Apollo 11 – The Key Moments
Neil Armstrong with the Lunar Module. Credit: NASA

Apollo 11 – The Key Moments

20/07/2018Written by Tamela Maciel

The 18 key moments of the most famous space mission in history.

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Apollo 11 lift off! Credit: NASA

On a sweltering July day in 1969, the largest rocket ever built lifted off a Florida launchpad, carrying with it three American astronauts about to make history. Destination: Tranquility Base, the Moon.

The Apollo 11 mission was the culmination of eight years of frenzied work at NASA, ever since 1961 when US President Kennedy promised to beat the Russians and land a man on the Moon by the end of the decade.

Other Moon missions followed, but no other moment in history has so captivated our collective passion to explore the unknown than the first time that humans walked on the surface of an alien world.

As we anticipate the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing in July 2019, here are the key people and moments of Apollo 11.

The Astronauts

The Astronauts
Neil Armstrong. Credit: NASA
The Astronauts
Buzz Aldrin. Credit: NASA
The Astronauts
Michael Collins. Credit: NASA

There was intense speculation as to which three astronauts NASA would select for the first mission to the Moon. In the end, NASA chose three flight-proven astronauts, known for their level-headedness under pressure. They announced the historic crew in January 1969, just six months before launch.

Neil Armstrong (5 August 1930 – 25 August 2012)

The Commander of the mission was engineer and pilot Neil Armstrong, who had previously flown on Gemini 8. Armstrong had proven himself cool under pressure during many test flights, including a near disastrous flight of a lunar lander prototype in the lead-up to Apollo 11. Only Armstrong’s quick thinking allowed him to eject and parachute to safety. Armstrong was NASA’s first civilian astronaut to fly in space.

Armstrong’s life is featured in the 2018 biopic First Man.

Buzz Aldrin (20 January 1930)

Edwin Eugene “Buzz” Aldrin was the Lunar Module Pilot and second man to walk on the Moon. Aldrin had a PhD in orbital mechanics and the science of spacecraft rendezvous, making him the first person with a PhD to fly in space. His knowledge of spacecraft rendezvous in orbit proved invaluable during his Gemini and Apollo flights.  Aldrin completed a two-hour spacewalk during Gemini 12, the final Gemini mission, demonstrating that it was possible to work in the vacuum of space.

Aldrin has remained a passionate advocate for human space exploration since Apollo 11.

Michael Collins (31 October 1930)

Michael Collins was the Command Module Pilot for Apollo 11, meaning he remained in orbit around the Moon and collected Armstrong and Aldrin during their ascent from the Moon. Michael flew into space twice – first on Gemini 10 where he tested spacecraft docking and spacewalks, and second on Apollo 11. He has been described as the loneliest person in history, when he was flying alone on the far side of the Moon, but Michael has reported not loneliness but “awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation”.

Michael Collins in an author, retired aerospace businessman, and former director of the National Air and Space Museum.

To relive the drama of the first mission to the Moon, here are the 18 key moments that made Apollo 11 possible, adapted from NASA’s highly enjoyable and fascinating log:

16 July 1969

16 July 1969
The Apollo 11 Saturn V rocket captured during launch. Credit: NASA

09:32 EDT (14:32 BST) – The Launch

The crew of Apollo 11 launch from the Florida launchpad on the back of the colossal Saturn V rocket, strapped side by side inside the Columbia Command Service Module.

The final words to the crew are, “Good luck and Godspeed.” Armstrong replies, “Thank you very much. We know this will be a good flight.”

12:22 EDT (17:22 BST) – The Moonshot

After an orbit and a half around the Earth, engines from the third-stage of the Saturn V rocket ignite for a crucial burn to lift Columbia out of Earth orbit and on towards the Moon, at an initial speed of 24,200 miles an hour.

19 July 1969

19 July 1969
The full Moon captured from Apollo 11. Credit: NASA

13:28 EDT (18:28 BST) – The Moon Orbit

After three days of travelling towards the Moon, Columbia flips around and fires its rocket backwards for six minutes so that it slows the spacecraft down enough to be captured by the Moon’s gravity. This key burn happens behind the Moon, outside of radio contact with Mission Control.

If the burn was too short, Apollo 11 would have slingshot around the Moon and headed back to Earth. If the burn was too long, the craft would have risked crashing into the Moon. Columbia settles on an orbit that is just 70 miles above the Moon’s surface.

20 July 1969

20 July 1969
The Eagle prepares to land. Credit: NASA
20 July 1969
Moonprint. Credit: NASA
20 July 1969
Buzz Aldrin and the U.S. Flag on the Moon. Credit: NASA
20 July 1969
Shadow of Armstrong and the Lunar Module. Credit: NASA
20 July 1969
Neil Armstrong with the Lunar Module. Credit: NASA

13:26 EDT (18:26 BST) – The Separation of Command and Lunar Module

Moonwalkers Armstrong and Aldrin enter the Eagle Lunar Lander, and separate from Michael Collins, who remains in Columbia in orbit around the Moon. The Eagle descends towards the Moon, scanning the surface for a suitable landing site.

16:18 EDT (21:18 BST) – The Landing

Armstrong struggles to find a smooth place to land in a boulder-strewn field. At the last minute, he finds a site and lands with just 25 seconds of fuel to spare and immediately radios Mission Control: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

Aldrin describes the Moon surface: “It’s pretty much without colour. It’s grey and it’s a very white chalky grey.”

22:39 – 22:56 EDT (03:39 – 03:56 BST 21 July) – The First Step

Armstrong and Aldrin find it impossible to sleep and instead prepare for their lunar walk more than five hours ahead of schedule. After donning his bulky EMU spacesuit, Armstrong slowly squeezes through the tight Lunar Module hatch and down the nine-step ladder.

On reaching the second step, he pulls ring that deploys a TV camera. This camera captures his descent to the Moon’s surface and broadcasts it live back to Earth.

At 22:56 EDT (03:56 BST 21 July) Armstrong places his left foot on the Moon. It is the first time in history that man has ever stepped on anything that has not existed on or originated from the Earth.

That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong radios one of the most famous phrases in history.

Shortly afterwards, Armstrong describes the landscape: “… It has a stark beauty all its own. It’s like much of the high desert of the United States.”

Armstrong immediately collects a small bag of soil, just in case the lunar walk is cut short.

23:11 EDT (04:11 BST 21 July) – The Second Step

Aldrin lowers a Hasselblad camera to Armstrong and descends down the ladder, while Armstrong photographs him.

23:41 EDT (04:41 BST 21 July) – The Flag

The astronauts erect a three-by-five-foot, nylon United States flag. The top edge is supported by a wire so that it’s extended on the windless Moon. [Read more: Why does the flag appear to flap?]

Many other flags were carried to and from the Moon, including a Union Jack, as a gesture of goodwill on behalf of the US government.

23:48 EDT (04:48 BST 21 July) – The Presidential Phone Call

US President Richard Nixon calls the astronauts by telephone:

“Neil and Buzz. I am talking to you from the Oval Room at the White House. And this certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made. For every American this has to be the proudest day of our lives. And for people all over the world I am sure they, too, join with Americans in recognizing what a feat this is. Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world. As you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquillity to Earth. For one priceless moment, in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one.”

23:48 – 01:11 EDT (04:48 – 06:11 BST 21 July) – The Science and Rocks

Armstrong and Aldrin work quickly to complete their Moon surface tasks. Armstrong collects 21.55 kilograms of lunar rock, while Aldrin sets up two science experiments to be left on the Moon: a seismic detector and a laser reflector (which is still in use today to measure the distance between the Earth and the Moon).

21 July 1969

21 July 1969
The Eagle rendezvous with Columbia and the crew reunite. Credit: NASA
21 July 1969
Apollo 11 landing site photographed by the LRO satellite. Credit: NASA

01:11 EDT (06:11 BST) – The End of the Moonwalk

The astronauts begin removing the portable life support systems on which they have depended for two hours and 47 minutes.

09:44 EDT (14:44 BST) – Good morning Michael Collins

Michael Collins, still circling the Moon, is woken up by Mission Control. They observe: “Not since Adam has any human known such solitude as Mike Collins is experiencing during this 47 minutes of each lunar revolution when he’s behind the Moon with no one to talk to except his tape recorder aboard Columbia.”

13:54 EDT (18:54 BST)– The Moon Launch

Armstrong and Aldrin launch from the Moon in the Lunar Module, leaving behind the descent stage, a few cameras, an American flag, and various experiments. They reach a vertical speed of 80 feet per second as they speed towards Collins in orbit.

They carry with them the lunar rocks, the film from their cameras, and some foil which captured particles of the solar wind.

17:35 EDT (22:35 BST) – The Crew Reunion

The Eagle docks with Columbia while circling on the back side of the Moon, reuniting the three crew.

22 July 1969

22 July 1969
Apollo 11 return to Earth. Sketch by NASA

00:56 EDT (05:56 BST) – The Earthshot

While on the back side of the Moon, Columbia makes the crucial burn that lifts the crew from Moon orbit and on towards a return trajectory to Earth.

24 July 1969

24 July 1969
Apollo 11 recovery. Credit: NASA

12:35 EDT (17:35 BST) – The Re-entry

After three days of travel, Columbia re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere, briefly losing radio contact as the craft is engulfed in plasma.

12:51 EDT (17:51 BST) – Splashdown!

Columbia splashes down in the Pacific Ocean and are quickly picked up by the recovery team.

As they emerge from their spacecraft they are sprayed with a disinfectant as a guard against potential “Moon germs”.

24-27 July 1969

24-27 July 1969
Apollo 11 crew in quarantine, with Richard Nixon. Credit: NASA

The Quarantine

Astronauts arrive by helicopter on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Hornet and head immediately into the mobile quarantine trailer in which they will remain until they arrive at the Lunar Receiving Laboratory in Houston, Texas on 27 July.

President Nixon welcomes the astronauts through the window of the trailer. Speaking over an intercom, he tells them: “This is the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation…. As a result of what you have done, the world’s never been closer together …. We can reach for the stars just as you have reached so far for the stars.”

So ends man's first mission to the Moon. It lasted 195 hours, 18 minutes and 35 seconds or a little more than eight days.
It is recognised as the most trouble-free mission to date, almost completely on schedule and successful in every respect.
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About the author: Dr Tamela Maciel is the Space Communications Manager at the National Space Centre