It may have been one small step for a man and a giant leap for mankind, but for Steve Bales it was the cue for a very long nap.
The NASA flight controller could barely savour Neil Armstrong’s famous opening line on the moon before sleep overtook him.
Steve was then just 26, and had made a critical call that prevented the landing being called off just minutes before touchdown.
And he would be in the hot seat again for the tense liftoff.
Now, ahead of the milestone 50th anniversary of the moon landing on July 20, 1969, Steve has told The Sunday Post of those knife-edge moments and how an aborted simulation ended up saving the day.
America’s space race, triggered by President John F Kennedy’s pledge in May, 1961, to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, was a mammoth undertaking costing $25 billion and involving 400,000 people.
Steve was one of the bright young things at Iowa State University drawn by the lure of NASA.
“I started as an intern in the summer of 1964, before I graduated,” said Steve, now 76, who is featured in a new six-part series, Apollo’s Moon Shot. I drove to Houston where they were just starting to build the Mission Control centre and was assigned as a tour guide.
“It couldn’t have been a better job as I met all the people who’d just finished the Mercury programme and were going to run the Gemini programme.”
Steve spent years learning from the bottom, working on some of the early Apollo missions and then being assigned to specialise in the moon landing and ascent.
As the countdown to Apollo 11 approached, rigorously detailed simulations were run, with the crew in their capsule going through everything just as though they were in space. And it was one of these that “by the grace of God”, according to Steve, proved pivotal to the landing with Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
“We trained for all kinds of problems from what would happen if the engine quit to what if the computer went nuts,” said Steve, who now runs an import chemical business in New Jersey with wife Sandra.
“They looked real and then we’d all talk through what we did. Neil and Buzz would listen in and they’d say what they thought happened.
“It was serious stuff. If you thought you’d messed up you’d say it, if you didn’t you’d say that, and we got into some pretty good arguments.”
With the computing power available at the time a tiny fraction of the capacity of even a basic mobile phone today, error messages showed up as simple four or five-digit codes.
It was while halfway through the descent on one of the final simulations just two weeks before the mission, that an alarm, 1210, cropped up on the crew’s displays.
“We didn’t know what it was so I called an abort on the mission and they went back into orbit,” said Steve.
“Later, there was a big argument, with the simulation crew saying we should have gone on and the flight crew wondering what we should have done.”
Gene Kranz, flight director for Apollo 11, told Steve to make sure to find out what went wrong and what to do if it happened for real.
Steve got his team to liaise with the experts at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to work through every possible code and come up with a recommendation.
Four minutes into the real descent on that momentous July day, error message 1202 flashed up after a series of major problems.
“It was a real shock,” admitted Steve. “I could tell the crew was getting worried.
“Neil, who never usually said anything – it was always Buzz – said, ‘Give us a reading on that 1202’.
“We just had a matter of seconds to decide. One of my crew found the number and said it was one that would be OK if it didn’t come too fast. The moment I said ‘Go’ the crew were told, ‘We got a go on that alarm’.
“I knew what it meant. Obviously it would have been terrible for the crew to call it off and have to get back to the command module, which would have been tricky.
“There would have been a tremendous disappointment.”
It was the teamwork and trust of the close-knit team that allowed an instant decision to be unilaterally accepted.
“Gene told us that we walked in as a team and we’d walk out the same way.
“If we landed, it was wonderful but if we’d aborted or, at worst, if we’d crashed, we’d still be together and there would be no finger-pointing.”
Minutes after Steve’s split-second call, came the touchdown and Armstrong’s words: “The Eagle has landed”.
Such was his key role, Steve was asked by Kranz to join him in facing the world’s media.
But such was the exhaustion, Steve, who says getting the module into position and on to the moon’s surface was the hardest work he ever did, almost fell asleep on the platform.
And his appreciation of the momentous moonwalk was cut short.
“I literally had about two minutes of enjoying Neil coming down the ladder and stepping out on to the lunar surface. I knew that was history right there.
“But I was already worrying in case what happened on the descent happened on the ascent, too. So I missed the rest as I went to the bunkroom to sleep so I’d be ready.”
The original Mission Control centre is being rebuilt, just as it was 50 years ago, for the anniversary next month.
“I’m still not sure if I’m going to travel to Houston,” added Steve. “But I’ll either be there or here and thinking of the good luck, the good Lord and all those people who helped make it happen.”
Apollo’s Moon Shot, Smithsonian Channel, Monday 17th at 8pm