Ed's incredible lunar odyssey: 50 years on

Ed DeLong from Mudgee in 2009 holding models of the lunar lander from NASA. Photo: Supplied
Ed DeLong from Mudgee in 2009 holding models of the lunar lander from NASA. Photo: Supplied

If we're lucky - we get to live through at least one pivotal moment in history, but for Ed DeLong, that was his job.

It has been 50 years to the day, when on July 16, 1969, Lunar Module, callsign: Eagle landed at Tranquility Base where humans walked on another celestial body for the first time.

Long-time Mudgee resident and Texan-native, Ed DeLong was lucky enough to spend years working closely with NASA, training alongside the astronauts and covering the trials and tribulations in the lead up and preparation for the Apollo 11 mission.

In a wide-ranging and utterly fascinating conversation at his home, Ed recounted his time covering the space program in the 1960s as a journalist with United Press International [UPI].

Ed described in great detail the training he and the astronauts endured, how it felt to be a part of history and why we still marvel at the landing all these years later.

It was 1966 and Ed, a young aviation enthusiast, was part of a group of journalists within UPI that exclusively covered the space program including the Gemini and Apollo programs.

Watch restored footage of the moon walk from NASA

"When I came along it was in the middle of the Gemini program. We were still basically shooting Astronauts into space on military rockets then," Ed said.

It would be an eventful three years between Ed's arrival and the Apollo 11 landing. The pace of innovation required to get to the moon was relentless.

"The biggest things they [NASA] had to accomplish was during the hiatus between Apollo 1 and Apollo 9. During that period, the spacecraft was basically redesigned," Ed said.

An electrical surge caused a fire within a sealed Apollo 1 test capsule, due to the door being inward-opening, it was impossible for the men inside to open the door once the fire had consumed the oxygen inside.

The fire claimed the lives of three astronauts, Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee - all three of whom Ed were good friends with - and was key to many of the redesigns.

"I was absolutely fascinated with things like mission rules and the way wiring and materials were redesigned, and more than anything else, how you replace an inward opening door which became harder to open with inside pressure, with something outer opening, that is wanting to be constantly sucked open by the vacuum of space," Ed said.

NASA took greater care when it came to assessing the unknowns involved with sending a crew to the moon.

Ed DeLong (left) at work with colleagues Billy Ferguson and Al Rossiter.

Ed DeLong (left) at work with colleagues Billy Ferguson and Al Rossiter.

"To me the Apollo 8 mission was exciting beyond words, because even though they didn't land, they went around behind the back of the moon where you had no radio contact and where for the first time with human lives, a failure of even a little bit in the timing could have you either crashing into the surface of the moon or bouncing off into outer space, never to be heard from again," Ed said.

Apollo 10 was the next closest and final step towards a moon landing, with the lunar lander separating and coming to within 9 kilometres of the moon's surface.

"If Apollo 10 did not go well, Apollo 11 could not have landed, so there was a lot of stuff that went on in the background. A lot of revision of things like abort procedures."

The race to the moon was largely political, spurred on by Russia's own success in beating the United States to every space travel milestone up to that point. Motivation was high and innovation was rapid.

People might not realise we have the space program for technologies we take for granted. Something as common as velcro was developed during this time, but Ed says he thinks the most important was the miniaturisation of computer technology.

"It was a surprise to me many years later was what we actually got out of the space program was the computer age and the increased capabilities that came with it," Ed said.

I was counting literally the seconds as they disappeared around the back of the moon and came around, but it was the biggest relief to hear, 'Houston, Tranquility at base. The Eagle has landed.'

Edward K DeLong

"The computer in the Apollo command module was the smallest, fastest and most nimble computer in the world at the time. But its hard drive alone weighed 35 kilograms, that was tiny by those day's standards,"

"Its processing capabilities were about that of the TRS 80 [home computer] that came along in the late '70s. Not very high tech at all."

Put in another way, think of the processor in the original Game Boy.

Ed remembers the days before, during and after the launch as some of the most interesting in his life.

Ed was managing the bureau located at the then-called 'Manned Spacecraft Centre' in Houston, Texas - called LX.

"My time before the launch was just spent getting ready. The minute - the second that the rocket left the launchpad, the story switched to me. So I had to be ready to move," Ed said.

"We assembled there, a team of the absolute best and brightest in UPI in terms of editorial and photographic capability,"

While the world watched on as the men left Earth, landed on the moon and came back all in the space of just over 8 days, Ed was furiously publishing information on the mission thanks to a pair of headphones he was wearing.

"I had my typewriter in front of me, the second-to-second flightplan on my left. I'm wearing headphones that are carrying everything that's said between mission control and the astronauts," Ed said.

We had no idea at the time how close the crew had come to disaster, within a second or two to running out of fuel.

Edward K DeLong

"I was counting literally the seconds as they disappeared around the back of the moon and came around, but it was the biggest relief to hear, 'Houston, Tranquility at base. The Eagle has landed.'"

"We had no idea at the time how close the crew had come to disaster, within a second or two to running out of fuel."

Ed ended by recounted a story involving Apollo 11 astronaut Mike Collins and himself.

"I was interviewing Mike Collins and at the end of the interview, being cheeky, I said 'you wanna make a bet that we will do this [moon landing] before the end of '69?', Ed said.

"He said 'sure what do you wanna bet?', I said 'a case of Coors.'" So we both went off and I forgot all about it frankly.

After the mission, the astronauts were quarantined in a silver trailer so that they would not contaminate the earth with any unknown lunar organisms. The trailer was then rolled out of this bif transport plane where dignitaries could go up to this little window and say their piece.

After that was all done, one of my friends at NASA came over and said 'come with me'. He took me around the back end of the trailer where there was a similar window.

There wasn't anybody there but there was this handwritten sign taped on the inside of the window that said:

'I win, make it Coors'.