President John F. Kennedy announced a bold initiative in 1961, vowing that America should commit to “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” by the end of the decade. NASA’s Apollo program did just that, eventually landing 12 men on the Moon. Those Apollo astronauts all became instant celebrities, part of an elite club. Today, as the 50th anniversary of those Apollo missions approaches, here’s a look back at a few of the stranger tales from that adventure of a generation.
5. Buzz Aldrin Punched a Moon Landing Conspiracy Theorist
You know Edwin Eugene “Buzz” Aldrin as the man who piloted the lunar module on Apollo 11. He became the second person to walk on the Moon. Most of the pictures taken of Apollo 11 astronauts on the Moon were Neil Armstrong’s photos of Aldrin. And unlike the retiring Armstrong, who passed away in 2012, Aldrin has remained in the celebrity spotlight, writing books and advocating for human missions to Mars, as well as appearing on Dancing With the Stars and The Big Bang Theory.
But there’s one story about Buzz that will warm any space fan’s heart: in 2002, the astronaut was confronted and antagonized by a man named Bart Sibrel, who contended that the Moon landings were a hoax. As Sibrel incessantly pestered Aldrin to “swear on the Bible that he walked on the Moon,” Aldrin repeatedly walked away. But after Sibrel called the astronaut a “coward, a liar and a thief,” Aldrin punched him. The local district attorney declined to press charges against Aldrin, saying he had been provoked into the incident.
4. NASA Hypnotized an Astronaut to Stop His Cursing
This is one of those great stories you just can’t make up. NASA is one of the most transparent government agencies, and astronauts often find themselves live and uncensored. Even today, that can be a problem for anyone who is not careful, but this proved especially true during the Apollo era. Those astronauts were all, by written requirement, drawn from the elite pool of military test pilots, a rough and ready bunch. The story goes that NASA officials were concerned enough about the possibility of astronauts swearing on live TV that they had at least one astronaut hypnotized in an effort to curb the habit. Space historians generally point to Apollo 12 mission commander Pete Conrad as the lead suspect. A Navy man, Conrad had a penchant for cussing like a sailor. The story goes that the psychologist instructed said astronaut to hum whenever he felt like swearing. Conrad is the only astronaut in archival Apollo footage that can be heard humming to himself as he strolled across the lunar surface.
3. Apollo 15 Crew Got into Trouble For ‘Moon Stamps’
Apollo 15 was the fourth crewed mission to land on the Moon and the first mission to feature the lunar rover. But NASA and the Apollo 15 astronauts later found themselves in the middle of a controversy as part of the infamous Apollo 15 postage stamp incident. Prior to launch, a German entrepreneur and stamp collector approached astronauts David Scott and Alfred Worden with a proposal: They would take 398 postage stamp covers to the Moon and back. They would sign 100 of them — which the collector would sell at a later date — and keep the rest as souvenirs. Worden and Scott agreed with the seemingly innocent proposal. Later, the astronauts’ role in the scheme was uncovered. As government employees, this sort of use of public position for personal gain was frowned upon by NASA, although Worden points out in his memoirs that as celebrities, astronauts routinely enjoyed perks such as free cars, houses and more by virtue of their status.
NASA confiscated the stamps. Apollo 15 crewmember James Irwin opted to resign from NASA before any disciplinary action was taken, and NASA reassigned Worden to non-flight duties. Years later, the astronauts got the final word, when they sued NASA and the agency returned the stamps to them.
2. Apollo 8 Astronauts Rushed to Capture the Iconic ‘Earthrise’ Photo
One of the greatest photos in American history almost didn’t happen. In some ways, Apollo 8 was one of the most thrilling of all the Apollo missions, as NASA announced a surprise early shot to orbit the Moon and return astronauts to the Earth over Christmas 1968. As the spacecraft rounded the Moon, the astronauts went into an expected communications blackout period. But an unexpected scene caught them by surprise; as the spacecraft pitched over, the Earth came into view.
The excitement in the voice of astronauts Frank Borman, Bill Anders and James Lovell is apparent as they scramble to grab the camera, find film and take the now iconic shot. Listening to this short NASA audio of the moment, one can just picture the astronauts on the verge of panic as they worry about the photo of a lifetime slipping away. The image topped Life magazine’s list of 100 Pictures That Changed the World.
1. Did Neil Armstrong’s Experience in Disasters Earn Him Apollo 11 Role?
Neil Armstrong crashed his fighter jet into the sea during the Korean War. His Gemini spacecraft went into a spin shortly after docking with an Agena target vehicle in low Earth orbit, forcing Armstrong to undock and perform an emergency reentry. He crashed the “flying bedstead” used for lunar lander training … twice. A “master of disaster,” Armstrong was still selected to pilot the Eagle lunar module on the first Apollo moon landing despite (or maybe because of?) his ability to walk away from a crash. And his levelheadedness in the face of looming catastrophe came in handy, as Armstrong threaded an unexpected boulder field to land the Eagle far from its expected target with only seconds of fuel to spare.
Armstrong’s first words while stepping on the lunar surface were also part of a minor controversy through the years, as “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” doesn’t quite make sense. Armstrong swore he said “for (a) man,” and perhaps he did, inserting the “a” under between breaths in his classic Ohio drawl.
One More: Alan Bean Quit NASA to Become an Artist
Alan Bean was lunar module pilot for Apollo 12 and the fourth man to walk on the Moon. Bean had not originally been scheduled to go to the Moon; he was named as the replacement for astronaut C.C. Williams, who perished in a T-38 crash. Bean also probably saved the day shortly after launch, as he knew how to reset the engine fuel cells with his famous “SCE to Aux” maneuver after lightning struck Apollo 12 during liftoff. That mission was possibly seconds away from being aborted when Bean acted. Bean went into space one more time on Skylab and left NASA in the early 1980s to pursue a career in art. Now an accomplished artist, Bean has painted and depicted many of his experiences in space.