Before This Decade is Out: The Rise and Fall of the Apollo Program

Chris Kraft looked thoughtfully at the young man sitting across from him. The retired NASA flight director had done enough television interviews after the end of the Apollo program to ignore the cameras, lights, and boom mics that were just out of frame. Rubbing his nose and adjusting his glasses, he answered the interviewer's question.

“A lot of people remember Neil’s words as he came down the ladder off the LEM. ‘One small step for man… one giant leap for mankind.’ But for us at mission control... For us you see, the words that really meant something came about six hours earlier. When we heard Neil say ‘Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed’”

Kraft adjusted his position in his chair. He tired to smooth out his dress shirt and tie. Kraft didn’t often wear the flight controllers’ uniform, a white shirt and dark tie, anymore. However, the request from Tom Hanks’ people had been firm in the look they were hoping to capture with him. A throwback to those golden days 25 years ago. Mission control rooms filled with starched shirts, crew cuts, and horn-rimmed glasses. After finding a more comfortable spot, he continued.

“Charlie Duke said that the whole room was turning blue and that wasn’t a joke. We didn’t even know that Neil was going to say that. Caught us completely off guard. But that was moment that meant the most to us. We’d done it. By God, we’d done it. Landed a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Just like Kennedy said.”

Kraft paused again. His face was shining as he remembered the Apollo 11 landing but quickly the glow vanished from his face.

“Those words were the highlight of Apollo for us. ‘The Eagle has landed.’... Damn it all to hell!”

“What’s wrong”, the young man asked.

“It’s just the whole Apollo program can be summed up in two goddamn sentences.” Kraft said. “‘The Eagle has landed.’ and ‘Houston, we’ve had a problem’.

- Behind the scenes excerpt from Before This Decade is Out: The Rise and Fall of the Apollo Program
This sounds interesting! I've always wondered what would have happened had the Apollo program either not made it to the moon before 1970 or failed during the moon landing. I suppose Nixon is going to have to break out that famous 'in case of failure' moon speech...
Thanks for the kind words. I've been puzzling what this kind of TL would be like for a good long while. @TheBatafour We'll have to see if that's the case. Anyway, without future ado, the second part.

“Okay. We're standing by for 2 minutes to—for the guidance steering in the AGS”, Buzz Aldrin said.

The smell of spent gunpowder was everywhere. Even with his fishbowl helmet locked in place and his spacesuit hooked up to the Lunar Module’s life support systems, Buzz could still smell the moon. Hell, he thought, I can taste it. He tried to ignore the lunar odor as CapCom replied.

Eagle, Houston. You're looking good to us.”

“Roger,” Neil answered.

Ron Evans, CapCom for the ascent, had guided them through the checklist over the last several hours. Keeping one eye on the LM displays, Buzz glanced over one last time to check Neil’s pulley and harness connections. Satisfied, Buzz shifted in place, making sure his connections were snug as well. Overhead somewhere, Mike Collins and Columbia were rapidly making their way towards Eagle.

“Mark”, interrupted Evans. “TIG minus two.”

“Roger. Guidance steering in the AGS”, Buzz responded. The LM guidance system had found Columbia. Less than two minutes left until Eagle cut itself in half and the ascent engine put Buzz, Neil, and around 48 pounds of lunar dirt into orbit and a rendezvous with the CSM.

“Okay. Master Arm On,” Buzz said. Less than a minute left until the ascent engine ignited. Out of the corner of his eye, Buzz saw Neil staring coolly at the controls. Neil’s mouth formed a hard, thin line as the seconds continued to tick down. “DSKY blanks,” Buzz said. Less than 30 seconds were left on the clock. Buzz had forgotten about the smell.

“Got that ascent …”, Neil asked.

Buzz’s heart began to race. Watching the clock and the computer at the same time, Buzz called out cues as the last ten seconds blurred by.

“9, 8, 7, 6, 5—abort stage—engine arm ascent—proceed… Huh?”

A shudder rocked the cabin. Both astronauts looked at each other. The LM was silent and smelled like gunsmoke. Looking back at the displays and dials, Buzz mumbled to himself. “What the hell?”

“Houston”, Neil said. “We’ve had a problem.”


Glynn Lunney, Flight Director for the ascent, froze mid pace. “Have them repeat that.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, his mind began to race towards different scenarios and abort modes.

Ron Evans keyed up his mic. “This is Houston. Please repeat Eagle.”

“Houston, we’ve had a problem”, Armstrong answered. “We do not have have APS start. We do not have EDS activation. Repeat, we do not have ascent.”

Evans stammered “C—copy Eagle. We copy that you do not have APS start or EDS start”.

Lunney looked at his Black team. Already the Flight Director’s loop was being to overflow with voices confirming that Eagle had failed to lift of from the lunar surface. Flight controllers and astronauts called out what they could see. While voices were taunt with concern, there was no panic. Each controller informed him of the their situation and was reaching out to their backroom teams for assistance. His own mind filled to the brim with possible courses of action, Lunney deliberately paused for a mental breath.

“Quite down, people”, Lunney said. The room lowered to a murmur. Stale coffee and soldering cigarettes forgotten as his team waited for direction. “Okay. We are going to work this problem from every angle. Let’s figure out what went wrong. How it went wrong. And what we need to do to fix it. We’ve got two of our own down there and we are not going to screw this up.” He paused for another breath. “Let’s go around the horn. CapCom, let our guys know we’re working the problem”

Eagle, Houston. We are working the problem”, Evans said.


“Once again, for those of you tuning in just now, the a—the liftoff of Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin did not happen this afternoon”, said Walter Cronkite. The seasoned news man calmly narrated the failure of Eagle to lift off from the moon’s surface and rendezvous with the orbiting Columbia spacecraft and their crew member Mike Collins.

“With the failure of the Lunar Module ascent propulsion system engine to fire, the astronauts will remain on the moon’s surface until a solution can be found. As NASA has reported earlier, they and the Grumman Corporation, designers of the Lunar Module, are working on all possible efforts to get the astronauts safely into lunar orbit. At this time—”

“Jesus Christ!” Richard Nixon cursed again at the television coverage. “Turn that goddamn thing off! Turn it off!”

Sitting in the executive office, the president looked at his Chief of Staff, Bob Haldeman. Halderman walked across the room and turned off the television.

“Bob! How the fuck did this happen? Why? Goddamn it, I want answers.”

“NASA is still uncertain, Mr. President.”

“Well they better get certain. No—I don’t give a shit about certain. I want those damn astronauts back. Home. Do you hear me. I don’t want any damn dead astronauts on the moon. Jesus Christ, Bob! Jesus Christ, can you think about it. Just look up at the moon and there’s two dead AMERICAN astronauts. No. NO. Get them back Bob. Damn it! Get them back.”

“Mr. President, I think we need—”

“I swear to God if you say ‘review all the options’”.

“—review all the options.” Haldeman sighed heavily. The president had been eloquently profane since the news of Apollo 11’s… troubles had broke earlier. At this moment he was angry at NASA. But earlier, he had spent ten solid minutes cursing out Kennedy and Johnson for saddling him with the program.

“Mr. President”, Haldeman said. “We need to consider this. Your speech team prepared a statement if something—unforeseen were to happen to the astronauts while attempting the moon landing.”

“Fine. Damn it all to hell. Where is it”, the president asked. Haldeman pulled a two paged memorandum out of a folder and placed it on the president's desk. Nixon glanced at the memos title and began reading. "In event of moon disaster", he mumbled. "Jesus Christ."
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35 hours. Glynn Lunney knew the math. The lunar module had five batteries in the descent stage and 2 batteries in the ascent stage totaling 35 hours of nominal charge. Eagle had been on the moon for just under 22 hours when Armstrong and Aldrin had reported the failure for lunar ascent. Which meant that Eagle had 13 hours of life left. But that had been two hours ago. Unless Gene Kranz’ tiger team of flight controllers could squeeze more juice out of her, Eagle had just over 11 hours of life left. It was just one of the rapidly whirling pieces of data flying through Lunney’s brain as his Black team came prepared for their next attempt to get two astronauts off the surface of the moon. After two hours of working the problem, Ron Evans at CapCom was preparing Aldrin and Armstrong for their next attempt.

“Okay, people”, Lunney said over the main loop. “We’re reset. We’re ready. I don’t want anyone panicking. Call out any issues you see. Go-No go for ascent. Retro?”


As flight controllers called out in the affirmative, Lunney thought about another number working against them. 119 minutes. The time it took Columbia and Collins to orbit the moon. He knew that if Eagle had trouble getting into a high enough orbit Collins could use the CSM to get Armstrong and Aldrin. But that still was predicated on the two astronauts actually getting off the surface. Collins had handled the news of his crew members problem with the same professionalism that everyone in the MOCR had shown. At first, Collins had assumed that Armstrong and Aldrin had just failed to reach the 60 odd nautical miles for orbit and had asked for a pad so he could get them. His responses since had been curt.

“Okay,” Aldrin said over the air to ground loop. “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5.”

Lunney closed his eyes.

“Abort stage. Engine arm Ascent—proceed.”

Silence from the air to ground loop. The flight loop was already calling out the bad news.

“Houston, Eagle”, Armstrong said. “We have a negative for APS engine start.”


The air in the tiger team office was foul. Whole cartons worth of cigarette butts were jabbed into a handful of ashtrays. The aroma of stale sweat and stale coffee mixed together with the blue haze. Dozens of LM engineering manuals scattered every available surface while poster sized schematics and engineering sketches were pinned to the wall in haphazard fashion.

Short-sleeved young men talked and gestured around the chaos. Chris Kraft entered the office looking for Gene Kranz. As he looked among the dozen or so flight controllers, he noticed a 24 hour wall clock with hour 13 circled in permanent marker. Checking his watch, it looked like the clock had been set to reach hour 13 when Eagle’s batteries would run out.

“What have you got for me Gene,” Kraft asked.

Kranz looked up from a conversation with team. He motioned for Kraft to step outside of the office and into the hallway. As the volume fell away, Kranz cleared his throat.

“It’s not good Chris.”

“Hell, I know it’s not good. But what are our options?”

“We’ve already tired a reset this orbit”, Kranz said. “And it was a no go. The problem is the EDS. The descent stage won’t cut itself loose so the APS won’t fire.”

“Not that we’d want that with the descent stage still hanging onto the LM all the way to orbit,” Kraft replied.


“So, what’s the next step? Manual abort?”

“That’s going to be it. Everything from the MOCR says that the systems are working,” Kranz replied. “I’ve got Grumman tearing their hair out looking for the possible failure point.”

“Those poor bastards are not going to be happy when this is over”, Kraft said. “You don’t have this big a fubar and expect everyone to just let it go.”

“Yeah” Kranz said. “As far as batteries, we think we can get to 40 without any real problems. Powering down the LM more could cause problems with trying to perform the ascent. And We’ve never tried powering down the systems and then restarting them on the surface.”

“And we’re damn well not going to do now”, Kraft said.


“NASA officials have just reported that the manual abort fire in the hole attempt has been unsuccessful.” Walter Cronkite was beginning to look tired during the latest emergency alert news broadcast. Sitting next to him was former astronaut Wally Schirra. “Mr. Schirra, perhaps you could help the audience at home understand what this means?”

“Of course Walter. As you know, the LM or lunar module is actually separate pieces. The bottom or descent stage and the upper or ascent stage.” Schirra spoken confidently but with an easy going manner to make his explanation understandable for the television audience. “If Eagle failed—er, was unsuccessful at landing on the moon, the abort or fire in the hole would separate the two parts of the LM and carry the Neil and Buzz back to the moons orbit. NASA tried to do that on the moon's surface as a to ‘jumpstart’ Eagle off the moon.”

“But has been reported, this was not successful”, Cronkite said.

“Right. That means that NASA will need to work on another solution.”

“At this time astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin have been on the lunar surface for a little over 26 hours. Which is 4 hours past the planned surface stay time. While—”

“We found it.” John Aaron burst into the tiger team office trailed by several Grumman engineers.

“Is it fixable”, Gene Kranz asked.


At Aaron’s answer, the room was silent. All eyes were turned to the young engineer.

“Explain”, Kranz said.

“It’s this circuit right here.” Aaron smoothed out a schematic and circled the problem with a grease pencil. “It’s got no redundancies. The CDR, LMP, and abort commands all run through it. And it’s buried in the guts of the descent stage.”

“Damn it”, said Kranz.

“It’s bad—”

“No. You don’t understand. Damn that answer.” Kranz looked at his team. “I don’t give one shit about this circuit. Figure out how we get our men off that moon.”


“Okay, Houston, that completes the last step.” Buzz Aldrin nodded to Neil Armstrong as they finished off the checklist. The LM seemed a little quieter but he really couldn’t tell. The procedures to reduce LM power draw had taken the better part of an hour. But he was starting to get sore. Being strapped into his harness and pulley system for the last six hours was wearing on his muscles. Almost like he was hearing Buzz’s thoughts, Ron Evans replied.

Eagle, Houston. We copy that. At this time we recommend you disengage your harness systems and get a bite to eat. Over.”

“Houston, Eagle”, Neil said. “You want us to de-harness and eat? Over.”

Eagle, Houston. That’s affirmative. We are not going to attempt a ascent attempt on Columbia’s next pass. You all need a break. Over.”

“Houston, Eagle. We copy that and will—take a break. Over.” Neil looked over at Buzz. “I guess we take a break.”

“Yeah”, Buzz said. “We’ll take a break.”
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So how are they gonna get off the moon, Apollo 12 rescue missions?
I don't know. The astronauts of Apollo 11 may end up... I can't see Apollo 12 finished in time not to mention it would have to be redesigned to fit six, not just three.
@TrumanJohnson @Luath
I'm glad you're enjoying it so far. I've had to take a brief pause until tomorrow. My buddy who helped with the technical details of the TL was away until yesterday and updated me on exactly what was the failure point and how bad it would be (worse than currently written :tiredface:). So I have to rewrite the last post before I can continue.

Hopefully it will be worth the wait.
I don't know. The astronauts of Apollo 11 may end up... I can't see Apollo 12 finished in time not to mention it would have to be redesigned to fit six, not just three.

Five technically, the Columbia would be able to get Young back to Earth by herself, leaving Apollo 12 to achieve pick up, but the Intrepid, 12s lem, would need to land within walking distance of the Eagle, carry the four up and then Armstrong and Alderin would have to be secured inside Yankee Clipper. This reminds me of the thought experiment included at the end of the Space Shuttle Columbia accident report, what could have been done if we had know about the wing damage early, it would have involved a very risky rush job on another Shuttle. Given the complexities of advancing a Space Shuttle by one month I shudder to think what it would take to get a Saturn VI out early.
Just for the fun of it - would the Aliens who are watching, realise something was wrong and lend a hand, or would that blow their cover too much!!?

In event of moon disaster. The speech Nixon never gave IRL. I'd imagine Nixon sitting in the Oval Office delivering the speech written by William Safire if Eagle's batteries died.
I don't know. The astronauts of Apollo 11 may end up... I can't see Apollo 12 finished in time not to mention it would have to be redesigned to fit six, not just three.
Actually the Apollo Capsule was designed to hold 6 in case it was used as a rescue ship in Earth Orbit. That is one thing,it would touchdown rather quickly. It carrying 5-6 from the moon I doubt it could.
Actually the Apollo Capsule was designed to hold 6 in case it was used as a rescue ship in Earth Orbit. That is one thing, it would touchdown rather quickly. It carrying 5-6 from the moon I doubt it could.
The modifications for 6 in the CSM were mostly for Skylab. And it was designed to hold 5 (a lighter crew for rescue scenarios). Apollo crews knew that there was no conceivable hope for rescue if a problem developed with the LEM on the surface. Armstrong called it his worst nightmare.

The problem with a "The Martian" style rescue isn't just that it takes a few ways to fly a CSM-LEM from Earth to Moon, the problem is that you can't just leave anytime you want to. In order to target a certain landing site, you have to leave at a particular time of the month, otherwise you may be landing in total darkness, or have to burn so much fuel as to make the return to Earth a risky prospect. If Armstrong and Aldrin are getting off the Moon, short of ASB's or a change in Apollo's procedures, the Eagle is the only way to go.

Apologies if I've spoiled or ruined anything here. I'm on the edge of my seat.