HUTCHINSON — But for intervention by a close friend of Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11 never would have happened. The first man on the moon would have been Pete Conrad, not Neil Armstrong. The landing would have taken place in October, not on July 20.
Aldrin shared that little-known secret with an estimated 500 guests at a fundraiser for the Kansas Cosmosphere here Saturday night. Among those learning of that secret, apparently for the first time, was Dick Gordon, the command module pilot who flew that Apollo 12 mission alongside Conrad and Alan Bean. He was among several Apollo astronauts, special guests of the Cosmosphere, who shared speaking time with Aldrin
The problem that almost sabotaged Apollo 11 was weight. Aldrin revealed that when the lunar module later made famous as “Eagle” was constructed, it proved to be too heavy for use.
Aldrin disclosed that within the space community, the lunar modules were given numbers correlating with the order in which they came off the production line: the Apollo 11 module assigned to the crew of Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins was designated as LM-5. But, he said, because it proved to be too heavy, it was initially bumped from the flight order.
In those days, he said, NASA wouldn’t simply give the crew a new module. Instead, he said, crew members would have been bumped out of order with the module and “That meant LM-6 would have made the first landing on the moon in mid-October with the crew of Apollo 12.”
As it happened, however, the LM program manager at the time was a long-time buddy of Aldrin who had flown with him in the Air Force prior to the astronaut’s selection by NASA. The program manager stepped in. “He went to NASA and asked, “if I executed a real weight-saving program on 5, will you let (the Apollo 11 mission) happen?” NASA agreed, and Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin rode that module into history. “Three cheers for that individual,” Aldrin said.
Aldrin was among several astronauts who took part in a day-long fund-raiser for the Cosmosphere that included a morning signing of his new book, “Mission To Mars.” It drew 1,200. He briefly alluded to his hope for a manned mission to Mars during his evening remarks. “I won’t live to see it happen, but I do hope to live to see a president commit to it on the 50th anniversary of Neil’s landing on the moon (in 2019),” he said.
Other noteworthy figures from he Apollo era who took part in the event were Fred Haise, lunar module pilot on the famous Apollo 13 mission; Gordon; Joe Engle, the Chapman native who was to have flown aboard the Apollo 17 moon mission until being bumped by Harrison Schmitt because NASA wanted to put a geologist on the moon and Schmidt was the only astronaut with that training; and Walter Cunningham, who flew on Apollo 7. The evening was moderated by shuttle astronaut and Salina native Steve Hawley.
Engle aimed his remarks at youngsters in the audience. Of his replacement by Schmitt on Apollo 17, he said, “Things aren’t always going to go the way you want. If something doesn’t go your way, don’t give up.”
Cunningham told attendees he believes that “500 years from now, there’s only one thing they’ll remember about the 20th Century … that man walked on the moon.”