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Sunday, July 19, 2020

Brickfields, Neil Armstrong and the Moon: The Space Olympics, Part 2.


The "Cold War" commenced with the formulation of the Truman Doctrine at the end of World War II.  The protagonists of this Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union, then embarked on activities to demonstrate their capabilities in difficult areas. The pursuit of knowledge and technology through the exploration of space and the demonstration of sporting prowess in the stadia and pools of the Olympics Games provided some of the main battlegrounds in the ensuing years. 

This post comprises two parts. It (is not essential to, but) is preferred that the reader has already read a previous post entitled: 

  • Baron Pierre De Coubertin, Dr. Wernher von Braun, Sergei Korolev & The Space Olympics: Part 1.
Part 1 builds the background and introduces some of the individuals who reappear to play a part in the narrative of Part 2.

The stakes were high for the participants of the Cold War. Competing nations "fought" this Cold War with the intention of cementing their positions of global influence and increasing the footprint of their political ideals. National pride was at stake and strong leadership was critical if victories were desired, pursuing some of the most difficult targets of the time. 

Landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth was one such target.

The Cold War was a period of geopolitical tension but it was also a period of great competition in the area sport and intense rivalry in the domain of space exploration. Many call it the period of the "Space Race".  In my view, this is an understatement. 

This was the era of the Space Olympics

As a boy growing up in Malaysia, I was little interested in the drivers of the Cold War. But I was very keen on sport. The many dimensions and challenges of space travel also stretched my young imagination. This narrative is my understanding of some of the events occurring at the time. Incorporated into the stories of Part 2 are also some anecdotes that provide a clue on how I became interested in the subjects of astronomy and space travel. 

The Cold War concluded in space in 1975 and on Earth, it effectively ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1991).

The Cold War in space ended with the Soviet Union and the United States collaborating on a joint project in 1975. It was called the Apollo Soyuz Joint Project. 

First Day Cover commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This signified the beginning of the end of the Cold War on Earth.

My wish is
 that you enjoy both posts (i.e. Part 1 and Part 2) of the Space Olympics.


I hope that international readers of this post allow me a few paragraphs to provide some local context to this story that is wholly non-fictional (as are the contents oall my posts). I live in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. In history classes that I attended as a young student in primary school, we learnt that Kuala Lumpur was founded in the 1850s on the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers. Translated into the English language, the words “kuala” and “lumpur” when expressed together, mean “muddy confluence”. My early recollections of primary school life, during which time I learnt about the history of Kuala Lumpur, centre around the La Salle School in Brickfields, at the time a Catholic Mission school. 

History and geography were amongst my favourite subjects. Commercial activities in early Kuala Lumpur developed around the mining of tin. In the mid-1800s, Kuala Lumpur was a rough town with gang warfare being a feature of everyday life. Mining contributed to a growing economy and as a result there were struggles for control of the tin revenues and political leadership of the mineral rich lands. Not publicised much in the local history books that we studied in primary school is the fact between 1867 and 1873, a series of conflicts, later to be called the Klang War or the Selangor Civil War took place. These conflicts involved personalities of local royal blood on both sides, aided by the British colonial powers, and the Chinese diaspora, who were controlling the tin trade in the area. 

The most prominent of the Chinese personalities of early Kuala Lumpur was Kapitan Cina, Yap Ah Loy. The “Kapitan Cina” was a title conferred on an individual who was recognized to be in a leadership position within the Chinese community and this was the person who acted as a liaison with the Malay based political system. It was a position that on some occasions required skills of delicate diplomacy but in several instances, as was in the case of Capitan Cina Yap Ah Loy, there was also bloodshed and death. Whilst some history books refer to the conflict around the period, as being “wars”, they only involved several thousand individuals, with Yap Ah Loy eventually playing a prominent role for the winning side. 

The wars ended in 1873 but more strife would befall the residents of Kuala Lumpur as first a fire (that destroyed many of the structures which had been built using “atap” – a local thatch material), followed by a flood in 1881, wiped out much of the growing township. These calamities caused the British Resident, Sir Frank Swettenham, to order that all future buildings in Kuala Lumpur be constructed from clay bricks and tiles. 

Kapitan Cina Yap Ah Loy seized on the opportunity and acquired a large piece of land close to the confluence of the rivers for the setting-up of a brick industry. Yap Kwan Seng, the fifth and last Kapitan Cina of Kuala Lumpur built a kiln in the area that soon came to be known as “Brickfields”. Brickfields then became synonymous with good quality bricks. Over the years, the clay pit soil of the area was used to make millions of quality bricks that were used to develop Kuala Lumpur and the surrounding areas. In fact, it was the Brickfields area that provided 4,000,000 bricks that were later utilized to construct the majestic Sultan Abdul Samad building that sits opposite the Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur. 

Malaysian stamps depicting the Sultan Abdul Samad Building in Kuala Lumpur. About 4,000,000 bricks from the Brickfields area were used to construct these buildings.

Our family lived in close vicinity to the Brickfields area of Kuala Lumpur in the 1960s and early 1970s. So unsurprisingly, my father enrolled me in the La Salle School in Brickfields for primary education and six months before the age of seven I started in Standard One. Till this day I am able to recall the names of my teachers and also the name of our Headmaster, Mr. S. Ratasingam and his able Senior Assistant, Mr. L. A. Fernandez (students just called him, Mr. L. A.). I also recall the locations of all my primary classrooms. They each accommodated about forty-five to fifty students. When I think about my classrooms, I immediately remember two prominent items that were fixed high above the two large blackboards that were installed on the walls at the front of each classroom of the La Salle School in Brickfields - a brown speaker box (with a white knob on one side for volume control) that was a part of the school public address (“PA”) system, and, a crucifix (to remind us that we were students of a Catholic Mission school). 

As old age besets me, I expect that my recollection capacity will likely falter and I will gradually forget the names of my former teachers, one by one. When all those names are forgotten bar one, that last remaining name will be that of Mr. L. A. There is a simple reason for this. Twice a day, every school day, it was his voice that we would hear over the school’s PA system announcing the daily or weekly events or updates. Just before the commencement of one of the daily announcements which would come through a speaker set behind the coarse fabric mesh of the brown speaker box, a short but soft high-pitched shrill would be heard. This was the signal for the teacher in the classroom to temporarily halt the on-going lesson and both students and teacher alike would train their eyes onto the brown speaker box and focus our attention on the information about to be transmitted. The voice of Mr. L.A. would come over the PA system and the announcement would then commence with the following salutation: 

“Your attention please, your attention please. Calling all classes your attention please. Here are the announcements for the day …..”. 

And then the announcements would be read out. There must have been more than a thousand announcements that I heard through this public address system over the five years that I did my primary studies at the La Salle, Brickfields. The opening salutation was always the same each time. The words, the intonation and his delivery hardly ever altered. These announcements concerned all sorts of matters of general school life. When Mr. L.A. was absent for some reason, another teacher would relay the daily announcements to the students via the PA system, but his absence was not a frequent occurrence. 

Only on one occasion do I recall our Headmaster ever making an announcement. It was an announcement that has stayed with me for more than half a century. But more of that announcement later in this post. Reluctantly, at this stage of my post, we need to leave Brickfields and its history. 

Brickfields is sometimes called “Little India” and as I write, I have recurring thoughts of the delicious aromas emanating from the spices used in the Indian cuisine, found in the many restaurants that populate each street of this district. Each restaurant entices potential customers with colourful traditional sweets arranged attractively at its’ entrance. Perhaps “restaurant” is too plush a descriptor to be used in the context of Brickfields but it is genuinely difficult to walk by one of these expanded “holes in the wall” without making an unhealthy investment in a ghee-based delight that would give any Belgian chocolate a good run of the salivary glands. 

I expect that I will not be able to resist repeatedly returning to Brickfields, mentally, physically, and again in this post, but for now, it is time to get somewhat serious, go back a little more in history, so that we can indulge in my favourite topic of space exploration …. again. 

Visionary Leadership 

In my previous post, I wrote about the “Moon Speech” eloquently delivered by President John F. Kennedy in 1962. In retrospect, his message must be appreciated for what it really was and what it subsequently achieved. The United States was behind in the Space Race. The Soviets were repeatedly achieving new milestones in several areas of space exploration, but their goals were never pre-disclosed. Instead, once achieved, the result would be announced in a grand, public manner, leaving the U.S. authorities embarrassed and the American public in dismay. 

These five stamps from the nation of Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) show the evolution of the rockets over the years required to go to the Moon. The rocket on the bottom right is the Saturn V. Dr. Wernher von Braun and his team were instrumental in the design of all these rockets. President John Kennedy is also provided prominence as he was the visionary who decided boldly that the Moon would be the target of the United States.

President Kennedy rewrote the rules of engagement. By declaring in an upfront and public manner that the moon was the American target, he shifted focus from the fact that the U.S. was behind in near Earth, space exploration activities and built excitement around the challenges of landing a human on the moon (and then returning this individual safely back to Earth). Here was an endeavour of a different magnitude in difficulty. It would be like taking a 100-meter sprinter and having to prepare this person to run a marathon within a fixed timeline. This was a challenge in which both countries would be starting the journey from the same departure point. He made this a matter of national pride. 

The results of the 1964 Olympics, held in Tokyo may have been a manifestation of such nationalistic pride starting to build in all spheres of American endeavour. Gene Krantz, Flight Director of many of the future Apollo missions to the Moon would later entitle his famous book on the Apollo Moonshot: “Failure is not an option”. 

Gene Krantz: Flight Director during the Apollo 11 Moon Landing. Featured here on a stamp from the nation of Mali - a country in Africa. For Gene Krantz, "Failure was not an option".

Imagine the embarrassment befalling the United States if they had lost the ultimate race in which they had initially set the rules! The pressure to perform was enormous. The pride of a nation was at stake. Competition from the Soviets was intense. The lives of astronauts were on the line. The timeline had been set and publicly disclosed. There was no turning back. Indeed, failure was not an option! 

Project Definition 101 

To provide an idea of the gap that would have to be closed between the early 1960s and the time when a human actually walked on the moon, it would be instructive to consider a problem faced by Alan Shepard as he waited to be launched into space in his “Freedom Seven” space capsule, sitting atop the Redstone rocket that had been designed by Dr. Wernher von Braun. Because the entire journey into space and back was only expected to take less than an hour, Shepard's suit did not have any provision for the elimination of bodily wastes. After being strapped into the capsule's seat, launch delays kept him in that suit for eight hours. Shepard's endurance gave out before launch, and he was forced to empty his bladder into the suit. This promptly, electrically shorted-out the medical sensors attached to the suit to track the astronaut's health condition during the flight. 

Alan Shepard: First American in space. The stamp is from the Central Asian country of Bhutan. 

This precipitated the fundamental question: If basic problems such as these had not yet been solved to put a single astronaut into space, imagine the range of technical issues that would emerge and require resolution to fly three astronauts to the moon, land, take-off again and return them safely back to Earth. This adventure was estimated to take approximately ten days – a big leap from the sub-sixty minute journeys that were the extent of the available technology in the early sixties! 

One of the early decisions that had to be made revolved around the minimum number of astronauts that would be required to undertake a single Moonshot. After much deliberation and risk assessment at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (“NASA”), the agreed number was three. To develop a three-man space capsule, from the status quo in the early 1960’s required an intermediate step of a two-man space craft. Both the Americans and the Soviets soon realized that the Moon was still physically and technically, quite far away. And to get there required more people, in space and on Earth. There was also another technical matter that needed detailed consideration – for an astronaut to step on the Moon also implicitly meant an exit of the human from the confines of the spacecraft. This was a very big step. 

Again, the race was on. 

Of Heroes and Hidden Heroines 

In my previous post, I wrote about NASA’s selection of the first American astronauts for Project Mercury, known as the "Original Seven" or “Mercury Seven”. The names of the selected astronauts had been announced in April,1959. When President John F. Kennedy announced in May,1961 the goal of putting a man on the Moon by the end of the decade, it was quickly apparent that the size of the Astronaut Corps would have to be increased. Two large scale projects were envisaged: a two-man spacecraft project which would follow the Mercury effort and then, a three-man endeavour (to be called “Apollo”) with the lunar surface as its ultimate destination. Clearly, additional astronauts were required. 

To fill the positions, NASA put out a public advertisement. In all, 253 applications were received by the deadline of 1 June,1962. Neil Armstrong, destined to be the first man on the moon, submitted his application a week after the deadline, but the Associate Director of the Space Task Group, wanted him on the selection program so his application was not disqualified but instead, added to those already received. Even when it was received, it seems that the Director of NASA’s Flight Research Centre declined to recommend Armstrong for astronaut selection as he had concerns about his performance. Armstrong prevailed and after an extensive selection process, was one of nine named, a group to be called the “Next Nine”. 

Interestingly, amongst those who did not make the cut in that selection process were Alan Bean, Michael Collins, Richard Gordon and Jack Swigert. All would be selected in future rounds of selection and play prominent roles in the U.S. space exploration program, as astronauts. 

Although women were not prevented from applying for selection to the Astronaut Corps, the requirement for jet-based test pilot experience effectively excluded them. In fact, NASA Administrator James Webb was reported to have said at the time, "I do not think we shall be anxious to put a woman or any other person of particular race or creed into orbit just for the purpose or putting them there". 

A lack of participation by women in the American space program may have been apparent inside the space capsule but on the ground, it was a different situation. Women played critical roles, none more so than in the emerging area of computer programming. Margaret Hamilton was one such individual. She is a computer scientist and systems engineer. 

In the 1960s she was assigned to the Charles Draper Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There, she developed the complex software used on various space missions, eventually leading a team credited with engineering the computer programs used on the Apollo and later, Skylab missions. 

She was not the only woman making a mission-critical contribution. America was gifted with even more heroines who made telling contributions to the ground-based activities of the Space Olympics. The recent movie, “Hidden Figures” captured their roles and the heavy responsibilities placed on some of them. Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan were those who were portrayed as the protagonists in the recent movie but there were many other black American woman, who were subject to discrimination by sex and colour, yet, always gave their best for their country, providing immense technical and mathematical input in critical areas. 

Johnson was a gifted mathematician with exceptional ability in analytical geometry. Some of her work for John Glenn’s “Friendship 7” Gemini mission probably ensured that this astronaut returned safely to Earth when his spaceship encountered technical problems whilst in Earth’s orbit. In addition, she delivered similar high impact work for the Apollo 11 and Space Shuttle missions. 

A Cover honouring the work of the Katherine Johnson. There is also another interesting point about this Cover. There was only one still camera on the Moon and it was strapped to Neil Armstrong's space suit. So, there are no still photographs of Neil Armstrong on the Moon. There are only stills of Aldrin. The stamp on this Cover presents the only still photograph that  shows there were two astronauts on the lunar surface. Note the reflection of Neil Armstrong on Aldrin's visor.  

Mary Jackson also possessed exceptional mathematical ability and a degree in science. She was assigned to the team developing the heat shield and immediately made an impact, identifying a design flaw that could have resulted in a failure of that element of the spacecraft with catastrophic consequences. 

Dorothy Vaughan was another talented mathematician and “human computer“ (meaning one who followed fixed rules with no authority to deviate from these rules). She too made a mark in her area of software expertise through independent study and much against the odds. 

They were not the only ones. By the conclusion of the Apollo Project, it was estimated that there had been 400,000 scientists, engineers, technicians and administrators, of both sexes and many races who were involved in this landmark Presidential challenge, of Olympian proportions, to land a man on the Moon. 

Second Generation Spacecraft: Gemini and Voskhod 

As the initial Vostok and Mercury programs entered their operational phases, engineers in the U.S. and Soviet Union commenced design of a second generation of manned spacecraft. The Americans began with an effort to extend the capabilities of the Mercury craft, the so-called Mark II version, and ended-up designing an essentially new two-man vehicle capable of greater manoeuvrability, rendezvous and docking capabilities. This was Project Gemini, which also aspired to build a vehicle that could endure a flight duration that would equal the period anticipated for the lunar mission to be attempted later in the decade. 

The Soviets, apparently spurred by the goals set for Project Gemini, decided to modify their Vostok spacecraft for multi-man flights. This was the Voskhod, an attempt to exploit the technical investment already made in the earlier, Vostok design which had taken Gagarin into space. 18 March 1965 – Somewhere in space (near Earth) 

On 18 March 1965, the Soviets showed that they were marginally ahead in the race to the Moon. Soviet-era cosmonaut Alexei Leonov became the first person to leave the confines of his spacecraft while in orbit and float in the vacuum of space. Leonov, who, with Pavel Belyayev, was flying onboard the former-Soviet Union's Voskhod 2, accomplished the first extra-vehicular activity (“EVA”) on what was only the fourteenth piloted spaceflight in history. 

The Americans were once again behind, but not that far behind. 

Stamps from Hungary commemorating the extra vehicular activities of Soviet cosmonaut, Leonov, and American astronaut, White, in 1965, less than a month apart from each other. Leonov was first.

On 3 June 1965, 120 miles above the Earth, Major Edward H. White II opened the hatch of the Gemini 4 spacecraft and stepped out of the capsule, becoming the first American to walk in space. He was attached to the craft with a twenty-five foot tether, and, he controlled his movements with a hand-held jet-propulsion gun. White remained outside the Gemini 4 capsule for just over 20 minutes. 

Place Your Bets 

In 1965, the thinking was that if any nation was going to get a human to the moon within a few years, then most thought it would be the Soviet Union. In my previous post (Baron Pierre De Coubertin, Dr. Wernher von Braun, Sergei Korolev & The Space Olympics: Part 1), I wrote about Sergei Korolev. The mentor of Sergei Korolev was the pioneering Soviet rocket scientist, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Although Tsiolkovsky died in 1935, his work left a lasting scientific legacy, particularly in Russia. Sergei Korolev was Tsiolkovsky's pioneering experimental counterpart, who dreamed of traveling to Mars and launched, in 1933, the first Soviet liquid-fuelled rocket and the first hybrid-fuelled rocket. Sadly, in 1938, Korolev became a victim of Stalin's Great Purge and he was imprisoned in the Gulag, where he languished until 1944. 

In the aftermath of World War II, both the U.S.A.'s and the U.S.S.R.'s space programs were boosted by the addition of captured German scientists through Operations “Paperclip” and “Osoviakhim” respectively. The U.S.A. got most of the top German scientists and a slew of V-2 rockets, but the Soviet Union captured many of the German technical records, including drawings from V-2 production sites, and they also secured the services of influential scientist Helmut Grottrup. Unlike the U.S.A., the indigenous technical legacy of Tsiolkovsky gave the Soviets an initial edge which they exploited. The combination of German V-2 technology, Tsiolkovsky's theoretical work, and Korolev's brainpower and imagination ⁠proved an incredible recipe for early Soviet success in the venture of space exploration. 

The Soviets were first to every milestone in space: the first satellite, the first crewed spaceflight, the first person to orbit the Earth, the first woman in space and even, the first spacewalk. Not many are aware that on 2 January 1959, the Soviet Luna 1 mission reached the Moon but flew past it (instead of impacting it - which was the intent). This was more than ten years before the eventual American Moon landing.  Luna 1 missed its target by less than 6,000 kilometres. 

On September 14, 1959, Luna 2 succeeded: becoming the first human-made object to arrive on the Moon. Less than a month later, Luna 3 took the first photograph of the Moon's far side. In the realm of space exploration, the Soviets were achieving new milestones while the United States was forced to play catch-up. And behind every breakthrough in the Soviet space program stood Sergei Korolev. His rise, upon his release and “rehabilitation” from the Gulag, was nothing short of meteoric. The next step was to reach for the Moon, and Korolev was ready. 

With the 1964 fall of Khrushchev, Korolev was put in sole charge of the crewed space program, with the goal of a lunar landing set for October 1967 (the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution) or early 1968, seemingly within reach. Because of his crucial role in the Soviet space program, he was officially identified only as “Glavny Konstruktor” or the “Chief Designer” to protect him from possible Cold War assassination attempts by the United States. In fact, even some of the cosmonauts who worked closely with him were unaware of his last name. Such was the intensity of the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union that the possibility of an assassination attempt was a real and present danger. 

Setbacks for the Soviets 

In late 1965, something happened in the Soviet Union that would have an immediate, and, long-term implications for their space program. Sergei Korolev was diagnosed with an intestinal illness. Korolev entered hospital on 5 January 1966, for what was thought to be routine intestinal surgery. Nine days later, he was dead from colon cancer complications. It was only following his death that his identity was openly revealed and he received the appropriate public recognition as the driving force behind Soviet accomplishments in space exploration. Without Korolev as their Chief Designer, things quickly went awry for the Soviets. 

The vacuum that quickly developed after his demise proved catastrophic. Vasily Mishin was chosen as Korolev's successor and disaster quickly followed. The Soviet goals of orbiting the Moon in 1967 and landing on the lunar surface in 1968 remained unchanged and Mishin was charged to get them there. A new rocket configuration, the Soyuz 1 was scheduled to be launched and Colonel Vladimir Komarov was selected to command it, with Yuri Gagarin as his backup cosmonaut. The cosmonauts knew that the spacecraft had major safety problems, but Komarov stated that if he were to refuse to fly, Gagarin would be forced to go instead. 

Komarov elected to accept to fly as a mark of respect to Gagarin but insisted, prior to the flight, that his funeral be open-casket so that the Soviet leadership could clearly see what they had done. 

On April 23, 1967, Soyuz 1 was launched: the first crewed flight since the death of Korolev. Despite 203 design faults reported by project engineers prior to lift-off, the launch still took place, immediately encountering a series of failures. First, one solar panel failed to unfold, leading to inadequate power. Then the orientation detectors malfunctioned and, the automatic stabilization system failed. Given these technical problems and some bad weather, the launch of Soyuz 2, which was planned to rendezvous with Soyuz 1, was cancelled. Komarov's technical report on the 13th orbit led to an order to abort the mission. About 5 orbits later, Soyuz 1 fired its retrorockets and re-entered Earth's atmosphere. Due to another defect, the main parachute never unfolded, and Komarov's manually deployed reserve chute became tangled. 

The space capsule descended towards Earth at high speed, estimated at between 30 and 40 meters per second, instead of the expected velocity of 1 meter per second. There was no escape. The capsule impacted Earth. The charred remains of Colonel Komarov were unrecognizable and the maiden flight under Korolev's successor had ended in the worst disaster imaginable: the first in-flight fatality of any space program. 

Stamps from the Republic of Chad, a country in Africa, honouring the two most celebrated Soviet cosmonauts, Komarov and Gagarin. Both lost their lives in the service of their nation. Komarov was the first fatality of a manned space flight.

Komarov’s charred remains were placed in an open-casket as were his wishes and this act, more than anything else severely retarded the momentum of the Soviet space program. 

On 26 April 1967, Komarov was given a state funeral in Moscow. His ashes were interred in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis at Red Square. The American astronauts requested that the Soviet government allow a representative to attend his funeral but sadly, their request was not granted. The American astronauts, however, did not forget Vladimir Komarov and the sacrifice he made for his nation.

Project Apollo 

In mid-1960, NASA was developing its long-range space exploration plan beyond Project Mercury. Amongst the ideas was for a manned circumlunar mission project - then unnamed. It is reported that Abe Silverstein, the Director of Space Flight Development, proposed the name "Apollo" because it was the name of a god in ancient Greek mythology with attractive connotations. It was also consistent with the precedence of naming manned spaceflight projects after mythological gods and heroes had been set with Mercury. Apollo was god of archery, prophecy, poetry, and music, and most significantly he was god of the sun. In his horse-drawn golden chariot, Apollo pulled the sun in its course across the sky each day. 

Stamp of Greek God - Apollo 

Project Apollo took new form when the goal of a manned lunar landing was proposed to the Congress by President John F. Kennedy on 25 May 1961 and was then subsequently approved by the Congress. It was envisaged as a program of three-man flights, leading to the landing of men on the moon. Each Apollo Moonshot had its unique set of objectives, pushing the known technical boundaries further out. In this post, I shall only cover those missions that have associated with them some interesting facts. 

Apollo 1 

Apollo 1 was initially designated AS-204. As the spacecraft AS-204, it was expected to be the first three-man crewed mission of the U.S. Apollo program to land humans on the Moon. It was expected to be launched on 21 February 1967 but the mission never flew. A cabin fire, during a launch rehearsal test at Cape Kennedy on 27 January 1967, killed all three crew members—Command Pilot Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White (first American to walk in space) and Pilot Roger Chaffee. The ensuing accident investigation had widespread effects. It revealed poor workmanship and found flaws in management practices. It also underscored discrepancies in the spacecraft’s overall design. 

First Day Cover honouring the astronauts lost in the Apollo 1 fire. Note the quote attributed to Gus Grissom

The review board recommended dozens of changes to be made to ensure that the spacecraft operated safer going forward. As a result of this setback, NASA was forced to become increasingly cautious right at the juncture when they needed to take the risks necessary to meet an end-of-decade lunar landing goal. 

Now it was the turn of the Americans to endure public scrutiny and the difficulties of delivering tough objectives in accelerated time frames. 

The Apollo 1 mission did not fly but the widows of the Apollo 1 crew asked that NASA retire the mission designation in honour of their lost husbands so they might keep the flight they never got to fly. NASA agreed and the name “Apollo 1”, chosen by the crew for their mission, was made official by NASA in their honour. 

Apollo 2 and 3 were also designations that were never used. Apollo 4, 5, and 6 were unmanned tests of various modules of the system and it was Apollo 7, that became the first manned Apollo mission. 

The Apollo 7 mission executed, over 10 days in October of 1968, the various tests that were set for Apollo 1 (if it had been launched February of 1967). In the end, it was Apollo 7 that was the flight that placed the Moon landing project back on track. 

The 1968 Mexico Olympics 

Whilst Apollo 7 was orbiting Earth, on the ground, across the world, there was a palpable excitement caused by the XIX Olympiad being held in Mexico City. 

The Mexico Olympics will always remain in memory for several reasons. No sports spectator, living in those times, will likely forget James Ray Hines becoming the first man to officially break the 10 second barrier in the 100 meters by winning the Olympic final with a time of 9.89 seconds appearing on the screen (later corrected to 9.95 seconds). The drama did not end there. On the morning of 16 October, African American athlete Tommie Smith won the 200 meters final with a (then) world-record time of 19.83 seconds. Another African American athlete, John Carlos, won the bronze medal in the same event. On the same day, both men took their places on the podium for the medal ceremony wearing black socks without shoes and Human Rights badges. They lowered their heads and each defiantly raised a black-gloved fist as the U.S. national anthem was played in solidarity with the Black Freedom Movement in the United States. 

International Olympic Committee (“IOC”) President Avery Brundage, deemed it to be a domestic political statement unfit for the apolitical, international forum of the Olympic Games. In response to their actions, Brundage ordered Smith and Carlos suspended from the US team and banned them from the Olympic Village. When the US Olympic Committee refused to comply with his wishes, Brundage threatened to ban the entire U.S. track team. This threat finally led to the expulsion of the two athletes from the Games and eventually their medals were also withdrawn. Peter Norman, the Australian sprinter who came second in the 200 meters race, also wore an “Olympic Project for Human Rights” badge during the medal ceremony. In fact it was Norman who suggested that Carlos and Smith wear one glove each. His actions resulted in him being ostracized by Australian media and he was reprimanded by the relevant authorities of his country. He was not sent to the subsequent 1972 Games, despite making the qualifying time several times. Sadly, even when Australia hosted the 2000 Olympics, he was offered no part in the opening ceremony, though the significance of that has been debated. 

As an aside, in 2006, after Norman died of a heart attack, Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Norman's funeral. 

As far as the determination of overall leadership in sports was concerned, the United States overwhelmingly confirmed the marginal superiority that it had showed in 1964 in Tokyo. The U.S. team won a total of 107 medals, 45 of them being gold. The Soviets, on the other hand, won 91 medals in aggregate, 29 of them being gold. 

Viewed holistically, with the success of the Apollo 7 mission, it seemed the U.S. was clearly ahead in the Space Olympics. But the year was not over and there was more excitement to come. 

Apollo 8 

The closing act for 1968 was provided by Apollo 8. This flight achieved many significant milestones. It was the first crewed spacecraft to leave low Earth orbit, travel 68 hours to the Moon, orbit it ten times over a twenty-hour period, and return its’ three-man astronaut crew comprising Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders back to Earth. They were the first humans to fly to the Moon, witness and photograph an “Earthrise” and, escape the gravity of a celestial body. 

Apollo 8 astronauts were the first to observe an "Earthrise". As the orbited the Moon on Christmas Eve in 1968, they read verses on live television from the Book of Genesis. Some of these words are transposed on this inspiring image.

Whilst orbiting the Moon, the astronauts made a Christmas Eve television broadcast in which they read the first ten verses from the Book of Genesis. At the time, the broadcast was the most watched television program ever. The Apollo 8 mission was the space flight that truly cut a path for the 1969 moon landings. The Apollo 8 astronauts returned to Earth on 27 December 1968, when their spacecraft splashed down in the northern Pacific Ocean. 

Such was the excitement and extent of their achievement that, upon their return, the three crew members were named Time magazines’s “Men of the Year” for 1968. 

Apollo 9 and 10 

Apollo 9 was launched in early March 1969 and was the first flight of the full Apollo spacecraft configuration comprising the Command and Service Module (“CSM”) together with the Lunar Module (“LM”). The mission was flown to qualify the LM for lunar orbit operations. During the ten-day mission, the crew tested systems and procedures critical to landing on the Moon, including the LM engines, backpack life support systems, navigation systems and docking procedures. The mission concluded on 13 March and was a complete success. 

Apollo 10 quickly followed Apollo 9 and was launched in May 1969. It was planned as a "dress rehearsal" for the first Moon landing testing all the components and procedures just short of an actual landing. While astronaut John Young remained in the Command Module orbiting the Moon, astronauts Thomas Stafford and Gene Cernan flew the LM to an orbit within 15.6 km of the lunar surface, the point at which powered descent for landing would begin for an actual Moon landing. After orbiting the Moon 31 times, Apollo 10 returned safely to Earth, and its success enabled the first actual landing two months later. Not known to many, with the lunar surface so close, there was a concern that the astronauts would attempt an “unplanned” landing on the Moon! NASA thus took the unusual step of “short-fueling” the LM so that any thoughts of unplanned "Moon-stops" would quickly be banished from the minds of the astronauts as it would result in the astronauts themselves being marooned on the Moon! 

The crew of Apollo 10. NASA had concerns that this crew would attempt an unplanned landing on the lunar surface so took unprecedented steps to prevent such an event.

The Apollo 10 mission was another complete success. The stage was now prepared. The actors were in costume, had learned their lines and rehearsed faithfully. They were ready. The audience was also getting impatient, waiting to determine if President Kennedy’s challenge could be met. 

Apollo 11 

Apollo 11 was the mission that first landed humans on the Moon. It was crewed by Commander Neil Armstrong, LM Pilot, Buzz Aldrin and CSM Pilot, Michael Collins. Apollo 11 was launched by a Saturn V rocket, the brainchild of Dr. Wernher von Braun, from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, on 16 July 1969. 

The crew of Apollo 11: Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin.

But before leaving Earth, one matter had to be resolved. Which astronaut would take the “First Step” on the Moon? 

Early in 1969, it was reported that Buzz Aldrin would be the first to make history but at a press conference on 14 April 1969, it was announced that it would be Neil Armstrong who would take the First Step. For decades, there were many theories how this decision was made but, in his autobiography published in 2001, Chris Kraft, one of the most respected of NASA engineers and administrators, disclosed that a meeting was held between various senior decision makers during which they argued that the first person to walk on the Moon should be a “calm and quiet” person – one who exuded the seriousness and importance of the endeavour that was being attempted. Thus, they made the decision to change the flight plan and it was the Commander who was first to egress from the spacecraft. The Commander with the quiet and calm demeanour was Neil Armstrong. 

Prior to departure, it was decided the Commander Neil Armstrong would be the first to step on the lunar surface and the flight plan was written accordingly. 

The journey to the moon would take the three astronauts 3 days to complete but this was a culmination of effort made by an estimated 400,000 engineers, scientists and technicians over more than a decade. The team was at the brink. The nation was on edge. 

On 20 July, Armstrong and Aldrin entered the LM, made a final check, and at 100 hours, 12 minutes into the flight, the LM, “Eagle”, undocked and separated from the CSM “Columbia”. At 101 hours, 36 minutes, when the LM was behind the Moon on its 13th orbit, the LM descent engine fired for 30 seconds to provide retrograde thrust and commence descent orbit insertion, changing to an orbit of 9 by 67 miles, replicating a flight path that had been previously been flown by Apollo 10. 

At 102 hours, 33 minutes, after Columbia and Eagle had reappeared from behind the Moon and when the LM was about 300 miles up-range, powered descent initiation was performed with the descent engine firing for 756.3 seconds. After eight minutes, the LM was at "high gate", about 26,000 feet above the lunar surface and about five miles from the landing site. The descent engine continued to provide braking thrust until about 102 hours, 45 minutes into the mission. 

Partially piloted manually by Armstrong, the Eagle landed in the Sea of Tranquility in Site 2, at 0 degrees, 41 minutes, 15 seconds, North Latitude and 23 degrees, 26 minutes, East Longitude. This was about four miles downrange from the predicted touchdown point and occurred almost one-and-a-half minutes earlier than scheduled. It included a powered descent that ran a mere nominal 40 seconds longer than pre-flight planning as it was necessary to avoid a crater during the final phase of landing. 

On 20 July 1969 at 20:17 UTC, LM Eagle landed on the Moon. 

I was in Brickfields When Neil Armstrong Stepped on the Moon 

20.17 UTC is 4.17 AM (i.e. the next day, in this case it was 21 July 1969) in Kuala Lumpur. It was a Monday morning. At 7.30 AM the school bell at the La Salle School in Brickfields rang as it always did, and we headed to class – my class being Standard 5 Green. I had just passed my eleventh birthday on 18 July. After we greeted Mrs. Nesadurai, our teacher, lessons commenced, as they always did every school day. 

During the morning announcements over the P.A. system, Mr. L.A. informed us that an American spacecraft had landed on the Moon during the previous night. 

At about 10.00 AM that morning, Mrs. Nesadurai was replaced in class by Cikgu Malik. He was our Malay language teacher. About 25 minutes into his lesson, there was another, unexpected announcement over the PA system. Very unusually, it was the voice of our Headmaster, Mr. Ratasingam. He never made the announcements so this would have to be a very serious matter. 

“Your attention please, your attention please. Calling all classes your attention please …. You were informed early this morning that an American spacecraft landed on the moon last night. In a few minutes, an American astronaut will step on the surface on the moon. We will be allowing all of you to hear his progress as he steps onto the surface of the Moon over the school PA system. So, all teachers, you may now suspend lessons and allow the students to listen to the transmission over the PA system. Thank-you.” 

With that, the Malay Language class was suspended for the time being and we all listened to the crackly sounds, apparently coming from the Moon (through the brown speaker box fixed high up on the wall). 

At 10:40 AM precisely, brrrrrrrrrrrrnnnng went the bell for the mid-morning break, as it always did. All my classmates left the classroom. I was alone, sat at my desk. In front of me was Cikgu Malik, my Malay language teacher looking quite pleased that I had not elected to join my friends. He smiled at me and then instructed a prefect, who was standing outside our classroom, to go and collect his Thermos from the teacher’s Common Room. As time passed, the PA system transmission got even more distorted, but we strained and listened out for clues that a man was walking on the Moon. 
There was a lot of interference and suddenly we heard those words: 

“That’s one small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind.” 

The crackly sounds were then transposed by the voice of an excited Mr. Ratasingam:  

“There is a man walking on the Moon. I repeat, students please take note, there is a man now walking on the Moon!” 

I guess he just wanted to be sure that we all knew exactly what was happening, totally oblivious to the fact that nearly the whole school was at recess! 

A special stamp - A master die, together with the "Moon letter"  was created and launched in Apollo 11. It landed on the Moon with the LM on 20 July 1969. The letter bearing the master die was cancelled by the astronauts on their way back to Earth. In truth, they were supposed to do this on the surface of the Moon. But they forgot ! U.S. law forbids the portrayal of a living person on postage stamps. So the image was carefully described simply as "a spaceman" instead of carrying the name of "Neil Armstrong".

That night I could not sleep. I kept wondering what was happening on the Moon. At about 11 PM Malaysian time, I peered out of my bedroom window and looked up at the Moon. Just then my father walked in and asked me what I was doing, being out of bed at such a late hour. I told him that it was about the time for the astronauts to take-off from the lunar surface to commence their return journey back to Earth and I wished to see if I could spot the flame of the LM’s rockets as it thrusted upward to overcome the gravitational effects of the Moon to reunite with the CSM. 

My father thought about this for a moment, looked at me and pointed me to a building on the Kuala Lumpur skyline, that we could see from our home. At the time, there were not that many tall buildings in Kuala Lumpur, but this building, it was taller than most. It was the building of our Parliament. My father gently asked me if I thought I would be able to spot a glowing firefly exiting one of the windows of Parliament, which was not so far away. I thought about it and shook my head. He then explained that the Moon is 250,000 miles away and very likely it would be very difficult to spot the LM without a telescope. With that, he said it would be better if I went to bed right away! 

There are estimated to be 3500 stamps from various countries commemorating the Apollo 11 lunar landing. This is my favourite stamp. Note the radio - a design of the times. This stamp was issued by the Faroe Islands - a self governing territory of the Kingdom of Denmark.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did have a busy day and were indeed getting ready to take-off. They had installed scientific instruments and erected the American flag on the lunar surface. They had also collected lunar rocks and spoken to President Nixon on a “long distance” call but there was one more task left to do. Remember Vladimir Komorav, the first cosmonaut to die whilst on a human spaceflight mission, and, the Apollo 1 astronauts who died in that tragic fire in 1967: Command Pilot Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White and Pilot Roger Chaffee? 

For their fallen colleagues, it was the final task of Neil Armstrong to leave commemorative medallions bearing their names, on the Moon's surface. On 24 July 1969, Apollo 11 splashed down on in the Pacific Ocean. President John F. Kennedy’s challenge had been met.


Some of the heroines of the space program had to wait a long time to receive recognition. But eventually, their time came: 

  • In 2015, at age 97, Katherine Johnson added another extraordinary achievement to her already long list: President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour and the following year, NASA dedicated the Langley Research Centre, Katherine G. Johnson Computational Building, in her honour. 
  • In 2016, Margaret Hamilton was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barrack Obama for her work leading to the development of on-board flight software for NASA’s Apollo Moon Mission. 
  • In 2019, Mary Jackson was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and in 2020 the Washington, D.C. headquarters of NASA was renamed the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters. 
  • In 2019, Dorothy Vaughan was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and had a crater on the far side of the Moon also named after her. 
The Apollo Missions were estimated to have costs about US$ 26 billion (US$ 150 billion in 2019 terms) 

As for the Soviets, they never gave up. 

On 21 July 1969, while the Apollo 11 astronauts were completing the first human moonwalk, Luna 15, a robotic Soviet spacecraft, in lunar orbit at the time, began its descent to the lunar surface. It had been launched three days before the Apollo 11 mission and it was the second Soviet attempt to return lunar soil back to the Earth with a goal to outstrip the U.S. in achieving a sample return back to Earth in the Space Olympics. Unfortunately for the Soviets, their Luna 15 lander crashed onto the Moon some hours before the scheduled American lift-off from the lunar surface. 

John F. Kennedy never got to see his vision of a landing a man on the Moon and safely returning him back to Earth being realized. On 22 November 1963, he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. 

Some Personal Thoughts:

I should also say that a few days after the moon landing, Cikgu Malik recommended that I be appointed a school prefect. This was a position generally reserved for boys from Standard 6 (Year 6). I think it was our sharing of a special moment in history that motivated him to do on my behalf. 

It is now more than half a century since the fight of the Olympians - African American athletes Tommie Smith and  John Carlos - demonstrating public support for the Black Freedom Movement. It is more than five decades since discrimination was applied to those of colour and of the fairer sex, (and who still gave only their best for the country) in the race for the Moon. Yet today, we still need a "Black Lives Matter" movement. We know that we can go to the Moon and beyond if we make it our goal. Yet in all this time, not all of us have learnt how to respect a fellow human being, irrespective of race, creed, colour or sex . It so very silly. It is so very sad.

All stamps and First Day Covers presented in this post are part of my personal collection.

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