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Apollo 11 Moon Landing: 48 Years Later

Apollo 11 Moon Landing: 48 Years Later

Apollo 11 Mission Banner

It was the year more than 400,000 people would converge in New York for Woodstock. John Lennon would tell the other Beatles he was leaving the band. Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider lit up every movie theatre screen. Yet, it would be at 4:17 p.m. on July 20 of 1969 that would change human history forever. NASA’s Apollo 11 Moon landing would fulfill President Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the Moon before the decade’s end. The Apollo 11 Moon landing 1969 still marks man’s greatest achievement in science and technology, even today. Armstrong’s historical remark, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” is eternally etched in textbooks and in our minds.

Apollo 11 Moon Landing: Overview

The Mission Objectives

Beyond simply fulfilling President Kennedy’s bold promise of placing mankind on the Moon, Apollo 11 had several scientific goals. Including:

  • Deploying several experiments on the Lunar surface to gather data about seismic activity, solar wind and more.
  • Setting up and leaving behind a Laser Ranging Retroreflector. This special mirror can receive laser beams from Earth and send them back, allowing measurements of distance between Earth and the Moon.
  • Collecting samples of multiple types of Lunar materials.
  • Extensively photograph and video the Lunar terrains, spacecraft, experimental equipment and each other.
  • Using equipment onboard to conduct television broadcast.
The Spacecraft & Equipment

Apollo 11 was launched and powered by the recently-constructed Saturn V rocket (pronounced “Saturn Five”). Sitting carefully atop the Saturn V rocket, was the Apollo spacecraft itself, a combination of the Command-Service Module (named, Columbia) and the Lunar Module (named, Eagle). At a glance, here’s how each piece works:

Saturn V rocket:

Towering at over 350 feet tall, the Saturn V was, and still is, the most powerful rocket ever built. The rocket was built to use three separate stages, each consisting of multiple engines, to help Apollo 11 get to the Moon. Stage one lifted the gigantic rocket off of the ground, carrying it nearly 50 miles. Stage two carried Apollo much higher, almost into orbit around the Earth. Finally, stage 3 brought the craft into orbit around the Earth, and eventually launched it in the direction of the Moon.

Command-Service Module (Columbia):

The Command-Service Module (CSM) consisted of two parts. First, the Command Module held the crew members, along with important operational systems for the flight. Second, the Service Module carried consumable flight materials like oxygen, fuel and water. The CSM would remain in orbit around the Moon while the astronauts explored the Lunar surface below.

Lunar Module (Eagle):

The Lunar Module was the vehicle that separated from the Command-Service Module and allowed the Apollo astronauts to land on the Moon’s surface. It also consisted of two parts, one for descending to the Moon’s surface, and one for ascending to reconnect with the Command-Service Module. This was the craft that Armstrong and Aldrin are stepping off of in the unforgettable landing footage.

Apollo 11 Moon Landing - Equipment Diagram

Apollo 11 Moon Landing: The Flight

The Launch
Apollo 11 Mission Launch

Apollo 11 Mission Launch, July 16, 1969. Credit: NASA

At 9:32 a.m. on the morning of July 16, 1969, the final countdown for the Apollo 11 mission is underway at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Powered by a newly built Saturn V rocket (explained above), the Apollo 11 spacecraft leaves the Earth carrying Neil A. Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins. Destination: The Moon.

Shortly after lift-off, the spacecraft enters into Earth orbit at an altitude of 118 miles. As the flight progresses, the Saturn V rocket sheds its used-up components, dumping them into the Atlantic Ocean. At just shy of three hours into the flight, after completing 1.5 orbits of the Earth, now traveling at over 17,000 miles per hour, the Saturn V’s third, and final stage is initiated. Breaking the spacecraft free from Earth’s gravity, the rocket blasts Apollo 11 toward the Moon. The spacecraft will continue on this path for three days, and more than 200,000 miles.

The Descent

Finally, on July 19, Apollo 11 passes behind the Moon, and begins firing its engines, allowing it to enter into Lunar orbit. During the many orbits that will follow, the crew scouts what will be the Lunar Module’s landing site. Known as the Sea of Tranquility, this region of the Moon is selected for landing due to its flat and smooth surface.

Apollo 11 Lunar Module Descent

Lunar Module separates from Columbia. Credit: NASA

Early on July 20th, the Lunar Module is disconnected from the Command-Service Module, inspected for damage, then begins its decent towards the Lunar surface. Aboard the descending Lunar Module is Commander, Neil Armstrong and Lunar Module Pilot, Buzz Aldrin. Command Module Pilot, Michael Collins remains in orbit aboard the Command Module Columbia above.

Only briefly into their descent, the astronauts begin to realize that they will now land several miles from their originally targeted location. All of a sudden, multiple system alarms begin sounding within the Lunar Module. Immediately, NASA’s Mission Control Center, in Houston, Texas investigates the alarms. Fortunately, the investigation deems the alarms non-threatening, and crew is told it is safe to continue their descent.

The Apollo 11 Moon Landing 

Meanwhile, rapidly nearing the end of its descent above a boulder-filled region, Apollo 11 prepares for landing. Now, with under 30 seconds of fuel remaining, Armstrong pilots the Module as Aldrin calls out speed and altitude data. By 4:17 p.m. on July 20, the Apollo 11 Lunar Module successfully touches down on the Moon. Confirming the history-making arrival, Armstrong contacts the Mission Control Center, stating, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

Next, mission schedules call for the astronauts to get five hour’s sleep before exiting the Lunar Module to explore. Despite now being awake since early morning, they feel too excited to rest and instead elect to begin exploration preparations.

One Small Step: The First Man on the Moon

During more than two hours of preparation to exit the Module, the astronauts gaze out through Eagle’s windows. Simultaneously, they begin planning placements of the American flag and scientific experiments.

Finally, Neil Armstrong opens the Eagle’s hatch and begins carefully venturing down the nine-rung ladder. On his way down the ladder, Armstrong accesses a secured equipment storage compartment and activates the television feed. At 10:56 p.m., Armstrong sets his left foot on the Moon’s surface as more than 600 million people watch live. He also unveils a plaque on the Lunar Module showing Earth and the signatures of the crew and current president, Richard Nixon. The plaque bares the inscription:

“Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”

Apollo 11 Lunar Plaque

At last, Armstrong steps fully off of the ladder onto the Moon’s surface. In one of history’s most memorable moments, Armstrong declares, That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. Twenty minutes later, Buzz Aldrin would join Armstrong on the surface.

Listen to One Small Step…

Original audio of Neil Armstrong stepping off of the Lunar Module on to the Moon’s surface. Credit: NASA.

Neil Armstrong's First Step on the Moon

Armstrong takes his first step on the Moon. Credit: NASA

Buzz Aldrin Next to Lunar Module on the Moon

Aldrin poses next to Lunar Module. Credit: NASA

Aldrin's Boot Print on the Moon's Surface

Aldrin’s Boot Print on the Moon’s Surface. Credit: NASA

Exploring the Moon’s Surface

Briefly after stepping onto the Moon’s surface, Armstrong collects a small soil sample in a bag. Placing it in a spacesuit pocket ensures that some Lunar evidence will be retrieved in the event of an emergency. Subsequently, Aldrin joins Armstrong, initially describing the Moon’s surface as simply, “magnificent desolation.” With cameras mounted to their chests, the astronauts photograph the Lunar Module. The photos will help NASA’s engineers understand the Module’s post-landing condition to make improvements for future flights.

Adjusting to the Moon’s gravity (only 16% of Earth’s), the astronauts practice walking and jumping. Aldrin even completes several long, two-footed leaps. With such weightlessness, even items like spacesuit backpacks pose balance issues, though this does not seriously impact the astronaut’s movements.

At this point, President Nixon communicates with Armstrong by way of telephone-radio. Nixon immediately congratulates the astronauts, stating that, “…this has to be the proudest day of our lives…” A longer, more formal speech was originally planned during the brief call. However, Nixon’s staff erred on the side of brevity to not over-shadow the mission being owed to former President Kennedy.


Surface Experiments and Operations
Buzz Aldrin Deploying Apollo 11 Mission Experiments

Aldrin deploys scientific experiments. Credit: NASA

After the short phone call with President Nixon takes place, the astronauts prepare to deploy scientific experiments. The Early Apollo Scientific Experiment Package (EASEP) includes a seismograph to measure “Moonquakes,” and a Laser Ranging Retroreflector to measure distances between Earth and the Moon.

Obviously, on a tight schedule, the astronauts rushed to collect samples of multiple surface materials. The rock samples collected by the crew will ultimately discover three new mineral types. In fact, one mineral will be named after the three crew members, Armalcolite (Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins).

As astronauts’ body heat increases during activity, their spacesuits are designed to cool them down accordingly. But, without knowing precisely how long a spacesuit would function, the surface exploration time period is kept conservatively brief. Being that Armstrong is hustling to complete multiple tasks in the short time, his metabolic levels begin increasing. Now alerted, NASA’s Mission Control Center cautions him to slow down. However, the astronauts’ levels remain stable enough overall, that Mission Control grants a short time extension to explore the Moon.

Later, lifting equipment, film and nearly 50 pounds of collected materials, the astronauts boarded the Lunar Module to sleep.

The Ascent

After much-needed rest, the astronauts begin preparing the Lunar Module for lift off. The Lunar Module is to ascend, reconnect (dock) with the Command-Service Module, and continue back to Earth. Upon preparing for ascent, Aldrin accidentally damages circuitry needed to ignite the Module’s takeoff engine. Concerns now rise that, without properly-functioning circuitry, the engines will not fire, stranding the astronauts on the Moon. Brilliantly, Aldrin improvises, jamming a felt-tip pen in the circuit breaker, successfully igniting the engines.

Neil Armstrong grins as Apollo 11 begins Lunar Ascent

Neil Armstrong grins as Apollo 11 begins Lunar Ascent. Credit: NASA

After 21 hours on the Moon’s surface, the Lunar Module takes off at 12:54 p.m. to join Michael Collins aboard the CSM. As the Module ascends, Aldrin peers out the window just long enough to see the American flag tip over. Due to the flag’s 25-foot proximity to the landing site, the Module’s exhaust causes it to blow over. Therefore, all future Apollo missions place the flag over 100 feet out from the Module.

The Lunar Module docks with Collins and Command-Service Module Columbia as it is in its 27th Lunar orbit. At 11:55 p.m., July 21, Columbia’s propulsion engines fire, blasting the spacecraft toward Earth (a process called Trans-Earth Injection). The crew will continue on this trajectory path for 60 hours before splashing down on Earth.

Earth Landing

Columbia splashes wildly into the Pacific Ocean at 11:50, the morning of July 24. After 195 hours of travel time, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins arrive home, safely, on Earth. The Apollo 11 Moon landing mission is officially complete. Only 36 minutes behind mission schedule, Columbia waits for its recovery ship, the USS Hornet.

Apollo 11 crew is retrieved after splash down

Apollo 11 crew is retrieved after splash down. Credit: NASA

Finally, navy crew members arrive and retrieve the astronauts. Due to potentially harmful foreign materials, NASA takes no risks. The astronauts are immediately sanitized, given physicals and placed into isolation. After a whopping 21 days in quarantine aboard the Hornet, the astronauts were deemed healthy and released on August 10.

Next, weeks of parades, dinners, awards and speeches ensue in a 45-day “Giant Leap Tour.” The world-famous astronauts visit more than 20 countries, and be honored by hundreds more. They meet with countless world leaders, most noteworthy, Queen Elizabeth II. Ending the tour, the Astronauts present two American flags to Congress and the House of Representatives. Both flags had been on the Moon’s surface with Armstrong and Aldrin.

Why was the Apollo 11 Moon Landing Important?

“No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind or more important for the long-range exploration of space.”

President, John F. Kennedy

Project Apollo changed our world forever. It revolutionized technology, engineering and astrophysics. Yet, the importance of the program, specifically the Apollo 11 Moon landing, goes so far beyond technological advancements.

The first human beings to set foot outside of Earth’s atmosphere

Really think about that for a moment. In 200,000 years of mankind, this was the first time a human set foot on an object beyond planet Earth. Even today, only 10 people, besides Armstrong and Aldrin have accomplished this. In other words, with all of our brilliant technology today, still only 0.000000001% of humanity has set foot beyond this planet.

Space Race: Winner

Russia made history in the early 1960s by placing the first human in space. The U.S. had a bruised ego. As a result, the U.S. was hungry to become the global trailblazer of space exploration. Apollo 11 achieved this in spades. Still, to this day, the U.S. guides the way, the gold standard in space technology.

The World, Together

Despite dominating the Space Race, Project Apollo introduced a newly found cultural unity throughout the world. Even in the throws of the Cold War and Vietnam War, the world paused to observe the Moon landing. Citizens and diplomats alike from all ends of the Earth honored, and celebrated the success of the Apollo 11 mission and its crew. Later, space exploration would become a joint venture among multiple nations, not simply a race or competition.

Validating NASA

Founded in 1958, NASA was frequently under the looking glass. Spending billions of dollars, and yielding little hands-on developments, people demanded results. In the end, our Moon landing astonished mankind. New hopes for exploration and extraterrestrial were born. NASA was now seen as the birthplace for these aspirations.

Future Space Exploration

Apollo opened new doors for mankind’s possibilities. And, it left us hungry to venture further and continue pushing the limits of our capabilities. One could argue that the Apollo 11 Moon landing is responsible for our modern day desires to send a man to Mars. Ultimately, NASA along with other organizations target the 2020s for such a mission. Among the biggest, if not the biggest proponents of sending men to Mars is no other than original Moon-walker himself, Buzz Aldrin.

Aldrin, along with Perdue University, are currently designing a mission to the red planet. First of all, using “stepping stones” like the Moon and Mars’ moon, Deimos, the team hopes to build temporary bases. Finally, after extensive testing and preparation at stepping stone bases, the ultimate goal of a permanent Mars base is to occur by 2040. Perdue members are currently designing and planning each crucial step of the journey, down to the finest details. Notably, using advanced technology to generate flight fuels from Lunar materials at Moon bases. If all goes according to plan, Aldrin, one of the first men on the Moon, will allow the world to observe the first humans on Mars.

For the more advanced and curious, the full analysis for Project Aldrin-Perdue can be read and watched at Aldrin’s official website.

Still Man’s Greatest Achievement in Technology

Our current generations have laid witness to incredible accomplishments and technologies. Nearly all of us hold advanced computer systems in the palm of our hands. We can communicate easily with a friend or loved one, thousands of miles away by video. The click of a button can turn on or off, our home’s air conditioning system while we are miles away at our workplace. Yet, it was 4:17 p.m. on July 20 of 1969 that still serves as humankind’s greatest achievement in technology. The day that NASA’s Apollo 11 spacecraft arrived at the Moon’s surface. The hour that two men, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first set foot outside of Earth. The moment that changed our lives forever.


Tell us your memories and thoughts about the historic Apollo 11 Moon landing in the comments below!