Flight controls from historic Apollo 11 mission go up for auction

Julien’s Auctions of Beverly Hills is offering a trio of historic Apollo 11 artifacts as part of its Legends & Explorers auction, which takes place on July 17 and 18, 2020. Three of the hand controllers used to steer the famous Columbia Command Service Module (CSM) during the first manned lunar landing mission in July 1969 are expected to fetch between US$80,000 and $200,000 each.

One of the frustrating things about the Apollo 11 mission is that for one of the greatest events in human history, there are very few surviving artifacts from the actual mission that saw the first footprints on the Moon. For this reason, when something like three of the hand controllers that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins used to pilot their moon-ship comes on the market, it certainly draws attention.

Being sold individually, the sale consists of two Rotational Hand Controls (RHC) from the flight stations of Armstrong and Aldrin, and a Translation Hand Control (THC) from Armstrong’s. The RHCs look like simple joysticks such as one might see for a game console and the THC looks like a plastic T, but these are the tips of a very deep technological iceberg.

In 1969, these hand controls were the pilot interfaces for what was then the most advanced fly-by-wire system ever made. Their purpose was to override Columbia’s autopilot, allowing the astronauts to carry out precise maneuvers like docking with the Lunar Module (LM). Essentially, they perform the same role as the controls for an aircraft but, in the vacuum of space, airfoils were replaced with a collection of reaction control thrusters on the Service Module for maneuvering in flight, while another set in the Command Module were for handling reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere at the end of the mission after separating from the Service Module.

The Apollo 11 Translation Hand Control
The Apollo 11 Translation Hand Control

Julien’s Auctions

The whole system was the result of almost a decade of work. Originally, for the Mercury missions, NASA engineers wanted to use pedals for some of the controls, like on an airplane, but it was soon discovered that the cramped quarters, high g-loads, and spacesuits worn by the astronauts made this impractical, so hand controls were opted for. In addition, the decision was made through the Gemini missions to eliminate all the mechanical control linkages in favor of electronic ones.

Standing about 4.5 in (11.4 cm) tall, the RHC, which sat under Armstrong’s right hand, was connected to an electronic control box that’s rather bulky by today’s standard and consisted of three rotary variable-differential transformers and 18 microswitches. These fed into an equally bulky sheath of control cables, connecting to the CSM’s attitude control system. The THC under Mission Commander Armstrong’s left hand had a similar arrangement.

By tilting the RHC forward or backwards, Armstrong or the other astronauts from their stations could make Columbia pitch up or down. Tilting the stick left or right caused the craft to roll left or right, and twisting the control made the craft yaw left or right. Meanwhile, the THC moved the craft about in space. Pushing the handle left or right, up or down, propelled the craft along the desired axis, while pushing the handle in or out moved it forward or back. For both controls, how far they were moved throttled the thrusters accordingly. The result was a system of very delicate control with very fast response times for maneuvering in zero gravity, which is very complex and counterintuitive.

The RHC used by Armstrong is expected to fetch between $100,000 to $200,000, as is the RHC used by Aldrin. Meanwhile, Armstrong’s THC is expected to bring $80,000 to $100,000. Each comes on a wooden display case with an official NASA removal tag dated September 22, 1969.

Source: Julien’s Auctions

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