The Fourth Crewmember

Armed with their checklists, the Apollo astronauts literally read themselves to the moon.

A cuff checklist from the Apollo 16 mission gives detailed instructions for collecting rocks and taking photographs during a lunar excursion. (NASA)

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Cartoons, jokes, and more staid notations about navigation, photography, and other operations appear throughout Apollo 11’s checklists, but one Velcro-studded card in Apollo 11’s Command Module Operations Checklist invited more thoughtful commentary. Entitled in Gothic black script “Ye Ole Lunar Scratch Pad,” the page, by mission’s end, was filled with pencil scribbles and remarks apparently drafted by Collins, probably during the extended period in which he orbited the moon alone. While strings of numbers and lists of objects (ROCK BOXES FOOD WATER SPOON; Trash Underwear Helmet Protector) grace the sheet, so do random observations and musings. URINE PARTICLES LIKE ANGELS reads one notation, as does the following, chilling description of the work of spaceflight:

SWITCHES >300 + etc
SPS4 must light or stranded

The checklist-style comments appeared to form a rough draft of the remarks Collins broadcast while returning to Earth on July 23, in which he focused not on the magnitude of his achievement but upon the difficulty he had encountered managing Columbia’s huge cockpit:

This trip of ours to the moon may have looked, to you, simple or easy. I’d like to assure you that has not been the case. The . . . rocket which put us into orbit is an incredibly complicated piece of machinery. . . . This computer up above my head has a 38,000 word vocabulary. . . . This switch which I have in my hand now, has over 300 counterparts in the command module alone. . . . In addition to that, there are myriads of circuit breakers, levers, rods, and other associated controls. . . . The parachutes up above my head must work perfectly tomorrow or we will plummet into the ocean. We have always had confidence that all this equipment will work, and work properly, and we continue to have confidence that it will do so for the remainder of the flight.

Collins concluded by thanking the manifold NASA personnel responsible for the crew’s survival and success; like the periscope of a submarine, Apollo 11’s crewmembers were only the most visible part of an effort much larger than themselves, but a part combining extreme danger with almost unimaginable responsibilities, aided by checklists that had guided them through every stage of their flight.

Excerpted and condensed from an essay published in Space Travel and Culture: From Apollo to Space Tourism, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Matthew Hersch, an HSS/NASA Fellow in the History of Space Science at the University of Pennsylvania, is writing a labor history of American astronauts.

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