The Apollo 11 moon landing is rightfully considered one of the most technically challenging and complex accomplishments in human history. The successful placement of humans on the moon, and their safe return therefrom, required thousands of personnel working innumerable man-hours in strict coordination, with as little as possible left to chance.

Which is why it’s pretty hilarious that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin felt comfortable changing Apollo 11 protocols on the fly.

Case in point: the now famous area of the moon known as Tranquility Base. Armstrong single-handedly bestowed this title on the Apollo 11 landing site in the lunar Sea of Tranquility when he radioed the following to NASA Mission Control: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

At no point in any training exercise, simulation, or previous portion of the live Apollo 11 mission had anyone used the phrase Tranquility Base. The Lunar module was the Eagle, plain and simple, and the landing site had no call sign. That’s probably why NASA flight control responded rather sharply, “Roger, Twan —  Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”

You can’t really blame Aldrin and Armstrong for not referring precisely to their lander as the Eagle, as they were the first Apollo astronauts not allowed to choose the call signs for their spacecraft. NASA took away those privileges in large part because the crew of Apollo 10 chose such unorthodox — or, at least, inauspicious — call signs for their lunar command module and lander.


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Apollo 10 astronauts Tom Stafford, John Young, and Gene Cernan were clearly big fans of the Peanuts comic strip, as they named their Command Service Module Charlie Brown and their Lunar Module Snoopy.

While most NASA personnel enjoyed the playful call signs for the spacecraft — going so far as to name the Peanuts characters as unofficial mascots for the mission — NASA public relations found the names to be inadequate. When it came time to adopt formal call signs for Apollo 11, the first mission that would actually land on the moon, NASA wasn’t going to let history repeat itself.

Aldrin, Armstrong, and Michael Collins would be allowed to choose their own call signs, so long as they chose names appropriate to the momentous occasion. You can judge for yourself how well the Apollo 11 crew took the advice, given that the original name for their command module was Snowcone, and the lunar lander was originally called Haystack. All it took was for one press release to appear with those call signs attached, and NASA’s PR flacks decided to rename the Apollo 11 spacecraft themselves.

The Apollo 11 command module became the Columbia, after the Columbiad capsule from Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. The Apollo 11 lander became the Eagle, after the national bird of the United States. History bears little mention of Snowcone or Haystack, but now you may understand why Armstrong felt he was entitled to label his landing site Tranquility Base — whether NASA was prepared for it or not.

That’s not just some capricious cartographic christening, it’s a snarky selenological sample of Geek Trivia.

The quibble of the week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best quibble from our assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

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This week’s quibble comes from the April 29, 2009 edition of Geek Trivia, The 20 all-time favorite columns. Member turbinepilot bemoaned my once upon a time resignation as follows:

Jay – no more Geek Trivia? This news is more difficult to accept than… …watching the original Enterprise being destroyed in Star Trek III. …hearing that Col. Potter’s character (MASH) was shot down over the Sea of Japan. …the news that Brittney Spears is making a come-back. Good luck, Jay. I’ll truly miss your weekly trivia column!

Of course, even in farewell my quibblers were on the case, as member michael pointed out:

Col. Henry Blake’s plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan, not Col. Potter. I recall reading somewhere that that part of the script was not told to the M.A.S.H. cast in advance, or perhaps was told to them at the last minute, because the director wanted to capture the actors’ real reactions to that plot twist. Anyway, I’m sorry to see Jay go.

Yeah, I was sorry to leave, which is why I couldn’t stay away. Thanks for the trip down memory lane — and keep those quibbles coming!