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Kris Overstreet

Convention vendor, compulsive writer. I have a Patreon for monthly bills and a KoFi for tips.

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First on the Moon, or How Important 0.5 Seconds Can Be · 6:29am Jan 3rd, 2017

OK, so you may have noticed that in Chapter 10, the most recently released brick o' text, George Cowley proposed a Mission Twelve which could test a powered landing on Equus, on the premise that the skill was absolutely necessary for the future moon landing. The proposal was killed with extreme vehemence by Cherry Berry and Chrysalis because it was too dangerous, even on paper, to consider.

This wasn't just inspired by Kerbal Space Program game play, though I have struggled mightily to successfully land an otherwise capable Mun/Minmus lander on Kerbin. This was inspired by real life.

First, an explanation.

At the start of the Apollo program, Deke Slayton, the former Mercury 7 astronaut who became head of flight personnel after being removed from flight status, began selecting crews for various Apollo missions based on what their expected tasks would be. From most accounts, Slayton had Neil Armstrong in mind as a candidate for the first actual moon landing attempt from the start, and when the time came to name the crew for Apollo 11 Armstrong had become the top pick.

There are two reasons for this. The first reason is Gemini 8. Although the mission ended in an abort with most of the mission goals unachieved, it could very easily have ended in two astronaut deaths. Armstrong impressed everyone in the astronaut corps, including Slayton, with his cool response to the thruster malfunction that forced the mission abort and could have left the crew stranded in orbit or dead from centripetal forces from an uncontrolled roll. Gemini 8 proved that Armstrong had excellent judgment and coolness under dire circumstances.

The second reason is the LLTV- the Lunar Lander Training Vehicle, better known among space geeks as the Flying Bedstead.

The LLTV was one of the most dangerous and nigh-uncontrollable aircraft ever devised by the mad minds of engineers. It could only fly in almost totally still weather. It had no wings or control surfaces of any kind- just a massive central turbofan to provide lifting thrust and smaller thrusters for attitude control similar to those on the lunar module. The idea was that pilots would take the craft up to a certain height, then reduce the central engine to simulate lunar gravity, and use the smaller thrusters to practice landing the lunar module. Armstrong himself was one of the lead developers of the trainer and, by the time he was named commander of Apollo 11, he had logged more flight time in the Flying Bedstead than almost all the other astronauts combined.

And it nearly got him killed.

About six months before he was officially named to Apollo 11, Armstrong took the LLTV up for yet another training flight. One of the thrusters malfunctioned. Armstrong struggled to right the craft, and for several seconds he managed to keep it under control, but in the end he was forced to bail out. When he ejected the LLTV was almost standing on its end, in the process of flipping over and crashing to the ground upside-down. Armstrong's ejection seat parachute opened just barely in time to allow him to hit the ground safely.

The investigation which followed established that Armstrong had ejected with only four-tenths of a second to spare. Any later than that and the ejection seat would have fired him into the ground at speed, allowing no time for the parachute to deploy- and this presumed he got out of the way of the falling LLTV. Armstrong, in short, had fought to bring in the craft until beyond the last possible instant.

And, from all reports, he walked calmly away, went to his NASA office, and went about his normal business.

Neil Armstrong's sphinx-like silence and lack of reaction was legendary among the other astronauts. There was always a distance between him and the rest of the world that made it impossible for anyone else to even find the actual man, never mind understand him. But the astronaut corps understood one thing for certain: the man would never, ever panic.

But what if Armstrong had misjudged the time to bail out? It's not impossible. During the actual Apollo 11 landing, when the LEM Eagle overshot its target landing zone and flew over a boulder field and crater too dangerous to land in, Armstrong kept the ship aloft looking for a landing spot to the point that it's doubtful he could have aborted the landing if no good landing spot were available. (Eagle's descent stage had only fourteen seconds' worth of fuel at hover thrust- or about five seconds at full throttle- remaining in the tanks at landing.)

Who would have taken Armstrong's place six months later, when Apollo 11's crew was named? The tradition of giving backup crews a flight three missions later wasn't set in stone. Mike Collins might have been promoted to commander, or not. Slayton's preferred choices for the first man on the moon weren't available: Shepard was still fighting to be returned to flight status, Gus Grissom had died tragically in the Apollo 1 accident, and Frank Borman had announced his intention to leave the astronaut corps. Pete Conrad, the other main contender, was the backup crew commander for Apollo 9 and not available.

One fascinating possibility here is Jim Lovell.

Lovell, at the end of Apollo 8, had flown more hours and more distance than any other man in the short history of spaceflight. He had two Gemini missions under his belt (including command of Gemini 12, which proved he could work well with the difficult personality of Buzz Aldrin). He had a record as an excellent pilot with a cool head, an excellent work ethic, and an easygoing nature. We'll never know for certain, but it's not beyond the realm of possibility to imagine that his seniority of experience could have got him a much earlier berth than expected.

One tidbit gives even more credence to this: according to Armstrong's memoirs, Slayton offered Armstrong the opportunity to ditch Aldrin and take Lovell instead. Lovell would, in that case, have been command module pilot, and Michael Collins would have been lunar module pilot. Armstrong declined the offer because he had no problems with Aldrin and because he believed Lovell should be allowed to command his own Apollo flight. As a result, Apollo 11's prime crew became Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, while their backup crew would be Lovell, Fred Haise, and Ken Mattingly. For more on them (and Jack Swigert), look up Apollo 13 and Apollo 16.

Jim Lovell occupies an anomalous position in spaceflight history. He is one of three people (Eugene Cernan and John Young being the other two) who flew to the moon twice. He is the only one of the three who never actually set foot on the moon. If Armstrong had died, would Lovell's destiny with Apollo 13 be averted, and he be given the chance to walk on the moon?

Of course, it's possible that Lovell wouldn't take the same risks Armstrong did. He might have aborted the landing... or not. Lovell was a Navy pilot who performed nighttime carrier landings before becoming a test pilot, so he might have gone just as close to the edge of the envelope as Armstrong. Also, it's possible that whoever commanded Apollo 13 instead of Lovell might not have performed as well as he did in that dire emergency. The number of deaths required to change history enough to get Lovell onto Apollo 11 is not necessarily limited to one.

But the possibility is there- that the first man on the moon might have been Mike Collins, or Jim Lovell, or Apollo 12's Pete Conrad, instead of Neil Armstrong.

And the difference was only half a second of judgment and reflexes.

The Changeling Space Program is lucky it's part of a Sugarbowl World, and not just because of all the shortcuts it takes. Spaceflight is a dangerous and deadly business even if you do everything right.

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Comments ( 8 )

The LLTV was a nightmare of a machine. One of the guys I work with actually witnessed the crash involving Armstrong and he said he was terrified of that man because of how calm he was.

...because it was too dangerous, even on paper, to consider.

Chrysalis came around the corner of the hallway to see Cherry Berry, or at least a pony who looked like Cherry Berry, reaching around a doorway with a long stick. The stick was easy to identify, because it was a stick, but the pony, less so. Normally, the colorful creatures would be easy to pick out by the color code and the convenient label on their rump, but this one was totally wrapped in padding, wearing a helmet, and had some sort of plexiglass plate propped up in front of her as a shield.

She did not want to ask the question, but she had to, even though all Chrysalis wanted to do was turn around and pretend she didn't see anything.

"What are you doing?"

"Reading a fuel mixture chemical breakdown of lithium-borohydride in hydrazine sent to us from the Cabinet Secretary in Canterlot," hissed the pony in a voice that sounded a lot like Cherry. "it's the only way we'd get Stack 17 off the pad and to the moon, but it's very dang--"

Whatever she was going to say next was blotted out by a titanic explosion that filled the hallway with smoke and knocked Chrysilis backwards, not really from the blast but from the blastee, as Cherry still had substantial V upon impact, but the padding prevented any serious damage to either of them.

Once all the coughing and counting of limbs was complete, Chrysalis fixed the now unpadded pilot with a fierce glower. "Cabinet Secretary?"

Cherry nodded.

"Ye gads." Chrysalis shook her head. "I'd hate to see what your munitions experts are up to."

I'd never heard about that incident until now. I am more than a little freaked out by Armstrong.

4367190 Armstrong's most memorable quote about the crash is: "It's always a sad day when you lose a machine."

I get the impression that Armstrong had a better emotional connection to aircraft than to human beings.

(But that's not all bad; that disconnect let him work with Buzz Aldrin, who, despite being the world's leading expert on orbital dynamics and thus indispensable to the success of Gemini 12, only got into the Gemini flight circulation in the first place by dint of being the substitute substitute for Gemini 9... because he was an overbearing know-it-all with even less people skills than Armstrong. Seriously, most of the astronaut corps disliked "Dr. Rendezvous" because he would not shut up about whatever priority was in his head on a particular day and would attempt to forcibly convert others to his way of thinking until they fled. The most infuriating thing was, Aldrin was always, always proven right... which didn't make him any more popular. Aldrin was the man you needed to get to the moon, but you didn't want to be locked up in a minibus with him and one other guy for the eight days it took to get there and back.)

I have the mental image of Armstrong walking away from the explosion. "I've got paperwork to fill out."

I've heard that Aldrin was and still can be difficult to work with. Now Armstrong, while I've heard he was somewhat difficult too, was no where near the trouble that Aldrin was. And I know that it's not uncommon for guys to get more comfortable with machines than people. Hell, I'm one of them. I'm far better at understanding an airplane than a person.

4368060 Armstrong's form of "difficult to work with" wasn't so much "piss people off" (what Aldrin did/does) as "creep people out." He was extremely private and introverted. According to the book "Rocket Men," Armstrong had a habit of acting like he wasn't really paying attention when you were speaking and of outright ignoring questions. He said nothing unless he was certain of what he wanted to say (or unless he was in a situation where silence wasn't an option). You couldn't tell if his attention was with you or if he was somewhere in the inner world of his own mind.

One anecdote claims that his brother once said that, if you asked him a question, Neil would answer in some way that you wouldn't know if he was answering your question or someone else's... and then Neil's son corrected him, saying, "Nah, you got it wrong; Dad just wouldn't answer at all." Said son was eleven at the time.

Of course, among the astronaut corps, all of whom were just as comfortable working a slide rule as a flight stick, Armstrong was less a freak of nature and more a more extreme variant of common personality type among them. Plus, since astronauts prize competency above all else (as do test pilots, because incompetence kills), it was easier for Armstrong to work with other astronauts than it might have been had he, for example, pursued a career in marketing.

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