When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were taking those historic first steps on the lunar surface, little did they know that a disaster had already occurred with one of the smallest pieces of equipment on their ship. Lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin made the discovery while returning to the famous Eagle lander after a stroll on the “magnificent desolation” that was the moon.
Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon is Buzz Aldrin’s book on the subject. “I looked closer and jolted a bit,” Aldrin writes in it. On the floor lay an essential circuit breaker switch.
Maintaining his calm like any properly trained astronaut would do, Aldrin began an examination of the control panels to determine where the switch belonged. He claims he “gulped hard” when he discovered that it had been connected to the circuit breaker for the main engine arm. The part would be absolutely essential to liftoff and their safe return home to planet Earth.
Aldrin believes that one of the two pioneering astronauts likely bumped the panel while wearing one of their cumbersome backpacks or space suits. Regardless of how it happened, however, they would have to repair the situation to ignite the engines, or they would be permanently trapped on the cold, lifeless surface of the moon.
After notifying Houston, the two astronauts spent one more fitful, sleepless night in the cramped lunar module. Meanwhile, the launch team back on Earth worked feverishly through the night to try to find a solution. By the time Armstrong and Aldrin rose from their useless attempt at sleep, the ground crew had still not found a solution for their quandary.
“After examining it more closely,” Aldrin continues in his book about the experience, “I thought that if I could find something in the LM [lunar module] to push into the circuit, it might hold. I had a felt-tipped pen in the shoulder pocket of my suit that might do the job.”
So the team moved up the countdown procedure by several hours, hoping to have extra time if Aldrin’s on the fly repair did not work as hoped. The junior astronaut jammed the pen into the opening, trying to lock the circuit closed. His ingenuity paid off, as the switch held, and the engines fired up on the first try.
“To this day,” Aldrin adds, “I still have the broken circuit breaker switch and the felt-tipped pen I used to ignite our engines.”
Chief NASA historian William Barry has spoken about the incident before. While he praises Aldrin for his creativity under pressure, he also makes it clear that they were a long way from being abandoned. The ground team still had time to come up with a solution, and likely they would have. They train for it excessively, going through all kinds of potential disaster scenarios. However, he does admit that, after this event, NASA put a cover on the breaker boxes in all future missions, just to make sure this kind of accident never happened again.