ST. PETERSBURG, FL - Phurba Dorje, the lunar Sherpa guide who blazed the trail for the Apollo 11 astronauts and made it possible for Neil Armstrong to become the first white man to set foot on the moon, died peacefully in his sleep Monday in his Florida apartment. He was 71.
Dorje, whose career with the U.S. space program spanned more than a decade, carried provisions, equipment, and solid rocket fuel on 13 missions in the 1960s and 1970s, but is best known for guiding Armstrong and his crew to Tranquility Base in 1969.
"Without Phurba's invaluable guidance and sturdy legs, I doubt we ever would have made it beyond Earth's atmosphere," Apollo 11 pilot Michael Collins said of the man who strapped the crew's Passive Seismic Experiment Package to his back for all but the last 20 feet of the 238,855-mile journey. "He was a true hero and a wonderful cook."
Following the well-worn path of his ancestors, Dorje and his two yaks hauled dehydrated food, water, space helmets, binders full of flight schematics, and a large silver plaque commemorating the moon landing as he shepherded the astronauts through their historic journey to the moon. Although his efforts are well documented in internal NASA records, Dorje is largely absent from all photographs of the momentous event, as he was also the expedition's unofficial photographer.
In addition to his roles as porter, guide, dishwasher, valet, thruster mechanic, and general manservant, mission archives show that Dorje waited at the bottom of the ladder to help Armstrongwearing his bulky, awkward space suitdescend to take his historic first steps. For his part, Armstrong has generally avoided the issue of who was the first man on the moon.
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Phurba Dorje carried food, water, and communications equipment for the Apollo 11 astronauts.