Apollo 11: The Epic Journey to the Moon
The successful journey to the moon and back is humankind’s most impressive achievement in the field of space exploration and one of the most remarkable episodes in American history. Apollo 11, the fifth manned mission of NASA’s space program Apollo carried the first human beings to the surface of the moon. Command pilot of the mission, Neil Armstrong, was the first person to walk on the lunar surface, followed by his crewmate, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin.
The lunar module Eagle landed on the surface of the moon, in an area known as the Sea of Tranquility. Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface on July 21, 1969, and spoke the immortal words: "One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” in the view of millions of people from dozens of countries around the world. Armstrong and Aldrin collected important sample material and brought it to Earth for research. While they performed extravehicular activities on the moon, the third member of their crew, Michael Collins, piloted the command module Columbia and waited for their return from the moon’s surface. The three astronauts returned safely to Earth—thus completing a dream that had perplexed mankind since the first humans looked skyward at the bright orb that ruled the night sky.
The Space Race Begins
The United States became interested in space exploration in the 1950s and had a fledgling space program. In 1957, the United States was shocked when the nation’s rival in the Cold War, the Soviet Union, launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1. The headline of the Saturday, October 5, 1957, New York Times read, “SOVIET FIRES EARTH SATELLITE INTO SPACE; IT IS CIRCLING THE GLOBE AT 18,000 M.P.H.; SPHERE TRACKED IN 4 CROSSINGS OVER U.S.” The launch of the satellite not only marked the emergence of the Soviet Union as a technical powerhouse, it also demonstrated that the Russian military had the rocket power to deliver a nuclear weapon across vast continents and oceans. This prompted President Eisenhower to seek council from his space experts, including Warner von Braun. Eisenhower wasted no time and took immediate steps to develop a national space program, leading to the founding of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958.
NASA’s first space program was Project Mercury, whose main goal was to send a man into space. On May 5, 1961, this goal was achieved when Alan Shepard became the first American to enter space. This grand accomplishment was too late as the Soviets had already sent Yuri Gagarin into space the month before, making Gagarin the first person in space and the first person to orbit the earth. President Kennedy was infuriated that the Soviet Union possessed advanced scientific and technical knowledge and thought that this undermined his nation’s position on the world stage. He became determined to change the situation. Because the Soviet Union was ahead in its development of booster rockets, Kennedy decided to focus on a challenging mission that would force America to rapidly accelerate its space program. On May 25, 1961, the president addressed the U.S. Congress proposing that the US “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” The race to the moon had begun.
Following on the heels of Projects Mercury and Gemini came NASA’s new and daring enterprise named Project Apollo. The spacecraft designated to carry the lunar missions had three different distinct components. The command module (CM) was the component the three astronauts would travel to and from the moon in; the service module (SM) was the component that would provide resources to the command module; and the lunar module, LM, was a detachable part of the command module that would land on the moon. All would be carried into space by the enormous Saturn V rocket, which had a whopping lift capacity of over a quarter of a million pounds.
The lunar module which would detach from the command module and deliver two astronauts to the moon’s surface and return them safely back to the command module for the return to Earth. The LM was a sixteen-ton package of eighteen engines, eight radio systems, fuel tanks, life-support systems, and instruments, the result of six years of design and construction by NASA, Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, and a host of subcontractors. The LM was a truly unique flying machine as it was he first vehicle designed to operate in airless space—making it the first true spaceship. It was not designed to withstand the heat of reentry into the earth’s atmosphere. Unlike the Apollo craft, it lacked a heat shield and sleek aerodynamic lines to slip through air. With bristling antennae and four spindly legs, it resembled a giant insect. The LM was designed with distinct ascent and descent stages. Meanwhile, NASA was also working on the development of the large Saturn V rocket, which would launch the spacecraft. Much of the other technologies required for Project Apollo had already been developed and tested during NASA’s previous program, Project Gemini.
Despite the initial enthusiasm, Project Apollo suffered a large delay when Apollo 1 mission ended in a devastating ground fire that killed the three astronauts on board. Operations were slowly resumed after thorough investigations, and NASA began testing the modules. Apollo 7 checked the command module’s behavior in Earth’s orbit in 1968, followed by a test in the lunar orbit by Apollo 8. Apollo 9 and Apollo 10 continued the testing in the spring of 1969. By July, NASA was ready for Apollo 11 and the journey to the moon.
Due to various delays, Apollo 8 and Apollo 9 swapped prime and backup crews, and according to NASA’s rotation scheme, Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, and Buzz Aldrin were assigned as backup for Apollo 8. This meant they were to serve as prime crew for Apollo 11, with Neil Armstrong as command pilot, Jim Lovell as module pilot, and Buzz Aldrin as lunar module pilot. A change occurred when Michael Collins from Apollo 8’s crew began to experience some health problems and changed places with Jim Lovell. While Lovell joined the Apollo 8 crew, Collins joined Armstrong’s prime crew after recovery. Jim Lovell, William Anders, and Fred Haise were assigned as backup crew. This made Apollo 11 an all-veteran crew.
After all logistic steps were covered, as tradition held, the final task of the crew was to name the modules. The command module was named Columbia and the lunar module Eagle, after the national bird of the United States.
Launch and Flight to the Moon of Apollo 11
The big day arrived and according to estimates, one million people gathered near the launch site to watch the launch of Apollo 11. Many dignitaries, government officials, and media representatives were also present, including Vice President Spiro Agnew. President Richard Nixon watched the launch from his office in the White House. The launch was broadcast live in 33 countries on radio and TV.
The Saturn V rocket lit up the morning sky on July 16, 1969, as it hurled the Apollo 11 capsule and crew on its historic journey to Earth’s nearest neighbor in the cosmos. The spacecraft entered lunar orbit on July 19, where it performed thirty orbits while the crew assessed the conditions of their landing site in the Sea of Tranquility. The selection of the site had been conducted in advance according to an analysis of the lunar surface. The relatively flat surface of the chosen site was very important to avoid major landing challenges.
On July 20, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin entered the lunar module and started to prepare for descent. Once all systems were double checked, the LM separated from Columbia where Collins remained alone to monitor the landing. As the LM began its descent, Armstrong and Aldrin realized they were traveling too fast, and this would cause them to miss their landing site by a few miles. Meanwhile, the guidance computer showed several unexpected program alarms. Computer engineer Jack Garman communicated with the astronauts from the Mission Control Center and reassured them that the issue did not affect their descent. According to experts, the alarms were triggered by an overflow of tasks, which forced the software to ignore some low priority tasks.
The main problem that the astronauts had to deal with was that they were too far from their intended landing site while the computer’s landing target showed a dangerous rocky area, very close to a massive crater. Armstrong took control, directing the Eagle towards a safer landing site as Aldrin focused on calling out the navigation data.
Apollo 11: Mission to the Moon
The Moon Landing
The Eagle landed on the moon at 20:17:40 UTC, on Sunday, July 20, with only the razor thin margin of 25 seconds worth of fuel left. After completing the landing tasks, Armstrong communicated the Eagle’s position to the Mission Control Center: "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."
The official schedule of the mission included a five-hour sleep period for Armstrong and Aldrin, immediately after landing. They felt, however, that they couldn’t fall asleep and decided to begin preparations for the extravehicular activities (EVA) instead. It was 23:44:00, and the operations took them three and a half hours, much longer than they expected. Arranging their equipment and materials in the tight space of the cabin proved challenging.
Once everything was set, Armstrong and Aldrin depressurized the Eagle and opened the hatch. Armstrong stepped down the ladder and activated the TV camera attached on the Eagle’s side. Even though some technical issues affected the quality of the images, and the scan source transmission from the lunar surface was slow, 600 million people on Earth watched the black and white images broadcast by TV stations from all over the world. Neil Armstrong proceeded to uncover a plaque mounted on the Eagle’s descent stage bearing an inscription with the following words: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” Armstrong then described the surface of the lunar surface to the audience and finally, six and a half hours after landing, he reached the bottom of the ladder and while stepping onto the lunar surface, he uttered the historic words: "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind."
The first thing Armstrong did after stepping on the moon was collect a soil sample just in case he would be forced to return hastily to the lunar module. After collecting the sample, he removed the TV camera from its position and moved it to a tripod, so the viewers could follow the operations. The astronauts later used a handheld Hasselblad camera to take still photographs of the lunar surface. Twenty minutes after Armstrong’s exit from the LM, Aldrin joined him on the lunar surface. They proceeded to test methods of moving in the new environment, due to the differences between moon’s gravity and Earth’s. They later agreed that maintaining balance did not present any difficulties.
In clear view of the TV camera, Aldrin and Armstrong planted a U.S. flag on the lunar surface, and immediately after, President Richard Nixon called them from the White House in a special transmission. During the conversation, Nixon declared that this was “the most historic phone call ever made from the White House.”
After the call, Armstrong walked about 200 feet from the LM and snapped some photos of the nearby craters and the surrounding areas. He and Aldrin also collected geological and rock samples. Soon they realized that the operations took them longer than anticipated, and while Armstrong moved quickly from task to task to save time, he received a warning from Mission Control that his metabolic rates were too high. He slowed down, and the Mission Control agreed to extend their schedule for EVA by 15 minutes.
Return to Earth
After accomplishing all their tasks on the lunar surface, Armstrong and Aldrin transported two large sample boxes inside the cabin. Before entering the LM, they left a memorial bag with an Apollo 1 mission patch and other symbolic objects on the moon. Aldrin was the first to enter the LM, followed by Armstrong. They pressurized the LM and went to sleep for the next seven hours.
They were awakened by Houston when it was time to prepare for the return flight. At 17:54 UTC, after two hours of preparations, they left the lunar surface in the ascent stage to join Collins who awaited inside Columbia. Once the astronauts were safe aboard Columbia, the Eagle's ascent stage was detached and abandoned in space.
The night before their splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, the astronauts made a TV broadcast, sending a personal message to the viewers and listeners and thanking the thousands of people who worked relentlessly to make the moon landing possible. Armstrong ended the message with the words, “Good night from Apollo 11.”
The USS Hornet was sent to the Pacific Ocean to recover Columbia. President Nixon, accompanied by Secretary of State William Rogers and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, flew to the USS Hornet to witness the recovery. The general enthusiasm was curbed when the US Air Force was informed that a storm was approaching the recovery area, putting the mission in serious danger. NASA agreed to move the recovery area to a safe distance from the original planned site. Columbia changed its flight plan immediately. At 16:51 UTC, Columbia struck the water just a few miles from the Hornet. Several helicopters were already in the air, ready to recover the crew and capsule. Columbia was surrounded by divers from the helicopters, who passed biological isolation suits to the astronauts. NASA was unsure whether the lunar surface hosted pathogens and bacteria but preferred to take precautions.
The astronauts reached the Hornet and were immediately rushed into the Mobile Quarantine Facility where they would spend the next three weeks. President Nixon welcomed them back to Earth and congratulated them on the success of the mission. All the lunar samples and data tapes were successfully recovered. The astronauts were moved to the Lunar Receiving Laboratory in Houston on July 28, but they were kept in quarantine for a few more days. The Mobile Quarantine Facility was to prevent the unlikely spread of lunar contagions by isolating the astronauts from contact with other people. A converted Airstream trailer contained living and sleeping quarters, a kitchen, and a bathroom. The inability to spread any possible contagion was assured by keeping the air pressure inside lower than the pressure outside and by filtering the air vented from the facility. At the end of their quarantine, the astronauts were given a clean bill of health and allowed to reunite with their families.
In August 1969, Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins attended parades in their honor in New York and Los Angeles. On August 13, they attended an official celebration dinner at the Century Plaza Hotel, in Los Angeles. Members of Congress, governors, and ambassadors were also present at the dinner. President Nixon awarded Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The celebrations continued with a 45-day “Giant Leap” tour across 25 countries, during which the astronauts met with prominent world leaders.
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