In 1961, President Kennedy, in an address to a joint session of Congress, set the goal to land on the moon before the end of the decade. In the course of striving toward that goal, there were a number of successes, a tragic and catastrophic loss, and more than a few close calls. John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962. Edward White was the first American to perform a spacewalk in 1965. Neil Armstrong and David Scott piloted Gemini VIII through the first spacecraft docking and survived a terrifying close call in 1966. NASA and the nation suffered the stunning loss of Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee in an electrical fire aboard Apollo 1 during a launch rehearsal in 1967. In 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 became the first humans to escape Earth’s gravity well and orbit another celestial body. The knowledge acquired from the successes and failures of each mission culminated in Neil Armstrong setting foot on the surface of the moon on July 20th, 1969.
Today, we celebrate the forty-eighth anniversary of the moon landing. Though President Nixon declared by proclamation an observance of a National Moon Landing Day in 1971, National Moon Day, as proponents call the observance of the moon landing’s anniversary, is not a national holiday. (Yet. There are some persistent folks lobbying for a federal observance.)
At 9:32 in the morning, on July 16, 1969, a Saturn V rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, propelling Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins out of the Earth’s atmosphere. Nearly three hours later, after having orbited the Earth one and half times, the third-stage engine’s trans-lunar injection burn pushed the spacecraft into a trajectory headed for the moon. After three days, Apollo 11 swung around the dark side of the moon and entered lunar orbit. On July 20, 1969—one-hundred hours and twelve minutes into Apollo’s flight—the lunar module, “Eagle,” separated from the command module, “Columbia.”
Two hours and thirty-three minutes after Eagle, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin aboard, separated from Columbia, the lunar module touched down in the southwestern part of the Sea of Tranquility: “Houston – Tranquility Base here. THE EAGLE HAS LANDED.” After nearly four hours, Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on the moon; twenty minutes later, Buzz Aldrin would join him and would, apparently, become the first human to urinate while on the moon’s surface. Hey!—a first is a first, am I right?
While both Aldrin and Armstrong were conducting their extravehicular activities—performing experiments and gathering samples—they were the recipients of the first presidential phone call to the moon. The EVA phase lasted slightly longer than two and a half hours; the pair spent a total of twenty-one hours and thirty-six minutes on the moon’s surface. Before ascending from the surface and docking with Columbia, Armstrong and Aldrin planted an American flag, set up the lunar laser ranging retroreflector array, and left an Apollo 1 mission patch, a golden olive branch, and the descent stage—effectively used as a launch pad for their ascent—bearing a plaque that reads: “Here Men From Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon The Moon. July 1969 A.D. We Came In Peace For All Mankind.”
After Apollo 11, five other missions landed U.S. astronauts on the moon, all between 1969 and 1972. In subsequent lunar landings, the crews were given more time for their extravehicular activities and were able to venture further from the landing site. Sadly, since the end of the Apollo program in 1972, humans have not ventured back to the moon. Apollo 17 was NASA’s last manned spaceflight to leave Earth orbit. Nevertheless, Buzz Aldrin has been tirelessly campaigning for missions to Mars and there are whispers that NASA is considering sending people back to the moon.
So, as we celebrate this historic achievement—and continue learning more about all of the behind the scenes work and players of the Apollo program—let’s also look forward to future “great adventures.” There are so very many reasons that space exploration is important, most of which boil down to the sentiment President Kennedy expressed in 1961: it very well may “in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.”
Happy National Moon Day!