They say that the world always remembers the ‘first’. This is certainly true with Apollo Mission of NASA when mankind first set its foot on the lunar surface. This mission made Neil Armstrong a household name as the first man on the Moon. But we hardly remember that followed by him, the second man to land on the moon was Edwin Aldrin, an Engineer and Astronaut.
Although Neil Armstrong was the mission commander, Aldrin was the Lunar Module pilot. Alumni of MIT, Aldrin was no less charismatic than Armstrong. However, Aldrin will always be remembered for his resourcefulness. An anecdote illustrates his presence of mind, which saved two precious lives:
After their iconic landing on the moon, Armstrong and Aldrin moonwalked for hours on end taking scintillating photographs of the lunar surface. However, when the duo was gathering to return home, they discovered a circuit breaker switch lying around in the capsule. To their horror, it was no ordinary switch, but the one which caused the ascent engine to be triggered. Despondent, Armstrong an Aldrin reported this to the mission control room in Houston. However, the control room could not come up with any solution overnight.
Aldrin’s heart skipped a beat. They had to head back to the home planet since their rations were depleting rapidly; good enough for a few hours. Furthermore, there was no way someone from the earth could fly in and take them home. However, they say that necessity is the mother of invention. On similar lines, adversity is the mother of resourcefulness. The solution was about to arrive in the most ingenious manner.
The felt-tipped pen
The solution arrived in the form of a felt-tipped pen. Aldrin used a pen and pushed it in the opening for the circuit breaker. This presence of mind saved two precious lives and a treasure of wisdom for posterity. In his autobiography, ‘Magnificent Desolation’, Edwin Aldrin mentions the incident succinctly. In his own words:
When we received our wake-up call from Houston, the question of how to handle the broken circuit breaker had still not been solved. After examining it more closely, I thought that if I could find something in the LM to push into the circuit, it might hold. But since it was electrical, I decided not to put my finger in, or use anything that had metal on the end. I had a felt-tipped pen in the shoulder pocket of my suit that might do the job. After moving the countdown procedure up by a couple of hours in case it didn’t work, I inserted the pen into the small opening where the circuit breaker switch should have been, and pushed it in; sure enough, the circuit breaker held. We were going to get off the moon, after all. To this day I still have the broken circuit breaker switch and the felt-tipped pen I used to ignite our engines.
At times, simple knowledge and common sense can solve a myriad of complex problems. The mission control room experts in Houston kept debating a solution for an entire night. However, a small observation and application from the man onboard saved the day.