I had just turned 12 years old the day before astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. landed their lunar module (LM) on the moon.
I’ll never forget the fear and excitement my parents and I felt — along with much of the rest of the world — as we sat glued to our TV set watching the LM glide silently across the moon’s surface before gently touching lunar ground on the early afternoon of Sunday, July 20, 1969.
At the time the whole process seemed so incredibly easy, so by the book — but that wasn’t the case at all. No one, except the astronauts themselves and NASA’s Mission Control back on earth, realized how close the LM had come to running out of fuel and crashing into the moon’s surface, killing both Armstrong and Aldrin in the process.
Mare Tranquilitatis (Sea of Tranquility) was the site chosen for the first lunar landing because it is a relatively smooth and level area. It does, however, have a high density of craters and in the last seconds before landing, the LM had to be manually piloted by Armstrong, the mission’s commander, to avoid a sharp-rimmed ray crater measuring some 180 meters across and 30 meters deep known as West. The LM landed safely some 6 km from the originally intended landing site. It was literally within seconds of running out of fuel.
Apollo 11’s LM landed approximately 400 meters west of West crater and 20 km south-southwest of the crater Sabine D in the southwestern part of Mare Tranquilitatis. The lunar surface at the landing site consisted of fragmental debris ranging in size from fine particles to blocks about 0.8 meter wide.
"Houston, the Eagle has landed," Armstrong said to Mission Control and the rest of the world that took a long sigh of relief.
While NASA scientists had long offered ironclad assurances that there was no life on the moon, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in fearing that Armstrong and Aldrin might become the victims of some sort of moon creatures unhappy with visitors suddenly interloping on their property.
Even though this proved to be an unfounded fear, we learned later than those same scientists weren’t 100 percent sure that the lunar surface was stable enough to support the weight of the LM. Thankfully, that proved not to be the case.
It was less than seven hours later that Armstrong descended the LM’s ladder and set his foot on the moon saying, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” For those used to today’s high definition TVs, the live pictures of Armstrong touching the ground — taken by a black and white camera attached to the LM — are very dark and of extremely low quality.
Even back in 1969, viewers were somewhat disappointed by how difficult it was to make out much of what was going on, but any such feelings were greatly outweighed by the pure amazement we all felt realizing that a man had actually touched the surface of the moon.
Twenty minutes later, Aldrin joined Armstrong on the extravehicular activity (EVA).
The Apollo 11 astronauts had several tasks to accomplish while on the surface. Time permitting, the astronauts planned to collect lunar samples, deploy several experiments and examine and photograph the lunar surface.
One of the most memorable photos taken during the pair’s time on the moon is of Aldrin saluting the American flag placed there by the two astronauts. Now, some may wonder why there are so many high-quality photos of Aldrin on the moon and only one, arguably two, of Armstrong.
The answer is simple. For the majority of the EVA, Armstrong was holding the camera, and so almost all of the historic photographs taken during the Apollo 11 mission are of Aldrin. In fact, the only high quality 70 mm photo of Armstrong shows his back in a panorama. The only other images were from the grainy TV and film footage.
In theory there was a second 70 mm photo of Armstrong standing on the surface of the moon. But he actually took the photo himself. The photo is actually a close up shot of Buzz Aldrin's reflective visor, which shows Armstrong, the photographer, as a mirror image.
Apollo 11 was a rousing success and astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin were able to walk on the moon and ultimately, return to earth, along with their command module pilot Michael Collins who orbited the moon as his fellow crew members worked below.
After touchdown on the USS Hornet, the helicopter was lowered by an elevator into the hangar bay, where the astronauts walked 30 feet to the Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF), where they began the Earth-based portion of their 21 days in quarantine. This practice would continue for two more Apollo missions — Apollo 12 and Apollo 14 — before the moon was proven to be barren of life, and the quarantine process was ended.
Apollo 11 was a spectacularly successful mission, but what would have happened if Armstrong and Aldrin had died on the moon surface?
President Richard Nixon, who delivered a message to Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins after the successful lunar landing, also asked his speechwriter, William Safire, to write a contingency speech should something go wrong. The speech was eventually delivered to Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman and is now housed at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.
Titled “In Event of Moon Disaster,” Nixon's speech would have addressed Armstrong and Aldrin's widows, as well as the nation. "Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace," the speech begins.
It continues, "These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery, but they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice."
Safire, in a 1999 interview while on Meet the Press, said Aldrin and Armstrong would have been "abandoned on the moon" and "either have to starve to death or commit suicide."
"These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding," Nixon would've continued in the speech.
Nixon would've gone on to say, "Others will follow, and surely find their way home," but the memory of Aldrin and Armstrong would be honored forever, as "these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts."
As the Nixon Library added, “Fortunately, it [the speech] was never needed” and the former president called the three astronauts and thanked them for their successful mission, saying “because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man's world.”