“We did it. We actually put people on the surface of the moon.”
Those were the words from former Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell, who was just one of millions of people around the globe who watched in awe as Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969. Upon setting foot on another world, Armstrong uttered a phrase that would be etched in history: “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”
It is estimated that over 530 million people watched the broadcast of the moon landing live on television, equivalent to nearly 15% of the world’s entire population in 1969. It is also estimated that 93% of all the televisions across the United States were tuned into the moon landing.
The flashpoint for the ambitious mission to the moon predates Apollo 11 by nearly seven years when President John F. Kennedy made his famous speech at Rice University amid the Cold War.
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too,” said President John F. Kennedy on Sept. 12, 1962.
This speech was a strong motivation for the astronauts, NASA, and the country as the space race heated up.
Michael Collins, one of the three Apollo 11 astronauts, said that this goal set forth by President Kennedy was one of the key factors that propelled the mission into motion.
“[O]ne was a deadline — by the end of the decade. You could motivate people … saying, ‘We gotta do this by the end of the decade.’ It was a very powerful tool,” said Collins during a panel discussion in 2014. Two other key factors in the mission’s timely success were NASA’s large budget and the hard-working group of dedicated, smart people across the organization, according to Collins.
One million people gathered along Florida’s east-central coast, nicknamed the ‘Space Coast,’ on the morning of July 16, 1969, to watch the launch of Apollo 11.
The mid-summer morning featured “highly suitable weather, with winds 10 knots from the southeast, temperature in the mid-80s, and clouds at 15,000 feet,” according to NASA.
Anxiety swelled among the large crowds that gathered along the Florida coast, but not in the cramped cabin where the three Apollo 11 astronauts sat atop a 363-foot-tall Saturn V rocket.
“We have a report on the launch heart rates now from the flight surgeon,” said Public Affairs Officer in an announcement 36 minutes after liftoff. “Commander Neil Armstrong’s heart rate, 110; Command Module Pilot Mike Collins, 99; Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin, 88.” This is only slightly higher than the typical resting heart rate of an adult, which is between 60 and 100 beats per minute.
Four days after liftoff, Armstrong and crew-mate Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin descended to the lunar surface while Collins remained in orbit around the moon.
People held their breath during the heart-throbbing descent to the moon, particularly in the final minutes as Armstrong manually guided the lunar lander, known as the “Eagle,” down to the surface of the moon. All eyes were on the fuel gauge as it began to run low while Armstrong navigated the craft safely down to the surface, avoiding fields of boulders to the perfect landing site.
“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,” said Armstrong in a statement after successfully reaching the surface.
“We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again,” said Charlie Duke, the spacecraft communicator (CAPCOM) based in Houston, replied.
Unlike the launch when Armstrong’s heart rate topped out at just 110 beats per minute, his peaked at 150 during the landing, the highest of any commander during the Apollo program.
“It was a very gentle touchdown. It was hard to tell when we were on,” Armstrong recalled after the mission.
Six hours after touchdown, Armstrong emerged from the lunar lander, climbed down a ladder and became the first human to step foot on another world. He quickly scooped up a sample of the lunar surface to ensure that they returned to Earth with a few moon rocks if there was an emergency, and they needed to leave the moon quickly.
“It has a stark beauty all its own,” Armstrong said while standing on the moon. “It’s like much of the high desert of the United States. It’s different, but it’s very pretty out here.”
“I was surprised by a number of things,” said Armstrong after the mission. “I was surprised by the apparent closeness of the horizon. I was surprised by the trajectory of dust that you kicked up with your boot. You never had a cloud of dust there. That’s a product of having an atmosphere, and when you don’t have an atmosphere, you don’t have any clouds of dust.”
Next, it was Aldrin’s turn to step foot on the moon.
“I watched out the window to see Neil go down the ladder,” said Aldrin. “When it was my turn to back out, I remember the checklist said to reach back carefully and close the hatch, being careful not to lock it.”
The two astronauts spent over two-and-a-half hours walking around on the moon where they collected moon rocks, planted an American flag and even spoke with President Richard Nixon.
“For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one: one in their pride in what you have done, and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth,” said President Nixon to commander Armstrong while he watched on from the White House.
Armstrong and Aldrin are known in history books as the first two humans to walk on the moon, but the third astronaut on the Apollo 11 mission, Collins, also made history for a different reason.
While Armstrong and Aldrin were on the lunar surface, Collins stayed in command and service module that remained in orbit around the moon.
“I was the most lonesome person in the whole universe — at least according to the newspapers,” Collins recounted. Collins seemed to enjoy this isolation. “Actually, I was so glad to get behind the moon, so Mission Control would shut up. Then I had some peace and quiet.”
After spending 21 hours and 36 minutes on the moon’s surface, Armstrong and Aldrin blasted off and reunited with Collins in lunar orbit. Next, the crew set their course back to Earth where they would land in the Pacific Ocean.
However, a brewing storm threatened the area where they were set to splash down.
“Because of bad weather in the target area, the landing point was changed by about 250 miles,” according to NASA.
The weather in the new target landing area was much more favorable for a safe and easy recovery.
On July 24, 1969, the three Apollo 11 astronauts returned to Earth.
“After a flight of 195 hours, 18 minutes, 35 seconds — about 36 minutes longer than planned — Apollo 11 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, 13 miles from the recovery ship USS Hornet,” said NASA.
Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were placed in a 21-day quarantine as a precaution to ensure they did not bring back any contagions from the moon.
Their success paved the way for future Apollo missions to the moon to help expand the understanding of our celestial neighbor.
“The legacy of Apollo is, if you set your mind to do something, get everybody together and everybody agrees we should accomplish it, and then we go ahead, it became something we all could be proud of,” said Lovell.
All three astronauts became American heroes and earned global recognition. Armstrong passed away on Aug. 25, 2012, at the age of 82 due to complications after heart surgery. Collins passed away on April 28, 2021, at the age of 90 due to cancer. Aldrin, 93, is only one of four people alive who have walked on the moon. He is also the oldest after Davic Scoee, 91, Harrison Schmitt, 88, and Charles Duke, 87.
Produced in association with AccuWeather
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