This week in 1969, Apollo 11 launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins. The primary mission objective was to fulfill a national goal set by President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961 to perform a crewed lunar landing and return safely to Earth before the decade was out.
On July 20, Armstrong and Aldrin became the first men to walk on the Moon. The two astronauts spent more than 21 hours on the lunar surface deploying scientific experiments and gathering samples before returning to the orbiting command module, piloted by Collins.
This July, in a series of special events, NASA is marking the 50th anniversary of the Apollo Program—the historic effort that sent the first U.S. astronauts into orbit around the Moon in 1968, and landed a dozen astronauts on the lunar surface between 1969 and 1972.
The plan seemed preposterous. John F. Kennedy was just 43 years old, and he’d been president of the United States for just four months—a rough four months. So far, his attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro had ended in disaster at the Bay of Pigs, and the Soviet Union had beaten the U.S. to outer space launching cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit and bringing him home again.
Now here was Kennedy on the afternoon of May 25, 1961 in front of a joint session of Congress: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”
On July 16, 1969, five and a half months before the end of the decade, a million people packed the beaches and highways of the Atlantic coast of Central Florida to watch the launch of Apollo 11. That morning, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins had woken up long before dawn and eaten the traditional NASA pre-mission breakfast of steak and eggs.
As 9:32 a.m. EDT approached, the three astronauts were sitting in their cramped command module atop a 363-foot, three-stage Saturn V rocket going through their final preparations before countdown. Television viewers in 33 different countries watched as the Saturn V’s five engines reached their maximum thrust of 7.6 million pounds and pitched the spaceship into the air. About 12 minutes later, the crew is in Earth orbit.
After one and a half orbits, Apollo 11 gets a “go” for what mission controllers call “Translunar Injection”—in other words, it’s time to head for the moon. Three days later the crew is in lunar orbit. A day after that, Armstrong and Aldrin climb into the lunar module Eagle and begin the descent, while Collins orbits in the command module Columbia.
The world followed the mission’s progress as the crew flew 230,000 miles, entered the moon’s orbit, and finally touched down on the dusty lunar surface. “Houston, Tranquility Base here,” Armstrong reported back to Earth. “The Eagle has landed.”
Collins later writes that Eagle is “the weirdest looking contraption I have ever seen in the sky,” but it will prove its worth.
When it comes time to set Eagle down in the Sea of Tranquility, Armstrong improvises, manually piloting the ship past an area littered with boulders. During the final seconds of descent, Eagle’s computer is sounding alarms.
It turns out to be a simple case of the computer trying to do too many things at once, but as Aldrin will later point out, “unfortunately it came up when we did not want to be trying to solve these particular problems.”
At 10:56 p.m. Armstrong is ready to plant the first human foot on another world. With more than half a billion people watching on television, he climbs down the ladder and proclaims: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Aldrin joins him shortly, and offers a simple but powerful description of the lunar surface: “magnificent desolation.” They explore the surface for two and a half hours, collecting samples and taking photographs.
They leave behind an American flag, a patch honoring the fallen Apollo 1 crew, and a plaque on one of Eagle’s legs. It reads, “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
Armstrong and Aldrin blast off and dock with Collins in Columbia.
The crew splashes down off Hawaii on July 24. Kennedy’s challenge has been met. Men from Earth have walked on the moon and returned safely home.
In a post-flight press conference, Armstrong calls the flight “a beginning of a new age,” while Collins talks about future journeys to Mars.
Over the next three and a half years, 10 astronauts will follow in their footsteps. Gene Cernan, commander of the last Apollo mission leaves the lunar surface with these words: “We leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace, and hope for all mankind.”
As we looked up from the surface of the moon we could see above us the planet Earth, and it was very small, but it was very beautiful. And it looked like an oasis in the heavens. And we thought it was very important, at that point, for us and men everywhere to save that planet, as a beautiful oasis that we together can enjoy, for all the future.