First Man on the Moon

Astronaut Edwin Aldrin Jr. walking on the moon
NASA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

For thousands of years, man had looked to the heavens and dreamed of walking on the moon. On July 20, 1969, as part of the Apollo 11 mission, Neil Armstrong became the very first to accomplish that dream, followed only minutes later by Buzz Aldrin.

Their accomplishment placed the United States ahead of the Soviets in the Space Race and gave people around the world the hope of future space exploration.

Fast Facts: First Moon Landing

Date: July 20, 1969

Mission: Apollo 11

Crew: Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, Michael Collins

Becoming the First Person on the Moon

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, the United States was surprised to find themselves behind in the race to space.

Still behind the Soviets four years later, President John F. Kennedy gave inspiration and hope to the American people in his speech to Congress on May 25, 1961 in which he stated, "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."

Just eight years later, the United States accomplished this goal by placing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon.

Apollo 11 Crew
Portrait of American astronauts, from left, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins, and Neil Armstrong, the crew of NASA's Apollo 11 mission to the moon, as they pose on a model of the moon, 1969. Ralph Morse / Getty Images

Take Off

At 9:32 a.m. on July 16, 1969, the Saturn V rocket launched Apollo 11 into the sky from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. On the ground, there were over 3,000 journalists, 7,000 dignitaries, and approximately a half million tourists watching this momentous occasion. The event went smoothly and as scheduled.

Saturn V boosters lift off to carry the Apollo 11
CAPE KENNEDY, UNITED STATES - JULY 16, 1969: Composite 5 frame shot of the gantry retracting while the Saturn V boosters lift off to carry the Apollo 11 astronauts to the Moon.  Ralph Morse / Getty Images

After one-and-a-half orbits around Earth, the Saturn V thrusters flared once again and the crew had to manage the delicate process of attaching the lunar module (nicknamed Eagle) onto the nose of the joined command and service module (nicknamed Columbia). Once attached, Apollo 11 left the Saturn V rockets behind as they began their three-day journey to the moon, called the translunar coast.

A Difficult Landing

On July 19, at 1:28 p.m. EDT, Apollo 11 entered the moon's orbit. After spending a full day in lunar orbit, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin boarded the lunar module and detached it from the command module for their descent to the moon's surface.

As the Eagle departed, Michael Collins, who remained in the Columbia while Armstrong and Aldrin were on the moon, checked for any visual problems with the lunar module. He saw none and told the Eagle crew, "You cats take it easy on the lunar surface."

Members of the Kennedy Space Center control room team rise from their consoles to see the liftoff of the Apollo 11 mission 16 July 1969.  NASA / Getty Images

As the Eagle headed toward the moon's surface, several different warning alarms were activated. Armstrong and Aldrin realized that the computer system was guiding them to a landing area that was strewn with boulders the size of small cars.

With some last-minute maneuvers, Armstrong guided the lunar module to a safe landing area. At 4:17 p.m. EDT on July 20, 1969, the landing module landed on the moon's surface in the Sea of Tranquility with only seconds of fuel left.

Armstrong reported to the command center in Houston, "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." Houston responded, "Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again."

Walking on the Moon

After the excitement, exertion, and drama of the lunar landing, Armstrong and Aldrin spent the next six-and-a-half hours resting and then preparing themselves for their moon walk.

At 10:28 p.m. EDT, Armstrong turned on the video cameras. These cameras transmitted images from the moon to over half a billion people on Earth who sat watching their televisions. It was phenomenal that these people were able to witness the amazing events that were unfolding hundreds of thousands of miles above them.

Neil Armstrong stepping onto the Moon.
This grainy, black-and-white image taken on the Moon shows Neil Armstrong about to step off the Eagle lander and onto the surface of the Moon for the first time. NASA 

Neil Armstrong was the first person out of the lunar module. He climbed down a ladder and then became the first person to set foot on the moon at 10:56 p.m. EDT. Armstrong then stated, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

A few minutes later, Aldrin exited the lunar module and stepped foot on the moon's surface.

Working on the Surface

Although Armstrong and Aldrin got a chance to admire the tranquil, desolate beauty of the moon's surface, they also had a lot of work to do.

NASA had sent the astronauts with a number of scientific experiments to set up and the men were to collect samples from the area around their landing site. They returned with 46 pounds of moon rocks. Armstrong and Aldrin also set up a flag of the United States.

Armstrong and Aldrin unfurl the US flag on the moon, 1969
Armstrong and Aldrin unfurl the US flag on the moon, 1969. Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing mission, was launched on 16 July 1969 and Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin became the first and second men to walk on the moon on 20 July 1969. The third member of the crew, Michael Collins, remained in lunar orbit. Oxford Science Archive / Getty Images

While on the moon, the astronauts received a call from President Richard Nixon. Nixon began by saying, "Hello, Neil and Buzz. I am talking to you by telephone from the Oval Office of the White House. And this certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made. I just can't tell you how proud we are of what you have done."

Time to Leave

After spending 21 hours and 36 minutes upon the moon (including 2 hours and 31 minutes of outside exploration), it was time for Armstrong and Aldrin to leave.

To lighten their load, the two men threw out some excess materials like backpacks, moon boots, urine bags, and a camera. These fell to the moon's surface and were to remain there. Also left behind was a plaque which read, "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind."

Apollo 11 lunar module rising above moon
Apollo 11 lunar module rising above the moon to rendezvous with command module before heading home, with half Earth visible over horizon in background. Time Life Pictures / NASA / Getty Images 

The lunar module blasted off from the moon's surface at 1:54 p.m. EDT on July 21, 1969. Everything went well and the Eagle re-docked with the Columbia. After transferring all of their samples onto the Columbia, the Eagle was set adrift in the moon's orbit.

The Columbia, with all three astronauts back on board, then began their three-day journey back to Earth.

Splash Down

Before the Columbia command module entered the Earth's atmosphere, it separated itself from the service module. When the capsule reached 24,000 feet, three parachutes deployed to slow down the Columbia's descent.

At 12:50 p.m. EDT on July 24, the Columbia safely landed in the Pacific Ocean, southwest of Hawaii. They landed just 13 nautical miles from the U.S.S. Hornet that was scheduled to pick them up.

Apollo 11 astronauts wait in life raft after splash down
astronauts wait in life raft for a helicopter to lift them to the U.S.S. Hornet after successful splashdown July 24th. Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin successfully completed moon mission. They're wearing isolation garments.  Bettmann / Getty Images

Once picked up, the three astronauts were immediately placed into quarantine for fears of possible moon germs. Three days after being retrieved, Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins were transferred to a quarantine facility in Houston for further observation.

On August 10, 1969, 17 days after splashdown, the three astronauts were released from quarantine and able to return to their families.

The astronauts were treated like heroes on their return. They were met by President Nixon and given ticker-tape parades. These men had accomplished what men had only dared to dream for thousands of years—to walk on the moon.

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Rosenberg, Jennifer. "First Man on the Moon." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2023, April 5). First Man on the Moon. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Jennifer. "First Man on the Moon." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).