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The Odyssey of Apollo 11

 

There was one last remaining unknown for Armstrong and Aldrin: whether they could actually walk on the surface of the moon. It was beginning to seem more likely, but the moon environment – which fluctuated about 500° F in temperature, between the fatal extremes of about 243° F at lunar “noon” to 279° F below zero at “night” – was more forbidding than an Earth-orbit EVA (Extra-vehicular activity). Apollo 11 had been planned to land during lunar morning, which would make the outside temperature a more hospitable 40° or 50°. The moon space suit, also, had been reinforced with several aluminized layers to guard against not only the temperature extremes, but also the possibility of a tear – which would promptly prove fatal, causing an explosive decompression that would vent the astronaut’s oxygen into space.

The two astronauts took several exploratory strides, bouncing over the surface of the moon, whose gravitational pull, one-sixth that of the Earth, transformed the combined 360 pounds of astronaut, suit, and backpack to a mere 60 pounds. “Isn’t this fun?” said Armstrong at one point.

Six hours after landing, Aldrin and Armstrong had bled the Eagle’s cabin of air and were sealed in their suits, their enormous backpacks supplying them with cooled oxygen. At about 10:56 p.m. Eastern time, Armstrong stepped outside, the lunar sky around him darker than the blackest night on Earth, and descended the Eagle’s ten-foot ladder – on his way down, activating a television camera that had been installed specifically to capture the moment. His approach demonstrated the extreme caution with which the moment had been planned: first, he paused at the bottom rung to observe the lunar surface. “The LM footpads are only depressed in the surface about one or two inches,” he said. “The surface appears to be very, very fine-grained, as you get close to it. It’s almost like a powder.” He dropped first onto one of the Eagle’s footpads, surveying the surface. And then, finally, it was time for the first person in history to set foot on something that did not exist on Earth.

Armstrong Apollo 11

One of the few still images of Neil Armstrong on the moon shows the astronaut at the Modular Equipment Storage Assembly (MESA) of the LM Eagle during the historic first EVA on the moon. NASA photo

“I’m going to step off the LM now,” Armstrong said. He planted his foot on the surface – which was firm, beneath the thin layer of moondust. With more than a billion people listening in, he said: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

He was joined about 19 minutes later by Aldrin, who described the lunar landscape as “magnificent desolation.” The two astronauts took several exploratory strides, bouncing over the surface of the moon, whose gravitational pull, one-sixth that of the Earth, transformed the combined 360 pounds of astronaut, suit, and backpack to a mere 60 pounds. “Isn’t this fun?” said Armstrong at one point.

Aldrin on moon

One of the most iconic images of the Space Age: “Buzz” Aldrin on the surface of the moon. NASA photo

“I was struck,” Aldrin recalled later, “by the contrast between the starkness of the shadows and the desert-like barrenness of the rest of the surface. It ranged from dusty gray to light tan and was unchanging except for one startling sight: our LM sitting there with its black, silver, and bright yellow-orange thermal coating shining brightly in the otherwise colorless landscape.”

About two and a half hours were allocated for the astronauts’ inaugural moon excursion, and there were many tasks to accomplish, including the planting of an American flag, photographing, collecting lunar soil and rock samples, and setting up three experiments: a seismic experiments package to measure moonquakes and meteor impacts; a laser ranging retro-reflector that would allow scientists to precisely measure Earth-moon distances; and a solar wind experiment – basically, a sheet of foil for collecting solar wind particles, which could not be collected on Earth due to the deflection from its magnetic field. Armstrong and Aldrin also answered a congratulatory phone call from President Richard Nixon.

Gold leaf

This is the gold replica of an olive branch, the traditional symbol of peace, left on the moon’s surface by Apollo 11 crewmembers. Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, commander, placed the small replica (less than half a foot in length) on the moon. The gesture represented a wish for peace for all mankind.
NASA photo

As they worked, Collins continued his silent vigil, spending 48 minutes of each orbit behind the dark side of the moon, out of radio contact – a time during which, he recalled in his memoir, he felt “not fear . . . or loneliness, but . . . awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exaltation.”

On the moon, Apollo 11 had left behind a number of items, including the flag and equipment they didn’t need any more. They also left medals and shoulder patches in honor of the five astronauts who lost their lives in the race to the moon: Yuri Gagarin, Vladimir Komarov, Virgil Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Edward White. Gagarin and Komarov’s medals had been given to Frank Borman, the Apollo 8 commander, by the Soviet astronauts’ widows during a previous visit to Moscow.

After resting in the LM that night, Armstrong and Aldrin, using the Eagle’s descent stage as a launch pad, blasted off from the lunar surface at 1:54 p.m. They took with them soil samples, solar wind particles, film, and some mementos to be returned to Earth. At 5:35 p.m., while circling the back side of the moon, Eagle and Columbia redocked, and Aldrin and Armstrong joined Collins for the ride home.

On the moon, Apollo 11 had left behind a number of items, including the flag and equipment they didn’t need any more. They also left medals and shoulder patches in honor of the five astronauts who lost their lives in the race to the moon: Yuri Gagarin, Vladimir Komarov, Virgil Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Edward White. Gagarin and Komarov’s medals had been given to Frank Borman, the Apollo 8 commander, by the Soviet astronauts’ widows during a previous visit to Moscow.

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...