Neil Armstrong Begs to Differ

One small step: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's trails on the moon. Click for a zoomable version. Credit: NASA

When NPR’s sometimes-antic, always-arresting science correspondent Robert Krulwich blogged last week about confusions of scale, he used mappings of the Apollo 11 mission to argue that when it comes to distances, news stories can be misleading. Plotted on a soccer field, after all, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin traveled only far enough to take one shot on goal.

Of course, this isn’t really a fair metric. No other human beings have traveled as far as the Apollo astronauts, who at the greatest extent of their journey were 389,645 kilometers (242,114 miles) from Earth. That’s nearly four million soccer pitches laid end to end.

In a rare public statement, however, the famously private and modest Neil Armstrong didn’t quibble with Krulwich’s math. In a kind and thorough response to Krulwich, Armstrong instead carefully described the mission parameters, explaining that working in the lunar environment was a massive experiment in astronaut safety:

There were many uncertainties about how well our Lunar module systems and our pressure suit and backpack would match the engineering predictions in the hostile lunar environment. We were operating in a near perfect vacuum with the temperature well above 200 degrees Fahrenheit with the local gravity only one sixth that of Earth. That combination cannot be duplicated here on Earth, but we tried as best we could to test our equipment for those conditions…. NASA officials limited our surface working time to 2 and 3/4 hours on that first surface exploration to assure that we would not expire of hyperthermia.

Armstrong’s explanation is lucid and plausible. Of course, other theories abound—and with the trailer for the next Transformers movie now released, one can’t help wondering whether we’ll ever know the whole story.

There’s at least one big effects error proving that the movie was shot on Earth, by the way—and it’s not the wreck of the Cybertronian spacecraft. Does anyone know what it is?

About Mohit

3 comments

  1. I’m going to have to say the effects error is the dust flying up when his boot hits the ground. I’m doubtful that’s supposed to happen on the moon.

  2. Right! That’s what I saw, too, anyway. Astronauts talked about how weird the dust looked as it bounced at their footfalls without billowing up, as it does in Earth’s thick atmosphere. I’m sure there are other effects to detect as well—although the bouncy gait of low-gravity walking looks better here than I’ve seen elsewhere.

  3. Sometimes I just love the precision and coolness of my namesake.

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