The First Moonlanding

"Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man's world. As you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquillity, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquillity to Earth."
--President Richard Nixon to the Apollo 11 Astronauts on the Moon.

The "space race," which culminated in the first moon landing in 1969, ironically was an outgrowth of the cold war, the struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to be the most powerful country on earth. The U.S. had developed the first atomic bomb. But in the early 50's, the Soviets devoted huge resources to build and deploy nuclear weapons, and jumped ahead of the U.S.

Putting satellites and men into space was a natural outgrowth of this effort. The Soviets were first to launch a satellite into space, and first to fly a man in space. Their launch vehicles were larger and far more powerful than those of the U.S. We woke up one day... and we were way behind!

Our first astronaut in space, Alan Shepard, followed the Soviet's Yuri Gagarin by only a few weeks. But Gagarin had orbited the earth; Shephard had barely reached the edge of space. A few weeks after Shepard's successful space flight, the new Kennedy administration decided to challenge the country to complete a successful space landing by the end of the decade. The space race was on.

For a few years, it was a close race. The U.S. spent $20 billion to land a man on the moon. We allocated this money despite Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty, the Great Society, and the resources spent on the Vietnam War. We did not know it at the time, but the Soviet's efforts to stay ahead on the race put a much more serious dent in the economy of the Soviet Union. Whether they wanted to or not, Soviet citizens paid a high price so that their country could stay in the race.

In the late 1990's, space travel seems so routine and natural. But in the 1960's, it was all a huge mystery. A trip to the moon (and back) would take at least six days. We had no idea how man would react to long-term weightlessness; we had no idea how to create a vehicle that would be able to both land on and take off from the moon. We had a hundred thousand questions, and no answers; and no idea how to get the answers. But we had to do it, and we had to do it in less than a decade.

Even the assassination of the president who challenged his country to go to the moon did not deter us. Nor did the death of three U.S. astronauts on the launch pad during a training session.

We all watched the progress of the space race. Most of us were fascinated by it. But in fact, few of us were directly involved in it. It was our tax dollars; it was our country. But we were not actually there at the space center. Nonetheless, the enthusiasm of the space program, the "can-do" attitude, and the optimism of the period affected most all of us. It is this optimism and positive spirit that seems to be missing in the 90's, despite the successful continuation of the space program.

The Mercury program got us off the ground... literally. The Gemini program built the backbone for a moon landing. And the Apollo series put it all together. Apollo 11 was scheduled to land a man on the moon.

Apollo 11 took off on July 16, 1969. Aboard were Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong. All three U.S. television networks and a thousand other radio and television stations covered the launch. It was spectacular! Three and a half tension-filled days later, Aldrin and Armstrong separated from the command module and headed for the moon. The television pictures they sent back were fuzzy and sporadic, but we were all glued to the television.

And we all remember the words, "Tranquility base here; the Eagle has landed." NASA kept it quiet that the Eagle overshot its intended landing site by four miles, and had less than 15 seconds of fuel left when it touched down. But at the time, none of that mattered. The U.S. had landed on the moon.

The television networks provided continuous coverage. But for some reason, the first walk on the moon could not take place for a few hours. It would occur some time in the middle of the night on the east coast. NASA could not be pinned down to an exact time. There were no home VCR's at the time; we could not just pop a tape in the VCR and watch it in the morning. So the television networks told us to turn the volume down low and go to sleep with the TV on. When the time came, they would blast a loud signal to wake us up. Yes; it was that exciting; it was that special!

So tens of millions of us were up for much of the night to hear those words that are now so familiar: "That's one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind." Early on the morning of July 21, 1969, man walked on the moon.

But there were still numerous challenges ahead for the three astronauts and the ground crew. Will the lunar module rocket blast off properly? It had been tested on earth... but this was not earth.... this was the moon! Will they be able to dock with the lunar orbiter correctly? And re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere is always a dangerous maneuver. A million things could still go wrong.

But on this unforgettable journey, the fates were with us. The flight back to Earth and the landing was nearly perfect. 198 hours and 18 minutes after it began, the most famous expedition in history came to a successful end. Man returned from a the moon.


Between 1969 and 1972 six manned Apollo spacecraft were sent to the Moon. Twelve men descended and walked on its dusty surface.

At 3:56 am British summer time, Monday July 21 1969 Neil Armstrong, commander of Apollo 11 set foot upon the Moon. As he took that historic step Armstrong summed up the efforts of more than 300,000 people in industry, universities and government with the famous words "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for Mankind".

Launch date was set for July 16 when 600 million television viewers tuned in along with spectators and newsmen at the Kennedy Space Centre to view the launch of the mighty Saturn Five moon rocket which stood 363 feet high.

Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon
Along with Armstrong were two other astronauts, Edwin Aldrin, known as Buzz (a nickname his sister gave him) and Michael Collins. Buzz was to be the second man on the Moon and Collins the command module pilot, who would remain in Lunar orbit while his crew-mates conducted scientific experiments on the surface.

After three days travelling the quarter of a million miles to the moon, reaching top speeds of nearly seven miles a second, the astronauts arrived at their destination. Much of their launch vehicle had fallen away leaving only the small command module and the lander, connected end to end.

Eagle (the lunar module) and Columbia (the command module) separated on the far side of the Moon and during the next orbit the decent engine of the Eagle fired, beginning Armstrong and Aldrin's final assault on the Moon. They had to stand side by side in the Eagle lander as there was not enough room to be seated.

The descent was far from smooth, communications were poor and a number of alarm lights signalled potential problems with the space craft. An abort situation seemed imminent but quick thinking by mission control and some very cool piloting by Neil Armstrong ensured the success of the mission. Armstrong, took manual control of the lander and dodging a huge crater strewn with rocks he managed to touch down with only 20 seconds of fuel to spare.

"Houston. Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed" were his first words. For the first time since creation man had slipped the Earthly bounds of gravity and had reached another celestial body.

In Britain it was just before midnight on July 20th 1969. Four hours after landing the astronauts donned their space suits and portable life support systems and prepared to exit Eagle. Armstrong eased his way though the hatch and stepped on to the porch leading to the ladder. On the way down he pulled a lever which released the package of instruments that the astronauts would use on the surface. A black and white camera was also triggered to film live the historic moment of Armstrong stepping onto the Moon. The first giant leap for mankind had been taken.


Just 30 years ago, July 20, 1969, one man from the planet Earth fulfilled his vision of landing safely on the surface of the moon. It was neither Neil Armstrong nor Buzz Aldrin. Their mission was to plant the American flag for another man who did not make the trip. In fact, he hadn't lived long enough to make the journey himself or witness the success of those who stood in the bright sunlight of Tranquility Base. Yet, it was he who had inspired a hundred million people to reach for the moon and actually touch it in the space of a decade. President John F. Kennedy did more than land the Eagle. He transformed the nation in the process.

On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy stood before a joint session of Congress to declare it "time for a great new American enterprise -- time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth." Timing, as they say, is everything.

Americans were rattled on October 4, 1957 when they heard the beeping of the Russian Sputnik on television and then rushed outside to see it moving through the stars above their own homes. That just couldn't be. We won the war. We built the bomb. We were the best, the brightest, the most deserving. Weren't we? Our national ego had been bruised, even crushed.

Collectively we yearned to prove again that we could do anything we put our minds to. Kennedy knew he had command of one of those rare teachable moments. An entire population would give its rapt attention to any plan of visionary leadership, even one that might sound far fetched, even impossible.

Of his entire Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs, these two sentences would become famous: "First, I believe that 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 the earth.

No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."

In fact, "the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth" became a national mantra. The part about being so difficult or expensive to accomplish paled in comparison with the parts about being impressive to mankind and important for the long-range exploration of space.

A less visionary leader might have merely asked for funds to maintain our technology at the same level as the Soviet Union and let it go at that. But Kennedy asked for the moon, and the nation went wild with enthusiasm. The logic behind Kennedy's thinking is also shared within the context of that speech. "I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we never made the national decisions or marshalled the national resources required for such leadership. We never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment."

Actually, we had done exactly those things when threatened by an escalating World War II and in development of the Manhattan Project, the atomic bomb. What President Kennedy did was to inspire the nation to behave in the same way, not merely for the threat of being conquered by other peoples but for the pursuit of a dream "impressive to mankind."

Within the next eight short years, the nation transformed itself. All of a sudden students were getting more homework and education was taken more seriously. A college degree became the ticket to success. To be a space scientist or engineer was to be among the elite. The astronauts were national heroes, the space missions were a national pastime. Hundreds of thousands of demanding, high paying "brain jobs" were created in the space program and in education to support it. We became a nation of technology. Everything was transistorized, automated or backed by scientific evidence.

On September 12, 1962, John F. Kennedy gave a follow-up address at Rice University on the Nation's Space Effort. Again he reinforced the vision, by revisiting the question "But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal?" A nation still rapt with attention attached itself to his answer and made these words almost as famous at the moon challenge speech. "We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is the one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intended to win, and the others, too."

Kennedy knew he would get to the moon, and we would too. In that first speech, the one that made the challenge, he added "It will not be one man going to the moon -- if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there." We got there on July 20, 1969, just as we were inspired to do.


1. The first words to be uttered by the astronauts upon landing were in fact "OK Engines Stop..". It was only after that, that those immortal words "Tranquillity Base, the Eagle has landed" were reported, and almost four hours later that the historic line "One small step..." was uttered.

2. The guidance computer for the Saturn Five rocket weighed 10 tonnes and had a memory the size of today's pocket calculators.

3. The five engines on the Saturn Five rocket burnt a total of 40,000 litres of fuel a second.

4. Astronauts were originally going to be attached by a tether to each other so that Neil could be pulled back into the spacecraft if anything went wrong.

5. Alan Shephard, the golf playing Apollo 14 astronaut was the oldest man ever to walk on the moon at 47 years of age.

6. The average age of those men that walked on the moon was 38.6 years.

7. Joe Eagle was one of the most unfortunate astronauts whose years of training and dedication ended in nothing when the end of the Apollo programme was cancelled.

8. 600 million television viewers watched the first lunar landings.

9. The Saturn Five Rocket had 560,000 gallons of fuel.

10. On the Launch pad, Saturn Five weighed 2700 tonnes

11. The Saturn Five engines could lift 400 double-decker buses off the ground.

12. The parachutes that bought the command module back to Earth cost 100 million each.

13. There is a 550 million to one chance of meeting someone who has walked on the Moon.

14. If a car tire was to leak at the same rate as a Saturn Five fuel tank it would take 30 million years to deflate.

15. 30,000 photographs were taken on the moon.

16. During re-entry the astronauts travelled at 25,000 mph - that's 19 times faster than Concorde!

17. Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins was paid a yearly salary of $17,000.

18. On splash-down the US Navy diver that first opened the command module door had to throw the quarantine suits in and quickly re-seal the capsule. The Astronauts remained in these sealed suits for ten days after landing to ensure that they were not infected by any lunar "bugs"

19. When Aldrin and Armstrong returned to the command module they jettisoned the space suits back onto the surface of the moon, to save weight for lift-off again. 20. Once the lunar lander had returned to the orbiting command module and the three astronauts were safely united again, the Eagle lander was thrown back onto the moon to create a "Moon-quake" to complete the geophysical research.

21. A staggering 15.5 billion man hours was spent on the Apollo project during its first decade.

22. The lunar atmosphere was doubled by Apollo ll's rocket engine exhausts. This atmospheric contamination has slowly been lost from the Moon again. The Moon's atmosphere is so thin though, that we cannot fail to pollute it each time we visit. Even the air which is released from the air lock on the lander has a noticeable effect on the Moon's atmosphere.

23. 98% of the 400 kilograms of lunar samples that were brought back have still not been analysed.

24. It was not only the Americans that were involved in the Apollo programme. A host of other nations were involved including the Germans and British. NASA were keen to unfurl a United Nations flag on the Moon when they arrived. However, when the Senate heard about this they demanded that it be the American Stars and Stripes that be flown. Armstrong and Aldrin found it hard to stick the flag pole into the surface and the flag blew over when the lander took off!

25. Only one scientist has ever set foot on the Moon - Geologist Harrison Schmitt (Apollo 17). Many of the other astronauts were former military test pilots.