Apollo @ 50: From Waking Up to Planting a Flag on the Moon, Here’s How the Apollo 11 Astronauts Spent July 20, 1969

The triumph of the astronauts, especially Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, was more than a victory for the United States, but instead, a victorious moment for all mankind and no other moment will seem as big until we reach beyond the moon for other planets, other stars. The following is an excerpt from Apollo 11: An AP Special Anniversary Edition, available in paperback and e-book exclusively on Amazon.com.

On the eve of history, perhaps men do not sleep well, or perhaps they are not meant to. Before they slept Saturday night, their rest period was delayed an hour-and-a-half because of a pesky communications problem, finally tracked down. They were awakened at 7:02 a.m. Sunday, Armstrong with five-and-a-half hours sleep, Collins with six, Aldrin with five. It was the shortest rest period of the flight. They spent half an hour on breakfast. Mission Control beamed up the latest on their families, and the morning news. Aldrin was told his son had a visit to the space center with an uncle.

Then it was time to get down to business. Aldrin was the first into the Eagle at 9:20 a.m. Almost an hour later, Armstrong slipped through the tunnel to join him. From then on, they were Eagle. Collins was Columbia. At 12:32 p.m., they pushed a button that extended the landing legs of Eagle.

Thus did Columbia and Eagle, still linked together, arrive at this incredible time and place, out of sight and out of radio contact with earth on their 13th orbit of the moon. Some 100 hours had passed since they had left their home planet. Now they were 240,000 miles away from it, about to commit themselves to history. Behind the moon, Collins pressed a simple button. Latches clicked open. Springs gave Eagle a gentle shove. On earth they waited for word. Finally the radio signal came through. It was Armstrong’s voice crackling with static. “The Eagle has wings,” he said.

Now briefly they flew formation together, Collins looking over the weird little ship Columbia had borne this far. “Looks like you’ve got a mighty good looking flying machine there, Eagle,” he said, “despite the fact you’re upside down.” “Somebody’s upside down,” replied Eagle. Less than half an hour later, Collins gave Columbia a spurt of rocket power and dashed some two miles ahead, allowing Eagle flying room. “See you later,” he said. Eagle was on its own.

Again, they passed behind the moon, to that point in orbit where major changes are made, again out of sight of earth and out of radio contact. Armstrong and Aldrin tilted their little ship so that the rocket faced the direction of flight. When they emerged from behind the lunar shadow, the earth heard Armstrong say, “The burn was on time.” Collins confirmed, “Listen babe, everything is going just swimmingly.” The descent to the moon’s surface had begun.

Eagle flew the long, looping arc, riding its tail of rocket fire like a brake, cutting into its 3,700 miles per hour speed.

“Current altitude about 46,000 feet,” reported Mission Control. “Everything’s looking good here.”

Eagle: “Our position check downrange shows us to be a little off.”

Mission Control: “You are to continue powered descent. It’s looking good. Everything is looking good here.”

There was total silence in Mission Control, except for the reassuring voice of the cap com, the business-like reports over the engineering and flight dynamics channels. “Two minutes 20 seconds, and everything looking good,” reported Mission Control. “I’m getting a little fluctuation,” said Eagle. “Looking good,” said Mission Control. “Shows us to be a little long,” persisted Eagle. “You are go to continue powered descent,” insisted Mission Control. “You’re looking good.”

“Got the earth right out our front window,” reported Eagle. The guidance computer on board was showing some variations. “You’re looking great, Eagle, you’re looking great,” Mission control reassured. “You’re go for landing.”

“Roger, understand,” said Eagle. “Go for landing, 3,000 feet . . . 2,000 feet . . . Okay, it looks like it’s holding.”

Armstrong’s voice was clear, and as brisk as a stock market report. But his heart rate was running some 40 beats a minute higher than normal. Now some thing happened to send it to 156 beats a minute, but his voice never betrayed it. He saw the landing site below strewn with boulders. He overrode the automatic landing stem, grasping the rocket controls in his right hand, skimming over the littered field, searching out a clear spot: “540 feet . . . 400 feet, coming down nicely . . . 200 feet . . . 100 feet . . . 75 feet, still looking good, drifting to the right a little . . .”

At 40 feet billows of dust kicked up by the rocket rose around the craft. “Okay . . . engines stopped.”

“Houston,” said Armstrong tentatively. A long pause. Then: “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

“Roger, Tranquility,” sighed Mission Control. “We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again.”

The time was 4:18p.m. Cape Kennedy time, Sunday, July 20, 1969. Man had landed on the moon.

In the White House, President Nixon watched televised reports with Frank Borman. The last 22 seconds, he said, was more like half an hour. When he caught his breath he sent the astronauts his congratulations. “It was,” he said, “one of the greatest moments of our time.”

The last minute difficulties were explained by Buzz Aldrin: “That may have seemed like a very long final phase. The auto targeting was taking us right into a football-field sized crater. There’s a large number of big boulders and rocks for about one or two crater diameters around it. And it required us to . . . fly in manually over the rock field to find a reasonably good area.”

Armstrong noted: “You might be interested to know that I don’t think we noticed any difficulty at all in adapting to one-sixth gravity. It seems immediately natural to move in this environment.”

Ahead, he said, was “a relatively level plain, cratered with a fairly large number of craters of the five-to-50-foot variety, and some ridges, small, 20-30 feet high. I would guess. And literally thousands of little one- and two-foot craters around the area. We see some angular rocks several hundred feet in front of us that are probably two feet in size and have angular edges. There is a hill in view just about on the ground track ahead of us. Difficult to estimate, but might be a half a mile or a mile.” “Be advised,” said Mission Control, “there are lots of smiling faces here, and all around the world.”

“There are two up here also,” replied Armstrong.

“Don’t forget the one up here,” called down Collins on his lonely patrol. Then he added his compliments: “Tranquility Base, you guys did a fantastic job.”

“Just keep that orbiting base up there for us,” Armstrong replied.

The first duties were to check out the spacecraft. That done, Armstrong and Aldrin concentrated on describing sights no one had ever seen before. “Out of the hatch,” Aldrin said, “I’m looking at the earth, big and round and beautiful.” The sun played games with the color of the lunar rocks around them. “Almost every variety of rock you could find,” Aldrin said, looking out the window. “The color varies, depending on how you’re looking at it. Doesn’t appear to be much of a general color at all.”

Eagle stood some four miles beyond its planned landing site. It was also on a slight tilt, but not enough to endanger takeoff. “The guys that said we wouldn’t be able to tell precisely where we are are the winners today,” Armstrong said. “We were a little busy worrying about program alarms and things like that in the part of the descent where we would normally be picking out our landing spot.”

Slowly, they bled the pressure from their spacecraft, letting oxygen out, vacuum in. At 10:40 p.m., Armstrong reported, “The hatch is coming open.” Then, following Aldrin’s instructions, he began to back out onto the porch of the spacecraft, taking care that his suit did not catch or snag in the narrow opening. It was slow going. His 185-pound suit, weighing only some 30 pounds in lunar gravity, was more a hindrance because of its bulk than its weight. Suddenly he was standing on the porch of Eagle, beginning the tentative steps down the nine rungs of the ladder. On the way he pulled a lanyard releasing an equipment shelf and a television camera. Now, on screens all over the earth, you could see the stark shadows, and there, swinging, searching, a boot, Armstrong’s boot. Bit by bit, the whole man appeared. Now, off the last rung, onto the saucer-like footpad. Then, cautiously again, unsure of what was below it, he stepped with his left foot, a size 9½ foot in a clumsy, awkward step. He pressed the lunar surface at 10:56 p.m. His first words were, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” For 20 minutes he walked alone on the alien soil of the moon before Buzz Aldrin followed the same backward route down the ladder to join him. Aldrin looked around and his first words were, “Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. A magnificent desolation.”

Buzz Aldrin carries scientific experiments to a deployment site south of the lunar module Eagle, July 20, 1969. Photo was taken by Neil Armstrong of the Apollo 11 mission.

Armstrong walked cautiously at first, almost in a shuffle, then with growing confidence. He found the footpads of Eagle had pushed only an inch or two into the lunar soil after a four-foot drop. His own foot, he guessed, pressed in only a fraction of an inch. But he could see his footprints in the dusty surface.

At 11:42 p.m. Armstrong and Aldrin unfurled the Stars and Stripes and erected the rod that ran along the top to keep the flag taut in the airless, windless atmosphere of the moon. Aldrin stood back and saluted. Armstrong stood at attention. Only minutes before, the spacecraft commander from Ohio stood at the side of Eagle reading the plaque affixed there in a steady voice to a listening world. “Here man first set foot on the moon, July, 1969,” Armstrong read. “We came in peace for all mankind.”

Excerpted from Apollo 11: An AP Special Anniversary Edition, available now at Amazon.com.

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