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What Neil Armstrong Saw from His Window As He Landed on the Moon

I was away this weekend at a family function and mostly without internet access, so I didn’t get to watch the coverage of the Moon landing for the first time in more than a decade. I also didn’t get to share a bunch of links I had up in browser tabs and now I think everyone is (justifiably) tired of all the Apollo 11 hoopla, myself included. But I hope you’ll indulge me in just one more and then I’ll (maybe! hopefully!) shut up about it for another year.

It’s tough to narrow it down, but the most dramatic & harrowing part of the whole mission is when Neil Armstrong notices that the landing site the LM (call sign “Eagle”) is heading towards is no good โ€” it’s too rocky and full of craters โ€” so he guides the spacecraft over that area to a better landing spot. He does this despite never having flown the LM that way in training, with program alarms going off, with Mission Control not knowing what he’s doing (he doesn’t have time to tell them), and with very low fuel. Eagle had an estimated 15-20 seconds of fuel left when they touched down and the guy doing the fuel callouts at Mission Control was basically just estimating the remaining fuel in his head based on how much flying he thinks the LM had done…and again, the LM had never been flown like that before and Mission Control didn’t know what Armstrong was up to! (The 13 Minutes to the Moon podcast does an excellent job explaining this bit of the mission, episode 9 in particular.)

Throughout this sequence, there was a camera pointed out Buzz Aldrin’s window โ€” you can see that video here โ€” but that was a slightly different view from Armstrong’s. We’ve never seen what Armstrong saw to cause him to seek out a new landing site. Now, a team at NASA has simulated the view out of his window using data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera:

The LROC team reconstructed the last three minutes of the landing trajectory (latitude, longitude, orientation, velocity, altitude) using landmark navigation and altitude call outs from the voice recording. From this trajectory information, and high resolution LROC NAC images and topography, we simulated what Armstrong saw in those final minutes as he guided the LM down to the surface of the Moon. As the video begins, Armstrong could see the aim point was on the rocky northeastern flank of West crater (190 meters diameter), causing him to take manual control and fly horizontally, searching for a safe landing spot. At the time, only Armstrong saw the hazard; he was too busy flying the LM to discuss the situation with mission control.

This reconstructed view was actually pretty close to the camera’s view out of Aldrin’s window:

See also a photograph of the Apollo 11 landing site taken by the LRO camera from a height of 15 miles.