Neil Armstrong’s words when he touched down on the Moon “That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.”, are probably the most famous in the history of space exploration and in the 20th century as a whole. The Apollo 11 mission, which launched from Cape Canaveral on July 16, 1969, has been a milestone in human history. It has been covered in countless documentaries, movies, books and articles. Let’s create a timeline of the events of July 1969, to see how exactly was this wonderful feat achieved.
The Apollo program was initiated during the space race of the cold war, when the Soviet Union and the United States were trying to prove their military and technological might by exploring space. The Soviets got a head start by putting Yuri Gagarin and Sputnik into orbit. As a response, in a 1961 speech president Kennedy made a statement saying “I believe 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 Earth.” This launched the decade long quest to put a man on the moon.
The road to July 1969 was not easy. In 1967, there was a fire during testing and three astronauts died. The research continued and Apollo 8 took the astronauts in orbit around the Moon in December 1968. There were several other missions that tested the lunar module and other vital equipment, mostly in Earth orbit. Then in July everything was ready to launch.
At 9:32 a.m. the huge Saturn V rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral on July 16th. On board were Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin. After three days, the ship got into orbit around the Moon. On the 20th of July, the lunar landing module called the Eagle, manned by Aldrin and Armstrong, separated from the main orbiter. Two hours later, the Eagle began descending and at 4:17 p.m men have landed on the Moon on the Sea of Tranquility.
At 10:39 p.m, the impatient Armstrong decided to step out of the lunar module with the television camera that was broadcasting his steps live. At 10:56 p.m, Armstrong stepped of the ladder and spoke his famous quote. A few minutes later, Aldrin joined him. They spoke with president Nixon on the phone, planted the flag and took pictures. They conducted tests on solar wind, collected numerous samples of lunar soil and deployed the Laser-Ranging Retroreflector and the Passive Seismic Experiment Package. Just two hours later, the astronauts returned to the lunar module to sleep and prepare for launch. In total, the two astronauts spent 21 hours and 36 minutes on the Moon, including sleep.
Around 1 p.m. on July 21, the Eagle took off from the lunar surface and rejoined with the command module in orbit. Then, the astronauts began their journey home and splashed down in the Pacific ocean on July 24th. In total, there were 5 more missions to the Moon. The last people to be on the Moon were Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt in December 1972.
If you want to learn more, I recommend this inspiring video from Vox. Also, the original broadcast gives me chills. Please feel free to explore this fantastic Apollo 11 image gallery courtesy of NASA.
Apollo 11. (n.d.). National Air and Space Museum. https://airandspace.si.edu/explore-and-learn/topics/apollo/apollo-program/landing-missions/apollo11.cfm
Apollo 11 | History, Mission, Landing, Astronauts, Pictures, Spacecraft, & Facts. (2009). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Apollo-11
History.com Editors. (2018, August 23). 1969 Moon Landing. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/topics/space-exploration/moon-landing-1969
NASA. (2019, May 15). Apollo 11 Mission Overview. https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/apollo/missions/apollo11.html