Patterico's Pontifications


50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 9:43 am

On July 20, 1969, my parents sat me, an infant not yet quite a year old, in front of our cathode-ray tube television set in Park Ridge, Illinois to watch history be made. Here’s Buzz Aldrin’s description of what it was like inside the lunar lander module:

Time was running out. The Apollo 11 lunar module was on its historic descent to the moon’s crater-pocked surface on 20 July 1969 when a fuel light blinked on. Still 100ft (30 metres) above the ground, it was not what the astronauts needed. The Eagle’s tank was nearly dry.

In a new video interview about the momentous first landing on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, the mission’s lunar module pilot, describes how he held his tongue when the warning light appeared and Charlie Duke, Nasa’s capsule communicator, came on the line from Houston to inform Aldrin and Neil Armstrong they had only 60 seconds left to make it down.

“OK. One hundred feet. Sixty seconds. We’d better ease down,” Aldrin recalls thinking. But he thought better of telling Armstrong to get a move on. Dressed in a jacket and “Destination Mars” T-shirt, his fingers adazzle with rings, Aldrin’s contorted face conveys how dicey the moment was. “But I don’t want to disturb Neil by saying: ‘Hurry up, hurry up!’” he says, leaning in and dropping his voice.

Armstrong had enough on his mind. From an altitude of about 500 ft he had taken control of the lunar module and was carefully steering the craft down. Nobody knew how the module would handle and there in front of the descending craft loomed a large crater that would have spelled disaster for the men and the mission.

The astronauts had already had to contend with program alarms going off in the module, which themselves could have forced the mission to abort. The glitch was eventually resolved, leading to a “go” from Houston, but as Aldrin concedes: “it tended to distract a little bit.”

The Eagle dropped 90 ft over the next 30 seconds, leaving the crew a further half minute of fuel to navigate the final 10 ft to the lunar surface. In the interview recorded at the Science Museum in London in 2016, but released on Thursday for the first time, Aldrin says it was only at that late stage that he felt more confident about the landing. “I figured, ah, we got it made,” he recalls.

It was a feat that succeeded by the finest of margins. “We touched down, and I think the estimate, not because somebody put a dipstick in the fuel to see how much was left, but it was calculations and information onboard, we probably had about 15 seconds of fuel left.”

Here’s the video interview:

Here is restored footage of the original moonwalk:

And the classic photo of Buzz Aldrin:

Buzz Aldrin on Moon

Ten thousand years from today, if man has not destroyed himself, very few names will be remembered. But one name is certain to stay in man’s memory, after almost all other names have faded away: that of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon.

32 Responses to “50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing”

  1. I saw it live on our new color TV. It was moving even for an 8-year old.

    Paul Montagu (dbd3cc)

  2. “Contact Light.”

    The first words spoken by a human being from Earth smoothly touching down on the ancient, dusty surface of the four billion year old moon. 

    What a moment.

    Whenever I hear a recording of that brief transmission, made from a quarter of a million miles away, it still sends a prideful chill up my spine; for my country and for my fellow man.  And if you were alive on July 20, 1969, you were there on the moon, too, for that first walk. And not just through the miracles of radio and television. 

    Look closely at a high resolution image of Buzz Aldrin -[ NASA photo # AS11-40-5903]- photographed by Neil Armstrong–the famous ‘visor image.’ It is the definitive portrait of Man on the Moon, which reflects Armstrong, the Apollo 11 lunar module ‘Eagle,’ the U.S. flag, the desolate lunar landscape and the blackness of space where Mike Collins was orbiting above in Columbia. At about 12 o’clock, in the reflected gold wash of the scene in Aldrin’s helmet visor, you’ll see a small, bright dot.  That is Earth. Us.  If you were alive in ’69,  you were there.  And likely smiling.

    For those who weren’t alive or too young to be aware, it’s disappointing you were cheated of experiencing the challenge of reaching the moon. There is much to learn from it. It was a magnificent and inspiring effort to witness in youth, that decade long march to the moon; the successful blending of government, industry and academia toward achieving a common goal– and a superb study in executive management techniques to reflect on and apply as an adult.  Personally, over the years, I’ve grown to appreciate Apollo 8 in equal stature with Apollo 11 and the subsequent landings. Apollo 8 was about leaving; Apollo 11, about arriving, as Mike Collins, who was a part of both flights, often notes.

    Twenty years ago I stopped by a garage sale in Los Angeles and came across a box of old reel to reel audio tapes for sale. Three of the reels were oddly marked “Appolo” in faded pencil. I took a chance, bought the box, and to my utter delight, discovered pristine, unedited real time recordings from July 16 and July 20, 1969, of the Apollo 11 launch, the first moon landing, unedited, ‘the way it is’– and the entire moonwalk itself as reported by the late CBS News correspondent,  Walter Cronkite.

    So there it was. The apex of an eight year, $24 billion project, the most significant achievement in human history to date, sold off as clutter at a yard sale for five bucks. And that’s as it should be.  Because Americans are a people who, when properly challenged and led, have always achieved great things, linger little for accolades and press on to new challenges.

    On this, the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing,  I’m distressed to admit I was born old, recalling some of those monochromatic, pre-Sputnik days and managing to be by a television set to experience every American manned space launch since Alan Shepard’s Mercury flight on May 5, 1961,  through shuttle. So I confess to a severe and life-long bias in support of human spaceflight, particularly by Americans, albeit tempered over time with a caring, critical eye.

    Apollo was a triumph of organization and planning– and well documented. It is also, from the perspective of half a century on, likely the pinnacle- figuratively and literally- of the ‘American Century.’  Though a byproduct of the Cold War, it projected the kind of influential ‘soft power’ from a free and open society to the world of how Americans wanted to be regarded; astronauts bearing photos of Earth carrying samples of moon rocks presented a much better image of the United States overseas than troops wielding weapons in the Mekong Delta- or Detroit. Witnessed it first hand. Apollo was bought and paid for, too; those who choose to research and read about it know where the money was invested, (right here on Earth,) where the politics played out; where wise decisions were made and where mistakes occurred and were corrected.  The Apollo legacy; the ‘spinoff,’ is all around us in our daily lives, as well. Start to make a list when you wake up in the morning and you’ll still be adding to it when you go to sleep that evening.  Yet, at the time, like the moon itself, public support waxed and waned through the 1960’s;  often over cost. But their investment became our gain. 

    My late grandfather, a dollars-and-sense-banker, who was born in early 1903, remained awed by the fact that in the span of his lifetime, the age of flight had soared from Kitty Hawk to the Sea of Tranquility. He often mused about the mindset of a people, which in his youth, insisted a trip to the moon was technically impossible yet by his golden years argued that manned lunar and planetary explorations were impractical due to cost, not feasibility. “Go figure,” he’d always say.

    I’ve had the good fortune, in both a professional capacity and personal circumstances, to have met several of the key people who made Apollo a reality. Astronauts, managers, engineers, technicians; all team players and each an exceptional individual. They knew what they did; they changed the moon from an object into a place. Sadly many names among the 400,000 people  associated with those days who helped make the Apollo 11 moon landing a reality have left us over the decades; names less renown than Goddard, Von Braun or Armstrong– but equally important.  Notable and worth recalling this day, beyond the likes of JFK, LBJ, Deke,  Al,  Gordo, Gus, Wally, John and Scott– like James Webb, Robert Gilruth, Robert Seamans, Sam Phillips, George Low, Rocco Petrone, Cliff Charlesworth, Pete Frank, Walt Kapryan, Kurt Debus,  Charles Lewis, Phil Shaffer,  Gunther Wendt, Arthur Rudolph, Walter Dornberger, Konrad Dannenberg, Gene Shoemaker, Hugh Dryden, Brainerd Holmes, John Houbolt, Hermann Oberth, Scott Crossfield, Don Puddy, Walt Williams, Joe Shea,  Harrison Storms, Bruce McCandless,  Max Faget,  Bill Tindall, George Mueller, Owen Morris, Tom Paine, Keith Glennan, Tom Kelly,  Jack King, Jack Riley,  Bill Pickering,  Elliot See, Charles Bassett, Donn Eisele, Al Bean, Dick Gordon, Jack Swigert, Stu Roosa, Ed Mitchell, Jim Irwin, John Young, Ron Evans, Gene Cernan, Pat White–  and far too many other men, women –and the original Apollo 11 wives, Joan Aldrin, Pat Collins and Janet Armstrong–  who have passed, to mention here. 

    It’s hard to convey to fresh generations,  with shortened attention spans, bombarded by unfiltered tweets and comfortable with instant gratification, how the United States was caught short as the space race began and how long it took to move ahead and triumph.  A plethora of books,  memoirs and several new television documentaries do a fine job of capturing the flavor of the times and effort put forth [one of which, to the surprise and delight of our family, featured a previously unknown,  fifty year old film clip of myself and my brother meeting the 11 crew inside the U.S. Embassy in London during their 1969 world tour.]  

    In that era, every space mission was front page news, every launch broadcast on radio,  televised ‘live’ and followed in offices and classrooms across the land– and intently in other lands as well. Internet aside, not so these days. The young knew the roster of astronauts and mission profiles as well as the the stats of any sports team.  Most boys, and a few girls as well, had a shelf full of spacecraft manufactured not by Boeing or Grumman, but Aurora and Revell. We cheered listening to Ed White’s spacewalk,  wept when he died along with Grissom and Chaffee in the Apollo 1 fire and applauded the first Saturn V thundering skyward as Walter Cronkite’s studio ceiling tiles fell in around him. The space race was truly a golden thread through a very dour and dark decade.The most eloquent and retrospective comments about Apollo were delivered by Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1989, from the steps of the NASM in Washington. It is a brief but memorable address and worth a look on CSPAN or Youtube if you care to find it. Personally, I support a return to the moon to refine hardware, perfect methods and procedures – as Gemini was for Apollo- and pressing on out to Mars; a protocol Armstrong advocated– particularly as most of the moon remains unexplored.  Artemis, Gateway, Orion planning are along those return-to-the-moon lines– a long term investment if it comes to be, but the SLS- a heavy launch vehicle rivaling the Saturn V- remains over budget and behind schedule.  But Mars and Luna beckon;  “Someone will go,” as Armstrong noted in ’89. And given the way Apollo seeded so many fields fueling advances in industry, commerce, education and a variety of technologies- medical and computers to name two, I’d like it to be Americans who lead the effort.  There is much to be said for sending unmanned probes out ahead of humans to Mars, as was done by NASA ahead of the lunar landings. But we all can relate to the sensation of putting a foot to ground. A machine, not so much.

    NASA, a civilian aeronautics and space agency, strives to be a can-do organization and it’s a tribute to the engineers and managers in government, academia and private industry who worked together as a team for a decade to make the moon landings a reality. They essentially brought them in ahead of schedule and under-budget; paid for by the Americans of that era, too. Not bad for government work.

    Still, the NASA of  2019, like the America of today, is far different from that other America of 1969 and a healthy dose of Apollo management style is needed at the agency along with some stellar leadership and goal setting from the White House. But like every administration since the Nixon days, doubts fester on the commitment beyond lip service  from presidents and Congress, particularly in this economic climate. President Trump and his minion, Vice President Pence, tasked to get things moving again, are no different when it comes to the hype.  Speeches and signed directives aside, all that counts is sustained Congressional funding for commitment to these long term projects. And the military ‘Space Force’ remains a dubious proposal with pro, con and indifference equally split in various public polls.  Yes, plenty of planning, lots of talk but it is only the dollars that count. as the old saying goes, NASA has been 20 years from going to Mars for 50 years.  Von Braun was tasked to draft long range plans for NASA in the weeks after Apollo 11; a presentation was made in August, 1969- but nobody was listening. Public/private initiatives, foreshadowed in an epilogue written by Arthur C. Clarke [of 2001:  A Space Odyssey fame] in the first edition of  the 1970 book, First Men On The Moon- A Voyage With Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin Aldrin,  show increasing promise to defray costs and make use of idled facilities in an era of essentially flat budgets but half a century after the footprints and flag at Tranquility Base, no private firm has successfully launched orbited and returned a human being from low Earth orbit [LEO]– a feat Soviet Russia accomplished 58 years ago. Space is not only expensive; it is hard, particularly human spaceflight, which is why, with a low-to-no return on investment in quarterly driven economies, subsidizing governments tend to do it. But that will change in time. In the 1950 film, ‘Destination Moon,’ they flew to Luna and found uranium. Today, there has been a discovery of much more value to space travelers at the lunar poles: water ice, for survival and a source for fuel.

    NASA remains far too bureaucratic, as well. To be sure people will be killed in spaceflight, and though the space shuttle and the ISS are a marvel of engineering rivaling Apollo, going in circles, no place, fast, remains a let down after crewed voyages out to Luna.  And losing 14 astronauts and two multi-billion space shuttles because of sloppy management and bureaucratic complacency remains unacceptable; the agency needs a good house cleaning every five years or so. Because in the end, it is a national treasure, like their artifacts at the National Air & Space Museum, and needs polished and cleaned up regularly.

    The irony of Americans relying on the Russian Soyuz– a spacecraft designed in the 1960’s, to compete with Apollo– to access the ISS has not been lost on those who lived through the Apollo era, either. The self-inflicted gaps in U.S. programs are glaring.  So ‘commercial crew’ flights from private sector contractors can’t come too soon. As my grandfather noted, it has come down to cost, not capability. Go figure. But as Armstrong said, someone will definitely go. Certainly the United States will be challenged in space in the near future by China. They have the means to try, have demonstrated impressive capabilities already and perhaps more importantly, have the desire to make such a voyage a way to mark the early 21st century as theirs. Spaceflight has long been a strong thread in the fabric of Russian culture, too. China is following suit; India as well.  In the U.S.,  much less so, as the history of American  ‘fits and starts’ have shown.  

    But today, July 20, 2019, in an era festooned with space age gadgets, roiling angst, political divisions and rhyming issues– though a time far less divisive than the 1960’s were–  it’s worth pausing to reflect on just what the people of the United States are capable of achieving when they discipline their minds and focus their energies toward meeting a complex challenge, be it national healthcare, energy efficiency, climate change — walking off 20 pounds– or walking on the moon. I’m always reminded of Robert Goddard’s quote about aiming at the stars as a problem to occupy generations and that no matter how much progress is made, there is, “always the thrill of just beginning.” 

    To someone these days born after 1969, this might seem like asking for the moon. To those of us born before ’69, they’re thrilling times– and bring a knowing smile.

    DCSCA (797bc0)

  3. I was five and a half, a few months from turning six and starting first grade, and my mom tried to send me to bed because it was getting late. So I threw a tantrum.

    I remember nothing about the actual landing or EVA, but I distinctly recall that she relented when I angrily yelled “You don’t want me to know ANYTHING!”

    Dave (1bb933)

  4. No way I’m saying how old I was when it happened. But I will share this from a speech prepared for Nixon to give in case the astronauts didn’t make it home:

    “Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

    I think it was appropriate for their arrival back home as well.

    Dana (bb0678)

  5. I was 11. I still remember because of the interminable pauses switching between the networks and the local LA TV showing of King Kong (1933) on our portable. Hearing them trying to explain what was going on (IIRC Jules Bergman at ABC was the best for good, clear info) and the initial crude pictures just made it all kind of foggy.

    AND THEN THAT NIGHT like over a billion other people, I looked up at the bright face of the moon…and realized there were men looking back at me. That did it, I think I even had to sit down.

    harkin (a49e60)

  6. I think it was appropriate for their arrival back home as well.“

    HORNET + 3

    harkin (a49e60)

  7. Good Times watching that Setchell Carlson Black and White T.V. with horizontal and vertical control.

    mg (8cbc69)

  8. Our Aunt and Uncle were in town visiting, and they invited me to spend the night at their hotel in downtown Chicago. I was 15 years old. As Patrick already stated, he was not yet 1, so he stayed at home with our parents. I remember our Uncle Lawrence, who worked at the Pentagon, emphasizing to my cousins and I that what we were witnessing was not only groundbreaking history, but an achievement on the level that we would possibly never see again in our lifetime. So far, he was very prophetic.

    Brotherico (dfc953)

  9. Armstrong flew 78 missions over Korea for a total of 121 hours in the air, a third of them in January 1952, with the final mission on March 5, 1952. Armstrong received the Air Medal for 20 combat missions, two gold stars for the next 40, the Korean Service Medal and Engagement Star, the National Defense Service Medal, and the United Nations Korea Medal.</blo

    rcocean (1a839e)

  10. 1903-1969 is only 63 years from the Wright brothers to walking on the moon. That’s like 1956 to 2019. Which shows how much technological change there was in early to mid the 20th century.

    rcocean (1a839e)

  11. If only the patriarchy hadn’t discriminated against women, we’d have walked on the Moon in 1959. Sads.

    rcocean (1a839e)

  12. “1903-1969 is only 63 years from the Wright brothers to walking on the moon. That’s like 1956 to 2019. Which shows how much technological change there was in early to mid the 20th century.”

    1958~2019 is the length of time the U.S. government nationalized the space industry with the founding of NASA.

    Since the hyper-billionaires have been allowed private rockets, the advancements have at least returned.

    MasterBaker (bcae7b)

  13. The Houston Chronicle today has an article about Apollo 11 as seen through the eyes of Houston’s Mission Control. It is a good read.

    DRJ (15874d)

  14. I was in my mother’s womb that evening, preparing for my Thanksgiving Day debut. But I had the honor of meeting Colonel Aldrin a few years back and chatting with him briefly. He’s been dealing with some family issues as his children appear to be trying to take greater control of their dad’s affairs, so it’s sad that an American hero his age has to deal with that sort of thing in the twilight of his life, but I guess that’s sometimes the price of fame. I hope the next few days as we celebrate the various anniversaries of that momentous event bring him great joy.

    JVW (54fd0b)

  15. The Chronicle article I linked (plus books like The Right Stuff and others) mention the long-term stress being in the military and the astronaut program caused for everyone but especially the families. Two of the three Apollo 11 astronauts divorced, including Aldrin, and all of the astronauts were probably away from their families for extended periods. It surely took a toll on everyone.

    DRJ (15874d)

  16. The Right Stuff is a stupendous book and well worth the read.

    The film? You’re on your own.

    harkin (58d012)

  17. I remember reading in high school, that first chapter really brings home the cost of this endeavor, the film tried to capture wolfe’s vision, but even at nearly three hours could not,

    narciso (d1f714)

  18. The Right Stuff is probably one of my five or ten favorite films of all time. I had the poster on the wall in my living room when I was in college. “How the future began” – I loved it (even if Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, etc have a better claim…).

    The fact that the characters and some of the episodes were larger than life was part of the charm.

    Dave (1bb933)

  19. If Aldrin was the Lunar Module Pilot, why was Armstrong flying the thing?

    Talk about government waste…


    Dave (1bb933)

  20. I will never forget that day. My family had moved to Edinburg from San Antonio in the summer of 1968. I was in the 3rd grade. At the time, the Rio Grande Valley was prone to flooding. Even a heavy thunderstorm would flood the streets and close the schools, because the busses couldn’t run. These were called “weather days.”

    That academic year, 1968-69, there were several floods and about a month of weather days, which were taken out of summer vacation. So I was sitting in elementary school on the day. The teacher wheeled in a black-and-white television set on a cart and plugged it in. “You all need to watch this. This is history,” she said.

    It was the Moon Landing. Wow, talk about a mind warp. I mean, seriously, for an eight year old child, it was like science fiction made fact.

    I was walking home from school through a field, stopped and looked up at the afternoon moon. I thought, “There’s a man walking around up there.” It was a wonderment.

    Oh, and I have the Moon Landing stamp in my collection. Yep, on a commemorative envelope dated not only first day of issue but the day of the Moon Landing. It’s incredibly rare, and I have no idea what it’s worth. It’s just part of my stamp collection that my grandmother gave to me. She had a friend at the post office, so she prepared it–every stamp for the Bicentennial, the space missions, and the National Parks service, all on commemorative envelopes dated first day of issue.

    I haven’t had this collection appraised, but I’m sure it’s worth a lot of money because it is one of a kind. I intend to donate it to the University of Texas under her name.

    Gawain's Ghost (b25cd1)

  21. It was a magnificent day. I watched it, but what I really remember is looking out the window latr that night after we were finally ordered to bed, looking up at the moon and thinking, “They are there, looking down at us!” They were like gods…


    BTW I lived in Park Ridge too, and was born at the same hospital as Hillary.

    Patricia (3363ec)

  22. That academic year, 1968-69, there were several floods and about a month of weather days, which were taken out of summer vacation. So I was sitting in elementary school on the day. The teacher wheeled in a black-and-white television set on a cart and plugged it in. “You all need to watch this. This is history,” she said.

    You guys had make-up school days on a Sunday?

    Dave (1bb933)

  23. All you young whippersnappers… it was the Summer before my senior year in high school… Mondays thru Thursdays spent at Newport or Huntington Beach and late afternoons high school Summer League basketball. I was working my job with city of Anaheim Parks and Rec… on Fridays, Saturdays and a few Sundays, my partner and I were the Sound and Light men for the local symphonic orchestra’s Summer Concert Series at Pearson Park. In addition to those duties, we also had to trailer 750 folding chairs from the HQ yard, set them up, and then tear them down and trailer them back after the show. It was more fun than it sounds now, lol.

    My memory is of having to listen to it on the radio while it was happening and watching the tape later. It was hard to wrap my mind around that wonderful, proud event. Those years were so tumultuous for our country, it was so good to have something to bring us together. It still is amazing to me today, simply incredible.

    Colonel Haiku (2601c0)

  24. Dave, there is a time delay between the event and the broadcast. The actual landing took place are midnight Sunday, July 20, 1969. It was broadcast around noon on Monday. All I know is I was sitting in an elementary school when the teacher wheeled in a television set on a cart. That’s not something you forget.

    It’s like Elvis Aloha from Hawaii, the first world satellite broadcast event. The actual concert was filmed at 5:00 AM in Honolulu on January 14, 1973. It was broadcast “live,” but in different time zones around the world, because of the orbit of the transmitting satellite. It wasn’t broadcast in the US until April 4.

    Gawain's Ghost (b25cd1)

  25. @24. In the U.S., in the Eastern time zone, the ‘actual landing’ occurred at 4:17 PM, EDT on Sunday, July 20, 1969. The ‘first step’ for Eastern viewers in the U.S. was roughly seven and a half hours later at 10:56 PM, EDT, on Sunday, July 20 and the approximately 2.5 hour EVA ran into the wee hours of July 21 for East coast viewers. Adjust your time zone references accordingly.

    It was a good day then. As was today.

    DCSCA (797bc0)

  26. ^@25. correction- typo; approx., 6.5 hours later, not 7.5… and it still was good day.

    DCSCA (797bc0)

  27. I remember watching the landing live that weekend, then staying up into the wee hours to watch the moonwalk. It was a bit of an anti-climax given the weeks and months of build-up, both in the news and in my extended family (several relatives worked at JPL).

    And we all thought that THIS was the start of something. Give us a few decades and we’d be traveling to the Moon, and then Mars with regularity. 2001: A Space Odyssey had come out the year before, and we had no doubt that THIS was what the future would look like.

    Then it didn’t. Put not your faith in princes.

    Kevin M (21ca15)

  28. The actual landing took place are midnight Sunday, July 20, 1969.

    The landing took place at 2017 UTC on July 20. That would have been 3pm Central Standard Time.

    Armstrong stepped on the surface at 0256 UTC on July 21. That would have been just before 10pm Central Standard Time (on the Sunday 20th).

    It was certainly broadcast live nationwide at the time (with some very small delay).

    Dave (1bb933)

  29. Yes, well, when it was broadcast on television here, I was sitting in a desk in elementary school.

    Gawain's Ghost (b25cd1)

  30. Was the elementary school in Australia?

    harkin (58d012)

  31. #FakeNews. Donald Trump was not President in 1969 so it’s not possible that America could have achieved such a great thing. Also, it was reported by Walter Cronkite. Need I say more?

    MAGA! We will get to the Moon yet with Donald Trump as President, and for real this time.

    nk (dbc370)

  32. R.I.P. Dr. Christopher C. Kraft.,Jr.

    He invented Mission Control and the role of Flight Director, the closest thing to God on Earth during a space mission, and passed away just two days after the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, which he was instrumental in making a reality.

    ‘Outstanding, young man. Well done.’

    Ad Astra, Flight.

    Ad Astra.

    DCSCA (797bc0)

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