LOS ANGELES — `I WAS grabbing the table in front of me applying all the body English I could to help [Astronaut] Neil [Armstrong] get the lunar landing module down on the moon's surface,'' recalls Thomas Paine. Dr. Paine was director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) during the first seven manned Apollo missions, including the first moon landings. Twenty years ago today, in the seconds leading up to 4:17:40 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) in the United States, Dr. Paine was sitting at Mission Control in Houston between famed rocket engineers Werner von Braun and Abe Silverstein. Eyes glued to a large television monitor, he and others watched as eight years of work and $20 billion (about $75 billion today) were jeopardized when a set of alarm bells signaled that the landing module's radar input circuits were overloading the computers.
``Neil had less than a minute left of fuel,'' Paine recalls, ``when we suddenly had to make a split-second decision whether or not to abort the whole mission.'' Mr. Armstrong had seen some boulders that he didn't like the looks of, and decided to delay landing until he found a flat surface.
``The last thing we wanted was for one of the lunar module feet stuck at an angle,'' says Paine. That would have made takeoff more difficult. Already within yards of the lunar surface, in full view through the landing module window, the radar causing the overload was no longer needed.
``We told them to ignore the alarm bells and set it down. It turned out to be beautiful,'' says Paine. ``But not without a lot of collective sweat.''
The alternative was to fire the upper-stage rockets on the lunar landing module, ascend to the orbiting command module, and return to Earth. Instead, Neil Armstrong and co-pilot Col. Edwin E. (Buzz) Aldrin brought the craft to rest on a level, rock-strewn plain near the southwestern shore of the arid Sea of Tranquility.
``Houston, Tranquility Base here,'' Armstrong radioed. ``The Eagle has landed.'' They were four miles beyond the original landing site.
With misty eyes, Paine turned to Dr. von Braun, who remarked: ``A chance like this comes once in a lifetime, if that often,'' Paine, now living in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, recalls. ``They were very tense moments that ended in an incredible rush of elation.'' Aboard the lander, Armstrong and Aldrin had turned to each other and wordlessly shaken hands.
The astronauts' original schedule called for a moonwalk at 2 a.m. EDT. With everything in order, Armstrong and Aldrin asked for permission to open the hatch and descend to the surface hours sooner. Paine ordered the radio signal to be sent: ``Tranquility Base. Houston. We've thought about it. We will support it.'' After Armstrong's ``giant leap for mankind'' comment upon setting foot on the moon, Paine's next most memorable moments were the unveiling of a plaque on a leg of the lunar module, and President Nixon's congratulatory telephone call to the astronauts. ``For every American, this has to be the proudest day of our lives,'' Mr. Nixon said. ``Because of you, the heavens have become part of man's world....''
Dr. Paine recalls life on the ground during the first moonwalk as ``days marked by bad coffee out of plastic cups and dried-out ham sandwiches - living completely out of yourself with the guys on the moon that you were bound and determined to get back safely.'' When the astronauts slept - but not until - so did Paine, meanwhile playing czar to literally thousands of steps from mission start to finish.
``Even though they had successfully made it to the moon, we had to mentally run back and forth through every detail from lunar surface, to moon orbit, to Earth orbit, to parachuting through the atmosphere into the ocean,'' he says.
Paine never called the mission a success until the crew of three were back safe on the deck of the USS Hornet, the aircraft carrier that plucked them from azure waters near Hawaii. He flew there from Houston aboard Air Force One with President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
``President Nixon was absolutely beside himself, jumping up and down on deck,'' recalls Paine, when the peppermint-striped parachutes appeared in the cloudy sky. A double sonic boom had signaled the command module's re-entry into Earth's atmosphere at 35,000 m.p.h.
When it came time to fish the trio out of the ocean, Paine recalls, President Nixon bent over the railing and ordered the Navy band to play, ``Columbia, Gem of the Ocean'' - referring to the name of the returning command module. ``Only problem was, the band didn't know `Columbia, Gem of the Ocean,''' says Paine, and laughs. No matter. ``The whole day lived completely out of time for me,'' he says, ``...we were on top of the world.''