We sometimes forget that the Apollo 11 landing occurred during a time of rapid change and political upheaval in America – yet its lunar ambition galvanized an entire generation and took spaceflight to new heights.
Michael Collins watched with pride as Armstrong and Aldrin descended the LM Eagle to the lunar surface despite many hurdles to cross prior to this historic event. Michael Collins became a hero to millions across the world who wanted to witness history come to pass – yet few could ever dream that such an occasion would occur!
Apollo 11 Mission Overview
NASA managers decided after the success of Apollo 8 that they would accelerate the next lunar mission by increasing travel through low-Earth orbit faster. On Christmas Eve 1968 astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders became the first people ever to leave Earth orbit and circle the moon–taking an iconic photo which would later serve to inspire environmentalists worldwide.
On July 16, 1969, with millions around the globe watching, Armstrong and Aldrin separated their lunar module dubbed Eagle from Columbia and headed to the moon’s surface. Over three days they collected 21.8 kilograms of rock and soil samples before traveling 1.2 kilometers across its surface, conducting experiments (such as seismometers to detect moonquakes, laser-ranging retroreflectors to measure distance to Earth, solar wind collectors) as well as dealing with dust kicked up by landing gear and sampling tools while giving viewers a memorable show for millions who tuned in via television broadcast.
As they approached Site 2, Armstrong and Aldrin fired Eagle’s engine to alter its trajectory into one with a lower closest approach to the lunar surface, before initiating their powered descent towards Site 2. Five alarms went off during their descent, but simulations conducted prior to flying had shown that landing could still proceed even with these errors, so Mission Control gave their approval.
After a successful powered descent, Eagle separated from its command module and was launched toward the moon’s surface at 3000 MPH. When Eagle hit its target area near Sea of Tranquility a little west of planned landing area, Neil Armstrong emerged and declared: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind!” And thus began human history!
Apollo 11 Launch
People gathered by the millions to watch Apollo 11 launch into space from Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral) at 9:32 a.m. on July 16. This engineering and logistical feat would carry humanity towards their moon destination. Built at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, its rocket lifted off at 9:32 am from Cape Kennedy – now known as Cape Canaveral – at 9:32 am that morning.
After three days in transit, Apollo 11 reached lunar orbit and on day four undocked from their Command Service Module for entry into their Lunar Module known as Eagle. They selected an landing site known as Sea of Tranquillity on which landing would appear safest and easiest.
This spacecraft was powered by a Saturn V rocket and took four and a half hours to reach the Moon’s surface. When approaching its target area, an alarm sounded in the cockpit while computer warnings also displayed; Mission Control assured their crewmembers that this glitch wouldn’t affect landing operations.
Armstrong and Aldrin were on the Moon for approximately 2.5 hours, during which they collected samples, planted an American flag and plaque, conducted experiments, took pictures, took calls from the White House, took calls from media, snapped plenty of selfies, snapped lots of videos, took plenty of calls from media, took calls from NASA personnel at home in America, snapped plenty of photographs – not forgetting capturing Armstrong stepping on its surface! All eyes were watching.
On TV, we all saw that iconic image captured from a camera attached to the lander. What many Apollo fans may not have realized was that Aldrin also captured Armstrong’s first steps while inside the lander and looking down upon him from above – this view can now be viewed in high definition and provides us with a stunning glimpse of their dedication, ingenuity, and perseverance as part of what’s undoubtedly been an extraordinary team effort.
An anxious descent was compounded by the drama occurring back at Mission Control. Within one mile of touching down, an alarm light and computer warning flashed in their lunar module (LM), but mission control assured them this wasn’t something that would interfere with landing or prevent it altogether; had something gone wrong during descent however, they might become trapped on the Moon without communication to Mission Control in orbit and either starve to death or commit suicide as their only option would be limited access to water and food supplies on their journey back up into orbit.
Apollo 11 Landing
On July 24, 1969, Armstrong and Aldrin completed their journey across the lunar surface for 21 hours and 36 minutes, during which time they deployed several science experiments, such as those to analyze solar wind composition or measure distance between Earth and Moon to within centimeters. Furthermore, they placed a plaque with the message, “We came in peace for all mankind”, while planting an American flag.
Mission control gave astronauts permission for powered descent initiation (PDI), meaning firing the Lunar Module’s engine and changing its orbit from near circularity to one more elliptical, ultimately landing it near West Crater at about 15,000 feet. At this moment, an alarm designated 1202 started sounding in the cockpit indicating potential software error which may have signalled deviation from its planned landing site near West Crater.
Armstrong and Aldrin watched with interest as the rate of descent diminished before, at 4:57 p.m., Mission Control issued an instruction: Eagle is ready on PDI! Throughout that period of time the computer displayed real time altitude and vertical velocity data; Armstrong read off these readings back to Mission Control who provided him with commentary regarding their current situation:
Aldrin spent the time carefully studying the lunar terrain, trying to determine where his lander might land. Every 15 seconds, they would communicate their altitude, rate of descent and angle of their descent trajectory – also known as LPD angle – back to Mission Control.
At 5:24 p.m. on July 20, 1969, with just 30 seconds of fuel remaining in their LM’s engines, Aldrin and Armstrong lowered themselves towards the lunar surface in what has since been named Sea of Tranquility. When Aldrin peered out his window for his first glimpse of lunar terrain he called down to Armstrong “Contact light on”; and then the lander touched down at that spot known today as Sea of Tranquility at 5:24 pm to complete an effort that had started back in 1959.
Apollo 11 Return
After retrieving 21.6 kilograms of Moon samples and transmitting images back to Earth, the final phase of Apollo 11 began. Columbia and Eagle, the spacecraft’s command and lunar modules, were separated for the first time since launch; Armstrong and Aldrin prepared for their two-hour moonwalk – giving them time to collect samples from lunar surface as well as deploy scientific equipment – as well as taking photographs outside LM as well as pictures and movies inside it from within LM itself.
On 21 July 1969, Neil Armstrong took his first step onto the lunar surface, declaring: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. 530 million viewers around the world witnessed this historic event on television. Armstrong and Aldrin spent approximately two hours walking along its surface collecting samples, taking pictures and communicating with Mission Control while collecting more samples and communicating back home via radio communication links.
Armstrong and Aldrin had barely rested since launching their rocket, yet when it came time to return to Eagle they took action immediately – starting what NASA historian Brian C. Odom deems the “most hazardous part” of their mission.
To avoid this issue, the crew had devised a plan in which Eagle would undergo a series of thrust maneuvers after separation to send it on an alternative reentry trajectory that would avoid impacting with atmospheric layers like normal. Their plan worked perfectly as intended.
Once they returned to the LM, Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins went through an exhaustive checklist to make sure everything was ready for their journey back. At around 4 p.m. on 24 July they executed a successful splashdown near Hawaii before safely boarding a shuttle back to Earth; 21 days in space had come and gone and three weeks had gone by since Armstrong had reached new heights and achieved feats unheard of by humankind; now they were back home.