“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong’s famous Moon landing quote were the final point of the race to reach the Moon, which began 12 years ago when Russia placed the first satellite orbiting the Earth. In 1961, President Kennedy promised his country that the first person who would step on the Moon would be sent at the end of the 1960s. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) embarked on an enormous and complex project under the code name Apollo in 1962, worth $25 billion and involving 400,000 people. In 1968, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders were out of the world’s gravitational pull and became the first humans to orbit around the Moon with Apollo 8. Five months before the end of the decade, Apollo 11 was ready to launch in July 1969.
The launch vehicle Saturn V
The launch vehicle Saturn V, which weighed around 6,600,000 lb (3,000 metric tons) and was 360 ft (110 m) long, consumed 600,000 gallons (2,300,000 liters) of fuel in the first 2.5 minutes of the flight. This vehicle was installed on the world’s largest indoor platform at a height of 500 ft (152 m) and transported to the launch pad with the world’s largest vehicle with a payload capacity of 310,000 lb (140 metric tons).
The 95,000 lb (43 metric tons) spaceship at the top of the rocket had three sections: the service module, the command module, and the lunar module. The service module provided propulsion for the spaceship during the three-day lunar journey. The service and the command modules were planned to remain in orbit while approaching the Moon, and the 31,000-lb (14 metric tons) weighted Lunar module would perform the landing.
On the verge of a disaster
The man’s journey to the Moon and return to Earth was not trouble-free. American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin were on the verge of a disaster on July 20, 1969, while heading toward the Moon. The bug-shaped, bulky lunar module Eagle carried them and left its orbit to find a soft surface suitable for landing. But when they approached the surface of the Moon by 690 ft (210 m), they realized how low they were and how difficult it was to distinguish the reference craters that had previously been spotted with the help of Apollo 10.
Armstrong began to operate the module manually and slow down the vehicle’s descent. First, it descended to 300 ft (90 m) and then to 200 ft (60 m). Eagle grazed the dusty and pocky-looking soft landing surface named “The Sea of Tranquility,” which was the planned site. About 4 miles (6.5 km) away, Armstrong reported what he saw below: Spooky ground with VW Beetle-sized rocks. It would be suicide to get down here.
While Armstrong was speeding the vehicle safely over the rocks, a terrible concern arose at the Mission Control Center in Houston. Only 60 seconds of fuel remained in the landing tank; either Armstrong would find a place to land at this time, or Aldrin would have to end the mission by putting the take-off tank into action. The Eagle descended to a height of 40 ft (12 m), then 30 ft (9 m). Without the ability to lift upward, the engine that would provide this elevation could crash on the ground.
The surface is like a fine powder. It has a soft beauty all its own, like some desert in the United States.Neil Armstrong
But everything went smoothly, and the Mission Control Unit heard Armstrong’s voice amid static rustling; “Houston, Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed.“
Using the last drops of landing engine fuel, Armstrong lowered the module to the Moon’s surface. Aldrin was still waiting, ready to fire the launching engine and end the mission in case the dusty surface of the Moon could not bear the weight of the module or the module appeared to be damaged.
The launch on July 16 was broadcast live from the Kennedy Space Center and the Houston Mission Control Center. Six hours after the landing on the Moon, Armstrong went down the ladder in his bright space suit. As he stepped onto the dusty surface and bounced off due to the low gravity, he declared the famous words that reflect the idealism of this particular space mission, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” During the 13 hours they spent on the Moon’s surface, Armstrong and Aldrin collected rock fragments, made experiments, and then prepared to take off.
This was a tense moment; they could not survive if the engines failed. Everything went according to plan; the lunar module’s legs were used as the launch pad, and they fired the ascent engine. The module reunited with the main module, in which Michael Collins awaited them. The crew fired the service module engine to begin the return to the Earth.
After entering the Earth’s atmosphere, the command module slowed down due to air friction and landed in the Pacific Ocean with the help of a parachute. After the landing on July 24, the crew was happy to swing on a sea on the Earth inside the spacecraft, which turned into a lifeboat. Then the astronauts were rescued and kept isolated for 17 days, in case they or the cargo they brought from the Moon would carry an unknown Moon germ and spread to the whole world. After the “Danger Has Passed” sign, they were all ready for the delayed welcome.
With his “one giant leap for mankind,” astronaut Neil Armstrong was the first person to set foot on the Moon more than 50 years ago, on July 20, 1969. Thus, the Apollo 11 Moon landing was a watershed moment in the history of human space exploration. This was the first time that humanity had entered an alien celestial body.
During the superpower conflict known as the “Cold War,” the Soviet Union was the United States’ primary adversary, therefore, the American Moon landing was a major victory. What was once hailed as a scientific and political achievement is mostly forgotten now. After receiving frequent human visits beginning in the early 1970s, the Moon fell out of human sight and has since been circling the Earth in beautiful isolation.
“Luna” vs. “Apollo”
Cold War in space
For the United States, the Moon landing was not only a much-needed triumph in a fierce war, but also a huge stride for humanity and a historic milestone in space travel. In 1961, then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy issued a challenge to the archrival Soviet Union by declaring that an American would be the first to set foot on the Moon within the decade.
According to Kennedy in his 1961 address, no space endeavor would create a larger effect on all humanity and be more important in the long-term conquest of space. It was not lost on either Soviet President Khrushchev or his American equivalents, Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, or Richard Nixon, how monumental a symbolic gesture this would be. The race was on to determine who would be the dominant space power for their nation.
An advantage for the Soviet Union
In 1957, the Soviet Union beat the United States to the launch of the first artificial satellite when they sent up Sputnik. Thus, the race to “conquer space” was officially underway. American leaders could not sit back and watch this Soviet victory for political reasons alone. It was crucial that they beat the Soviet Union to the next space step, the Moon landing, to prove their scientific and technological supremacy and military power.
Both the United States and the Soviet Union attempted to place unmanned space probes into lunar orbit towards the end of the 1950s, but practically all of them failed on their way there or sailed past the Moon entirely. The United States sent the Pioneer probe, while the Soviet Union sent the Luna probe. The American “Ranger” series, which was launched in 1961, was similarly a flop until 1964, when “The Ranger 7” spacecraft successfully reached the Moon and sent back more than 4,000 pictures of the lunar surface.
The Soviet Union, too, overcame its poor luck and started reporting victories again a year later. In 1966, the landing capsule of their probe “Luna 9” successfully touched down on the lunar surface, and in 2008, their probe “Zond 3” successfully orbited the Moon and produced the first photos from the far side of the Moon.
The US is making up ground
The human flight phase of the Moon race started while the unmanned probes were still busily mapping the lunar surface. In 1967, however, the United States encountered a catastrophe at the very outset of their Apollo program. Virgil Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee perished when the control module of the Apollo 1 spacecraft caught fire during a launch pad rehearsal.
After this disaster, all launch preparations were placed on hold, and the lunar program faced an early collapse danger. However, in October 1968, an Apollo was launched once more for dress rehearsals in Earth orbit after major changes were made to the main module of the Apollo series.
During this time period, the Soviet Union’s primary focus was still on lunar research using robotic rovers. At the end of 1968, the United States accomplished the first manned lunar orbit with the Apollo 8 spacecraft, making its crew the first people to travel beyond Earth orbit.
On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong said, “The Eagle has landed,” effectively ending the race to conquer the Moon. With this “great leap for mankind,” the United States not only won the race, but was also guaranteed a massively positive media echo at a crucial time in terms of both foreign and domestic policy. The Vietnam War, racial tensions, and other social issues seemed to fade into the background for a time. In its place, “Our Man in the Moon” became the talk of the nation and sparked a newfound sense of togetherness in the United States.
On the way to the Moon
Excerpts from the logbook and interviews of the Apollo 11 astronauts
July 16, 1969; 9:32 a.m. EDT: The launch
Apollo 11 and its Saturn V launch vehicle lifted off from Launch Pad 39A at Cape Kennedy Base in Florida on the morning of July 16 (early afternoon German time), beginning one of the most historic journeys in space history.
Aldrin reflected on his time in space, saying, “Even though Earth didn’t seem to have changed much since my first journey, I still couldn’t tear my gaze away from it. Mentally, I knew I was finally leaving; emotionally, I was still unable to get my head around it.” The third stage of the Saturn launch rocket propels the three astronauts out of Earth orbit and onto a new trajectory for the Moon at speeds approaching 40,000 kilometers per hour after they have completed one and a half orbits of the planet.
At 2:49 p.m.: a soft change of heart
Separating the Eagle Lander from Saturn, turning it around, and connecting it to the Apollo command capsule were the tasks that must be completed while the spaceship is traveling away from Earth.
“Performing this move was essential to the overall flying strategy. Failure of the separation and docking technique would have required us to return to Earth,” NASA astronaut Buzz Aldrin elaborates. “We wore our spacesuits the whole time to shield us in the event of a collision or damage to our capsule,” the crew said. Everything goes according to plan, and the “double being” (the command capsule and the “Eagle”) resume their flight toward the Moon with the nose of the capsule attached to the “Eagle’s” top.
There wasn’t a whole lot to report on days two and three in space. On day three, Armstrong and Aldrin tested out the lander by entering it themselves.
July 19: First look at the finish line
The gyrating motion of the space capsule is complete, and it swings around. The astronauts had their first glimpse of the Moon during the mission. “These new developments are quite exciting. The Moon I’ve seen in the sky my whole life, a flat yellow disk, has become a breathtaking sphere.” Collins adds, “All of a sudden, it’s so real that I feel like I can touch it; its globe protrudes toward us.”
Armstrong relays the following message to the ground station: “Seeing the Moon in all its splendor is a remarkable sight. Two-thirds of our window is taken up by it. That one sight just about paid for the whole vacation.”
Soon after Apollo 11 vanishes from view behind the Moon, another critical move is required: the astronauts must momentarily activate the thrusters to slow their travel to the point where they may be trapped by the Moon’s gravitational field. They have also had their first close-up view of the spot where they plan to land.
July 20, 9:37 a.m.: Separation of the Lander
The Apollo 11 spacecraft makes its last lunar orbit after a second-course correction; Michael Collins stays in the “Columbia,” while Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong go onto the lander. To his two coworkers, he said, “You cats take it easy on the surface.”
Armstrong and Aldrin initiate the Lander’s first descent after the “Eagle” separates from the command capsule. N. Armstrong says “The Eagle has wings!” Michael Collins and the Command Module emerge from the Moon’s shadow a few minutes later, allowing them to report back to Earth on the first successful stride toward the surface.
Mission accomplished: First Moon landing
July 20 – En route to the landing area
The two astronauts on board the “Eagle” were still able to view the original landing spot, which was in the midst of a crater the size of a soccer field and littered with stones, while the computer-controlled landing approach continues. So, Armstrong takes the helm and moves the lander to a more favorable location manually. Meanwhile, Aldrin keeps giving him a boost in velocity and altitude.
Armstrong: “Due to the amount of dust we kicked up during the latter stages of the landing approach, we were concerned that we might lose a clear picture of our location and altitude. We knew that a misstep at this stage might have serious consequences.” The ground crew maintains a low profile but listens intently to Aldrin’s updates on the spacecraft’s altitude as the landing approach’s fuel runs short.
First Moon landing: July 20, 1969, 12:50 p.m. EDT
When the lander’s four legs strike the ground, the indication light lights on, and Armstrong shuts off the rockets. Armstrong calls the ground station at 4:17 p.m., local time, to report: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” The lander’s fuel supply was down to its last 30 seconds upon touchdown.
A short time later, Aldrin claims that he was gazing outside the Eagle and saw: “The landscape surrounding us seems to be composed of rocks of every imaginable shape, edge, and chunk size. The terrain is practically devoid of color, ranging from an almost white powdery gray to deeper, ash-like tones.”
One small step for a man
The two astronauts have everything set up in the lander for re-entry before they take any “small steps” or anything like that. Having completed this, Armstrong proposed to the ground station that they commence the “extravehicular activity” (the first steps on the Moon) sooner than originally scheduled.
Squeezing through the airlock, Armstrong cautiously descends the lander’s nine-step ladder toward the Moon’s surface. On July 20 at 10:56 p.m., Earth time, history was made as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon. A human person has landed on the surface of another planet for the first time in history. “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” said Armstrong.
The first steps on the moon
A fascinating wasteland
Armstrong takes his first steps on the Moon after a brief survey of his new surroundings. Each stride becomes a kangaroo-like jump when gravity is just one-sixth of what it is on Earth. Armstrong said, “I haven’t seen any issues, and getting about is even simpler than it was in our practice sims.”
“Like a fine powder”
Experts have previously cautioned that the Moon’s strange atmosphere and gravity may pose serious challenges for humans before the mission ever began. But obviously, this wasn’t the situation. Armstrong: “Within minutes of touching down on the Moon, we had adjusted to the light gravity with ease. We really liked it more than both regular Earth gravity and total weightlessness.”
As Armstrong noted in the logbook, “The topography is powdery and fine, and it adheres to the soles and sides of my shoes like chalk. This high-quality fabric shows every one of my designs.” Armstrong’s thick, carefully insulated “lunar boots” left the first human footprints on the Moon, and since the Moon has no atmosphere, these boots should have survived nearly completely intact.
At first glance
Aldrin follows Buzz off of the lander a mere fifteen minutes later. Aldrin: “As I broke the surface, I felt a mixture of joy and apprehension. In typical tourist fashion, Neil started shooting photographs of me as I arrived.”
The first of three experiments was begun by the two astronauts as anticipated. In this scene, Aldrin drives a telescoping rod into the ground, to which he has connected a makeshift bag made of aluminum foil. Its purpose is to collect particles from the solar wind and send them back to Earth for further study.
American flag on the Moon
Aldrin: “Eventually, Armstrong proposed erecting the flag. The apparently easy endeavor almost led to complete failure despite our best efforts. Training in public relations seems to be as important as training in any other field.” The flagpole wouldn’t go deep enough into the lunar dirt, and the bracket meant to keep it flat wouldn’t extend far enough, too.
“It took a lot of work, but we managed to achieve a condition of near-balance. On the other hand, I could see the flag crashing to the ground in front of the cameras with millions of people watching.” As the lander lifted off for its return trip, the flag did indeed fall, but not in front of the camera.
While Aldrin was busy installing two devices—a seismograph to record earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and other signals of geologic activity, and a laser reflector to make an even more precise measurement of the Earth-Moon distance—Armstrong gathered samples of lunar rocks.
Leaving the Moon
“We would have liked to stay”
Armstrong and Aldrin returned to the “Eagle” lunar module after spending barely 2.5 hours outdoors. Everything has been finished, including unloading the experiments and taking photos. According to Aldrin, “We felt like little kids in a candy shop. So many plans, so little time.”
The two astronauts are to sleep after removing their spacesuits in preparation for liftoff. Aldrin: “We weren’t able to get much sleep since we were still far too stimulated and because it was fairly chilly.”
The “Eagle” lander leaves the lunar surface at 1:54 p.m., after 21 hours on the Moon, to meet up with the “Columbia” command capsule. Michael Collins spent the whole mission alone in lunar orbit. During each orbit around the Moon, the Columbia was out of communication range for 47 minutes, and a comment from the ground station was recorded, saying something along the lines of, “Since Adam, probably no human being has ever experienced such complete loneliness and isolation as Michael Collins did.”
The exposed film, an aluminum bag with samples of the solar wind, and 20.81 kilos of lunar dust and boulders all departed the Moon with the crew. The U.S. flag, laser reflector, seismograph, and lander descending stairs, all with commemorative plaques, were left behind: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
Back to Earth
No problems arise on the return. The Apollo spacecraft splashes down in the Pacific at 12:54 p.m. on July 24, 1969, around 24 kilometers from the U.S.S. Hornett, which is tasked with retrieving it. A diver releases the escape hatch and provides the three “lunar travelers” with isolation suits; once on board the Hornett, they are brought to a mobile quarantine container where they will spend the next three days.
The total time spent traveling to and from the Moon was 195 hours, 18 minutes, and 35 seconds.
Scientific discoveries of the Apollo missions
Beyond the pursuit of just recognition
Though it was no longer thought that the Moon was made of green cheese, as was still held in the Middle Ages, its geology and history of development were still completely unknown until the Apollo missions. The only way we came any closer to understanding the Moon was through the experiments left by astronauts and the samples of Moon rock carried back to Earth.
In any case, the Apollo astronauts’ photographs and experiences promptly put to rest at least one of the “popular ideas” of the time: that the Moon was populated. None of the samples indicated any fossil or recent evidence that the Earth’s satellite could have ever supported any type of life, including the “man on the Moon.”
Earth’s little brother
However, one of the most crucial findings of the Apollo period was that the Moon had a very similar structure to the Earth. Clearly, it shares Earth’s adventurous past, with the surface rocks being melted several times, expelled by volcanoes, and squeezed by meteorite strikes. The stratigraphy of Earth’s satellite is similar to that of Earth, with a solid crust, a partly liquid asthenosphere, and perhaps an iron core.
A common origin for both celestial entities was deduced from the findings of Apollo drilling samples and seismographic investigations. In many places on the Moon, you may still see evidence of the early processes and events that shaped its present-day appearance. Due to erosion, these artifacts are no longer accessible on Earth, making the Moon an essential “archive” for the early history of our solar system.
Information is still gleaned from lunar samples
The lunar surface also stores information on variations in solar radiation. Without an atmosphere to shield it, the surface rock (known as regolith) remained unprotected from the electromagnetic solar wind for millions of years, allowing it to accumulate isotopes and elements from the sun.
Thirty years after the Apollo missions returned samples from the Moon, scientists in 60 labs across the globe are still studying them. Researchers in their third generation are hard at work deciphering the Moon’s last secrets with the assistance of tools their predecessors in the 1970s could only have dreamed of.
History of the Apollo Program
Tragic events served as the catalyst for the beginning
With Apollo 1 in 1967, the United States launched the Apollo program, which concluded with Apollo 17 in 1972. Thirty astronauts embarked on a total of twelve spaceflights. Apollo 8’s first human spaceflight and Apollo 11’s successful first Moon landing were the program’s crowning achievements.
- January 27, 1967
- Crew: Virgil (Gus) Grissom, Edward White, Roger Chaffee
A tragedy struck the Apollo program just before the launch of the first human spacecraft in the Apollo series. Apollo 1’s three-person crew perished when a fire broke out on the launch pad and quickly spread to the spacecraft. Launches of the next Apollo spacecraft were originally postponed after this incident while investigators figured out what caused the fire.
- 11 – 22 October 1968
- Crew: Walter Schirra, Donn Eisele, Walter Cunningham
Apollo 4 through 6 were uncrewed test missions for the Saturn launch vehicles, and the next manned flight, Apollo 7, was given the name Apollo. Apollo 7, a practice run for the next mission, did not include a lunar lander since testing could only be done in Earth orbit. The test proved the core Apollo components were spaceworthy, putting to rest concerns that had arisen in the wake of the Apollo 1 mishap.
- 21 – 27 December 1968
- Crew: Frank Borman, James Lovell, William Anders
Humans first left Earth orbit with the Apollo 8 crew. Even though the spacecraft was supposed to conduct yet another test in Earth orbit, the urgent need to beat the Soviet Union in the space race sent it instead to the Moon. On the morning of December 24th, Apollo 8 achieved lunar orbit and spent the next 20 hours circling the Moon. Without a lander on board, the astronauts in the command capsule captured the first images of Earth rising over the Moon. Apollo 8’s voyage to the Moon and back successfully demonstrated that it was feasible to do so with the technology available at the time.
- 3 – 13 March 1969
- Crew: James McDivitt, David Scott, Russel Schweickart
The Lunar Module was first tested in orbit during Apollo 9. The crew spent 10 days in Earth orbit practicing every operation (save the landing) involving the launch vehicle, command capsule, and lander. Scott and Schweickart went on an autonomous spacewalk so that Schweickart could try out his new spacesuit. Furthermore, they were the first Apollo crew to give their vessels official titles.
- 18 – 26 May 1969
- Crew: Thomas Stafford, John Young, Eugene Cernan
The “Snoopy” lander came within 15 kilometers of the lunar surface during the practice landing. The Apollo 10 crew followed the same identical procedures as the Apollo 11 crew, right down to the landing. During Apollo 11, Stafford and Cernan flew over the Sea of Tranquility in the Lander while Young remained in lunar orbit with the Command Module. There was another “first” that Apollo 10 brought to the table: the first-ever live color TV transmission.
- July 16–24, 1969
- Crew: Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin
On July 20 at 4:17 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Apollo 11 touched down on the Moon as scheduled. Six hours after Armstrong’s “great leap for humanity,” Aldrin followed suit, and the two of them spent the next two and a half hours gathering samples, planting flags, and taking photos. They spent a total of 21 hours on the Moon before heading back to the orbiting command module “Columbia.”
- 14 – 24 November 1969
- Crew: Charles Conrad, Richard Gordon, Alan Bean
The second Moon landing, which took place in the Sea of Storms, was an exemplary feat of accuracy and aiming. With its almost fully automated landing approach, the lander came within 180 meters of the Surveyor 3 probe, which had been sent to the Moon over two and a half years before. The two astronauts gathered further rock samples and placed instruments to monitor the seismicity, solar wind, and magnetic field of the Moon, before bringing sections of the probe back to Earth for study. During this time, multispectral photographs of the Earth were captured in orbit by the Yankee Clipper command capsule.
- 11 – 17 April 1970
- Crew: James Lovell, Fred Heise, John Swigert
With the help of the film starring Tom Hanks, “Houston, we have a problem,” the Apollo 13 mission has become one of the most well-known near-catastrophes in space history. An oxygen tank on the service module burst almost 300,000 kilometers from Earth, nearly incapacitating the Apollo command spacecraft. Only by returning to Earth after circling the Moon could the astronauts hope to escape. The three passengers were trapped in the cramped and freezing landing shuttle for four days before finally making it to Earth.
- 31 January – 9 February 1971
- Crew: Alan Shepard, Stuart Roosa, Edgar Mitchell
Shepard and Mitchell used a “lunar rickshaw” to bring samples back to the lander after their two lunar walks after landing in the Fra Mauro area, the landing location originally planned for Apollo 13. When the two astronauts “got lost” and couldn’t find their way back, they had to call off another sampling mission. Quarantine was observed for the last group of lunar explorers, the Apollo 14 crew.
- 26 July – 7 August 1971
- Crew: David Scott, James Irwin, Alfred Worden
The first usage of a “lunar rover” occurred on the Moon during the first prolonged mission landing. Scott and Irwin drove their lunar rover for 27 kilometers, during which they gathered several artifacts, including the now-famous “Genesis Rock.” Worden completed the first spacewalk between Earth and the Moon on the return trip to Earth.
- 16 – 27 April 1972
- Crew: John Young, Thomas Mattingly, Charles Duke
The main thrusters on board “Orion” almost failed upon landing due to a technical issue. After that happened, Duke and Young spent three days exploring the area around the Descartes Highlands. They found that the area that looked like a volcano wasn’t really a volcano. The biggest piece of Moon rock ever brought back was one of the samples they carried with them.
- December 7 –19, 1972
- Crew: Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans, Harrison “Jack” Schmitt
Geologist and astronaut Harrison Schmitt was the Moon’s last human visitor and its first scientist. More lunar samples were gathered by Schmitt and Cernan, and they drove the Moon vehicle about 34 kilometers into the Taurus-Littrow Valley. When they left, they also left a plaque that read: “The first human lunar expedition concluded here. It’s December of 1972. Thank you for the serenity that you brought with you. May it permeate the world.”