The human condition leaves each person in a perpetual quandary – fight or flight it’s called. For one brave group of men, July of 1969 gave the opportunity to experience both. 

In the pre-dawning heat of the Cold War, the race into space had culminated with the United States and the Soviet Union both eager to set foot on the moon. With tensions high after Yuri Gagarin’s first manned spaceflight in 1961, NASA revved up their efforts to compete in the Space Race.

A crew of men who were all well seasoned military pilots gathered the courage to board NASA’s fifth manned flight into space.  The Apollo space missions began as unmanned attempts to test capabilities to reach the moon. This included the Apollo 4 that tested the Saturn V booster in November of 1967. The mission was highly successful. After the trials of successful orbiting and inclusion on Lunar Modules through missions 8-10, NASA was prepared to take the steps to touchdown on the lunar surface. The more highly seasoned aviation veteran on the Apollo 11 crew was Neil Armstrong. He had flown 78 combat missions over Korea as a Navy fighter pilot and joined the NASA program as a civilian test pilot before being accepted into the astronaut corps in 1962. On the moon landing mission, Armstrong was accompanied by Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Aldrin was also a fighter jet pilot in the Korean War and went on to earn a doctorate degree in astronautics from MIT before he joined the astronaut corps in 1963. While Armstrong and Aldrin went in the lunar module Eagle to the moon’s surface, command module Columbia pilot Collins remained in orbit. Collins was a graduate from West Point and a peacetime flier assigned to Europe.

The Apollo 11 mission ran from July 16-24 which included the first steps onto the moon’s surface on July 20. The lunar module was named Eagle after the bald eagle, the national bird of the United States, that was located on its insignia. The command module received the traditional feminine name Columbia that had been used to represent the United States in poetry and song for many years. 

The Saturn V rocket launched Apollo 11 from the Kennedy Space Center on July 16 and within 12 minutes it was in orbit around the Earth. After making only one and a half orbits, a third-stage engine sent the craft into a trajectory toward the Moon. After separating from the last Saturn V stage, the command module docked with the lunar module in approximately 30 minutes. The three man crew reached lunar orbit after firing the service propulsion engine on July 19. 

When the Eagle separated from command module Columbia, it was inspected for damage by astronaut Collins and okayed to proceed.

Ground simulations had not prepared Armstrong and Aldrin for the extreme amount of information needing to be processed during an actual landing. As the descent began, they found that they were passing predetermined landmarks at a faster rate. They calculated that they were “coming in long” and would miss the projected landing site target by miles to the west. There had been unforeseen computer data interruptions during information processing that lead to an overload and caused the modules computer to be unable to keep up with tasks in real time. Final landing was made in what was later determined to be “West Crater” – a boulder-strewn space located in the western part of the originally planned landing area.

After these first few tense moments, Aldrin piloted the Eagle pod to the surface and Armstrong contacted Earth with the famous phrase, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Then after an acknowledgement from the relieved group at Mission Control, preparations were made for the first Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA). Though it was not a widely known plan and was not revealed publicly for many years, Armstrong took Communion privately from Aldrin who was an elder at the Webster Presbyterian Church in Webster, Texas.

Despite some technical and weather difficulties on television transmission, ghostly black and white images from the first EVA were received and broadcast to nearly 600 million viewers on Earth. The images recorded using a slow-scan television device were thought for many years to be lost, but it is reported that by June 26 of this year they had been found.  The surface of the Moon was described as being covered in a fine and almost powder-like dust as Armstrong stepped from the Eagle’s landing footpad and into the annals of history. He famously described the experience by saying, “One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Though the recordings are not of a consistent quality, there is a slight discrepancy between the phrase that has been repeated through the years and what Armstrong claims he actually said – the inclusion of the ‘a man’ instead of ‘man.’

Aldrin joined Armstrong on the surface and tested their ability to move in the Moon’s gravity which is only one-sixth of Earth’s.

These men had helped America achieve President Kennedy’s goal of reaching the moon and after planting the U.S. flag on the lunar surface, they spoke with President Richard Nixon through a telephone-radio transmission. Samples were collected and during a two and a half hour stay on the surface the mission left behind symbols of America, peace and a message disk with goodwill statements from leaders throughout the world. As the 40-year-anniversary of this historic United States event looms on the horizon, each person with a fascination for space exploration and all that are old enough to remember are asked to take the time to recall where they were when history was written in the stars.