Apollo 11 – Man on the Moon

The culmination of America’s lunar space programme came in July, 1969, with the Apollo 11 mission. For the first time in history, humans set foot on the surface of the Moon.

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin is pictured on the Moon near the Eagle lander, after setting up some experiments. Image credit: NASA

The humans in question were Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Armstrong made the historic first step, as Commander of the Apollo 11 mission. He did so declaring: “That’s one small step for a man; one giant leap for Mankind.”

The mission had begun on July 16 when the astronauts’ spacecraft was hoisted aloft by a Saturn V rocket from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. With Armstrong and Aldrin was the third member of their crew, Michael Collins. All three had previously flown on Gemini missions.

As with previous Apollo missions, the combined spacecraft first went into Earth orbit, for one and a half orbits, before the rocket’s third stage burned its engines again to head for the Moon. As with Apollo 10, protective panels around the Lunar Module, which was named Eagle, were ejected and the Command Service Module, called Columbia, turned to dock with it and pull it free.

Two colour TV broadcasts were made from the spacecraft on the outward voyage, the first from Columbia, and the second from Eagle after Armstrong and Aldrin put on their spacesuits and crawled through to examine the lander.

On July 19, while Apollo 11 was behind the Moon and out of contact, the main engine was fired to put the spacecraft into lunar orbit. It was a tense moment as mission controllers and the rest of the world watching history in the making waited for contact to be resumed to find out if it had been successful.

The following day, Armstrong and Aldrin entered the Lunar Module once again to check it out once more before the lander separated from Columbia, extending its folded legs. Collins remained in the mothership as it continued to orbit the Moon. On its 13th orbit, and on the far side of the Moon, Eagle fired its engine to begin descent. The challenge was to bring it from a height of 15,000 metres, orbiting at several thousand km per hour, to a soft touchdown.

A second, longer firing, after the LM had reemerged from behind the Moon, brought the lander lower until it was about 8,000 metres from its intended landing site and 8 km above the lunar surface.

Landing Eagle was always going to be a challenge for Armstrong and Aldrin, and they almost ran out of fuel before they made it to the surface.

The trouble began when they were close to their planned landing spot in Mare Tranquillitatis, the Sea of Tranquility, and warning lights began flashing as the onboard computer struggled to keep up with commands. Then, as Armstrong was looking out of the window for a smooth area to put Eagle safely down, he was alarmed to see that they were heading directly for a large crater in an area strewn with car-sized boulders. Attempting a landing there risked tipping the spacecraft over, which would have been a disaster.

Armstrong quickly took over control from the LM’s computer and steered it over the crater and boulders to search for a safer landing zone. As he finally started to bring the craft down, and the thruster began disturbing the moondust, mission control at Houston warned that they were close to having to abort the landing. But then the lander’s legs gently touched the surface and the craft was safely down. It was July 20.

Armstrong radioed home to announce: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” There was just 20 seconds of fuel left in the tank. Fellow astronaut Charlie Duke, who was channeling communications from mission control, replied: “Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”

Apollo 11: One Small Step

With the Eagle lander safely on the Moon, the watching world was impatient to see the historic moment when Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin would become the first humans to walk on the lunar surface. The astronauts were equally keen to do so. They were due to get four or five hours of rest first, having been awake for many hours, but understandably they believed they would have trouble sleeping at such an exciting time.

A photo by Neil Armstrong shows Aldrin leaving the lunar module to descend the ladder to the lunar surface. Image credit: NASA

Mission control allowed them to commence preparations to leave the LM for their EVA. Even so, it was more than six hours before they would step onto the Moon’s surface. Armstrong was first to exit the hatch and descend the ladder. A camera attached to the craft sent back ghostly black and white images of his progress to be watched live around Earth.

Finally, at 02.56 Universal Time on July 21 (when it was still the evening of July 20 in the USA) Armstrong stepped off the ladder and onto the Moon, to say the now famous words that he had planned on the journey there.

After Armstrong checked the surroundings and collected some samples of dust and rock in case they needed to make a quick getaway, Aldrin descended the ladder to join him on the surface. The two men, weighing a sixth what they would on Earth, thanks to the Moon’s weaker gravity, paused to take in the view that no humans had ever enjoyed before. Aldrin later described it as “magnificent desolation”.

Their first task was to plant a camera on a tripod about 10 metres from the lander, along with a U.S. flag together with medals to commemorate the astronauts, American and Soviet, who had lost their lives in the quest to reach space. A small silicon disk carried messages of goodwill collected from 73 nations around the world.

Then the astronauts received a special phone call, from President Richard Nixon. He told them: “This certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made from the White House.”

A classic photo of Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the Moon, taken by Neil Armstrong. Image credit: NASA

During more than two and a half hours on the Moon, Armstrong and Aldrin planted a number of experiments on the lunar surface that would detect moonquakes, collect data on the solar wind and Moondust, and allow precise measurements of the Moon’s distance from Earth.

Then, after 21 hours 36 minutes on the lunar surface, including a period of sleep at last, it was time to leave. The Eagle’s ascent stage engine fired to send them back into orbit. Left behind, attached to the descent stage, a plaque read: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”

Michael Collins, who had been patiently waiting in orbiting Columbia, filmed the ascent stage’s approach before his crewmates docked and crawled back into the Command Service Module. With no further use for the Eagle, it was jettisoned, before the CSM fired its engine to return to Earth.

Two and a half days later, the Command Module splashed down in the Pacific where the USS Hornet, with President Nixon aboard, was waiting to recover the returning heroes. All three went straight into quarantine for three weeks in case they had brought back any Moon bugs.

A photo from the command module shows the ascent stage of the lunar module returning from the Moon. Image credit: NASA

First man on the Moon

Neil Armstrong was a modest man who kept a low profile after his historic achievement of becoming the first human to set foot on another world.

He had made a name for himself in the Korean War in the early 1950s, flying several combat missions. He went on to become a test pilot. His cool manner first showed when all four engines of a B-29 Superfortress he was flying failed. The plane landed safely.

Then as a Gemini 8 astronaut he managed a drama where his capsule went into a spin. Later, he was training in a test model of the lunar lander, dubbed a “flying bedstead”, when it went out of control and he had to eject. Coolly he went straight back to work in his office.

After Apollo, Armstrong became a university lecturer, teaching aerospace engineering. He died in 2012, aged 82.

Next: Apollo 12 – A lightning return to the Moon