By the early 1960s, America was trailing the Soviet Union in space development.

This undoubtedly played a part in President John F. Kennedy’s appeal on May 25, 1961, to a special joint session of Congress when he pronounced, “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”


400,000 Helping Hands

Eight years later, at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center at 9:32 a.m. on July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 thundered off the launch pad in a billowy cloud of smoke, destined for immortality.

Neil Armstrong, a 38-year-old civilian research pilot, led the three-man crew, which also consisted of Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, 39, and Michael Collins, 38.

Media coverage naturally focused on the astronauts, but the total number of scientists, engineers, and service and construction workers involved in the Apollo 11 project had surged to more than 400,000 by that crisp, clear summer morning.

In the next 76 hours, the astronauts soared 240,000 miles, averaging over 3,100 miles per hour. They entered a lunar orbit on July 19, and the next day, at 1:46 p.m., their lunar module, Eagle, separated from the command module, Columbia, where Collins remained on board to monitor the situation.


25 Seconds to Go

The Eagle began its descent to the lunar surface two hours later.

However, when Armstrong prepared to set the craft down, he realized that boulders and craters were scattered throughout the landing site, posing a potential hazard. He eased his craft over to a flatter, safer place nearby, but that maneuver burned fuel that was already running dangerously low.

When the Eagle finally settled onto the moon’s Sea of Tranquility, the remaining fuel would have only lasted another 25 seconds before the landing would automatically have been aborted in order to guarantee adequate fuel for the return flight home.

Armstrong immediately radioed Mission Control in Houston with his now-iconic announcement, “The Eagle has landed.”


What’d I Say?

At 10:39 p.m., Armstrong descended from the ship as a television camera attached to the Eagle beamed the astronauts’ progress back to Earth.

When he opened the hatch and stepped onto the moon’s surface, he maintained that he had intended to say, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” but a possible momentary microphone glitch had him announcing to the world, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Aldrin followed Armstrong 19 minutes later, being careful not to lock the Eagle’s hatch, as there was no outer handle … and no Roadside Assistance number to call 240,000 miles away.


Rocks, Walks, Heat

Following NASA’s directive, Armstrong and Aldrin loaded nearly 50 pounds of moon rocks and soil into the Eagle, took photographs, and conducted tests.

The hardest task then facing the two was the planting of the American flag (which had come from Sears). The moon’s surface was rock-hard, and the astronauts only managed to hammer Old Glory a few inches into the surface, where it subsequently fell over from the Eagle’s takeoff blast.

The pair spent 21 hours and 36 minutes — almost a full day — on the moon. They stayed in their craft for over six hours after they landed, and they also took frequent breaks when they walked on the surface.

The thermally cooled underwear they wore inside their spacesuits helped them fend off the potentially lethal 200-degree Fahrenheit lunar surface temperatures, but Armstrong and Aldrin were always aware that their cooling properties could fail at any moment, so they purposely kept their ambles brief.


Homeward Bound

The men returned to the lunar module by 1:11 a.m. Then, just before they secured the hatch, Aldrin accidentally tripped the circuit breaker used to activate the main engine; after a moment of panic, though, he was able to push the breaker back into the correct position with a felt-tip pen.

Besides the American flag, the astronauts left behind several other items, including a plaque that read: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot on the moon — July 1969 A.D. — We came in peace for all mankind.”

Armstrong and Aldrin reconnected successfully with Collins and Columbia, and at 12:56 a.m. on July 22, Apollo 11 began its journey home, safely splashing into the Pacific Ocean at 12:50 p.m. two days later.

It is estimated that over 550 million people worldwide had followed the history-making event on television.


I Don’t Believe It!

Though etched in our collective consciousness, the celebration this month of the 50th anniversary of the historical milestone will probably not change the minds of a small group of conspiracy theorists who, to this day, and contrary to abundant evidence available, believe that NASA faked the July 20, 1969, moon landing.

In 2002, the Washington Post featured a news item concerning Buzz Aldrin. The former astronaut was leaving a Beverly Hills hotel when he was accosted by a conspiracy theorist who shrieked, “You’re the one who said you walked on the moon when you didn’t!”

After calling Aldrin a liar, the man waved a Bible in Aldrin’s face and insisted that he swear the truth on it. The former astronaut settled the matter by knocking the accuser to the ground with a well-placed right cross to the jaw.


Although Randal C. Hill’s heart lives in the past, the rest of him resides in Bandon, Ore. He can be reached at

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