A Quick Look: The 50th anniversary of the First Apollo Landing on the Moon

Reading Time: 7 minutes


On 16 July 1969, the Apollo spacecraft on top of the vast Saturn V rocket was propelled into orbit in just over 11 minutes.

July 20, 1969 Apollo 11 becomes the first manned spacecraft to land on the moon.

Neil Armstrong (commander), Buzz Aldrin (lunar module pilot) and Michael Collins (command module pilot) were the crew.

A file picture taken in May 1969 of (L to R) US astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, command module pilot; and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot. EPA/NASA FILES

The Apollo 11 spacecraft consisted of the command module, Columbia, and the lunar module, Eagle.

Apollo 11 Astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon 40 years ago
A NASA handout photo dated 20 July 1969 showing the Apollo 11 mission’s lunar module inspection after undocking, with the surface of the moon in the foreground and the Earth in the background. . EPA/NASA

Saturn V is still the largest and most powerful rocket ever built. Standing at more than 100m, the Saturn V rocket burned some 20 tonnes of fuel a second at launch. Propellant accounted for 85% of its overall weight.

A file picture taken from the launch tower camera of Apollo 11’s lift-off at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, USA, 16 July 1969. EPA/NASA FILES

Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins spent eight days together travelling over a million kilometres to the Moon and back in a space roughly the size of a large car.The Command Module, which measured 3.9m at its widest point.

'Apollo's Muse: The Moon in the Age of Photography' at Met Museum in New York
A visitor watches a recording of the CBS News broadcast from the Apollo 11 moon landing during a press preview of the new exhibit ‘Apollo’s Muse: The Moon in the Age of Photography’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, New York, USA. The exhibit, timed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon on 20 July 1969, features early drawings and paintings of the moon, as well as some of the earliest astronomical photographs of the moon. The exhibit opens on 03 July and runs until 22 September 2019. EPA-EFE/JUSTIN LANE

American TV stations ABC, CBS, and NBC spent, collectively, between $11 million and $12 million on Apollo 11 coverage and covered the mission from Sunday morning until Monday evening.

“That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” Those were the famous remarks made by astronaut Neil Armstrong as he made the first human footprints on the Moon.

Armstrong carried with him a piece of wood from an airplane that belonged to the Wright brothers, as well as a piece of fabric from the plane to symbolize the great progress made in aviation. Armstrong held these in his “personal preference kit” (PPK). The Wright Brothers, like Neil, were from the state of Ohio.

Neil Armstrong, the 1st man on the moon, has died at age 82
A NASA handout photo dated 16 July 1969 showing the Apollo 11 crew leaving Kennedy Space Center’s Manned Spacecraft Operations Building during the pre-launch countdown. Mission commander Neil Armstrong, command module pilot Michael Collins, and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin prepared to ride the special transport van to Launch Complex 39A where their spacecraft awaited them. Liftoff occurred at 9:32 a.m. EPA/NASA

The mission had such a large risk of failing, in fact, that President Richard Nixon had a speech at the ready in case of catastrophe. It stated:

“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace.

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.”

You can read the full text here

The astronauts nearly got stranded on the moon. When Armstrong and Aldrin got back into the lunar module, Armstrong accidentally bumped into the circuit breaker switch with the bulky life support system in the backpack of his suit. The switch was essential to activate the module’s ascent engine which would have flown them up into orbit where they would board again with the command module that would take them back to Earth. Unfortunately, he broke it off, potentially stranding them on the moon. Forced by circumstance to improvise, Aldrin found a pen which he used to engage the circuit breaker and trigger the ascent engine. It worked and the pen is now on display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

Apollo 11 Astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon 40 years ago
A NASA handout photo dated 20 July 1969 showing Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin standing by the US flag planted on the surface of the moon. EPA/NASA

The astronauts left several items on the surface of the Moon, including pictures of human beings as well as audio recordings of several different languages to represent the global significance of the mission. Medallions bearing names of the three astronauts who perished in Apollo 1 on the launch pad and the two cosmonauts who perished in a similar accident were all left on the surface of the Moon as well.

40th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon
Visitors to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum look at the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia in Washington DC, USA. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

A total of 10 lunar modules were sent into space and six landed humans on the moon. Once used, the capsules were jettisoned and either crash-landed on the moon, burned up in Earth’s atmosphere, or – in one instance – went into orbit around the Sun. But where exactly they ended up is not known in every case.


Michael Collins designed the Apollo 11 insignia. In 1965, Gemini V became the first NASA crew to have a dedicated insignia, which was designed by pilot Pete Conrad and command pilot Gordon Cooper. This tradition of a crew wearing patches designed by its own members has continued over the years, with the Apollo 11 crew following suit. Ultimately, they decided to make the concept a representation of the larger goals of NASA—and America—at the time. “We wanted to keep our three names off it because we wanted the design to be representative of everyone who had worked toward a lunar landing, and there were thousands who could take a proprietary interest in it, yet who would never see their names woven into the fabric of a patch,” Collins said. “Further, we wanted the design to be symbolic rather than explicit.”

Margaret Hamilton led the team that wrote every line of code for the Apollo Guidance Computer and she coined the term software engineering.

 As the Eagle lander lifted up from the surface of the moon the exhaust from its engine caused the American flag to topple over – although not before Armstrong snapped a picture of it. The flag was fitted with small extendable poles to try and keep it in shape.

Apollo 11 Astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon 40 years ago
A NASA handout photo dated 27 July 1969 showing the Apollo 11 astronauts, still in their quarantine van, being greeted by their wives upon arrival at Ellington Air Force Base near Houston, Texas, USA. EPA/NASA

  The crew had to sign customs declarations when returning to the US. The three astronauts had to declare that they were importing moon rock and moon dust samples. Later NASA said that it was a bit of a little joke between the agencies – but the declaration is completely authentic and was made shortly after the crew splashed down in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.



Via NASA/Smithsonian NASM

Once you're here...