50 Years Ago, One Small Step For Man, One Giant Leap For Man

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin embarked upon their lunar mission from Columbia in their lunar module Eagle, heading for their intended landing spot within the Sea of Tranquillity. Unfortunately, an alarm signaled their imminent departure.

Console readouts were showing an error code –1202–which neither astronaut had encountered during simulator training.

The mission

Armstrong and Aldrin’s 21-hour and 36-minute lunar mission was not only fruitful in terms of scientific data gathered, but it may also have left a legacy that would inspire generations of young people who would follow in their footsteps.

The Apollo program was an international race between the Soviet Union and United States to put humans into space first, an effort driven by Cold War politics and sustained by political pressure. President John F. Kennedy approved this effort in 1961 due to Russian missile advancements which threatened his nation’s economic security and citizens lives.

On July 20, 1969, three astronauts left Columbia and transitioned into Eagle through an interconnecting tunnel, then Armstrong fired his engine for Eagle to enter an elliptical orbit about the Moon before starting their powered descent toward its surface.

At that point, the LM’s guidance computer triggered an alarm signaling its memory was full. NASA simulations had revealed that landing could still happen even with this alarm, so Reihm decided to continue with their planned descent as planned. But Reihm knew better than anyone in Mission Control that error 1202 meant the computer had saved some navigation data by deleting crucial details such as where exactly LM stood in relation to its landing site.

Armstrong was the first to step from the LM, bouncing from foot to foot like a child at a playground while staring into a video camera set up by his crewmates and gazing upon it like it were an image from another planet. Armstrong exclaimed “That is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. Aldrin followed shortly thereafter; during their short lunar surface excursion they collected 21.6 kilograms of samples while also setting up television cameras, seismometers, seismographs and laser ranger retroreflectors to measure distances between Earth and Moon surface locations.

The landing

Armstrong and Aldrin’s mission was a success as they emerged from their lunar lander onto its surface and collected lunar rock samples for President Kennedy’s goal of collecting these samples by 1961. Armstrong famously declared, “That is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind!” causing shockwaves through humanity at large.

Landing was not without challenges, however; astronauts’ reentry into Earth’s orbit was not smooth, and they overshot their designated touchdown corridor by about three miles – this would have left them stranded unless the computer could correct their course.

Armstrong and Aldrin’s task was further complicated by the fact that the lander was flying through a debris belt. To deal with this difficulty, Armstrong and Aldrin programmed the computer to drop the LM into an elliptical orbit that brought it within 50 meters of Earth before keying in a new program for descent; each program needed to deal with unique errors that might arise during flight.

Ten long seconds passed and nothing could be read from the lander’s console: neither altitude data, an error code, nor three blank fields on its display. Although astronauts had practiced for this scenario at Cape Canaveral’s simulators so vigorously they’d worn off labels from consoles used during training exercises, none of their error codes – “go” and “abort” specifically – could be memorized completely; code 1202 meant the lander misinterpreted an instruction that wasn’t intended for it and could no longer perform that action on its display.

Luckily, the lander corrected its course with just minutes remaining before lowering itself by some 30 feet to land safely on a sloped lunar surface.

At that point, the lander’s descent radar started flashing, alerting Armstrong and Aldrin they were on their descent. Once their footpads made contact with the lunar surface, they punched in two-digit commands to Mission Control to confirm their position; Mission Control responded positively and confirmed they had indeed arrived at Tranquility Base with Eagle safely landed; before going through a comprehensive checklist to make sure their craft would make the return journey home.

The return

After spending a day exploring the lunar surface, Armstrong and Aldrin reassembled Eagle and prepared to return home. Once inside Columbia’s Command Module Columbia spacecraft propulsion system, they would execute a two-and-a-half minute burn designed to change their orbit from lunar to an elliptical one closer to Earth for reentry.

Even during an unnerved political environment, astronauts attempted to give each other maximum privacy during their trip to the moon. Their only outside contact came through NASA personnel such as Slayton; no discussion of experiences on the lunar surface took place until a debriefing session on August 10, when everyone finally discussed it all together.

Once in orbit, the astronauts completed transferring geologic samples and camera film from Lunar Receiving Laboratory (LRL). To make room for their reentry burn, they also needed to jettison LM. Armstrong left its computers running as part of an experiment to see how long they would keep running; Mission Control monitored the telemetry data which revealed that most had run well beyond their specifications.

Apollo 11 began their descent to Earth’s atmosphere on July 24, following a two-and-a-half minute burn of their SPS that put them on course to land in the Pacific Ocean. All crewmembers wore suits that helped protect against the harsh environment of reentry; Mission Control and TV viewers around the world held their breath during nine minutes of radio silence while their astronauts navigated ionized gases at 36,194 feet per second.

Once they had returned from their historic lunar landing in 1969, their bodies were safely recovered by the USS Hornet and they never again went into space – although Armstrong and CM pilot Collins continued working for NASA in various capacities for years afterward; Armstrong taught college while Aldrin held various federal government jobs while continuing to advocate for space exploration. Although no more manned lunar landings have taken place since 1969, its legacy still resonates strongly today.

The future

Generations have marveled at the moon and imagined what it must feel like to step onto its surface; 50 years ago this week, astronaut Neil Armstrong gave them their answer with these memorable words: ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Apollo made possible many technological breakthroughs ranging from spacesuits and meals in the Lunar Module Eagle, to Swedish-made Hasselblad cameras that immortalized this historic moment, making possible many technological achievements that made its realization possible and creating many jobs both military and private sector related.

Mission of Discovery was also beneficial to the economy, particularly in regions with aerospace contractors and NASA facilities. Alone in the US, space activities generated over one billion in revenue for these businesses.

Michael Collins and his fellow astronauts found that Apollo’s effects could be felt all across the world when they toured after returning to Earth; not just their immediate families celebrated, but rather all nations did so with great delight.

Apollo had an immense effect on our world – it may even have altered human history – leaving a profound legacy that lives on. Today, astronauts’ legacy can be found everywhere: movies such as Apollo 13 and First Man have inspired young people around the globe while real space travellers such as UK’s reluctant hero Tim Peake provide inspiration and role models.

Astronomers and scientists continue to benefit from the missions. Lunar laser reflectors still function today, although their performance degrades a little with each lunar eclipse. Still, scientists use data gleaned from these experiments to better understand our lunar companion and model the physics of distant planets.

Apollo may leave its greatest mark on humankind through inspiring future generations to dream big and push the boundaries of knowledge. Now more nations than ever before are racing to land astronauts on the Moon through commercial companies and non-governmental organizations; unlike Apollo missions however, these trips require long-term investments of money for these trips as astronauts will spend over several months living there before returning home again.

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