for National Geographic News
On the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing, get the facts on Apollo 11's historic trip, from initial skepticism to lunar firsts and the implications for returning humans to the moon.
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July 16, 1969: The world watched in anticipation as three men were hurtled skyward in a rocket bound for the moon.
The Apollo 11 launch date had arrived with just months to spare: Nine years earlier, U.S. President John F. Kennedy had said that by the end of the decade the country would put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth.
President Kennedy's moon mandate came at the height of the space race—a kind of subplot to the Cold War between the United States and what was then the Soviet Union.
(Hear sounds of the space age, including the Apollo 11 mission, with an interactive version of a pressed vinyl record that was included in the December 1969 issue of National Geographic magazine.)
The U.S.S.R. had made the opening gambit, sending the first artificial satellites into orbit, starting with the 184-pound (83.5-kilogram) Sputnik I in October 1957.
The Soviets followed that success a month later with the first animal in space, Laika the dog, which did not survive the experience. (See pictures of monkeys and other primates sent into space.)
Things came to a head in April 1961, when the Soviets sent the first human to space. Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made a 108-minute suborbital flight in a Vostok 1 spacecraft and returned safely to Earth.
A month later Alan Shepherd became the first American in space with his suborbital flight aboard the Freedom 7 spacecraft.
From there the two countries started upping the ante by increasing the number of orbits per flight. Meanwhile Kennedy's moon directive had signaled a change in tactics for the U.S.
Swallowed by Moondust?
At first a moon-landing mission probably raised a lot of eyebrows at NASA—particularly among the astronaut candidates.
"Atlas rockets [which launched spacecraft] were blowing up every day at Cape Canaveral" in Florida, recalled Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell in the 2007 documentary In the Shadow of the Moon.
"It looked like a quick way to have a short career."
But Kennedy's idea "didn't just come out of the blue," Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin Eugene "Buzz" Aldrin told National Geographic News.
"People had been studying what could be done—the Air Force in particular—in a far-reaching manner, like sending cargo to the moon."
At that point, though, scientists still had a lot to learn about what humans and their gear might contend with on the lunar surface.
Geologists didn't know, for example, whether volcanism or meteor impacts were responsible for the moon's pockmarked surface. (Current wisdom says meteors.)
Many scientists also feared that the moon was covered with a thick blanket of featherweight dust that would engulf any landing spacecraft.
(Explore a moon time line.)
Apollo 11 Practice
Shortly after Kennedy's speech, an intensive effort got under way to prepare humans for a moon landing.
In January 1963 Neil Armstrong and four other Apollo astronauts took a field trip to Arizona's Meteor Crater and Sunset Crater, a dormant volcano. Geologists then briefed the astronauts on how those Earthly landscapes were similar to what they might encounter on the moon.
In the years that followed, Apollo 11 crew members also toured the Grand Canyon and spent time testing lunar rovers at Bonito Crater northeast of Flagstaff, where the rough, rocky surface mimicked what some geologists thought would exist on the moon.
Geologists flew over Sunset Crater and other landforms in Cessna 182s, taking aerial photos so the astronauts might better understand the lunar geology they were likely to see.
Apollo Moon Program: Tragedy and Triumph
The Apollo moon-landing program carried an optimistic moniker: It was named for the son of Zeus in Greek mythology, often known as the god of light and the sun.
But the first mission almost brought U.S. moon-landing efforts to an abrupt end.
On January 27, 1967, a flash fire occurred in the Apollo 1 command module during a launch simulation, killing the three astronauts meant to pilot the mission.
"I wasn't sure if we were burying the entire Apollo program or three of our buddies," Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan said in In the Shadow of the Moon.
Following an exhaustive investigation into the accident, NASA issued a report in April 1967 that called for major overhauls of the Apollo hardware, launch procedures, and quality control.
The program swung back into gear, and by mid-1969, Apollo 10 astronauts Thomas Stafford and Eugene Cernan were cruising over the lunar surface—and grudgingly holding back from diving down for a landing—as they scoped out the Sea of Tranquility, the chosen landing spot for Apollo 11.
(Explore an interactive moon map, and read about the first person to map the moon using a telescope. Hint: It wasn't Galileo.)
A few months later, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins set off toward the moon.
Apollo 11 Moonwalkers
Launched from Florida's Kennedy Space Center at 9:32 a.m. ET aboard a Saturn V rocket, Apollo 11 included a command module dubbed Columbia and a lunar lander called the Eagle.
The lander was named after the bald eagle in the mission insignia.
Apollo 11's journey to the moon took three and a half days.
During that time the astronauts "just kind of gazed out the window at the Earth getting smaller and smaller, did housekeeping things, checking the spacecraft," Aldrin recalled.
As the craft passed through the shadow of the moon and started its approach, Aldrin and Armstrong got into Apollo 11's spider-like lunar module and began their descent.
The landing process didn't go flawlessly. Alarms sounded when the computer couldn't keep up with the data stream: "Nothing serious—it was distracting," Aldrin said.
"Neil didn't like what we were heading toward, and we selected a safer spot alongside a crater with boulders in it. We landed with a little less fuel than we would have liked to have had, maybe 20 seconds of fuel left."
Aldrin insists that he felt no real fear about landing on the moon.
Nevertheless, he said, "we kind of practiced liftoff [for] the first two hours. We both felt that was the most prudent thing to do after touching down, was to prepare to depart if we had to."
Finally, with half a billion people watching on televisions across the world, the Apollo 11 astronauts emerged from the Eagle to spend another two hours exploring the lunar surface.
The pair planted an American flag and placed mementos for fallen peers.
Armstrong uttered his famous first words, reportedly unscripted: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
Armstrong and Aldrin logged 21 hours on the moon—spending the last and longest portion of it trying to sleep in the frigid lander. Then they lifted off to rendezvous with Collins and Columbia for the return voyage.
The Apollo 11 crew splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969—and they were immediately put into a three-week quarantine.
As for their craft, the ascent stage of the Eagle was jettisoned into lunar orbit. Within a couple of years the lander smashed unseen into the moon. Columbia now sits on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
To Infinity, and Beyond
After 40 years, Aldrin's impressions of the moon are as fresh today as the day he landed.
"What fascinated me was the lifelessness off it," he said. "That had not changed in hundreds of thousands of years. Generations of humanity had emerged from the trees, and the moon had looked the same way."
Aldrin also remains passionate about what the Apollo 11 mission meant for the world, and what it can still teach humanity.
Today he advocates the U.S. setting its sights higher than it did 40 years ago, "accepting the role of leading other nations to achieve what we did."
"We do have this wonderful opportunity to emerge from whatever troubles us now," he said, "with a very optimistic pathway for the future."
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