By RANDAL C. HILL
By the early 1960s, America was trailing the Soviet Union in space development. This undoubtedly played a part in President John F. Kennedy’s appeal on May 25, 1961, to a special joint session of Congress when he pronounced, “I believe 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 Earth.”
Eight years later, at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on the morning of July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 thundered off the launch pad in a billowy cloud of smoke, destined for immortality. Neil Armstrong, a 38-year-old civilian research pilot, led the three-man crew, which also consisted of Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, 39, and Michael Collins, 38.
Media coverage naturally focused on the astronauts, but the total number of scientists,
engineers, service and construction workers involved in the mission had surged to more
In the next 76 hours, the astronauts soared 240,000 miles, averaging over 3,100
miles per hour. They entered a lunar orbit on July 19, and the next day their lunar module,
Eagle, separated from the command module, Columbia, where Michael Collins remained on
board to monitor the situation.
The Eagle began its descent to the lunar surface two hours later. However, when Armstrong prepared to set the craft down, he realized that boulders and craters were posing a potential hazard, so he maneuvered it to a flatter, safer place nearby. Unfortunately, that
move burned fuel, already running dangerously low.
The Eagle finally settled onto the moon’s Sea of Tranquility with only 25 seconds of fuel left. Had it run out, the operation would have been automatically aborted in order to
guarantee an adequate supply for the return flight home.
Armstrong immediately radioed Mission Control in Houston with his now-iconic announcement “The Eagle has landed.”
That evening, Armstrong descended from the ship as a television camera attached to the Eagle beamed the astronauts’ progress back to Earth. When he opened the hatch and
stepped onto the moon’s surface, he maintained that he had intended to say, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” but a possible momentary microphone
glitch had him announcing to the world, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Aldrin followed Armstrong 19 minutes later, being careful not to lock the Eagle’s hatch, as there was no outer handle—and no roadside assistance number to call 240,000 miles away.
The pair spent 21 hours and 36 minutes—almost a full day—on the moon. They stayed in the Eagle for over six hours after they landed and took frequent breaks when they walked on the surface. The thermally cooled underwear they wore inside their spacesuits helped them fend off the potentially lethal 200-degree Fahrenheit lunar surface temperatures.
Following NASA’s directive, Armstrong and Aldrin loaded nearly 50 pounds of moon rocks and soil into the Eagle, took photographs and conducted tests. The hardest task then facing the two was the planting of the American flag. The moon’s surface was rock hard, and the astronauts only managed to hammer Old Glory a few inches into the surface, where it subsequently fell over from the Eagle’s takeoff blast.
Besides the American flag, the astronauts left behind several other items, including a plaque that read: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot on the moon – July 1969 A.D. – We came in peace for all mankind.”
When returning to the lunar module, Aldrin accidentally tripped the circuit breaker used to
activate the main engine; after a moment of panic, though, he was able to push the switch back into the correct position with a felt-tip pen.
Armstrong and Aldrin reconnected successfully with Collins and Columbia, and on July 22, Apollo 11 began its journey home, safely splashing into the Pacific Ocean two days later. It’s estimated that over 550 million people worldwide followed the history making event on television.
To date, the U.S. is the only country that has had successful crewed missions (six of them) to the moon. The last one was in 1972. Other countries have placed unmanned spacecraft on the lunar surface.
NASA plans to put the first woman and the next man on the moon in 2024. The mission is named Artemis, after the Greek goddess of the moon and twin sister of the god Apollo.
“I think it is very beautiful that 50 years after Apollo, the Artemis program will carry the next man and the first woman to the moon,” announced NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. “I have a daughter who is 11 years old, and I want her to be able to see herself in the same role as the next women that go to the moon.”
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