Mission Critical Decision Making

What does the number “1201” mean to you? Lunch time? Early December? For me, it takes me to to the Apollo 11 moon landing. Let me explain.

Eagle separation from Columbia

At 2:12 PM (ET) on July 20, 1969, astronaut Mike Collins triggered the springs that pushed two spacecraft apart. “Beautiful,” he exclaimed as he peered through the window of the Command Module, Columbia. Apollo 11 Mission Commander Neil Armstrong rotated the Eagle, giving Collins a good look at the lunar module.

“You’re looking good,” Collins confirmed.

“Roger,” Armstrong responded. “The Eagle has wings.”

With lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin aboard as well, Armstrong said simply, “See you later,” and headed for the moon’s surface. After aeons of humanity staring into the night sky and dreaming, today was to be the first time human beings would set foot on the moon.

The Eagle’s sixty-two mile journey toward the moon’s surface was to take about two hours. On the decent, emergency alarms began to ring. An emergency code appeared on all their screens: “1201. 1201.1201.” Searching the nearby notebooks, Mission Control discovered the problem. The guidance computer was overloaded, and struggling to keep up. The Eagle was approaching the moon for a landing, but it was not decelerating as it should, and was traveling too fast.  But should they abort? How serious was a 1201?

After some discussion, the CapCom in Houston, Charlie Duke, radioed, “Still a go for landing.” Eleven times the alarm bells rang.  Eleven times the Eagle was given a go. But Houston was growing nervous. Something was going wrong with the Eagle’s guidance computer system at the most critical point in the mission. “1201. 1201. 1201.”

The astronauts aboard the lunar module showed no panic. But they were distracted. Armstrong was searching the lunar landscape for a suitable place to land the Eagle, and his concentration was interrupted repeatedly by the shrill alarms. “1201. 1201. 1201.” Now, as they approached five hundred feet over the moon, he didn’t like what he saw. The over-loaded guidance and navigation system was flying the Eagle toward a crater filled by immense boulders. He thought if he could stop the module just short of the crater, they would be all right. But it soon became obvious that they wouldn’t be able to stop in time to avoid a potentially disastrous impact with one of the threatening boulders.”1201.” A decision had to be made.

In opposition to protocol, Armstrong reverted to being a test pilot. He took control of the Eagle and flew it manually, as if he were flying a helicopter, looking to “land long,” in a pilot’s vocabulary. At that point, the module was pitched slightly forward. Armstrong brought it fully upright to slow its rate of descent. As Aldrin called out various readings of their altitude and velocity, Armstrong—standing, peering out of a small triangular window, gripping the hand controllers—scanned the surface for a safe place to land. For agonizing minutes, he could not find one. But the experience and steady calm of the pilot and his hours of training made him well suited to the challenge.

Apollo 11 Launch Control
Apollo 11 Launch Control

In Houston, they didn’t know what was happening. Their computers told them that Armstrong had assumed manual command from the guidance computer. But they didn’t know about the crater. And they didn’t know why the Eagle hadn’t landed. All they could hear was Buzz Aldrin reading out numbers of altitude.There was a calmness in his voice. From the sensors attached to the astronauts’ bodies, they could see that Armstrong’s heart was racing at 156 beats per minute, twice its normal rate. And there was that persistent, “1201. 1201. 1201.”

Houston also knew that the Eagle was nearly out of fuel. At 260 feet, Aldrin glimpsed the Eagle’s shadow. Between 200 and 160 feet, Armstrong saw where he wanted to land, just past another smaller crater. A little below 100 feet, however, their engine blast began to kick up clouds of lunar dust that obscured surface visibility. At 75 feet, Duke told the astronauts they had sixty seconds of fuel remaining. Fully occupied with flying the module, the astronauts did not radio any response, and everyone in Houston was becoming seriously worried.

With still no idea what Armstrong and Aldrin were doing, Flight Director Gene Kranz told Duke to remind them that “there ain’t no gas stations on the moon.” Duke informed them that they had thirty seconds before their fuel was exhausted. Again, no response, just Aldrin continuing to report the numbers: “Forty feet, down two and a half. Picking up some dust. Thirty feet, two and a half down. . . . Four forward, four forward. Drifting to the right a little.”

“1201. 1201. 1201.”

You could hear a feather drop,” Kranz said. He and everyone else at Mission Control knew that, for the time being, they were no longer part of the decision making for Apollo 11. Neil Armstrong had assumed sole authority for landing the Eagle. Houston, in a state of unbearable anxiety, waited to learn if he had made the right decisions, mission critical decisions made on the spot  in the middle of a crisis. Life or death teeters at the fulcrum.

At fifty feet from the moon’s surface, it was too late to abort. Still, Armstrong hadn’t reached a safe place to land. But at this point, Armstrong believed the Eagle was close enough to survive even a crash landing intact. “I knew we were getting short. I knew we had to get it on the ground. . . . But I wasn’t panic-stricken about the fuel. I had faith.”

As he slowed the module’s descent, the swirling dust confused his perception of depth and speed. The Eagle began to drift first backward and then sideways, as a frustrated Armstrong pumped the hand controllers to correct it. The poor visibility, as well as the worry over the nearly exhausted fuel, made it as stressful a landing as most pilots could bear.

Armstrong was so intent on his job, he didn’t hear Aldrin report that the light signaling contact with the surface had flashed on, with fifteen seconds of fuel left. And he had settled the Eagle down so gently that he hadn’t felt it make contact with the moon. He intended to kill the engine at contact to prevent pressure from its exhaust from damaging the module. As soon as he realized a moment later that he had managed to land the Eagle safely, he shut off the engine. In Houston, the controllers, to their intense relief, had heard Aldrin affirm contact and state “engines stop.” Almost as if he were querying the astronauts, Charlie Duke radioed, “We copy you down, Eagle?”

Tranquility Base

A second later, Armstrong announced, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

“Tranquility Base.” Never before had the term been used, even in training.  “Roger, Tranquility,” a surprised and delighted Duke responded. “You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”

A wonderful true story, with a quick application. Many times in our lives, we are forced to make tough decisions. Sometimes these decisions are so key that they affect our  lives and futures deeply.  At these times, when we wish we could pause and think, we are often overloaded and under stress. Time presses. Blood pressure rises. Normal guidance feels like its failing. “1201.1201.1201!” The alarm bleats in our souls and minds. Dust kicks up, and the smooth places seem obscured.

At that moment, how do you handle the mission critical decisions?What do you do with your 1201?

Armstrong fell back on four things, which allowed the mission and the lives of the astronauts to be saved:

  • focus (learning to put first things first)
  • training (disciplined preparing beforehand for future events or crises)
  • team-work (utilizing and trusting others to help you succeed)
  • faith (a deep sense that all of this will work out, with God’s help)

So, let me ask:  What do you need to focus on right now? How are you training? How is your team? How is your faith?

Few know that on the morning of July 20, Aldrin radioed, “Houston, this is Eagle. This is the LM pilot speaking. I would like to invite each person listening in, whoever or wherever he may be, to contemplate for a moment the events of the last few hours, and give thanks in his own individual way.” Privately, he took Communion and read from Scripture, “I am the vine, and you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit.” Reflecting on this event sometime later, he said, “It was interesting for me to think: the very first liquid ever poured on the Moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the Communion elements.”

“1201.” It seems a part of modern life. For many of us, the hours of our days seem pressed by emergency codes.  We’re searching for our own Tranquility Base. Mission critical decisions need to be made, and soon.  Normal guidance systems seemed to have failed. For me, trust is the answer.

Trust your preparation.  Trust others.  Trust God.

Aldrin, Eagle, and Earthrise

Edited and sourced from Salter, Mark (2007). “Hard Call: Great Decisions and the Extraordinary People Who Made Them”

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8 comments

  1. Extremely well said, Brad. We all have “mission critical” moments every day. I wish for every one I’m faced with I could possess the calmness and cool head Neil Armstong showed that July day in 1969. I remember the day well. Driving down the “101” from Atherton, CA to San Francisco coming back from a party at my new boss’ house. I was listening intently to the broadcast of the landing on my car radio.

  2. I was 8 years old at the time, and watching breathlessly on an old black-and-white TV set as the Eagle set down. Thanks for sharing this account from Mark Salter and its associated lessons. I am a church elder going through some rough waters right now with potentially harmful dissensions in the congregational family. But your (and Armstrong’s) reminders towards focus, training, teamwork, and faith – properly practiced – are helping calm the seas of doubt and second-guessing I’ve been been passing through just this evening. Blessings to you, Brother Brad.

  3. The picture of “Aldrin, Eagle, and Earthrise” is false, the Earth was not visible on this picture.
    If you look carefully at the picture of the Earth, you see a rectangle around it where it was cut and paste into this Apollo 11 picture, taken by Neil Armstrong. The picture of the Earth was taken on the Apollo 8 mission.

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