Fifty years ago today, three Americans launched into space on the Apollo 11 mission to the moon – intending to pilot a four-legged lunar module named Eagle onto its surface.
On July 20th at 04:17:40 (EST), Buzz Aldrin, the module’s pilot, said, “Contact light,” the first words spoken from the moon’s surface as the craft touched down.
Exactly eighteen seconds later, mission commander and Aldrin’s co-pilot Neil Armstrong said, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
America on the Moon
The launch of Apollo 11 fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s call in May 1961 to put Americans in space and on the moon.
The following day at 10:56:15 (EST) – and as half a billion people on earth watched – Armstrong climbed out of the Eagle and tentatively stepped out onto the powdery lunar surface and said, “That’s one small step for man … one giant leap for mankind.”
Nineteen minutes later at 11:15:16 (EST), Aldrin joined Armstrong on the lunar surface.
“Beautiful view!” said Aldrin.
“Isn’t that something! Magnificent sight out here,” replied Armstrong.
“Magnificent desolation,” replied Aldrin.
What Does One Do on the Moon?
For the next 2 hours, 31 minutes the two astronauts traversed about 250 meters of the moon’s surface, planted the American flag, collected 46 pounds of rocks, and performed a number of experiments.
As Aldrin and Armstrong worked, the often overlooked Apollo 11 mission command module pilot Michael Collins orbited 65 miles overhead in the Columbia.
“I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life,” he wrote in his book, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journey, as the Columbia orbited 17 times for 47 minutes around the far side of the moon.
“I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what on this side.”
After 21 hours, 38 minutes and 21 seconds on the moon, the Eagle lifted off at 1:54.01 (EST) and docked with the Columbia at 17:35.00 (EST) to begin its flight home.
Splashing down in the Pacific Ocean at 12:50:35 (EST) on July 24th, the mission to the moon had lasted 195 hours, 18 minutes and 35 seconds.
“For one priceless moment in the whole history of man,” President Richard Nixon had said to Aldrin and Armstrong earlier in the day, “all the people on this Earth are truly one….”
The course of human history had been changed.
13 Surprising Facts About the Apollo 11 Mission
Much has been written in anticipation of today, so rather than repeat the message of others, a look at some of the not-so-well-known facts about the mission is in order…
1. The Moon Smells: Aldrin and Armstrong both said after their walks on the moon they could smell the lunar dust. Aldrin said it smelled like a firecracker had gone off; Armstrong said it had the scent of wet ashes.
2. Customs Comes Calling: The three astronauts had to fill out a “Agriculture, Customs, Immigrations, and Public Health” form upon their return for importing moon rocks and dust into the United States.
3. The Cameras: Hasselblad cameras were the favorite, and Armstrong used one on the lunar surface to capture Aldrin in many of the landing’s iconic images. In fact, there is only one full-body image of Armstrong walking on the moon.
4. No Affordable Life Insurance Policies: There were no guarantees that the three astronauts would return. They tried to take out life insurance, but it was unbelievably expensive. To get around this, they signed autographs to postcards that their families could sell after their deaths.
5. The First Holy Communion on The Moon: After landing the Eagle, Aldrin radioed Houston and asked for a moment of silence. He then requested that listeners think about the landing and give thanks in their own ways as he took communion.
6. Piece of Wood: In 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright constructed and flew the Wright Flyer in the first controlled, powered flight. Armstrong carried a piece of wood from the plane’s propeller and a scrap to fabric from its wing to the moon.
7. The Spacesuits: They were designed by Playtex, the company who created the “Cross Your Heart Bra” in the 1950s. The company convinced NASA it could make the spacesuits because it had experience in developing clothing that were both flexible and form-fitting.
8. Luna 15: The unmanned Russian spacecraft assumed lunar orbit on July 17, two days ahead of the Apollo 11 mission. Two hours before the Eagle lifted off the lunar surface, Luna 15 crashed about 540 miles to the northeast.
9. Charlie Brown and Snoopy: The three astronauts originally wanted to call their crafts after Charles Schultz’s characters. Bureaucrats thought otherwise, and Columbia and Eagle were selected.
10. On-Board Computer: The Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) weighed more than 66 pounds; its processor was only 2.048 MHz; and it had less computing power than an iPhone.
11. The Flag on The Moon: Designed with an additional horizontal pole to support the 2-ply polyester flag, it cost $5.50.
12. Many Heads, Hearts and Hands: At the height of NASA’s Apollo Space Program, 400,000 individuals were employed.
13. One Message: Before departing the moon, the following was left for posterity:
HERE MEN FROM THE PLANET EARTH
FIRST SET FOOT UPON THE MOON
JULY 1969, A.D.
WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND.
A special thanks is due to the Museum of Flight at Seattle’s Boeing Field and to the Smithsonian Institution for allowing me access to photograph the items pictured in this article. Both organizations were outstanding to work with at every point.