On this day in 1969, 50 years ago this evening at 22:56 PM EDT, American astronaut Neil Armstrong, standing nearly 240,000 miles from Earth, speaks these words to more than a billion people listening at home: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Climbing off the lunar landing module Eagle, Armstrong became the first human to walk on the surface of the moon.
Apollo 11, the fifth crewed mission for the program, was the 25-billion-dollar culmination of a massive government effort marshaling the strongest engineering, industry, planning and science toward an end not repeated since 1972. And while mankind had dreamt of lunar conquest for centuries, the missions were a clear answer to slain President John F. Kennedy’s clarion call.
Speaking in 1961 some weeks after the USSR successfully sent Yuri Gagarin, the first man ever, into space, Kennedy declared “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.” JFK went on to state that the goal would not be reached “unless every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant gives his personal pledge that this nation will move forward, with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space.”
The choice among competing techniques for achieving such a Moon landing and return was not resolved until considerable study. Three methods were considered, among them a direct ascent, in which one vehicle would lift off from Earth, land on the Moon, and return. However, the proposed massive Nova rocket would not be ready by 1970.
In the method ultimately employed, lunar orbit rendezvous, a powerful launch vehicle, the Saturn V rocket, placed a 50-ton spacecraft in a lunar trajectory. The spacecraft had three parts, and the conical command module (CM) in turn carried three astronauts. The service module (SM) was attached to the back of the CM and carried its fuel and power to form the command/service module (CSM). Docked to the front of the CSM was the lunar module (LM). One astronaut would remain in the CSM while the other two landed on the Moon in the LM.
The LM in turn had a descent stage and an ascent stage. The descent stage was left on the Moon, with the astronauts returned to the CSM in the ascent stage, which was discarded in lunar orbit. The LM was flown only in the vacuum of space, so aerodynamic considerations did not affect its design. Before reentering Earth’s atmosphere, the SM was jettisoned to burn up; the CM then splashed down in the ocean. The lunar orbit rendezvous had the advantages of requiring only one rocket and of saving fuel and mass since the LM did not need to return to Earth, but nonetheless required mind-boggling planning, engineering, navigation and difficult docking and other stick maneuvers.
The first crewed Apollo flight was delayed by horrific tragedy when a pure oxygen fire broke out in the Apollo 1 spacecraft during a ground test on January 27, 1967, killing astronauts Virgil Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White, the first American to walk in space. After 22 long months of refinements and re-engineering, Apollo 7 made a 163-orbit flight carrying a full crew of three astronauts, and the mission was back online.
Four more ever-complicated Apollo missions followed, including Apollo 10, which brought the LM just 9 miles above the moon’s surface. Finally in July of 1969, Apollo 11 crowned the arduous step-by-step missions and procedures with a lunar landing. From the time of its launch on July 16, 1969, until the return splashdown on July 24, almost every major aspect of the Apollo 11 flight was witnessed via television by hundreds of millions of people in nearly every part of the globe. The hearts of all humanity rose with the giant, 363-foot-high, 6,698,700-pound Saturn V launch vehicle as it made its flawless flight from Pad 39A at Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral), Florida, before hundreds of thousands of spectators.
So accurate was the mission’s translunar insertion that three of the en route trajectory corrections planned were not necessary. Aboard Apollo 11 with Armstrong, were Buzz Aldrin and command module pilot Michael Collins, both of whom are still with us. Their enthusiasm was evident from the beginning, as Armstrong exclaimed, “This Saturn gave us a magnificent ride.…It was beautiful!” On the morning of July 20, Armstrong and Aldrin crawled from the command module through an interconnecting tunnel into the lunar module Eagle. Toward the end of the 12th lunar orbit, the Apollo 11 spacecraft became two separate ships: Columbia, piloted by Collins, and Eagle, occupied by Armstrong and Aldrin.
At about 500 feet above the surface, Armstrong began maneuvering the craft manually to avoid landing in a rock-strewn crater. For about a minute and a half, Armstrong hovered Eagle, moving it laterally until he found a clear area on which to descend. Then the contact light illuminated inside the cockpit, as the 68-inch probes dangling below Eagle’s footpads signaled touchdown. One second later the descent rocket engine was cut off, as the astronauts gazed down onto a desolate moonscape of lunar soil blown radially in all directions. Armstrong then radioed at 4:17 PM U.S. Eastern Daylight Time (EDT), “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
What occurred on the lunar surface some six hours later is a memory any man or woman alive and aware at that time will never forget. At 10:56 PM EDT on July 20, Armstrong stepped out onto the lunar soil, uttered his famous quotation, described the surface as “fine and powdery,” and reported that there was no difficulty moving about. Aldrin joined his companion about 20 minutes later. Your humble scribe vividly recalls the family at the old house on Kingsmill, crouched close around the black & white Zenith, watching in awe. As there was a bright, waxing crescent moon visible from the darkened kitchen window, this 6-year-old devotee of NASA peered out and reported to the family “I can see them!” Jeers followed.
During their moon walk of more than two hours, Armstrong and Aldrin set up a number of experiments, took multiple photographs and collected about 50 pounds of rock and soil samples. After 21 hours 38 minutes on the Moon’s surface, the astronauts used Eagle’s ascent stage to launch it back into lunar orbit. Some three days later, Apollo 11 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, 900 miles west of Hawaii; the three astronauts were brought aboard the USS Hornet, safe and sound, just as President Kennedy promised, five months ahead of schedule.
Tonight at 10:56 PM EDT, it is this writer’s reasonable suspicion that millions of Americans will look to the heavens, in the hope that we will once again dare to dream the impossible, purposefully collaborative, sitting at the head of the family of man, moving ever forward “with the speed of freedom.”