On July 16, 1969, the three astronauts of Apollo 11 began a momentous journey when a Saturn V rocket launched their spacecraft into the heavens from Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island in Florida. A half-century later, the Moon-bound trip undertaken by Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins remains one of the greatest historical achievements of all time.
To underscore this spaceflight’s significance in the annals of aviation, Armstrong brought along with him two items from the plane used by the Wright Brothers in 1903 for the world’s first controlled, powered, and sustained heavier-than-air human flight: a small piece of wood from the pioneering plane’s left propeller and a piece of fabric from a wing of the aircraft.
In reporting on the initial part of the Apollo 11 journey into space, the Washington Post noted that the astronauts “seemed almost unaware that their flight was to be the ‘BIG ONE.’” The newspaper further stated, “Speaking only when spoken to by Houston’s Manned Spacecraft Center, the crew members never mentioned the moon or the true purpose of the flight once – almost as if they were afraid to jinx their mission. But they left little doubt that they were on their way.”
The astronauts reached the vicinity of the Moon on July 20. Armstrong and Aldrin entered the Apollo Lunar Module named Eagle. This lander spacecraft, after separating from the command module Columbia, made its descent onto the Moon with both Armstrong and Aldrin on board. “The Eagle has landed,” radioed Armstrong in a message to the mission control center in Houston after the spacecraft had touched down in the Sea of Tranquility. With both of his fellow Apollo 11 astronauts now on the Moon, Collins flew Columbia on his own in lunar orbit.
Just over six and a half hours later, Armstrong made his way out of the spacecraft and became the first person to step onto the Moon. “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” were his memorable words for the occasion. The New York Times reported that Armstrong’s first step on the Moon took place “as a television camera outside the craft transmitted his every move to an awed and excited audience of hundreds of millions of people on earth.” Nineteen minutes after Armstrong had exited Eagle, Aldrin joined him on the lunar surface. They both spent more than two hours outside the spacecraft collecting a total of 47.5 pounds (21.5 kilograms) of lunar material to bring back to Earth.
Armstrong and Aldrin then went back into Eagle and used the spacecraft to lift off from the Moon’s surface and rejoin Collins in the command module. All three of the astronauts headed back to Earth, with Columbia splashing down in the North Pacific Ocean on July 24. The Washington Post reported, “Their eight-day voyage ended as it began, on time and trouble-free – and with it came the end of one era and the beginning of another.”
For more information on the Apollo 11 mission, please check out https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/apollo/missions/apollo11.html and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_11.