Hal Laning’s executive program was equal to the crisis. As Instrumentation Lab engineers scrambled to find out what was causing the alarms, the lander’s high-priority tasks–like throttling the rockets–were executing normally. The lander touched down safely; a boxcar executive would have gone off the rails.
Meeting the Enemy
After the command module returned safely to Earth, the celebrations began. The astronauts were given ticker-tape parades, invited to state dinners, and presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A couple of Instrumentation Lab engineers, on the other hand, got to go to Russia.
Richard Battin, his wife Marge, and David Hoag ‘46, SM ‘50, the lab’s program manager for the navigation system’s hardware, were invited to the Soviet Union as guests of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, to tour facilities in Moscow, Leningrad, and Tbilisi, Georgia. “The first night we were in Tbilisi,” Battin says, “there was an important football game going on, and our host wanted to go. So he said, Could you possibly take care of yourself–just have some dinner and then go to the hotel?” But the Battins ventured out on their own, taking a cable car up nearby Mtatsminda Mountain, home to a lovely mausoleum celebrating some Georgian heroes.
On the way back down, the cable car gave a sudden lurch, and Marge, not quite confident in Soviet engineering, grabbed her husband’s hand. Immediately, Battin says, a passenger jumped up and offered Marge his seat. When the other passengers realized that there were Americans in their midst, they crowded round and began questioning them. Battin, who was wearing a pin with an image of the command module on it, managed to explain his presence with the words “lunar Sputnik.” “They were so impressed,” he says, “and they were just so friendly.” One group congratulated Battin with a bottle of champagne; he gave them his button in return. “These were just ordinary people who’d bought some champagne at the top of the mountain,” Battin says, “and they gave it to us.”
The motive for the Apollo program had been competition with the Soviets; a year into the Instrumentation Lab’s work on the navigation system, the United States and the USSR had been on the brink of nuclear war. But these Soviet tourists were as excited as anyone else by the romance of the moonwalk. Neil Armstrong had been right: the flag he planted may have been the United States’, but the accomplishment was mankind’s.
Still, some members of mankind had a bigger hand in it than others. In 1975, in a NASA publication about the moon landing, George Low, who was manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office in the final years leading up to the landing, wrote, “If you had to single out one subsystem as being most important, most complex, and yet most demanding in performance and precision, it would be Guidance and Navigation.” If the moon shot turned the term rocket scientist into the highest accolade that can be paid to human intelligence, then no one had more of a right to it than the engineers at the Instrumentation Lab.