Semester Project: Apollo 11 Landing Site Panoramic View

The historical importance of the Apollo 11’s panoramic landing view is manifold. On the one hand, the picture is the endless source of pride and knowledge regarding the human’s first contact with the new and alien world. On the other hand, it is the story behind the picture that matters. When reviewing the historical records and modern articles devoted to the epic moment of the Apollo landing on the Moon, one may open and revive the past events of an unprecedented magnitude and complexity. In fact, if at least something had gone wrong, humankind would have not seen the famous panoramic view, at all. Therefore, Apollo 11 landing site panoramic view is a fathomless window both into the past of the lunar missions, as well as into the alien world.

The Story Behind the Picture

It appears that the tranquil image of the lunar landing site hides a sequence of turbulent events that preceded the moment of taking it. When Apollo 11 was four minutes into its landing sequence, the on-board computer signaled about a problem coded Error 1202. The astronauts continued their descent while the Mission Control tried to understand what the alarm code meant. The error was serious, and there was a real threat that the computer would malfunction and quit, at all. The prospects were potentially disastrous. Gene Kranz, the flight director in charge of the first lunar landing, recalls his thoughts regarding that situation, “We would either land on the moon, we would crash attempting to land, or we would abort. The final two outcomes were not good” (Pyle).

Soon, it became clear that the error referred to the computer overload. The machine lacked the memory to process all the operations and data. This malfunction could have compromised the ability of the astronauts to navigate during their landing attempt. Under such conditions, they could have crashed. Complemented by communication problems after the separation of the Lunar Module, the situation reached its critical point. Nevertheless, the Mission Control decided that it was equally as dangerous to abort amidst the landing attempt as to continue it with the overloaded computer. When the computer, the main instrument, was literally of no use, Armstrong had to switch to the manual control while his partner, Buzz Aldrin, was reading the data from the instrument displays and voicing the critical numbers, such as the speed or altitude (Pyle).

The next problem manifested itself when the astronauts noticed that their Module was not where it had been expected and meant to be. In fact, the landing site had been chosen and calculated with extreme precision. Any deviation from the course and, consequently, from the landing spot, was dangerous and could be the next factor that threatened to result in the Lunar Module crash. Even the adherence to the trajectory had to be performed manually via using the grid on the commander’s window. It showed that the spacecraft was coming downrange as it had already passed the predicted landing spot. Although the orbital maps depicted the area as relatively smooth and plain, the view from the window showed a crater field with the scattered boulders. While operating the flight manually, Armstrong started to select the new landing zone. However, his time was growing late as the Module was running out of fuel. Astronaut Charlie Duke recalls, “Neil leveled off at about 400 feet [122 meters] and was whizzing across the surface… It was far from what we had trained for and seen in the simulations” (Pyle).

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Soon, running low on fuel became the most pressing problem, leaving behind the computer issues and altered the trajectory. The standard protocols said that the astronauts were supposed to land with fuel left for around two minutes. Having fuel for only one minute, the crew was still in the air, nearly thirty meters above the moon surface. Abortion of the landing at that altitude was dangerous, and no one knew whether it would work or not. At the mark of thirty seconds, the Lunar Module was yet in three meters from touching the ground. The manual flight became extremely difficult due to the large amount of dust from the working engine that blurred the view. Despite the odds, Neil Armstrong managed to land the Eagle safely (Pyle). According to some sources, he did it even too safely.

The Unknown Story behind the Picture

In the article devoted to the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the Mood, Carl Engelking with the Discover Magazine made a compilation of generally unknown facts about the event. One of such facts was the truth about the landing being too smooth. As said, Armstrong was supposed to shut the engines when the Module was several feet from the surface. The information may be confusing, but the justification for a rough landing lies within the peculiarities of the module’s construction. NASA’s design of the lander presupposed that its legs would withstand the impact and crumple upon it in order to absorb the shock. Since Armstrong performed better than any computer with an autopilot might have done, his landing was unnaturally and exquisitely delicate. As a result, the Lunar Module did not crumple and the astronauts had to exit it a few feet higher than intended, so that “the first small step was more of a leap” (Engelking).

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Another shocking fact is that there was a phrase prepared in the case of the Lunar Module’s crash. Therefore, instead of hearing Neil Armstrong saying his epic phrase about one small step for a man, people would have heard a pre-written phrase by William Safire, Richard Nixon’s speechwriter, “Fate has ordained that men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace” (Engelking). In such a case, humankind would have known quite a different pivotal phrase marking the human’s ambitions to conquer the Moon. If that had been the reality of Apollo 11 flight, it would have been the end of the whole Apollo program. Furthermore, there would have been no spectacular panoramic view taken from the Moon’s surface. Perhaps, then a different photo would have been posted at the NASA’s website on December 20, 2014.

Fortunately, the Eagle landed, and the pictures of the Moon’s surface were taken. What the footage of the Moon’s landscape could not convey, but the astronauts experienced, was the smell. After Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had come back to the Module after their Moon walk, their suits were covered with a thick layer of dust. According to the astronauts, “The moon smelled a bit like wet ashes and gunpowder” (Engelking). In fact, the smell refers one to an adjacent issue that made the mission crew worry. It was assumed that the moon dust was flammable; it suggested that it could ignite when pressurization of the cabin would bring back the oxygen (Engelking). Luckily, it did not happen. The samples taken from the landing site allowed the scientists on the Earth to get not only the visual image of the Moon’s surface but also the data on its true composition (along with the true smell).

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The Facts behind the Picture

The Apollo 11 landing site panorama is not a wide-angle footage of the surface, but a sequence of separate high-resolution scans of the film frames. The way, in which it is assembled, shows a spectacular panoramic view of the part of the Sea of Tranquility. The frames taken from the Module before the planned walking on the Moon, nearly an hour and a half after landing, had to serve as the documentation material of the landing site for the scenario of an untimely departure necessity. The frame at the far left is the picture taken by Armstrong himself when the man observed the lunar site from the Module’s window. In other words, it is the first human-made picture of the alien world. On the right of the panorama, one can see the Eagle’s contours as it casts a shadow from the sun situated behind the viewing point. In terms of measures, the big crater in the right half of the panoramic picture is around twelve meters in diameter. It, along with the other craters that the panorama embraces, indicates the turbulent history of the Moon. The objects from the outer space have bombarded its surface for millions of years and left numerous permanent scars on it. Because of the absence of the atmosphere and, consequently, the winds, as well as due to the zero tectonic activity, the craters and the dust coverage have remained almost absolutely intact for centuries. At least until the first human stepped on the Mood and left a footprint to remain there for hundreds of years more.

While speaking of dust, the samples of the lunar soil became the source of the primary knowledge for the scientists, as well as the material for various publications meant for an average reader. Inter alia, in the book Selected Geotechnical Papers of James K. Mitchell: Civil Engineering Classics, there is a section devoted to the probes taken from the landing site of Apollo 11. It appeared that the surface ground mass from Apollo landing site was a “fine-grained, granular material, composed of bulky grains in the silt to fine-sand particle size range” with larger rock particles spread in the layers of soil (Mitchell 351). In addition, the Moondust proved to be loose, powdery, and highly adhesive; this fact explained its ability to stick to the astronauts’ suits. However, the most peculiar feature of the lunar soil is its color. On the Apollo 11 landing site panorama, the surface looks gray like on a black-and-white picture. The samples sent to the Earth were identified as being medium-dark gray but, in fact, their color and brightness tended to change when observed from the Moon surface, depending on the angle and quality of the sun lighting and the viewer’s perspective. Therefore, the higher sun angles made the soil look brownish while the lower sun angles colored them slate-gray. In the shadows, the surface looked dark-gray, nearly black. The darker shades of gray were also discovered in the areas where the surface was disturbed by the Module landing (Mitchell).


In conclusion, the footage taken from the Eagle’s landing site is of an unprecedented importance to the history of humankind, as well as for the science, in particular. It unveils the picture from a perspective of the human observer and, basically, shows all people the Moon’s face as it was seen by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Therefore, the Apollo 11 landing site panorama of the Moon surface is, indeed, a fathomless window into both the past of the Moon missions, as well as into the deserted alien world of the gray dusty surface eaten by numerous craters. The only regret is that the astronauts’ footprints are not a part of that spectacular view. They would have made the panorama complete.

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