Bill Petro
5 min readJul 20, 2019


Posted by billpetro


Fifty years ago today, at 3:17 Eastern Time, July 20, 1969, the first human stepped 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.

500 million people watched 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 heard the phrase “Space… the Final Frontier… her mission…” It was uttered first in September of 1966. But John Kennedy’s 29-word statement 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 back safely.

Space Race

At the time Kennedy issed the challenge the US was in 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 first the Mercury program which had sent individual astronauts into space. Then the Gemini program send 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 completion of the Apollo 17 mission.

For Apollo 11 there were three men in the crew: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. But only the first two went to the surface of the moon in the Lunar Module. Collins would stay aboard the Command Module “Columbia” and continue to orbit the moon, then pilot the craft back toward earth.

Lift Off

The journey had begun several days earlier on July 16 at Launch Pad 39A where the massive multi-staged Saturn V rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Everyone I knew watched it.

Five years later, during the summer of 1974, I visited the launch site in Florida, witnessing the massive Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and the crawler-transport system that moved the rocket from the VAB to the launch pad at 4 miles per hour.

The Apollo 11 launch started at the Launch Control Center. The astronauts rode an elevator up 320 feet to the ingress of the spacecraft. Altogether it weighed 6.5 million pounds. After lift-off it climbed:

  • At 12 miles downrange it was moving at 4,000 ft/sec
  • At 100 miles up it was moving at 23,000 ft/sec
  • When it finally left earth orbit, it did so at over 2,000 mph
  • It was moving at 11,000 feet/sec for its final maneuver
  • Apollo 11 arrived at the moon 4 minutes early

On July 20, five days out, they undocked the Lunar Module (LM) from the Command Module. They had traveled roughly 240,000 miles in just 76 hours inside a cramped, 12-foot-diameter cabin. The LM descended to the lunar surface. As it touched down on television, these words were heard:

“Tranquility Base, the Eagle has landed.”

From Mission Control came the words

“People were blue here; they’ve started breathing again.”

There were smiling faces all over the world.

First Men on the Moon

It was hours before they left the LM to descend the ladder to the moon. During that time, Buzz Aldrin did something not widely reported, and when it was published, it done so somewhat confusingly.

He was an Elder in his home church, the Webster Presbyterian Church. Before he left, he got special permission to take with him the elements of bread and wine to perform Communion in the Lunar module. He poured wine into a small chalice and served Communion to himself before he donned his helmet to exit the spacecraft.

Ahead of him went Neil Armstrong. After Armstrong said the words:

“That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.

…he continued with.

“It’s got a stark beauty all it’s own, like the high desert.”

Into this magnificent desolation… Buzz Aldrin followed to the surface about 20 minutes later, carefully guided down the ladder by Neil Armstrong.

The Apollo 11 crew received a phone call from President Richard Nixon during which the astronauts said they felt honored to be on the mission. Before they left the moon’s surface, they left a silicon disc with the message:

“We came in peace for all mankind.”

Mike Collins flew in the Command and Service Module (CSM) above the moon, orbiting every forty-seven minutes for more than a day, alone in the Columbia. He was accompanied by the Colossus IIA computer.

The lunar module spent the “night” on the moon, to start working on science experiments and moon rock collection the next day. After completing their mission on the surface of the moon, the lunar module lifted off to rejoin Columbia in orbit, executing an intricate docking procedure.

At 130 hours, 30 minutes into the mission, Columbia had transferred back the 2-man crew and jettison the Eagle to begin its burn for the Earth.

Splash Down

The American aircraft carrier USS Hornet departed out of Honolulu, Hawaii to retrieve the capsule after its return to Earth. The Apollo 11 capture landed 2 miles off the original landing area due to weather and seas. At 12:50 PM local time, after an 8-day voyage the capsule, suspended by three parachutes, landed in the Pacific Ocean. The astronauts would spend 18 days in quarantine. No humans had ever returned from an extraterrestrial body to the Earth.

When they were released, there was a ticker-tape parade in New York City in front of 4 million people. Everyone I knew watched it.

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

-President John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962. Rice University

Next stop, Mars?

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian



Bill Petro

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