Apollo 11: The First People to Land on the Moon

A Short History

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin walks on the Moon, July 1969. NASA

In July 1969 the world watched as NASA launched three men on a trip to land on the Moon. The mission was called Apollo 11. It was the culmination of a series of Gemini launches to Earth orbit, followed by Apollo missions. In each one, astronauts tested and practiced the actions they needed to make a trip to the Moon and come back safely. 

Apollo 11 was launched on top of the of the most powerful rockets ever designed: the Saturn V. Today they are museum pieces, but back in the days of the Apollo program, they were THE way to get to space. 

First Steps

The trip to the Moon was a first for the U.S., which was locked in a battle for space supremacy with the former Soviet Union (now the Russian Federation). The so-called "Space Race" began when the Soviets launched Sputnik on October 4, 1957. They followed up with other launches and succeeded in putting the first person in space, astronaut Yuri Gagarin, on April 12, 1961. The U.S. president John F. Kennedy upped the stakes by announcing on September 12, 1962, that the country's fledgling space program would put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. The most quoted part of his speech asserted as much: 

"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..."

That announcement set in place a race to bring the best scientists and engineers together. That required science education and a scientifically literate populace. And, by the end of the decade, when Apollo 11 touched down on the Moon, much of world was aware of the methods of space exploration.

The mission was incredibly difficult. NASA had to build and launch a safe vehicle containing three astronauts. The same command and lunar modules had to cross the distance between Earth and the Moon: 238,000 miles (384,000 kilometers). Then, it had to be inserted into orbit around the Moon. The lunar module had to separate and head for the lunar surface. After executing their surface mission, the astronauts had to return to lunar orbit and rejoin the command module for the trip back to Earth.

The actual landing on the Moon on July 20th turned out to be more dangerous than everyone expected. The chosen landing site in Mare Tranquilitatis (Sea of Tranquility) was covered with boulders. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had to maneuver to find a good place. (Astronaut Michael Collins stayed in orbit in the Command Module.) With just a few seconds of fuel left, they landed safely and broadcast their first greeting back to a waiting Earth with Neil Armstrong's famous announcement that he and Aldrin were representing all mankind. 

One Small Step...

A few hours later, Neil Armstrong took the first steps out of the lander and onto the surface of the Moon. It was a momentous event watched by millions of people around the world. For most in the U.S., it was affirmation that the country had won the Space Race. 

The Apollo 11 mission astronauts did the first science experiments on the Moon and gathered a collection of lunar rocks to bring back for study on Earth. They reported on what it was like to live and work in the lower gravity of the Moon, and gave people the first up-close look at our neighbor in space. And, they set the stage for more Apollo missions to explore the lunar surface. 

Apollo's Legacy

The legacy of the Apollo 11 mission continues to be felt. Mission preparations and practices created for that trip are still in use, with modifications and refinements by astronauts around the world. Based on the first rocks brought back from the Moon, planners for such missions as LROC and LCROSS were able to plan their science investigations. We have an International Space Station, thousands of satellites in orbit, robot spacecraft have traversed the solar system to study distant worlds up close and personal.

The space shuttle program, developed during the last years of the Apollo Moon missions, took hundreds of people to space and accomplished great things. The astronauts and space agencies of other countries learned from NASA — and NASA learned from them as time went by. Space exploration began to feel more "multi-cultural", which continues today. Yes, there were tragedies along the way: rocket explosions, fatal shuttle accidents, and launchpad deaths. But, the space agencies of the world learned from those mistakes and used their knowledge to advance their launch systems. 

The most enduring return from the Apollo 11 mission is the knowledge that when humans put their minds to do a difficult project in space, they can do it. Going to space creates jobs, advances knowledge, and changes human beings. Every country with a space program knows this. The technical expertise, the educational boosts, the increased interest in space are, in large part, legacies of the Apollo 11 mission. The first steps of July 20-21, 1969 reverberate from that time to this. 

Edited by Carolyn Collins Petersen.