On July 5th, 1969 – just 11 days before Apollo 11 would launch for the Moon – Neil Armstrong was asked by a journalist whether he would take any personal mementos to the Moon. His answer: “If I had a choice, I would take more fuel”.
This anecdote has been repeated often as an example of how Armstrong was ever the straight-laced engineer, thinking cooly about what the mission required rather than what he personally might want.
But a less-repeated anecdote from James Hansen’s biography of Armstrong, First Man, might suggest otherwise.
NASA’s Apollo astronauts were a highly intelligent and skilled group, with training in a number of areas considered crucial to their mission. While most people think of the ‘space’ aspects – flying the spacecraft, using a spacesuit in low gravity/zero oxygen – another important area was actually geology, as part of their task was to analyze the Moon’s surface and bring back samples.
So much so that NASA’s geologists would claim that the astronauts had received the equivalent of a master’s degree in geology by the end of their training. Although for Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong would later say that their training could have been more effective and targeted at the regolith they would encounter by landing in a lunar ‘sea’.
We had very fine instructors who were very knowledgeable about astrogeology… We went to Hawaii, to Iceland, great places to focus on volcanic rocks. The assumption was that on the Moon we would encounter tectonic formations principally, or remnants of volcanic and tectonic lava flows, that sort of thing.
This comprehensive training led Armstrong to think of a way to have some fun with the NASA geologists back home – a plan that seems very much at odds with his public persona:
I was very tempted to sneak a piece of limestone up there with us on Apollo 11 and bring it back as a sample. That would have upset a lot of apple carts! But we didn’t do it.
Perhaps once again the engineer in Armstrong decided he’d rather have more fuel than carry a fake rock at launch just to pull off an otherworldly prank. Or perhaps as the commander of the mission, he ultimately decided it would be unseemly to partake in fun and games.
Whatever the reason, I wonder how long he would have kept the prank going if he did go through with it?
And how would the ‘Moon hoax’ conspiracy folk have run with it…?