Our Spaceflight Heritage: 48 years since Apollo 11 landed on the Moon
On July 20, 1969—48 years ago today—the world was changed forever when two human beings walked on the Moon. Thirty-eight-year-old Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder of the flimsy, spidery Lunar Module Eagle onto the soft and pliant dust of the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility (Mare Tranquillitatis) and spoke the immortal words: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
It was the culmination of a decade of feverish work and the dedication of 500,000 people across the nation, which paved the way for six more crewed lunar missions.
It began in 1957 when the Soviet Union began the Space Race by launching the first satellite, Sputnik. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was reorganized into a civilian agency known as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). After several failures, NASA succeeded in launching America’s first satellite, Explorer I.
Nonetheless, it was the crewed space race that attracted the most attention. After vetting the highest qualified test pilots in all the armed services, NASA selected seven top pilots as its Mercury Astronauts—the Mercury Seven.
However, the Soviet Union led the way again, launching Yuri Gagarin into space on April 12, 1961. On May 5, Alan Shepard was launched on a fifteen-minute suborbital flight in his tiny Freedom 7 Mercury capsule propelled by a Redstone rocket. That fifteen minutes of space experience was enough to bolster the confidence of young President John F. Kennedy to stand before Congress and ask for the funding to put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade.
Nine more astronauts were selected for the two-man Gemini Program and the upcoming three-man Apollo flights. Five more Mercury missions expanded America’s ability to live, work, and navigate in space.
The ten Gemini flights perfected the skills that would be needed for a successful Moon landing—extravehicular activity, rendezvous and docking, measurement of the radioactivity of the Van Allen radiation belts surrounding the Earth, endurance during long missions, integration of spacecraft systems, communications, and many other things.
However, tragedy struck on Jan. 27, 1967, when a fire broke out inside the Apollo One spacecraft during a routine plugs-out test. Astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were killed.
The Apollo Program was shut down for over a year while the spacecraft was disassembled, with each and every piece examined and analyzed. The problem was found and corrected, as were numerous other problems with the Apollo spacecraft.
Finally, on Oct. 11, 1968, the Apollo Program took flight. Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele, and Walt Cunningham were launched aboard Apollo 7 by a Saturn 1B rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station—the last crewed mission launched from Cape Canaveral. It was a twelve-day orbital flight to test the Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM) in space.
Then, on Dec. 21, NASA launched perhaps the most daring and audacious space mission in history: Apollo 8. Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders launched on a Saturn V—the first crewed launch of that massive rocket—and, even though the Lunar Module (LM) was not yet ready for flight, set off on a journey all the way to the Moon. Their Christmas Eve broadcast in lunar orbit transmitted the first television images of the lunar surface to the people of Earth.
On March 3, 1969, Apollo 9 launched from Kennedy Space Center to test the Lunar Module in Earth orbit. Dave Scott piloted the CSM Gumdrop while Jim McDivitt and Rusty Schweickart put the Lunar Module Spider through its paces.
On May 18, Tom Stafford, John Young, and Gene Cernan flew Apollo 10 to the Moon to test the Lunar Module Snoopy in lunar orbit and to do a full run-through of the first lunar landing.
Then, on July 16, Apollo 11 launched on the long-awaited first mission to land humans on the Moon and return them safely to the Earth.
Neil Armstrong was a civilian pilot who had flown the Air Force’s X-15 to 207,500 feet (63,250 meters), and, on March 16, 1966, had finally beaten the Russians in space by carrying out the first rendezvous and docking in space, docking the Gemini VIII spacecraft with an Agena target vehicle—and then saved Gemini VIII when it went into a disastrous spin.
Command Module Pilot (CMP) was Michael Collins, a 38-year-old Air Force pilot and test pilot, and the first astronaut to perform two spacewalks.
Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) was Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, a 38-year-old Air Force pilot and Korean War veteran, and the only astronaut at the time to have a Ph.D. Foreseeing the importance of spaceflight in the near future, he had written his doctoral thesis on orbital rendezvous, and had used his skills to dock Gemini XII with an Agena target vehicle when the rendezvous computer failed.
On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin moved from the Command Module Columbia into the Lunar Module Eagle, leaving Collins alone to orbit the Moon in the Apollo CSM. After undocking, Armstrong rotated the Eagle so that Collins could verify that the landing legs were extended and locked into position.
CAPCOM Charlie Duke, in Mission Control, Houston, talked Armstrong down during powered descent, but Eagle overshot the landing site due to expelled air in the docking mechanism. Seeing that the computer was bringing Eagle into a hazardous, rocky area, Armstrong took manual control and flew Eagle across the lunar surface until he spotted a flat area.
At 4:18 p.m. EDT (20:18 UTC), Armstrong set Eagle down in the Sea of Tranquillity, informing Duke: “Houston… Tranquillity Base Here. The Eagle has landed.”
Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface at 10:56 EDT (02:56 UTC on July 21). Aldrin followed half an hour later, and the world watched a grainy black-and-white broadcast—with such poor resolution (due to the slow-scan television transmission being incompatible with commercial TV) that Armstrong and Aldrin looked like ghosts as they moved—as the two astronauts collected soil and rock samples, set up the experiments of the Early Apollo Scientific Experiments Package (EASEP), and famously planted the American flag.
It was an inspiring mission for the entire world. The plaque on the Eagle, which still sits undisturbed on the lunar surface, reads:
Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We come in peace for all mankind.
It is an eternal testament to one of humankind’s proudest moments, and the one national program ever mounted in the cause of peace and scientific exploration.
Apollo 11, as well as the six Apollo missions that followed, serve as a beacon for the world to follow. Today the future of our U.S. space program has never been more uncertain, so full of possibilities and yet so empty of promise. From here we may go nowhere, or we may conquer the stars. Only time—and the will of the American people—will tell.
Video courtesy of NASA Johnson
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.