When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, the United States was surprised to find themselves behind in the race to space. Still behind the Soviets in the Space Race four years later, President John F. Kennedy gave inspiration and hope to the American people in his speech to Congress on May 25, 1961 in which he stated, “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.”
Just eight years later, the United States accomplished this goal by placing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon.
At 9:32 a.m. on July 16, 1969, the Saturn V rocket launched Apollo 11 into the sky from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. On the ground there were over 3,000 journalists, 7,000 dignitaries, and approximately a half million tourists watching this momentous occasion. The event went smoothly and as scheduled.
After one-and-a-half orbits around earth, the Saturn V thrusters flared once again and the crew had to manage the delicate process of attaching the lunar module (nicknamed Eagle) onto the nose of the joined command and service module (nicknamed Columbia). Once attached, Apollo 11 left the Saturn V rockets behind as they began their three-day journey to the moon, called the Trans lunar coast.
A Difficult Landing
On July 19, at 1:28 p.m. EDT, Apollo 11 entered the moon’s orbit. After spending a full day in lunar orbit, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin boarded the lunar module and detached it from the command module for their descent to the moon’s surface. As the Eagle departed, Michael Collins, who remained in the Columbia while Armstrong and Aldrin were on the moon, checked for any visual problems with the lunar module. He saw none and told the Eagle crew, “You cats take it easy on the lunar surface.”
As the Eagle headed toward the moon’s surface, several different warning alarms were activated. Armstrong and Aldrin realized that the computer system was guiding them to a landing area that was strewn with boulders the size of small cars. With some last minute maneuvers, Armstrong guided the lunar module to a safe landing area. At 4:17 p.m. EDT on July 20, 1969, the landing module landed on the moon’s surface in the Sea of Tranquility with only seconds of fuel left.
Armstrong reported to the command center in Houston, “Houston, and Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Houston responded, “Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again.”
Walking on the Moon
After the excitement, exertion, and drama of the lunar landing, Armstrong and Aldrin spent the next six-and-a-half hours resting and then preparing themselves for their moon walk.
At 10:28 p.m. EDT, Armstrong turned on the video cameras. These cameras transmitted images from the moon to over half a billion people on earth who sat watching their televisions. It was phenomenal that these people were able to witness the amazing events that were unfolding hundreds of thousands of miles above them.
Neil Armstrong was the first person out of the lunar module. He climbed down a ladder and then became the first person to set foot on the moon at 10:56 p.m. EDT. Armstrong then stated, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
A few minutes later, Aldrin exited the lunar module and stepped foot on the moon’s surface.
Leaving the Surface
Although Armstrong and Aldrin got a chance to admire the tranquil, desolate beauty of the moon’s surface, they also had a lot of work to do. NASA had sent the astronauts with a number of scientific experiments to set up and the men were to collect samples from the area around their landing site. They returned with 46 pounds of moon rocks. Armstrong and Aldrin also set up a flag of the United States.
While on the moon, the astronauts received a call from President Richard Nixon. Nixon began by saying, “Hello, Neil and Buzz. I am talking to you by telephone from the Oval Office of the White House. And this certainly has to be the most historic telephone calls ever made. I just can’t tell you how proud we are of what you have done.”
After spending 21 hours and 36 minutes upon the moon (including 2 hours and 31 minutes of outside exploration), it was time for Armstrong and Aldrin to leave. To lighten their load, the two men threw out some excess materials like backpacks, moon boots, urine bags, and a camera. These fell to the moon’s surface and were to remain there. Also left behind was a plaque which read, “Here men from the planet earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
The lunar module blasted off from the moon’s surface at 1:54 p.m. EDT on July 21, 1969. Everything went well and the Eagle re-docked with the Columbia. After transferring all of their samples onto the Columbia, the Eagle was set adrift in the moon’s orbit. The Columbia, with all three astronauts back on board, then began their three day journey back to earth.
Before the Columbia command module entered the earth’s atmosphere, it separated itself from the service module. When the capsule reached 24,000 feet, three parachutes deployed to slow down the Columbia’s descent. At 12:50 p.m. EDT on July 24, the Columbia safely landed in the Pacific Ocean, southwest of Hawaii. They landed just 13 nautical miles from the U.S.S. Hornet that was scheduled to pick them up.
Once picked up, the three astronauts were immediately placed into quarantine for fears of possible moon germs. Three days after being retrieved, Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins were transferred to a quarantine facility in Houston for further observation. On August 10, 1969, 17 days after splash down, the three astronauts were released from quarantine and able to return to their families.
The astronauts were treated like heroes on their return. They were met by President Nixon and given ticker-tape parades. These men had accomplished what men had only dared to dream for thousands of years – to walk on the moon.