Sure, it's easy to look back and play "What if?" "What would have happened if JFK had screwed himself into a sex coma minutes before he was scheduled to get in that convertible in Dallas? Or if John Wilkes Booth had been accosted by an overzealous opium salesman on his way to Ford's Theatre? Or if Amelia Earhart had been a good cook?" We could play history games all day.
But you don't need a killer imagination to see how little, insignificant details have changed everything ...
5The Felt-Tip Pen That Won the Moon
The moon landing story we know is already pretty kickass: Apollo 11 rode a trail of fire to the moon, stabbed it in the heart with an American flag, won the universe for the USA and sailed home on rockets fueled by eagle blood. Every kindergartener knows that. But behind the scenes, things weren't quite so perfect. For example, did you know Buzz Aldrin nearly murdered all three of the astronauts with one misstep?
Sometimes trust is the same as insanity.
While bumbling around the Eagle, Aldrin stepped on a switch. Which switch? The circuit breaker that would power the ship off the moon in order to rendezvous with Michael Collins in the Columbia. That switch. In fact, we have the transcript documenting how the whole thing went down:
Aldrin: Houston, Tranquility. Do you have a way of showing the configuration of the engine arm circuit breaker? Over. (Pause) The reason I'm asking is because the end of it appears to be broken off. I think we can push it back in again. I'm not sure we could pull it out if we pushed it in, though. Over.
Don't let the tone fool you -- the conversation was the equivalent of the Titanic calmly asking if there was a way to repair an iceberg stab wound. Since the breaker for the engine was the only thing that could fire the engine to get them off the moon, Aldrin inadvertently Apollo Thirteened the whole mission. After telling mission control, they were advised to sleep a few hours while Houston came up with a plan to fire Eagle back up. As if pondering the implications of getting Gilligan's Islanded on the moon was good nap fuel.
The Tiny Thing That Saved the Day:
Instead of catching some shut eye, Aldrin weighed their options. He couldn't use his finger or anything with a metal tip because the circuit was electrical; he'd fry the ship. Ultimately, Aldrin MacGyvered the situation with a simple solution: a felt-tip pen. He found that an ordinary pen could fit in nicely where the breaker once was. And it was a good thing, because if it hadn't, the triumph of the American space program could have ended in a crippling tragedy. And we'd probably all be Soviets by now.
Speaking of ...