July 20, 1969: Apollo XI
On a hot July evening, my dad hauled our 12-inch portable black and white TV out onto the patio, where he grilled dinner. From that vantage point, my family watched the first manned landing on the moon and the first steps on the moon. Apollo XI launched Monday, 45 years ago. Four days later it landed on the lunar surface. That man was Neil Armstrong, a former naval officer. Those events fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 goal for the U.S. to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
Apollo XI’s lunar module, Eagle, landed in the Sea of Tranquility. Two of the astronauts were West Point graduates and Air Force officers, Cols. Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. Collins was the command module pilot, which meant he would orbit the moon while the mission commander, Armstrong, and Aldrin flew the Eagle and landed on the moon.
Today, it is easy to forget the gravity of that day. The mission to land a man on the moon was seen as a competition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. The Soviets were the first in space with their launching of an intercontinental ballistic missile in August 1957. They then launched a satellite and an animal into space. In late January 1958, the U.S. launched its first satellite into space. In April 1961, the Russians put the first man into space.
As the U.S. learned about traveling in space, it progressed through three programs. Mercury flights were one-man missions. The Gemini missions had two crewmen. Those programs orbited the earth and taught us about space. All of the Apollo missions had a crew of three. The Apollo program’s goal was to land on the moon, hopefully multiple times.
As the ocean breezes cooled that July evening, I heard Armstrong use two phrases that instantly became famous. After the Eagle indented the moon’s surface, he said, “The Eagle has landed.” Later, as he stepped onto the moon, he said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Aldrin was the second man on the moon.
While American astronauts had previously circled the moon, landing and then taking off again held a number of unknowns. For Collins, he was concerned he might have to come back to earth alone if something went wrong. As it was, Collins set a record of 59 hours, 27 minutes, and 55 seconds in lunar orbit.
After 21 hours and 36 minutes on the surface, the Eagle successfully lifted off. It took another four hours to reach and dock with the command module. The astronauts brought home soil, and rock samples. But, lunar diseases, bacteria and microbes were unknown. After their Pacific splashdown on July 24, the three were placed in quarantine for 30 days.
As of this writing, both Collins and Aldrin are still living. Armstrong died Aug. 25, 2012.