The Eagle Has Landed

To The Moon And Back

Story by John Doe

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the United States was engaged in the Cold War, a geopolitical rivalry with the Soviet Union. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite. This surprise success fired fears and imaginations around the world. It demonstrated that the Soviet Union had the capability to deliver nuclear weapons over intercontinental distances, and challenged American claims of military, economic and technological superiority. This precipitated the Sputnik crisis, and triggered the Space Race. President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded to the Sputnik challenge by creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and initiating Project Mercury, which aimed to launch a man into Earth orbit. But on April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space, and the first to orbit the Earth. Nearly a month later, on May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, completing a 15-minute suborbital journey. After being recovered from the Atlantic Ocean, he received a congratulatory telephone call from Eisenhower's successor, John F. Kennedy.

CAPCOM Charles Duke (left), with backup crewmen Jim Lovell and Fred Haise listening in during Apollo 11's descent

Since the Soviet Union had higher lift capacity launch vehicles, Kennedy chose, from among options presented by NASA, a challenge beyond the capacity of the existing generation of rocketry, so that the US and Soviet Union would be starting from a position of equality. A crewed mission to the Moon would serve this purpose.

On May 25, 1961, Kennedy addressed the United States Congress on "Urgent National Needs" and declared:

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade [1960s] is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations—explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight. But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the Moon—if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.

On September 12, 1962, Kennedy delivered another speech before a crowd of about 40,000 people in the Rice University football stadium in Houston, Texas. A widely quoted refrain from the middle portion of the speech reads as follows:

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the Moon! 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 we intend to win, and the others, too.

Apollo 11

The Apollo 11 mission emblem was designed by Collins, who wanted a symbol for "peaceful lunar landing by the United States". At Lovell's suggestion, he chose the bald eagle, the national bird of the United States, as the symbol. Tom Wilson, a simulator instructor, suggested an olive branch in its beak to represent their peaceful mission. Collins added a lunar background with the Earth in the distance. The sunlight in the image was coming from the wrong direction; the shadow should have been in the lower part of the Earth instead of the left. Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins decided the Eagle and the Moon would be in their natural colors, and decided on a blue and gold border. Armstrong was concerned that "eleven" would not be understood by non-English speakers, so they went with "Apollo 11", and they decided not to put their names on the patch, so it would "be representative of everyone who had worked toward a lunar landing".

The Saturn V was launched 13 times from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida with no loss of crew or payload. As of 2020, the Saturn V remains the tallest, heaviest, and most powerful (highest total impulse) rocket ever brought to operational status, and holds records for the heaviest payload launched and largest payload capacity to low Earth orbit (LEO) of 140,000 kg (310,000 lb), which included the third stage and unburned propellant needed to send the Apollo command and service module and Lunar Module to the Moon.

The largest production model of the Saturn family of rockets, the Saturn V was designed under the direction of Wernher von Braun at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, with Boeing, North American Aviation, Douglas Aircraft Company, and IBM as the lead contractors.

To date, the Saturn V remains the only launch vehicle to carry humans beyond low Earth orbit. A total of 15 flight-capable vehicles were built, but only 13 were flown. An additional three vehicles were built for ground testing purposes. A total of 24 astronauts were launched to the Moon, three of them twice, in the four years spanning December 1968 through December 1972.


Saturn V AS-506 launched Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969, at 13:32:00 UTC (9:32:00 EDT). At 13.2 seconds into the flight, the launch vehicle began to roll into its flight azimuth of 72.058°. Full shutdown of the first-stage engines occurred about 2 minutes and 42 seconds into the mission, followed by separation of the S-IC and ignition of the S-II engines. The second stage engines then cut off and separated at about 9 minutes and 8 seconds, allowing the first ignition of the S-IVB engine a few seconds later.

On July 19 at 17:21:50 UTC, Apollo 11 passed behind the Moon and fired its service propulsion engine to enter lunar orbit. In the thirty orbits that followed, the crew saw passing views of their landing site in the southern Sea of Tranquility about 12 miles (19 km) southwest of the crater Sabine D. The site was selected in part because it had been characterized as relatively flat and smooth by the automated Ranger 8 and Surveyor 5 landers and the Lunar Orbiter mapping spacecraft and unlikely to present major landing or EVA challenges. It lay about 25 kilometers (16 mi) southeast of the Surveyor 5 landing site, and 68 kilometers (42 mi) southwest of Ranger 8's crash site.

This photograph of Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11 commander, was taken inside the Lunar Module (LM) while the LM rested on the lunar surface. Image Credit: NASA

As the descent began, Armstrong and Aldrin found themselves passing landmarks on the surface two or three seconds early, and reported that they were "long"; they would land miles west of their target point. Eagle was traveling too fast. The problem could have been mascons—concentrations of high mass that could have altered the trajectory. Flight Director Gene Kranz speculated that it could have resulted from extra air pressure in the docking tunnel. Or it could have been the result of Eagle's pirouette maneuver.

A photograph of Neil Armstrong taken by Buzz Aldrin. This is one of the few photographs of Armstrong on the lunar surface; most of the time he held the camera.

Eagle landed at 20:17:40 UTC on Sunday July 20 with 216 pounds (98 kg) of usable fuel remaining. Information available to the crew and mission controllers during the landing showed the LM had enough fuel for another 25 seconds of powered flight before an abort without touchdown would have become unsafe, but post-mission analysis showed that the real figure was probably closer to 50 seconds. Apollo 11 landed with less fuel than most subsequent missions, and the astronauts encountered a premature low fuel warning. This was later found to be the result of greater propellant 'slosh' than expected, uncovering a fuel sensor. On subsequent missions, extra anti-slosh baffles were added to the tanks to prevent this.

At the behest of the Nixon administration to add a reference to God, NASA included the vague date as a reason to include A.D., which stands for Anno Domini, "in the year of our Lord" (although it should have been placed before the year, not after).

That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.

After describing the surface dust as "very fine-grained" and "almost like a powder", at 02:56:15, six and a half hours after landing, Armstrong stepped off Eagle's footpad and declared: "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind."

About seven minutes after stepping onto the Moon's surface, Armstrong collected a contingency soil sample using a sample bag on a stick. He then folded the bag and tucked it into a pocket on his right thigh. This was to guarantee there would be some lunar soil brought back in case an emergency required the astronauts to abandon the EVA and return to the LM. Twelve minutes after the sample was collected, he removed the TV camera from the MESA and made a panoramic sweep, then mounted it on a tripod. The TV camera cable remained partly coiled and presented a tripping hazard throughout the EVA. Still photography was accomplished with a Hasselblad camera which could be operated hand held or mounted on Armstrong's Apollo space suit. Aldrin joined Armstrong on the surface. He described the view with the simple phrase: "Magnificent desolation."
Aldrin's bootprint; part of an experiment to test the properties of the lunar regolith


New phrases permeated into the English language. "If they can send a man to the Moon, why can't they ...?" became a common saying following Apollo 11. Armstrong's words on the lunar surface also spun off various parodies.

While most people celebrated the accomplishment, disenfranchised Americans saw it as a symbol of the divide in America, evidenced by protesters outside of Kennedy Space Center the day before Apollo 11 launched. This is not to say they were not awed by it. Ralph Abernathy, leading a protest march, was so captivated by the spectacle of the Apollo 11 launch that he forgot what he was going to say. Racial and financial inequalities frustrated citizens who wondered why money spent on the Apollo program was not spent taking care of humans on Earth.

This Week in NASA History: Huntsville Celebrates Apollo 11 Splashdown -- July 24, 1969

Twenty percent of the world's population watched humans walk on the Moon for the first time. While Apollo 11 sparked the interest of the world, the follow-on Apollo missions did not hold the interest of the nation. One possible explanation was the shift in complexity. Landing someone on the Moon was an easy goal to understand; lunar geology was too abstract for the average person. Another is that Kennedy's goal of landing humans on the Moon had already been accomplished. A well-defined objective helped Project Apollo accomplish its goal, but after it was completed it was hard to justify continuing the lunar missions.

While most Americans were proud of their nation's achievements in space exploration, only once during the late 1960s did the Gallup Poll indicate that a majority of Americans favored "doing more" in space as opposed to "doing less". By 1973, 59 percent of those polled favored cutting spending on space exploration. The Space Race had ended, and Cold War tensions were easing as the US and Soviet Union entered the era of détente. This was also a time when inflation was rising, which put pressure on the government to reduce spending. What saved the space program was that it was one of the few government programs that had achieved something great. Drastic cuts, warned Caspar Weinberger, the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, might send a signal that "our best years are behind us".