DETROIT – Today is the day. Fifty years ago, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to step onto the moon’s surface.
This incredible feat culminated years of intense work by hundreds of thousands of men and women…all working toward the common goal of landing two men on the moon. I remember my parents waking me up and bringing me down to watch it all unfold on TV, something that I will never forget.
But before Armstrong’s “One Small Step,” before the lunar module separated from the command module and headed toward the surface, before the flight to the moon, before the massive Saturn V rocket launched from the Kennedy Space Center, and before flight controllers gave the go-ahead for launch, meteorologists had to assure them that weather conditions were suitable for a safe launch.
Years ago, I traveled to the Kennedy Space Center and interviewed some of the Air Force meteorologists who forecast the weather for Space Shuttle launches, and their job makes my job here at Local 4 look pretty easy. Those meteorologists are issuing a pinpoint forecast that contains a lot of very specific information…much more detailed than anything I do with my forecasts.
As you see in these NASA photos from Apollo 11, the weather cooperated for the launch. Most of the clouds were high, thin cirrus clouds, which pose no problems for a rocket launch. Wind was blowing from the south at 6 mph, visibility was 10 miles, and the temperature was a steamy 86 degrees.
Interest in the weather was more than just for the meteorologists: The astronauts themselves not only were interested but, as my friend Sean Potter wrote in an article in the summer 2014 issue of Weatherwise magazine, there were conversations during the trip to the moon between Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mission Control, as the astronauts relayed the cloud patterns they were seeing from space back to Houston.
While the launch weather was perfect, the landing weather was not. As Potter wrote in his article, a massive thunderstorm complex forecast to be right in the area where splashdown would occur. Had the capsule descended into those storms, the astronauts likely would have been killed. The meteorologist was trusted, and the splashdown target was moved 215 miles downrange. And the rest is history.
A few additional notes:
Upon stepping onto the moon, Armstrong uttered the words that you will hear a lot this weekend: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” But that’s actually not what he intended to say. He meant to say, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong later recalled that he must have forgotten or inadvertently skipped over that one word. It's a very important word! But we’ll give him a free pass, given the circumstances.
The next Apollo launch, Apollo 12, was not so smooth. Lightning hit the spacecraft twice within the first minute after launch, causing massive system problems, but quick thinking by a NASA engineer got everything back online. Commander Alan Bean later said that he had never seen that many lights go off in the flight simulator during his training!
One final note: my wife has a personal connection to the Apollo 11 launch. Her grandfather, Simon Baer, was a well-known Detroit engineer who came to the United States from Germany in the 1920s. He knew Dr. Wernnher Von Braun, the pioneering rocket expert, very well, and received a personal invitation in the mail from Von Braun to travel to Florida and watch the launch. So he and my wife’s grandmother, Sylvia, got to witness history in person. The family still has that special invitation.