By the summer of 1969, almost every element of the Apollo program had been tested and proven. The massive Saturn V rocket – the most powerful machine ever built and the first launch vehicle developed strictly for space applications – had shown it could reliably lift the Apollo modules and astronauts together beyond the Earth’s orbit. The command/service module (CSM) and lunar module (LM) could launch together, dock, and separate, and the LM could fly on its own. Russian and U.S. unmanned probes had performed soft landings on the moon, dispelling fears that spacecraft would simply sink into the powdery lunar surface. In December of 1968, during the Apollo 8 mission, the power bottled in the Saturn V’s three stages sent U.S. astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders into orbit around the moon and back, a total distance of a little under a half million miles.
Neil Armstrong probably wasn’t fanciful enough to imagine he’d be mired in a lunar bog. But he did, reportedly – along with many NASA officials – fix the chances of a successful lunar landing attempt at about 50/50.
There was, really, only one question left to answer, and it was embedded in Apollo 11’s pithy prime mission objective: “Perform a manned lunar landing and return.”
Could a man land on the moon? Even in the Information Age, it’s difficult to grasp the technological burst – still unequaled today – that approached its historic climax in the summer of 1969. A little more than eight years earlier, Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard had become the first men in space; now astronauts were preparing to set foot on another world. Many experts continued to fear that the LM – much heavier than its unmanned predecessors – would sink into the lunar surface, fatally stranding the astronauts.
Judging from the icy cool of his decision-making in the Gemini 8 mission – and later in Apollo 11 – astronaut Neil Armstrong probably wasn’t fanciful enough to imagine he’d be mired in a lunar bog. But he did, reportedly – along with many NASA officials – fix the chances of a successful lunar landing attempt at about 50/50. There were simply too many unknowns.
To offset these unknowns, the Apollo 11 astronauts – Armstrong, the commander; Buzz Aldrin, the lunar module pilot; and Michael Collins, the command module pilot – trained fourteen hours a day, six days a week, from January to July 1969. About a third of Armstrong and Aldrin’s training time was spent inside the lunar module simulator and they began consistently demonstrating successful landings some time in late June, about two or three weeks before launch. To be fair, these simulations were led by ground crews who threw every imaginable problem at the two, who by July had probably begun to wonder when the bells, sirens, and warning lights of the simulator were going to burn themselves out. By July, NASA and its astronauts were as ready as they were ever going to be.
Apollo Outward Bound
The American public, on the other hand, had some catching up to do. Since the onset of the “space race,” the visionary idealist who had launched it, John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated. The nation had become increasingly entangled in an unpopular war in Vietnam and in rancorous, sometimes violent, political debates at home about civil rights, poverty, and the competence of its leaders. Many Americans, by the end of the decade, seemed to have lost interest in the space program, or to believe it was a waste of the nation’s resources.
Most accounts of the time just prior to the Apollo 11 launch, however, portray a reawakening of the American spirit – and in the spirits of millions of people around the world – during the spring and summer of 1969. Launched as a competition to prove the superiority of one political system over another, the goal of the moon had taken on much more significance in the intervening years and as the launch date neared there was, it seemed, a mounting public appreciation of the almost metaphysical importance of the approaching moment.
“The moon I have known all my life, that two-dimensional small yellow disk in the sky, has gone away somewhere, to be replaced by the most awesome sphere I have ever seen.”
On the morning of July 16, as the Apollo 11 astronauts – who had awakened early that morning, even by astronaut standards – sat atop the 363-foot Saturn V at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A, a million eyewitnesses packed themselves into the surrounding sandy flats and shorelines, waiting along with a worldwide television audience. Three and a half miles away, seated in grandstands, were half the members of Congress and more than 3,000 journalists from 56 different nations. At 9:32 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, the rocket blasted the Apollo 11 crew into the sky.
Threading the sky at more than 6,300 miles per hour, Apollo 11 jettisoned its first two rocket stages and entered a 103-mile high Earth orbit, during which flight and ground crews checked the spacecraft’s functions. At 12:22 p.m., Apollo 11 fired its third-stage engine to launch it out of Earth orbit and into a lunar trajectory. A little more than 20 minutes later, the lunar module Eagle was unpacked from its compartment atop the launch rockets, and the CSM, Columbia, turned around and docked head-to-head with the LM. The crew passed the next three days traveling at a speed of nearly 13,000 feet per second, taking time from their daily routines to send two extended telecasts back to Earth.
The crew approached the moon on the morning of July 19, a sight Michael Collins later recalled in his memoir, Carrying the Fire: “The moon I have known all my life, that two-dimensional small yellow disk in the sky, has gone away somewhere, to be replaced by the most awesome sphere I have ever seen.” At about half-past 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time, the astronauts fired Columbia’s main rocket to slow the vehicle for entry into lunar orbit. It had been another epic Apollo journey, only the third spaceflight to the moon – but until now, everything done by Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins had been done before.
Landing the Eagle
On the fourth day of Apollo 11 – July 20, 1969 – its crew began to prepare for the mission’s unproven tasks. Aldrin crawled through the hatchway linking Columbia and Eagle and powered up the lunar module, to be joined about an hour later by Armstrong. Together, they rechecked the systems and deployed the LM’s spidery legs. On the far side of the moon, at about 1:46 p.m., Collins pressed the switch that separated Columbia from the lander, kissing it off with the push of gentle springs. “See you later,” he said. Armstrong and Aldrin were on their own now, rocketing over the lunar surface face down, feet forward. Armstrong fired the LM’s main engine in counterthrust, to slow the craft’s horizontal velocity, while Collins resumed his orbit.