History of the Apollo 11 Mission, "One Giant Leap for Mankind"

The First Time Humans Walked on the Moon

Apollo 11 Image
Apollo 11 Image of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin raising the U.S. flag on the Moon. NASA

One of the most daring feats of travel in the history of humanity occurred on July 16, 1969, when the Apollo 11 mission launched from Cape Kennedy in Florida. It carried three astronauts: Neil ArmstrongBuzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. They reached the Moon on July 20, and later that day, as millions watched on televisions around the world, Neil Armstrong left the lunar lander to become the first man to set foot on the Moon. His words, widely quoted, announced that he was representing all mankind in the effort. Buzz Aldrin followed a short time later.

Together the two men took images, rock samples, and did some scientific experiments for a few hours before returning to the Eagle lander for the final time. They left the Moon (after 21 hours and 36 minutes) to return to the Columbia command module, where Michael Collins had stayed behind. They returned to Earth to a hero's welcome and the rest is history.

A portrait of the crew of Apollo 11 including Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin.
Portrait of the prime crew of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. Left to right are Neil A. Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, command module pilot; and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot. (May 1, 1969). Picture courtesy of NASA

Why Go to the Moon?

Ostensibly, the purposes of the human lunar missions were to study the internal structure of the Moon, surface composition, how the surface structure was formed and the age of the Moon. They would also investigate traces of volcanic activity, the rate of solid objects hitting the moon, presence of any magnetic fields, and tremors. Samples would also be gathered of lunar soil and detected gases. That was the scientific case for what was also a technological challenge.

However, there were also political considerations. Space enthusiasts of a certain age remember hearing a young President John F. Kennedy vow to take Americans to the Moon. On September 12, 1962, he said, 

"We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

By the time he gave his speech, the "Space Race" between the U.S. and then-Soviet Union was underway. The Soviet Union was ahead of the U.S. in space. So far, they had placed the first artificial satellite in orbit, with the launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957. On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit Earth. From the time he entered office in 1961, President John F. Kennedy made it a priority to place a man on the Moon. His dream became reality on July 20, 1969, with the landing of the Apollo 11 mission on the lunar surface. It was a watershed moment in world history, amazing even the Russians, who had to admit that (for the moment) they were behind in the Space Race. 

A picture of the 363-foot tall Apollo 11 space vehicle being launched on July 16, 1969.
The 363 ft tall Apollo 11 space vehicle is launched from Pad A, Launch Complex 39, Kennedy Space Center, at 9:37 a.m., July 16, 1969. Apollo 11 is the United Sates first lunar landing mission. Picture courtesy of NASA

Starting the Road to the Moon

The early manned flights of the Mercury and Gemini missions had demonstrated that humans could survive in space. Next came the Apollo missions, which would land humans on the Moon.

First would come unmanned test flights. These would be followed by manned missions testing the command module in Earth's orbit. Next, the lunar module would be connected to the command module, still in Earth's orbit. Then, the first flight to the Moon would be attempted, followed by the first attempt to land on the moon. There were plans for as many as 20 such missions.

Buzz Aldrin Stepping onto the Moon
Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin takes his last step off the Eagle lunar module onto the surface of the Moon. NASA / Getty Images

Starting Apollo

Early in the program, on January 27, 1967, a tragedy occurred that killed three astronauts and nearly killed the program. A fire aboard the ship during tests of the Apollo/Saturn 204 (more commonly known as Apollo 1 mission) left all three crew members (Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, the second American astronaut to fly into space; astronaut Edward H. White II, the first American astronaut to "walk" in space; and astronaut Roger B. Chaffee) dead.

After an investigation had been completed, and changes made, the program continued. No mission was ever conducted with the name Apollo 2 or Apollo 3Apollo 4 launched in November 1967. It was followed in January 1968 with Apollo 5, the first test of the Lunar Module in space. The final unmanned Apollo mission was Apollo 6, which launched on April 4, 1968.

The manned missions began with Apollo 7's Earth orbit, which launched in October 1968. Apollo 8 followed in December 1968, orbited the moon and returned to Earth. Apollo 9 was another Earth-orbit mission to test the lunar module. The Apollo 10 mission (in May 1969) was a complete staging of the upcoming Apollo 11 mission without actually landing on the Moon. It was the second one to orbit the Moon and the first to travel to the Moon with the entire Apollo spacecraft configuration. Astronauts Thomas Stafford and Eugene Cernan descended inside the Lunar Module to within 14 kilometers of the lunar surface achieving the closest approach to date to the Moon. Their mission paved the final way to the Apollo 11 landing.

Footprint on the Moon During Apollo 11 Mission
Astronaut Neil Armstrong took "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" when he stepped out of the Apollo 11 and onto the moon, July 20, 1969. For the United States, the moment was a triumphant finish to a race that began in 1961 when the Soviet Union put the first manned spacecraft into orbit. NASA / Getty Images

The Apollo Legacy

The Apollo missions were the most successful manned missions to come out of the Cold War. They and the astronauts that flew them accomplished many great things that led NASA to create technologies that led not just to space shuttles and planetary missions, but also to improvements in medical and other technologies. The rocks and other samples that Armstrong and Aldrin brought back revealed the Moon's volcanic makeup and gave tantalizing hints to its origins in a titanic collision more than four billion years ago. Later astronauts, such as those on Apollo 14 and beyond returned even more samples from other areas of the Moon and proved that science operations could be conducted there. And, on the technological side, the Apollo missions and their equipment blazed the way for advances in future shuttles and other spacecraft.

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.

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Greene, Nick. "History of the Apollo 11 Mission, "One Giant Leap for Mankind"." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/apollo-11-mission-3071335. Greene, Nick. (2023, April 5). History of the Apollo 11 Mission, "One Giant Leap for Mankind". Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/apollo-11-mission-3071335 Greene, Nick. "History of the Apollo 11 Mission, "One Giant Leap for Mankind"." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/apollo-11-mission-3071335 (accessed June 10, 2023).