As Americans and countless others around the world stayed glued to their televisions, Astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the face of the Moon on July 20, 1969. Armstrong, the commander of the Apollo 11 mission climbed down a ladder from the landing craft Eagle to the surface in the Sea of Tranquility at 10:56 P.M. Eastern Day Light Time.
As he climbed down he repeated a carefully constructed statement on what he knew would be a historic occasion. Viewers at home heard him say, “That’s one small step for man, one giant step for mankind.” Armstrong would later insist he said “one small step for a man” and that the article had simply not been picked up by the microphone. It is indicative of Armstrong’s notoriously detailed mind and insistence on precision that this misquote has bothered him for years.
The mission famously made good on President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 pledge, made at the height of the Space Race with the Soviet Union, that the country would go to the Moon within a decade.
Like Armstrong, the other two members of the Apollo 11 crew were already veteran astronauts. Pilot Michael Collins stayed in the main Command Module, Columbia still in orbit while Armstrong and Lunar Module pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin descended to the surface, a tense trip marked by an alarming shortage of fuel for the rockets that adjusted the attitude of the craft and brought it to a landing. Less than 11 seconds of fuel were left on touchdown.
The business-like Armstrong had been calling off markers on the way down to Mission Control in Houston. Finally he radioed, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” It took two hours to prepare to depart the lunar module. Armstrong was soon joined on the surface by Aldrin. The men were on the surface for a little over two and a half hours.
They shot still photographs, made a panoramic video of the surroundings then set up the camera on a tripod to observe their activities. They tested various means of moving about on the surface and settled on kind of a lope. The two planted an American Flag stiffened with wire to stay unfurled in the moons windless zero gravity. They collected rock and soil samples, but everything was taking longer than expected and Aldrin tried to speed up the pace of his assignments before being warned that his pulse rate was climbing. The pair were given an 15 minute extension of planed EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) to complete their tasks.
Aldrin re-boarded Eagle first and had some difficulty getting a bulky box of mineral samples up the ladder. After a night’s sleep, the Eagle lifted off to return to Columbia. Aldrin and Armstrong had been on the Moon for just over 21 hours. They left behind the flag, the landing craft stairs with a special plaque commemorating the event, and discarded items from their EVA including their backpacks, lunar overshoes, and a Hasselblad camera. There was also a small bag of mementos carried by Aldrin in a suit pocket.
After Columbia splashed down in the Pacific near Wake Island the capsule and astronauts were carried by helicopter to the deck of the USS Hornet, a famous aircraft carrier from World War II, where they were personally greeted by President Richard Nixon.
With the war in Vietnam still raging, dissent rife at home, and urban riots exploding in Black communities, Nixon—and the nation—craved some good news.
The occasion of the landing has become beyond iconic. Many historians now regard it as the pinnacle of the American Century. Unsuspected by most people at the time, the county was on the verge of a long, slow slide. In the depths of the current economic miasma, with multiple wars refusing to fade away, the public polarized to the edge of civil war, and the United States no longer able to send astronauts into space via American rockets or the retired Space Shuttle fleet, the image of Armstrong on the Moon is a reminder of when we as a nation could do things, big things.