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The Eagle has landed
By Jayne Douglas
BBC News Online

BBC aerospace correspondent Reginald Turnill thought the first Moon landing would be his biggest ever story. It was, until the day he heard: "Houston, we've had a problem here".

Buzz Aldrin
Around the world, millions watched live pictures of Apollo 11's historic mission

The BBC's aerospace correspondent Reginald Turnill was at Cape Canaveral on 16 July 1969, as he always was for the Apollo launches.

But this mission was a little different, it was the culmination of six Nasa programmes; three manned and three unmanned; each providing a stepping stone towards the ultimate goal.

President Kennedy had pledged to "land man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth". Apollo 11 was to fulfil his promise.

From his own seat, A13, in the front row of the press stand, Turnill watched as Nasa launched Apollo 11.

"Ten, nine, ignition sequence start, six, five, four, three, two, one, zero. All engines running. Lift off, we have a lift off, 32 minutes past the hour. Lift off on Apollo 11."

Soon the spacecraft was safely in orbit. This was the cue for Turnill to make a "mad five hour dash" to Houston.

"Where have you been?" would be the usual question from the office on his arrival at Mission Control.

Turnill covered the rest of the mission from Houston, reporting back to London using a "lash-up telephone system".

"The BBC hadn't got around to providing me with very good facilities.

"I had a Uher tape recorder which was clipped to two telephone lines, one for transmission, one for reception.

"It was all very crude and not very satisfactory but still, one made do."

Reginald Turnill
From 1958-75 BBC aerospace correspondent Reginald Turnill covered the space race

Turnill had been one of only a few people across the world to cover space travel.

Nasa was glad to have had the BBC there from the start of the Apollo programme and appreciated Turnill's continuous coverage.

The space agency's enthusiasm for his reporting, however, was at times in contrast to his orders from London.

"I had found it quite difficult to get my news bosses to wake up to what a big story it would be when Apollo 8 went round the Moon in Christmas 1968, but they woke up to it slowly, and from then on it was a very big story."

The atmosphere in Mission Control became more tense as Apollo 11 neared its destination.

Nasa scientists were confident the spacecraft would reach the Moon but no precedent had been set for the touch down.

Turnill remembers the final anxious moments. If Apollo 11 tipped over upon landing, the crew would be stranded and unable to return.

But with millions around the world watching live television pictures, any concerns proved unwarranted. Four days after lift-off Neil Armstong made a perfect landing within the Sea of Tranquility.

As he made the first ever steps on the lunar surface he famously declared: "That's one small step for man but one giant leap for mankind".

On 24 July the pioneering astronauts safely returned to Earth and received a hero's welcome.

Friends in high places

In the early days Turnill stayed in the same motels as the astronauts at Coco Beach - the nearest town to Cape Canaveral.

We only talked to them when the occasion arose. A bit like the Queen. If they talk to you, you talk to them

"There was a strict rule though," he said.

"An unspoken rule that we didn't accost the astronauts as we were in the same hotels, we respected their privacy.

"We only talked to them when the occasion arose. A bit like the Queen. If they talk to you, you talk to them."

Turnill knew all the early astronauts and describes the crew of Apollo 11 as "rather taciturn".

The Moon landing
Buzz Aldrin
Man's first mission to the Moon, Apollo 11, blasted off on 16 July 1969
Four days later Neil Armstong made a perfect landing in the Sea of Tranquility
Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin collected rock and soil samples from the lunar surface while third crewman Michael Collins remained in the command module orbiting the Moon
After eight days in space, Apollo 11 returned to Earth
The crew were quarantined for 21 days in case they were contaminated by alien organisms
A further 10 astronauts travelled to the Moon in another six missions. The final lunar landing, Apollo 17, took place in December 1972
"Neil Armstong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin - at that time, didn't like the media so if they did talk to us it wasn't very rewarding for them or us."

But not all astronauts were media shy. Turnill admits space correspondents had a "soft spot" for Pete Conrad, commander of Apollo 12.

"He was a wonderful extrovert, enormous enthusiasm always bouncing around full of ideas and ready to talk."

His crew were also "full of beans and had lots to say" which is why Turnill has always felt it would have been better for Nasa if Apollo 12's crew had made the first Moon landing.

Interest in America's space programme had gradually waned since the world watched Neil Armstong make his historic steps on the Moon.

Apollo 12's mission had also been a great success. In his lunar module, Conrad had made a perfect landing inside the Ocean of Storms, just 200m from Surveyor 3, an unmanned probe which had landed three years earlier.

Space exploration had started to look easy and the BBC began to question the necessity of covering further missions.

Disaster strikes

But for Turnill his biggest story kicked off late in the evening of 13 April 1970.

He was getting ready to go home and just happened to take a routine look-in on Mission Control.

On the crackling radio signal from Apollo 13, he heard the voice of astronaut John Swigert uttering the famously understated words: "Houston we've had a problem here".

An explosion on board Apollo 13 had resulted in the loss of normal supplies of electricity, light and water. The crew were in mortal danger.

The crew of Apollo 13
After the safe return of the crew, Apollo 13 became known as "the successful failure"

Turnill recalls the excitement of breaking the story to the world service shortly after 4am. There followed an 87-hour long drama that had the world gripped.

For the next three days, he had no sleep and nor did his wife Margaret.

"I was stuck on the microphone most of the time, doing pieces for World at One, PM, all the TV and radio bulletins.

"Margaret went off and found the astronauts, talked to them and found out what they were doing and would fill me in."

With his detailed knowledge of the space programme, Turnill knew, before Nasa announced it, that the only way for the crew to return home was to use the smaller lunar landing module to tow their larger command module back to Earth.

The temperature inside their cabin had dropped to that of a refrigerator and yet despite fatigue and dehydration, they made it safely through a fiery re-entry into Earth's atmosphere and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.

Never again did the BBC question the significance of the Apollo missions.

And for Turnill his bosses were only too glad when he said: "I'm off to cover the next landing."

A BBC TWO series presents the best archive footage from five decades of BBC Television News.

1954-1974: BBC TWO, Monday, 5 July 2004, 1430BST
1974-1994: BBC TWO, Tuesday, 6 July 2004, 1430BST
1994-2004: BBC TWO, Wednesday, 7 July 2004, 1430BST

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