It began on Oct. 4, 1957.
On this date, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, surprising the United States, which now found itself in second place on the “race to space.” But in his speech to Congress nearly four years later, then-President John F. Kennedy said “I believe that 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 the earth.”
Although he was not alive to see it, President Kennedy got his wish, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the two first men on them moon, helped his ideals succeed on July 20, 1969.
The first man to step on the moon
Neil Armstrong was born on August 5, 1930 and served in the U.S. Navy before becoming an astronaut. After the Korean War, he served as a test pilot at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) High-Speed Flight Station. There, he flew more than 900 flights and then joined the NASA Astronaut Corps in 1962, completing his first spaceflight in 1966, Gemini 8. As he was on this mission, he was one of the first U.S. civilians to fly in space and was among a very small group of people who had the ability to fly to the moon; these were the people who were a part of the Gemini 8 mission.
The next planned mission was Apollo 9, for which Armstrong would be on the backup crew. This mission was planned to be a medium Earth orbit test of the Lunar Module-Command Service Module combination. However, the Lunar Module underwent more design and manufacturing delays and based on the normal crew rotation scheme, Armstrong would be the one to command Apollo 11.
This was his only spaceflight other than the Apollo 11 moon landing mission in 1969 on which he was the mission commander. Because of this mission Armstrong received the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-President Richard Nixon, as did Collins and Aldrin, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009.
What about Buzz?
Closely following Armstrong was Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, who was the second man to set foot on the moon. He entered the U.S. Air Force as a Second Lieutenant after graduating third in his class at West Point in 1951. After serving as a jet fighter pilot during the Korean War, he was selected as a part of the third group of NASA astronauts in Oct. 1963.
Aldrin was promoted quickly to be on the backup crew for Gemini 9A, but the mission failed. He was then made the pilot for Gemini 12, the last of the Gemini missions. During this mission, he set the record for extra-vehicular activity, proving that astronauts could work outside of the spacecraft. He then was a part of the Apollo 11 mission on which he was the second man to step onto the moon.
Through time, there have been questions as to why Armstrong, instead of Aldrin, was the first to step onto the moon. Various NASA accounts show that Aldrin was actually proposed, before the mission began, to be the first man to walk on the moon. However, due to the positioning of the astronauts inside of the spacecraft, it was easier for Armstrong to exit first.
Although this is true, Aldrin did get his own “first.” He was the first person to hold a religious ceremony on the Moon. He gave himself Communion while on the surface of the moon. The Webster Presbyterian Church, the church Aldrin attended, commemorates the event annually on the Sunday closest to July 20.
The Kennedy Space Center in Florida housed the launching of Saturn V rocket on July 16, 1969. At 9:32 a.m., the rocket launched from the Launch Complex at 39A with more than 3,000 journalists and about 500,000 tourists watching at the scene.
After one-and-a-half orbits around the earth, Apollo 11 left behind the rockets on their ship as they began their three-day journey to the moon.
Apollo 11 entered into the moon’s orbit three days later and and after spending a full day in lunar orbit, Armstrong and Aldrin boarded the lunar module and descended onto the moon’s surface.
But not without difficulty.
Warning light after warning light began to shine on the dashboard and alarms sounded. Armstrong and Aldrin soon realized that the computer system that was guiding them to a landing area was bringing them to a place filled with large boulders, posing a great hazard.
However, Armstrong found a way to safely maneuver the module to a safer landing area. At 4:18 p.m. on July 20, 1969, the two men landed safely on the moon’s surface in the Sea of Tranquility. They only had a few seconds worth of fuel left.
The two didn’t jump immediately out of the module and onto the moon, however. They spent about the next six hours resting and preparing themselves for the walk on the moon.
At 10:28 p.m., Neil Armstrong turned on the video cameras that would transmit images to the half a billion people who were watching their televisions.
At 10:56 p.m., Armstrong stepped foot on the moon, saying, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
It was a day that will be forever remembered as one of the most important days in American, and world, history. Although it was the fifth manned mission and the third lunar mission into space of NASA’s Apollo program, the Apollo 11 mission made a lasting impression among the American people and created hope for the future of what could come.
“Those flights made nearly anything seem possible,” said Steve Riley, who was 10 years old at the time. “If man could land on the moon, where else might we go? What else might we do?”