasion sink in. But, in reality, the hours that followed weren’t especially relaxing… and were, in fact, very nearly life threatening.

There was a problem. As Armstrong and Aldrin prepared their vehicle to launch them off the moon and back to Collins and the command module, they noticed something amiss. In amongst the post-moonwalk commotion, one of the astronauts had accidentally snapped a power switch from the Eagle’s control panel. A switch, without which, the engine literally couldn’t start. And so, just a short time after they had secured their places in the annals of history, Armstrong and Aldrin were on the brink of genuine disaster. If the broken switch meant that the Eagle couldn’t fly again, then they’d be stranded on the moon forever, and would be remembered as much for their tragedy as for their triumph.

Although confirmed details about what happened next are mixed, Buzz Aldrin has given various interviews over the years to fill in some of the gaps. It’s said that mission control in Houston was, for a few hours, seriously concerned. That scientists and engineers were frantically trying to find a workable solution, all while Armstrong and Aldrin patiently waited it out, tried to get some sleep and, we can only imagine, firmly crossed their fingers. But, of course, we know that the Eagle did eventually fly again, and that Apollo 11 ultimately arrived back on Earth with most of the watching public totally unaware that anything had even threatened to go wrong. So, what happened? What was the fix?

In the end, it was simple… because although the switch itself had broken off, part of it was still visible inside the control panel, through a small hole. The astronauts couldn’t access it with their hands but, thankfully, Aldrin was carrying a felt tip pen which he could squeeze through the gap. A little wriggling here, a small adjustment there, and eventually he was able to flick the switch and set the engine going. Problem solved and disaster averted, much to everyone’s relief. Mission control wiped its brow, and the flight home continued as planned. Although it is a strange realisation that one of the greatest events in modern times at one point hinged entirely on stationary.

What makes the story even more incredible, though, is that in the years since Apollo 11, information has come to light about what the plan would have been had the moon landings in any way failed. It’s perhaps not surprising to learn that there was a protocol in place should disaster strike… but the details cut a very ominous tone.

Most of what we now know comes from one document, the “In Event of Moon Disaster” speech that was lined up for President Nixon to deliver (should the worst happen). It was written by the White House Chief of Staff at the time, William Safire, and was made public in the late 1990s. In it, Nixon will have given the dreadful news to the American public, and the watching world, that Armstrong and Aldrin would not be returning to Earth. It begins, “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace”, before relaying that the astronauts would’ve known that there was “no hope for their recovery”. So, we can see that without Aldrin’s felt tip pen, this may well have been the situation on Earth and inside the Eagle module in the time after the moonwalk. A moment of ultimate despair.

Toward the end of the speech, Nixon would have said that “others will follow, and surely find their way home” but that Armstrong and Aldrin were the first and would remain the foremost in our hearts. Somewhat hauntingly, the speech document then concludes with specific instructions relating to how Nixon would’ve phoned the astronauts’ widows beforehand, and also revealing what would’ve happened immediately after his address. The plan was for NASA, at that moment, to end communications with the Eagle module, and for a clergyman to deliver the Lord’s Prayer as part of a service similar to a burial at sea.

Thankfully, of course, none of this did happen. And while Nixon’s Moon Disaster speech has been subject to many a deepfake video before now, what actually transpired was the safe return of Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins. Eagle successfully rendezvoused with Columbia in lunar orbit, and Columbia successfully made it back to the Pacific Ocean - where it splashed down on July 24th, eight days after the mission had launched. There was still time for a couple of issues, including that Columbia was upside down in the water for the first ten minutes after its return… but the crew had had training enough to set it right. After that, they awaited recovery from the US Navy, went into quarantine for two and half weeks (to avoid the possibility of contaminating Earth with lunar pathogens), and then were welcomed back by millions with ticker tape parades and celebrations across America.

Today, the three men are known worldwide as intrepid, off-Earth explorers, and as pioneers for space travel. They would’ve been thought of in this way even had their mission failed but, fortunately, they could each spend the years after Apollo 11 recounting their experiences. And so many lessons were learnt from what they saw, what they did, what went right, and what went wrong. Apollo 11 helped to shape all of the Apollo missions that followed - five more of which also made it to the moon.

Specifically, though, none of the other missions suffered the same broken switch drama, because the landing modules were adapted and improved so that it couldn’t happen again. The piece that had broken off the console for Armstrong and Aldrin was swiftly boxed up in a protective outer casing… and felt tip pens were no longer necessary to ensure that it worked. But, still, it’s incredible to think what might have happened. To ponder how this victory could’ve turned into a catastrophe.

Today, we know that it was less than four years after Apollo 11 when NASA’s final lunar lander module departed the surface of the moon as part of the Apollo 17 mission. Since then, we haven’t been back… despite it at one time seeming as though the future of humanity was to follow in the footsteps of our astronauts. Nowadays, space agencies prefer to send machines into the great unknown rather than people, and safety is a big reason for that.

Ultimately, Armstrong and Aldrin’s time on the moon forms a magnificent chapter in the human story… but when just one broken switch can mean doom, it clearly wasn’t the safest venture we’ve ever undertaken. No one would say otherwise. The threat level was so high that the President had a speech on standby, to bear the bad news… to tell the public that their heroes had been stranded.

To the relief of everyone, that speech was never made. But that’s how NASA nearly left astronauts - the most famous astronauts it has ever produced - on the moon.