International History: Apollo 11 Moon Landing

moon landing

Fifty years ago today, 600 million people watched with bated breath as "the Eagle" would successfully land on the surface of the moon and Neil Armstrong would utter those now famous words: "One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." What the 600 million people may not have known was the stories behind that small step.

The Eagle lander had never been tested in the conditions before. Neil Armstrong and crewmate Michael Collins gave it a 50/50 shot at returning. President Richard Nixon prepared two speeches; one if the lander returned and another. "Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice."

With even odds, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Neil Armstrong embarked toward the surface of the moon, a NASA landing program guiding them in. The program was to ensure the lander did so safely, however, part way into the process, the two men realized that the program was guiding them to land straight into a crater in which taking off from would have been nigh impossible. Armstrong got the go ahead to take control of the helm and land the Eagle in a new position, safely outside the crater, having only 20 seconds of landing fuel left. (Here's a wonderful video of the 13 minutes leading up to and the actual landing.)

The 600 million people watching Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon did so via an 80ft satellite in Australia. Only having confirmed a live broadcast several weeks before, NASA wasn't sure what to expect. On the day, they came to discover that, due to the positioning of the Earth and their satellites, the Eagle lander's signal wouldn't be receivable by NASA until several minutes AFTER this historic event. Not only would the millions of people around the world miss the landing but NASA would not have contact with its astronauts or their vitals during this crucial phase of the mission. Luckily Australia wasn't in the space race with the US. 

Armstrong would become the "first man" to step foot on the moon. Interestingly enough, on previous exploration missions, the commander would always stay behind while the subordinate did the exploring. Stories vary if NASA thought Armstrong should go first or if Aldrin deferred to his CO. In either case, Aldrin would still get to leave his footprints on the moon's surface 20 minutes later. However, out of jealousy, Aldrin took only five photographs of Armstrong while on the moon. The sixth image comes in the form of Armstrong's reflection in Aldrin's visor.

Michael Collins, often the forgotten member of Apollo 11, sat and had "a lonely cup of coffee" while Armstrong and Aldrin were on their mission. I'm sure he, as much as anyone, was glad his crewmates returned for their four day voyage home.