…came from several lines in The Moon Above, The Earth Below, broadcast twenty years after the first lunar landing. In the years after that glory, a great deal of hidden information became public.
Two decades later, “Man on the moon!” was a pleasant memory rather than an awesome anniversary. Twenty years later I wrote and produced a two-hour documentary mixing old and new footage with new information. It was my last documentary for CBS News.
I had known my time at the network had to end. All my protectors had left, and though the next two presidents of the division were hesitant, I was over age. Had I been an officer of the corporation I would have had to take mandatory retirement. Since I was not, someone would have to get rid of me—or I would have to quit.
My twenty-person staff had been reduced to two: an associate producer and a secretary. The greatest loss was a budget cut that stripped me from longtime news editors who knew the ethics of editing.
The later program, The Moon Above, The Earth Below, wouldn’t cost much. The small amount of new footage needed could be done in one day’s filming.
In the twenty years between broadcasts, both CBS News and the National Space Agency changed managements several times. Within limits, NASA opened its files. The recollections of scientists and astronauts who left the space program were available.
At the time of the approach to the first moon landing, there were no live pictures, just animated simulations and live audio.
When Apollo 11 reached the moon, the world saw only animation. But here is part what it heard:
Commander Neil Armstrong: Two thousand feet (above the moon). Two thousand feet. Forty-seven degrees.
Mission Control: Roger.
Armstrong: Program Alarm twelve-oh-one
Mission Control: Twelve-oh-one. Alarm, Alarm.
Armstrong: We’re go. Hang tight . We’re go.
Mission Control: Roger. Alarm. Twelve-oh-two.
Armstrong: Four hundred feet. Nine miles an hour.
Mission Control: Roger. Alarm. Twelve-oh-two.
It was my investigation into those computer malfunction program alarms, Twelve-oh-one and Twelve-oh-two, which ended my relationship with CBS News.
Those alarms meant disaster was so close, the mission should have been aborted. Protocol demanded Armstrong and Collins fire their ascent rockets and start back to earth. No moon landing.
At the moment, two astronauts were only four hundred feet above the moon. Protocol and safety were to be over-ridden. The space program had cost $25 billion and the lives of three previous astronauts. NASA’s decision: Risk two more lives, and don’t tell anybody about it for years.
Robert Jastrow, director of NASA’s Space flight Center, later declared, “It is cheaper, not dearer, to send men to the moon rather than to go there with robots.”
The men who landed on the moon left the space program within a year. Each astronaut was paid $17,000 per annum.
From “The Moon Above, The Earth Below,” the later broadcast, I wrote:
Dan Rather: Safety had been sacrificed to the goal of beating the Soviets to the moon. NASA had four priorities. The fourth was satisfying man’s curiosity about the mystery of the moon. The third was obtaining scientific evidence about the nature of the moon. The defense of the United States was the second urgency, but America’s leadership over the Soviets was the reason for Apollo 11. Who was first in space was first in the world, two Presidents had said.
Twelve-oh-one and Twelve-oh-two meant that the computer that was supposed to land the men could not do the job. The investigation into computer failure was blurred for years. IBM had built the device. Twenty years later IBM bought my new two-hour program. They asked questions they should not have had.
In the investigation, I found a villain and I found a hero. In later days, Neil Armstrong described himself as:
“I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer. And I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.”
He had also flown 57 combat missions in Korea.
Armstrong: Two hundred feet. Twenty one down. Thirty three degrees. Bring down the velocity. Down at nine.
Dan Rather: They were at nine miles an hour, forty feet above the moon, and they were supposed to abort the mission. The command to abort should have come from Mission Control in Houston. The computer whiz kid at NASA was 26-year-old Steve Bales. He was under great pressure; NASA’s 25 billion dollar pressure. The youngest man in the room was forced to make a quick decision. He said, “Go”.
There were only 30 seconds of fuel left and they were still 50 feet above the surface. Armstrong’s heart rate went to 160 beats a minute. (Armstrong later said: “I believe the Good Lord gave us a finite number of heartbeats and I’m damned if I’m going to use up mine running up and down the street.”)
Armstrong saw he could not land on the site selected by NASA and the computers. What was supposed to be a clear field was strewn with boulders the size of automobiles. It would be a fatal crash.
The computer and the site selectors at NASA had erred.
As a former pilot he took over. He disregarded computer guidance and tipped over the module so he could see what lay ahead. It was similar to landing a small plane from the side window. He glided past the crater. He directed Apollo 11 toward a field of his own choice. Ten seconds of fuel were left.
NASA didn’t know where he was.
Armstrong: Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed.
My hero was Neil Armstrong, first human on the lunar surface. He disregarded a faulty computer and risked his life by landing at a site not surveyed by NASA.
It took the agency personnel some time to find him. He was four miles away from where they wanted him to land. When he touched the moon’s surface, he confused the world.
He mangled his first announcement. NASA’s public relations people had given it to him. He was supposed to say: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Instead he said: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
By leaving out “a” he confused almost everybody. It took several minutes for NASA’s PR people to correct the world’s press.
Neil Armstrong was an engineer, not an actor.
Just after he and Collins were on the moon, the Soviets tried to beat them by sending an unmanned spacecraft, Luna 15. It was to arrive on the moon and return to earth with lunar soil just hours ahead of the Apollo 11 crew. Instead it crashed just a few miles from them.
An American was first on the moon because we sent men with sense enough to override their computer.
About a billion people on earth saw the moon landing. Courtiers came to wake the Emperor of Japan and inform him of the moon landing. They did not have to wake him. He had watched a TV screen all night.
Yet some people did not care to watch. Hip and young people had been hearing about space for years. For some, space was square.
images — The Newport Jazz Festival —
Master Of Ceremonies: Hey—hey, they just landed on the moon, y’know. You might be interested. They made it. They made the moon. Anybody interested? Nobody interested. Goodbye, goodbye.
While they were on the moon, they were put through to the President of the United States, Richard Nixon. He congratulated them. There were two things the president did not tell them. The first was that his advisors had told him of the enormous risk in taking off from the moon. They had prepared a statement if Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin could not leave the lunar surface. The President would make a televised speech, and these are the words he rehearsed but never said to America:
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.…
They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation… they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown…
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.
Also, President Nixon did not tell them that the aircraft carrier scheduled to pick them from the sea on return was scheduled to be the U.S.S. Kennedy. John Kennedy had promised the nation a moon landing, and it seemed fitting that a ship named for him participate in the event. Richard Nixon vetoed the choice and requested that the U.S.S. Hornet be the rescue vessel.
Just before the two men reentered the landing module for a successful ascent, Neil Armstrong made a curious remark: “Good luck, Mr. Gorsky.” Many years later, after Mr. Gorsky had died, Neil Armstrong explained his remark. Once when he was a kid, he was playing baseball with a friend in the backyard. His friend hit a fly ball, which landed in the front of his neighbor’s bedroom windows. His neighbors were Mr. and Mrs. Gorsky. As he leaned down to pick up the ball, young Armstrong heard Mrs. Gorsky shouting at Mr. Gorsky, “Oral sex! You want oral sex?! You’ll get oral sex when the kid next door walks on the moon!”
They returned to earth, to ticker tape parades, to a world that feted them and honored them. Armstrong received medals from 17 countries.
What made Neil Armstrong my hero was that he refused to become a celebrity. He was urged to run for senator. He was urged to run for president. Above all, he was offered millions on millions to endorse projects. He declined. He was his own man.
Neil Armstrong opened an electronics engineering firm, and become a professor at the University of Cincinnati. Like the old Roman Cincinnatus, the hero became a farmer. Now and then he would appear at space agency affairs. As for money and politics and fame, he was never available.
The broadcast closed with:
America’s interest in space has waned steadily since the first landing on the moon. Ten other men walked there, but they are footnotes to history. For decades, no human has been out of earth’s orbit. Today we stay within the shores of earth’s gravity, much as the ancient seafarers stayed with sight and safety of land. That other America, that other country, 20 years ago— they did things differently there.
The standard ethical procedure at the network required that I call in news officers to check my work before broadcast, in this case the president and a vice president of CBS News. David Burke was cold at the screening. I had included animations supplied by NASA but David thought they were too simple. He ordered up $50,000 worth of substitutes. There were no further comments from him, or the vice president, Joe P.
Joe had a word with me. “Go to Washington and see the representatives of IBM. They bought the show and want you to answer some questions.”
“Why am I going?”
“They bought the show. They want to talk.”
Unusual. I had never met the sponsors of any broadcast news, and sponsors were sealed off by a fireproof curtain. I thought the queries might be about promoting the broadcast. They were not.
IBM built the computer that failed. I was cornered between three large-sized IBM representatives. There was no polite exchange. They came directly to the point: “You talk too much about our computer failure.”
“How do you know what’s in the script? You haven’t seen it.”
“We’ve seen it.”
”You are not supposed to know what’s in broadcast,” I said.
“We bought it and so we know.”
“Go back to whoever leaked it to you and tell him to tell me.”
I was furious. I went back to Joe P. and told him that in all my years at CBS News, I had never had to get approval from the sponsor.
“It’s a money game now, at least for non-controversial documentaries. Play the game. Join up.”
It was over for me. I didn’t want to belong to an organization that had forgotten what it taught me. That earlier CBS had given me a good professional life and a generous pension. They didn’t want me, either. The parting took some time.
The Moon Above, The Earth Below had good ratings, and a fine press. An editing mistake was caught by a Florida paper, Space Times. The critic noted that the astronauts dancing on the moon were photographed in color. Color came with later flights. The free-lance editor made a mistake, and I missed it, but so did Burke. On the basis of the newspaper article Burke called in the CBS house lawyers. One later told me that every sentence was examined, every foot of film checked, and none of the attorneys could understand why so extensive a search was required. I was summoned to Burke’s office and fined $10,000. He was red-faced drunk. He threatened me physically when I tried to defend myself.
“Shut up. I can’t control my anger.” He raised his left fist and blessed himself with his right hand as if he were in church. “Such an error brings national disgrace on the narrator. There is no more Wolff unit.”
Larry Tisch, perhaps a baseball enthusiast, had sent the message. His double play was Tisch to Stringer to Burke. Wolff was thrown out at home plate. However, three months later, David Burke was thrown out too, fired for spending too much money.
I was still at CBS when Burke left. I was there when several months later as writer and producer of The Moon Above, The Earth Below, I won two Emmys and a Writers Guild Award for the broadcast. Joe P. sat at the Academy ceremony and though he looked uncomfortable, he congratulated me.
“Good job, Wolff!”
“Joe—go sit somewhere else.”
Revenge is not good when served old.
I resigned. There was no farewell party. Each successive day I brought home some files and tapes until the office was bare. Tuulikki had drawn a painting consisting of slightly grotesque heads with caved cheeks and no teeth. All talking at the same time. We called it CBS News and it now hangs in our living room. It was last to go.
I had few regrets leaving commercial television. I didn’t much like watching it. I had become a stranger in a world I never made. I came from BC, Before Cable, and I began to detest much of what I watched, until I realized that my dislike was generational. The fault was mine as much as it was the mediums. Television was responding to the sexually active, those between 19 and 49 who had money to spend. Ratings meant money. There was that flowing river, and there was that rusting pier.
The generation before mine wriggled its fingers at us, the greatest generation. Cole Porter wrote,
In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked upon as something shocking
Now heaven knows, anything goes.
Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four letter words writing prose.
Half a century ago, shortly after TV entered American homes in large numbers, it was attacked on the same grounds as it is today—it was destructive of morals, family life, overall decency, homework, dental hygiene, obesity, aggression, violence, reading habits and the finer things of life. The best answer I know came from David Fuchs who said, “I never restricted my children from watching television. I have four of them, and they all have Masters’ Degrees. The arguments are tedious on both sides. Leave them to the sociologists. It’s how they make their living.”
The Moon Above The Earth Below, www.allmovie.com.