The Parental Units and I went to our friends, The Fitzgeralds, to watch. They were the owners of a large color television in a modern console, the biggest screen I had ever seen. I found every moment to be incomprehensibly captivating and of course, I was stoned.
On July 20, 1969, American astronauts Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the first humans ever to land on the moon. About six-and-a-half hours later, Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon. As he took his first step, Armstrong famously said:
That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
President Richard Nixon spoke with Armstrong and Aldrin spoke on the telephone via a radio transmission shortly after they planted the American flag on the lunar surface. Nixon considered it the “….most historic phone call ever made from the White House.”
The Apollo 11 mission occurred eight years after President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) announced a national goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. After World War II, a new conflict began, known as the Cold War, a battle that pitted the planet’s two great powers, the capitalist USA and the communist Soviet Union, against each other.
The American effort to send astronauts to the moon had its origins in an appeal Kennedy made to a special joint session of Congress in May, 1961:
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.
In 1966, after five years of work by an international team of scientists and engineers, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) conducted the first unmanned Apollo mission, testing the structural integrity of the proposed launch vehicle and spacecraft combination.
Then, on January 27, 1967, tragedy struck at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, when a fire broke out during a manned launch-pad test of the Apollo spacecraft and Saturn rocket. Three astronauts were killed in the fire.
Despite the setback, NASA and its thousands of employees forged ahead, and in October 1968, Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo mission, orbited Earth and successfully tested many of the sophisticated systems needed to conduct a moon journey and landing.
In December 1968, Apollo 8 took three astronauts to the dark side of the moon and back, and in March 1969 Apollo 9 tested the lunar module for the first time while in Earth orbit. In May, the three astronauts of Apollo 10 took the first complete Apollo spacecraft around the moon in a dry run for the scheduled July landing mission.
More than a million people gathered along Florida’s Space Coast to watch the Apollo 11 lift off on the sunny afternoon of July 16, 1969.
After traveling 240,000 miles in 76 hours, Apollo 11 with Astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins aboard, entered a moon orbit on July 19. The next day, the lunar module Eagle, manned by Armstrong and Aldrin, separated from the command module, where Collins remained. Two hours later, the Eagle began its descent to the lunar surface, and at 4:17 p.m. the craft touched down on the southwestern edge of the Sea of Tranquility. Armstrong immediately radioed to Mission Control in Houston, Texas, a now-famous message: “The Eagle has landed.”
Five hours ahead of the original schedule, Armstrong opened the hatch of the lunar module. As he made his way down the module’s ladder, a television camera attached to the craft recorded his progress and beamed the signal back to Earth, where hundreds of millions watched.
As Armstrong stepped off the ladder and planted his foot on the moon’s powdery surface, he spoke his famous quote, which he later claimed was slightly garbled by his microphone and meant to be “that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Aldrin joined him on the moon’s surface 19 minutes later, and together they took photographs, planted a U.S. flag, ran a few simple scientific tests and spoke with Nixon.
At 1:11 on July 21, both astronauts returned to the lunar module and the hatch was closed. The two men slept that night on the surface of the moon, and at 1:54 p.m. the Eagle began its return to the command module. On July 22 Apollo 11 began its journey home.
There were five more moon landings, and one unplanned lunar swing-by. Apollo 13 had to abort its landing due to technical difficulties. The last men to walk on the moon were astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt of the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972.
The Apollo program took 400,000 engineers, technicians and scientists to achieve at a cost of $24 billion ($100 billion in today’s dollars). The expense was justified by Kennedy’s 1961 mandate to beat the Soviets to the moon, and after the feat was accomplished, ongoing missions lost their luster for the American citizens.
The Moon Landing is etched in the collective memory of my generation: the blurry black-and-white image of Armstrong descending the ladder to become the first human to step foot on the moon.
Every epic moment in modern history inevitably spawns a tangled web of conspiracy theories, and the Apollo Moon Landings are no exception. Opinion polls over the decades show that around 5% of Americans believe the Moon Landings were faked. That’s more than 16 million people.
No other act of human exploration ever laid a plaque declaring:
“WE COME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND.”
Where were you on Moon Landing Day, July 20th, 1969?