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On This Day in History - July 20, 1969

The 363 foot tall Saturn V rocket is launched from Kennedy Space Center. Credit: NASA

On July 16, 1969 NASA’s Apollo 11 mission blasted off from Kennedy Space Center carrying three astronauts toward the Moon. Two of them would set foot on the lunar surface for the first time in human history as millions of people around the world watched on live television. The crew of Apollo 11 were all experienced astronauts. All three had flown missions into space before. Neil Armstrong, 38, had previously piloted Gemini 8 (the first time two vehicles docked in space.) Armstrong would serve as the mission Commander. Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, 39, had previously piloted Gemini 12 (completing a two-hour walk in space.) Aldrin would serve as the mission Command Module Pilot. Michael Collins, 38, had previously piloted Gemini 10 (spending an hour on a space walk.) Collins would serve as the mission Lunar Module Pilot.

Apollo 11 crew left to right: Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins & Edwin Aldrin. Credit: NASA

The Apollo 11 mission to the Moon required years of planning and involved NASA testing numerous manned and unmanned missions prior to 1969. Each mission tested different aspects of the moon landing platform and were critical in the success of the eventual moon landing.

1. June 1966 to January 1968, NASA’s Surveyor program was integral in choosing the best location for a Moon landing. Five out of seven of Surveyor’s robotic spacecraft performed successful soft-landings on the Moon returning data to scientists for evaluation.
2. February 1966, the first unmanned Apollo mission tested the integrity of the Apollo spacecraft and Saturn rocket.
3. January 1967, a fire broke out during a manned launch pad test. Three astronauts were killed in the fire. Despite the setback, NASA and its thousands of employees forged ahead.
4. October 1968, Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo mission, orbited Earth and successfully tested many of the systems needed to conduct a Moon landing.
5. December 1968, Apollo 8 took three astronauts to the dark side of the Moon and back.
6. March 1969, Apollo 9 tested the Lunar Module for the first time while in Earth orbit.
7. May 1969, Apollo 10 carried three astronauts around the Moon in a dry run for the scheduled July 1969 Moon landing mission.

Lunar Module "Eagle" as photographed by the Command Service Module. Credit: NASA

Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin exits the Lunar Module and descends onto the Moon. Credit: NASA

At 9:32 a.m. on July 16, with the world watching, Apollo 11 took off from Kennedy Space Center with astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins aboard. After traveling 240,000 miles in 76 hours, Apollo 11 entered into a lunar orbit on July 19. The next day, July 20, at 1:46 p.m., the Lunar Module Eagle, manned by Armstrong and Aldrin, separated from the Command Module, where Collins remained. Two hours later, the Eagle began its descent to the lunar surface, and at 4:18 p.m. the craft touched down on the southwestern edge of the Sea of Tranquility. Armstrong immediately radioed to Mission Control in Houston, Texas with this famous message: “The Eagle has landed.”

At 10:39 p.m., Armstrong opened the hatch of the Lunar Module. As he made his way down the Lunar Module’s ladder, a television camera attached to the craft recorded his progress and beamed the signal back to Earth, where hundreds of millions watched in great anticipation.

Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin photographed a view of his footprint on the Moon. Credit: NASA

Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin poses with the American Flag on the Moon. Credit: NASA

At 10:56 p.m., Armstrong spoke his famous quote, “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” He then stepped off the ladder to become the first person to walk on another celestial body. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin joined him on the Moon’s surface at 11:11 p.m., and together they took photographs of the terrain, planted a U.S. flag, ran a few simple scientific tests, and spoke with President Richard M. Nixon.

The astronauts traveled a total distance of about 3,300 feet as they walked around, traveling as far as 200 feet from the module to visit a large crater. They collected 47.51 lbs. of samples from the Moon, and reported that mobility on the Moon was easier than anticipated. By 1:11 a.m. on July 21 after spending over 2.5 hours outside, both astronauts were back in the lunar module and the hatch was closed. The two men slept that night on the surface of the Moon, and at 1:54 p.m. the Eagle began its ascent back to the Command Module. At 5:35 p.m., Armstrong and Aldrin successfully docked and rejoined Collins, and at 12:56 a.m. on July 22 Apollo 11 began its journey home, safely splashing down in the Pacific Ocean at 12:51 p.m. on July 24..

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