Returning to the Moon

We returned to the Moon, half a century later, to recover the bodies of the first men to walk in that magnificent desolation.

Published . 2844 words.

It’s been a few decades since we returned to the Moon, and so now feels like the right time to write about why we went back. I was the fourth human to walk on the Moon, and part of the first crew to successfully return from that airless rock. My contemporaries know this, but I write for our grandchildren, who wonder why their forebears were so late to escape the nest.

I was not alive on July twentieth of that year; my parents were still in grade school. They’ve told me some of what happened, but you must allow me the literary license to novelize a little. The Space Race was a romantic age.

Imagine sitting in front of a tiny screen, listening to scratchy analog audio from the television box’s single speaker as the newscaster with grave excitement tosses the broadcast over to the live satellite transmission from the Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas, where the brave men and women of the National Aeronautic and Space Administration were tensely waiting for the two astronauts to confirm that they had landed.

Everyone you knew was waiting. Normally you would have Sunday School this afternoon, but your parents, and the parents of all your friends, were letting you skip this once so you could see the temporal future of mankind. Everyone in town was talking about nothing but this Moon landing; even the brand new war in Central America barely made the headlines.

Still waiting.

Beside you on the couch, your father reached out to hold your mother’s hand. The ice in the glass in his other hand clinked gently as he set it down on the end table.

Outside, the hazy sky grumbled with the far-off thunder of a departing airliner from the airport. The skies were clear as could be, the sun hot and the air thick with the day’s humidity. There was no rain in the forecast; the windows of your house were thrown wide to capture any passing breeze.

The only sound coming from the TV was the silent hiss of the carrier wave, the screen showing a mostly-still Mission Control.

The TV screen changed, the camera returning to the TV studio where the newscaster shuffled the papers on his desk.

“We’re waiting for confirmation from Houston, but there appears to be a problem with the audio feed from NASA. We’re sorry to say that we won’t be able to bring you the live audio or video of the first Moon landing this afternoon, as we had planned, but we’ll let you know when we have confirmation from NASA that the first men on the Moon have landed.”

Your father made a wordless noise in his throat; you turned to look. Your mother still held his one hand; his other hand covered his face.

She turned to you, saying, “Dear, you should go find your friends. I’m sure they’re as disappointed as you about missing the broadcast.”

So you went outside, and found your friends, and spent the afternoon in outdoor play, while the adults in your neighborhood shut off the televisions, and cleaned up the snacks, and did the dishes, and tried too hard not to think about the silent feed.

You lived in Huntsville, Alabama, which at the time was very much a factory town for the Marshall Space Flight Center. Everyone in town worked for NASA, directly or indirectly. While the children were at play, the adults turned on the radios, and tensely waited, and waited, and waited for a word that would never come.

And if that night you noticed your mother’s eyes were red, or your father fidgeting with his handkerchief, or if your parents wore black the next week, or if church that week was more somber than usual, you were a child, and you paid no attention, or forgot.

The nation did not forget.


Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by the nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

Richard Nixon’s speech to the nation


Michael Collins piloted Columbia back to Earth, following the original mission profile, and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, and was recovered by the USS Hornet. His last two appearances before he retired from public life were the funerals of his fellow astronauts.

The investigations into the loss of the Eagle took several years; by that point the Cold War had passed its height. The Soviets never launched for the Moon; they caught too much side-channel leakage from the American investigations and either got too scared to launch or decided that the Americans would never launch, and so saved some money. The race to the Moon ended with Apollo 11.

The final Apollo 11 Commission report can be found in many engineering libraries, or on the Internet, but its conclusion was simple. The spacecraft and those aboard were lost due to an unknown fault in the spacecraft, and until the fault was identifiable, the commission could not recommend the continued use of the Apollo Lunar Excursion Module mission architecture. The remaining LEMs were mothballed.

The remaining Saturn V rockets were used to launch humanity’s first space stations. In time we developed modular space stations that didn’t have to be lifted in one piece, and switched to smaller launchers.

International cooperation led to improvements in human spaceflight, but we never sent humans back to the Moon. The very topic was taboo. In times of curiosity, we sent satellites that observed the Moon from a respectful distance. In times where our collective attention was elsewhere, the Moon remained overhead, a stark monument to human hubris.

By the time I was born, we knew roughly what we’d find on the Moon. NASA’s recordings of the transmissions from the moon told us when the Eagle lost thrust, and of the crew’s seven seconds of attempts to relight the engine before impact. Remote imaging showed us the crater and the spaceship’s remains. Laboratory impact tests and simulations confirmed imagery and telemetry’s suggestions that the LEM had fallen, unpowered, in the Moon’s one-sixth gravity for about seven seconds. It hit at about 25 miles per hour vertical, and that slow-speed glancing collision was enough to permanently disable the vehicle and her astronauts. The cause of the shutdown was still unknown, but imagery could at least confirm that the vehicle had landed intact. Armstrong had not fully canceled the LEM’s horizontal speed when power was lost; the LEM rolled to a rest against a boulder. It lay fully on one side, the ascent module slightly squashed. You can find the first images in the color insert in this paperback, or in higher quality online.

We assumed that the Armstrong and Aldrin died, if not during the initial incident, then upon impact. It was unbearable to think that we had abandoned two humans to die on the Moon, with no way to rescue them or even give them last words.

No spaceship built afterwards lacked fully-redundant control systems, tankage, engines. Yes, our craft were less efficient, but after spending too many nights staring at the Moon, our engineers blinked, and determined that that they were willing to pay the cost of safety. The politicians agreed.

By the time I was old enough to fly, I wanted to be an astronaut.

No mud-slinging ground job for me; I wanted to be a rockhopper out in the asteroid belt, flying teakettle with the planetary geologists exploring the origins of our solar system. Microgravity was safe compared to gravity wells; it’s where the collective human endeavor was directed. Leave gravity to the robots, which are expendable. Humans are not.

Did I ever dream of walking on an extraterrestrial ground? I cannot say. But more than once I stood and watched the Moon, picking out Mare Tranquillitatis on the Moon’s face, and felt the rain with my cheeks. Not in sadness or in sorrow, but some deeper feeling of loss for an unknown future.

By the time I finished flight school, and proved myself enough to be recruited for the human spaceflight program, there was a movement to bring our boys home. To bring all the boys home, no matter where they lay. That America, and by extension all Earth, had a duty to its children to bring them home safely if they found their way into trouble, or to retrieve their bodies if their lives had been lost.

The movement started on Everest, but it continued in every place. As a testament to the idea’s seriousness, volunteers plucked every lost ringjumper out of the spokes of Saturn’s B Ring. Maybe it was a fad, maybe it was madness, maybe it was the touch of the divine upon our brains. The anthropologists have reading for you if you want it. This fever to recover lost bodies was what finally brought us to the Moon.

Between Zeus, god of thunder and sky, and Selene, the Moon, lies their daughter Pandia, the brightness of the full moon. You can read the details of the Pandia mission planning in other sources: how we chased the cobwebs off of old mission plans, forged new landers to safely land where no human had ever walked, paid for those costs and bought the political will to pull off the most-dangerous, most-emotionally-fraught sample return mission ever conducted. There are authors who can turn timelines into beautiful prose; I am not one of them.

On July 20, 2019, the four ships of Pandia IV landed: two uncrewed backup landers, two crewed.

You can read elsewhere the full transcript of what we four humans on the Moon did during our time there, the steps we took to preserve the final resting place of the Eagle, the thousands of work-hours that went into designing the monument we erected there. Somewhere, I’m sure, you can listen to each individual breath I took as I hopped across that gray surface. You can listen to our every grunt as we worked to install the props and sensors that the fully-robotic Pandia II and Pandia III missions did not. Watch the compressed-air cans we carried blow regolith off the crumpled sides of this glittering where recent impact craters had showered the dust of ages upon this metallic tomb.

When we finally pushed open the LEM hatch, we found it empty. The hatch was unlocked; Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and their spacesuits were missing.

In these sort of situations, where you don’t know what’s gone wrong with the plan, but there isn’t an urgent need to do something, you don’t do anything. Or you do what is safe. So we retreated from the LEM, leaving its hatch propped open for the camera snakes that were already slithering towards it.

Safely back inside our landers, across the imperceptible time lag of the laser link between the two teleconferenced landers, we discussed with ourselves what to do. CAPCOM in its distant orbit listened, and occasionally contributed something to our discussion from that remote command post. CAPCOM knew that with the original mission aborted and no fallback task list to complete, we would quickly grow bored.

Maybe your schools are different from ours, in the far-flung future where you read this story, but every school I’ve visited or attended has had the concept of “busy work”, where the students kill time by doing things that they already know how to do, things that are not essential to the pedagogic task. Sometimes it’s because the teachers have no plan, or there are no teachers, or the lesson plan no longer applies to the school’s situation. For the next two days on the Lunar surface, we took samples and collected imagery and maintained our little outpost of humanity in the gray ocean.

Over meals we continued discussing possibilities; I am happy that those private conversations and confidences were not published as part of the mission log. We made some rather boneheaded guesses on the second day, after we had run out of clever guesses. We First Four are human, but cannot be too human in the public eye.

On the fourth day we finished packing our samples and went home. It was the most successful human mission to the Moon, but without the bodies we had come to collect, it felt like a failure.

The imagery analysts eventually figured out what had happened; you can read their reports online as well. The debate raged: Did “bring our boys home” apply when there was no living relative to accept the bodies? When it looked like the formerly-living were content to lie where they lay? If the bodies’ placement signified more than the act of bringing them home?

Subsequent Pandia missions erected domes over Eagle and above the astronauts’ final resting place, to preserve them from bombardment, but we left the astronauts where they lay.

Armstrong and Aldrin survived the crash landing without major hurt, though Armstrong complained of a twisted ankle and Aldrin had broken two fingers. After determining that the spacecraft radios had stopped working, they spent a while debating courses of action, listening to the faint hiss of air escaping the capsule through a hidden leak. They discussed leaving a note, but left none. When they left, they took with them the Lunar Flag Assembly and the goodwill messages disk, the flare gun, and tools sufficient to remove the commemorative plaque from the leg of the LEM.

We found marks that suggested they had examined the radio antenna, before abandoning it as irretrievably crumpled. Their footprints were covered by regolith from a pair of nearby minor impact craters. These impacts happened sometime in the early 1970s before we had imagery in orbit of a high enough resolution to capture their footprints. We can’t tell where they walked, when they walked near Apollo 11.

I believe that Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walked together around their impact site. They chipped a sample from the rock and took it with them, and stowed that sample in Armstrong’s in-case-of-abort thigh sample pocket.

The two men turned and walked, side-by-side, to the peak of the highest crater they could see. Here we can trace their footprints: always beside each other, never overlapping. They walked around the crater for a while, discussing whether to set out for a higher peak or to remain on this one.

Because they were American, they planted the flag and saluted it.

Because they were human, at the base of the flagpole they placed the memorials and the flare gun, which had failed to fire in vacuum.

They found a boulder, propped their life-support packs against its lifeless surface.

They watched the Sun set.