History of the 1st Moon Landing: Apollo 11–51 Years Ago

Bill Petro
6 min readJul 20, 2020

Fifty-one years ago today, at 3:17 Eastern Time, July 20, 1969, the first human stepped out of the Apollo 11 lunar module onto the moon. With the immortal words of the 38-year-old Neil Armstrong:

“That’s one small step for (a) man,

one giant leap for mankind.”

…the first man in history began an excursion on the moon that lasted over two and a half hours.

Five hundred million people watched it on television. Everyone I knew watched it.

The Mission

Eight years previously, in May of 1961, President John F. Kennedy in his special State of the Union message had uttered these galvanizing words:

“I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”

You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “Space… the final frontier… her mission…” It was spoken first in September of 1966. But John Kennedy’s 29-word statement in 1969 first captured the sense of “mission” more clearly and memorably than Americans had commonly heard before.

The Apollo mission would send two Americans to the moon’s surface and return them safely.

Space Race

At the time Kennedy issued the challenge, the US was in the midst of a Cold War with the Soviet Union. The Soviets had already beat the US into space:

  • Sputnik: 1957, first orbiting satellite
  • Luna 2: 1959, first unmanned vehicle on the moon.
  • Vostok 1: 1961, piloted by Yuri Gagarin, first human in space and first Earth orbit.

It was not until May 5, 1961, that Alan Shepard became the first American into space and back, just 23 days after Gagarin became the first human to do so. Less than a year later, John Glenn would be the first American to orbit the Earth.

The Apollo mission had followed the initial Mercury program, which had sent individual astronauts into space. Then the Gemini program sent two astronauts at a time into space. The Apollo program had three crew and went on to send five more crewed missions to the moon, ending with the…

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Bill Petro

Writer, historian, technologist. Former Silicon Valley tech exec. Author of fascinating articles on history, tech, pop culture, & travel. https://billpetro.com