Astronauts Walked On the Moon for the First Time 50 Years Ago On This Date
How do you feel about the Apollo 11 Moon landing on its anniversary?
by Countable | 7.20.19
Fifty years ago on July 22, 1969, American astronauts from the Apollo 11 crew took “one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind” by becoming the first humans to walk on the moon.
How did it happen?
From the Wright Brothers’ first flight over the beaches of Kittyhawk, North Carolina in 1903 to Chuck Yeager becoming the first person to break the sound barrier over California’s Mojave Desert in 1947, Americans had been at the forefront of aviation.
But on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit, becoming the first nation to send an artificial satellite beyond Earth’s atmosphere. By the end of 1957, the Soviets had successfully sent Sputnik 2 into orbit, and a U.S. Vanguard satellite exploded spectacularly just after taking off. These events were a cause of grave concern to President Dwight D. Eisenhower in light of Cold War tensions and policymakers’ now-shattered expectations that America would be the first into space.
The Space Race began in earnest in 1958, when Explorer 1 became the first successful U.S. satellite on January 31st and Ike signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act on July 29th. The bill created an agency known as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to serve as the lead coordinator of the U.S. space program, which had been operated as separate projects under the Army (Explorer) & Navy (Vanguard).
NASA began Project Mercury in 1959 with the goal of sending astronauts to space, and it succeeded on May 5, 1961, when astronaut Alan Shepard went on a 15-minute spaceflight only a few weeks after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space. Project Mercury was slated to run through 1963, but the Eisenhower administration had already begun planning the development of a space capsule capable of supporting three astronauts on more complex missions (such as docking with a space station or a Moon landing).
Ike’s successor, President John F. Kennedy, kicked NASA’s space exploration into overdrive in a special message to Congress on May 25, 1961 in which he set the next major goal:
“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… But in a very real sense, 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.”
At JFK’s behest, NASA designated the Apollo Program conceived by Ike’s administration in 1960 as the program to take astronauts to the Moon, and launched the Gemini Program to undertake developmental missions to work toward the Moon landing ― including the first spacewalk, the first multi-week space mission, and the first docking with another space vehicle. This chart from USAFacts shows spending on Projects Mercury and Gemini during this period relative to total NASA spending:
Project Apollo’s first mission got off to a tragic start in 1967, when a cabin fire on Apollo 1 killed all three astronauts. The next two years saw successful crewed missions with the new space module that carried out the first live TV broadcast from space (Apollo 7) and a dress rehearsal for the Moon landing (Apollo 10).
What happened on the Apollo 11 mission?
Commander Neil Armstrong, lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin, and command module pilot Michael Collins were launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 16, 1969 by a Saturn V rocket. The Apollo spacecraft had three parts: the command module, which included a cabin for the astronauts (named Columbia), would orbit the Moon and eventually return to Earth; the lunar module to take astronauts from the command module to the Moon’s surface and back (named Eagle); and a service module which supported the command module providing power and oxygen.
After the Apollo spacecraft left Earth’s atmosphere, it traveled for three days until it entered the Moon's orbit. Armstrong and Aldrin then entered the Eagle, detached from the command module, and after the lunar module touched down on the Sea of Tranquility at 4:17pm EDT on July 20, 1969, Armstrong radioed “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
With black-and-white footage streaming back to 500 million people, the largest TV audience in history to that point, Armstrong left the module at 10:56pm EDT to plant the first human foot on another world and utter “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”:
Aldrin joined him and the two astronauts explored the surface for two and a half hours, collecting 47.5 pounds of samples and taking pictures. They raised an American flag to leave on the Moon’s surface, left a patch to honor the fallen Apollo 1 crew and memorials to fallen Russian cosmonauts, along with a plaque that reads “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
President Richard Nixon gave the astronauts a call from the Oval Office during their moonwalk, telling them “because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world”, expressing pride in their achievement, and prayers for the safe return. The safe return of Armstrong & Aldrin back to the command module, let alone Earth, was far from certain ― so much so that Nixon’s staff planned an announcement to be read if the astronauts were stranded on the moon and a public service similar to a burial at sea.
But after 21 hours and 31 minutes on the Moon’s surface, Eagle successfully delivered the pair back to the command module Columbia where Michael Collins awaited them. After reentering the Earth’s atmosphere, Columbia splashed down in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii on July 24th, where the crew and module were picked up by the USS Hornet.
The Apollo 11 crew were later honored by a ticker tape parade in New York City attended by as many as four million people, providing a moment of national celebration and unity amid a tumultuous decade marked by the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and political assassinations (including JFK).
What was its impact?
After the Apollo 11 mission, five more Moon landings were carried out under the Apollo Program between November 1969 and December 1972, only one of which (Apollo 13) was unsuccessful. The Apollo Program was the largest commitment of resources ever made by any nation during peacetime, employed over 400,000 people, and came in at a line-item total cost of $25 billion (or $153 billion in 2018 dollars). This chart from USAFacts shows spending on the Apollo Program as a share of the total NASA budget from that period.
NASA launched its first space station, Skylab, in 1973 and the Space Race came to a symbolic end in 1975 with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, in which the American Apollo spacecraft docked with the Russian Soyuz. Since then, the two major NASA initiatives have been the Space Shuttle program, which ran from 1970-2016 at a cumulative line-item cost of $122.1 billion ($236 billion in 2018 dollars), and the football field-sized International Space Station which has cost a total of $60 billion since 1985 ($83.5 billion in 2018 dollars). This chart from USAFacts shows non-inflation adjusted on all of the discussed programs as a share of the total NASA budget:
In 2017, President Donald Trump signed Space Policy Directive 1 which put in motion a program to send humans back to the Moon and beyond through a program that will include NASA, U.S. commercial spaceflight companies, and international partners. Known as the Artemis program (Apollo’s sister in Greek mythology), it will have the goal of landing the first woman and the next man on the Moon’s south pole by 2024 to establish a sustainable presence on the Moon before sending humans to Mars orbit in the 2030s.
— Eric Revell
(Photo Credit: San Diego Air & Space Museum via Flickr / Creative Commons)
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