Neil Armstrong moved slowly and purposefully down the ladder. He was in no hurry. He would be stepping onto a small world that had never been touched by life. A landscape where no leaf had ever drifted, no insect had ever scurried, where no blade of green had ever waved, where even the raging fury of a thermonuclear blast would sound no louder than a falling snowflake.
A quarter-of-a-million miles away billions of eyes were transfixed on black-and-white televisions. They were watching this ghostly figure moving phantom-like, closer and closer, and then, three-and-a-half feet above the moon’s surface, jump off the ladder. Neil Armstrong’s boots hit the moon at 10:56 P.M. Eastern time, July 20, 1969.
All motion stopped. He spoke: “That’s one small step for a man—one giant leap for mankind.”
Lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin stayed aboard Eagle to keep watch on all of the lander’s systems. The LM was Aldrin’s responsibility, and as soon as it was safe for him to leave Eagle, he came down the ladder and joined Armstrong on the surface.
“Beautiful, beautiful! Magnificent desolation,” Aldrin said with feeling as he stared at a sky that was the darkest of blacks. No blue. No green. No birds flying across an airless landscape. There were many shades of gray and areas of utter black where rocks cast their shadows from an unfiltered sun, but no real color. And there was the lack of gravity. They seemed to weigh a little more than nothing. In spite of their cumbersome spacesuits, both astronauts found moving about in the one-sixth gravity exhilarating and described the experience as floating.
“We’re like two bug-eyed boys in a candy store,” Neil laughed before starting out to explore. He and Buzz wanted to experiment with the moon’s lightweight gravity. They wanted to run and make leaps that would be impossible to do on Earth, where they would weigh 360 pounds with their suits and life-support backpacks. On the moon, in its one-sixth gravity, they weighed only sixty pounds, but they still possessed body mass that restricted their ability to move. If they started to jog, the mass and velocity created kinetic energy and stopping quickly was impossible. They soon discovered “bunny hops” in the suits worked well.
“The surface is fine and powdery,” Neil reported to the scientists in Mission Control’s back room. “It adheres in fine layers, like powdered charcoal, to the soles and sides of my boots. I only go in a fraction of an inch, maybe an eighth of an inch, but I can see the footprints of my boots and the treads in the fine, sandy particles.”
Neil gathered several ounces of lunar surface material in a plastic bag and stuffed it into a suit pocket. The plan was for them to remain outside two hours, planting experiments and collecting lunar soil and rocks, but if something should go wrong, at least they would have a few ounces of the moon that would be invaluable for research back on Earth. So he took a slow look around the moon’s surface and continued his report. Those on Earth hung onto every word. “It has a very stark beauty all its own,” Neil said slowly. “It’s like much of the high desert areas of the United States. It’s different, but it’s pretty out here.”
He then turned and looked for Earth, the true oasis of shifting colors in their solar system. It appeared far larger from the moon than did the moon from Earth. And it was many times brighter. Sunlight made it so by splashing off the bright clouds and blue oceans. It was hope. It was the warmest port in this corner of the universe.
Neil Armstrong lowered his head. There was so much to see and do and so little time. He and Buzz moved their television camera sixty feet from Eagle. This would help Earth’s viewers see some of the things they were seeing and it let them watch Neil and Buzz going about the business of setting up Apollo 11’s experiments.
The two astronauts had problems jamming a pole into the lunar surface to hold the American flag. Though a metal rod held the flag extended, the subsurface soil was so hard they could barely get the pole to remain erect. But once they did, Old Glory stood perfectly.
Armstrong and Aldrin then set up a seismometer to gather information on quakes and meteorites hitting the lunar surface. An instrument to measure the flow of radiation particles inside the solar wind and a multi-mirror target for returning laser beams fired from Earth were deployed—laser reflectors that would not only be used by American scientists, but Russian and other global investigators as well.
In the lunar dust they placed mementos for the five astronauts and cosmonauts who had lost their lives, and Neil Armstrong read the words on a plaque mounted on Apollo 11’s descent stage: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin plant the American flag on the moon. (NASA).
The two astronauts gathered fifty pounds of lunar soil samples and rocks, and once everything was loaded for the flight back to Earth, they shut down the first moonwalk.
Twenty-one hours after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the lunar surface, they fired Eagle’s ascent engine and left the moon.
They saw the first American flag deployed on the lunar landscape toppled by the rocket’s blast. That was all the time the astronauts had for sightseeing. They had to man Eagle’s controls and computers and radar systems for the three-and-a-half-hour trip needed to reach Michael Collins and Columbia orbiting sixty miles overhead.
Armstrong and Aldrin flew Eagle precisely down the route pioneered by Apollo 10’s Snoopy two months earlier and, as steady as a rock, linked up with Columbia. After they moved their lunar booty into the command ship, they discarded their faithful Eagle, leaving it to orbit the moon for several weeks before lunar gravity pulled it into a crash landing.
It would take two-and-a-half days to make the return trip home, but Neil, Buzz, and Michael knew the way. All they had to do was follow the trail locked in the computers by Frank, Jim, Bill, Tom, Gene, and John—the astronauts of Apollos 8 and 10.
Back on Earth, the uncontrolled celebrations began.
Apollo 11’s splashdown parties set a record.
In fact, the parties quickly grew into one that covered all the communities in and around Mission Control, and when they were finally over, Houston had to lend the small towns a fleet of garbage trucks to haul away the mess.
NBC’s Chet Huntley, America’s number-one and most-loved television news anchor of the day, was one of the warmest and most considerate people you could meet until he decided to take a drink. Then Chet would change from this fatherly, lovable introvert to an “everything goes” extrovert.
During his very successful career (so I’m told), Huntley could be found pushing his stalled automobile through the streets of Miami’s infamous Liberty City at 3:00 A.M., directing late-night traffic in the middle of the George Washington Bridge, or driving a hansom cab through Central Park with a governor and not his bride in the back.
On the night of Apollo 11’s great splashdown party, Chet and us folks from NBC partied hard. We partied down the streets, on the streets, across lawns, up stairs, on balconies, down stairs, through pasture lands, and in and out of all bars, and when we could no longer motor, Chet came up with a unique way of topping it all off. There had been much complaining about the talents of a piano player located poolside at our hotel, and when the last sour note was hit, Chet pushed piano and player in the pool.
Shad Northshield, NBC News’s general manager, stood staring at the piano on the pool bottom as he watched the drenched musician climb out of the water.
“Whose expense account am I going to put this one on?” he asked no one, before wobbling away for the privacy of his room.
Tales of Apollo 11’s splashdown parties were the talk of most social events through the summer and into the fall until Apollo 12’s Pete Conrad, Alan Bean, and Dick Gordon set sail for the moon’s Ocean of Storms on a wet November 14, 1969. NASA quickly learned that a thirty-six-story-tall Saturn V rocket climbing in rain clouds becomes a lightning generator.
I was standing under the launch on the NBC studio balcony, voicing a “radio on the scene” report. I was telling our listeners how I had just lost sight of Apollo 12 in the clouds when the only lightning bolt of the day cracked across our location. It filled the small city of buildings, tents, trailers, trucks, and grandstands with rolling thunder, and it cut a jagged streak from the Saturn V to its launch pad. I stopped my broadcast on a dime for our listeners to hear commander Pete Conrad’s report to Mission Control: “I think we got hit by lightning. We just lost the guidance platform gang. I don’t know what happened here.”
Tokyo, Japan: Heavy crowds and confetti greet the Apollo 11 astronauts as they motorcade down the Ginza. The “Giant-Step-Apollo 11” Presidential Goodwill Tour took astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins along with their wives to twenty-four countries and twenty-seven cities in forty-five days. (NASA).
Lightning had cracked against Apollo 12, tripping the spaceship’s main circuit breakers. Inside the command module all electrical power went out, returning with a flight panel filled with flashing warning lights.
“We just had everything in the world drop out,” Pete Conrad told the ground, and as the astronauts slid into Earth orbit, they worked with Mission Control to bring all of Apollo 12’s systems back on line. For the moment they were safe enough, but they had little more than two hours to get their ship back in the condition it needed to reach the moon. Few of us believed the second lunar-landing mission would ever leave Earth orbit. Every guidance, navigation, and computer system had to be reset with updated programs, and then validated by Mission Control.
The odds were definitely not in the Apollo 12’s favor, but we boarded a jet charter from the Cape to Houston and immediately began laying bets on the mission’s demise. I sat across the aisle from Frank Borman, the commander of Apollo 8, and he was convinced Pete Conrad, Alan Bean, and Dick Gordon would not see the moon on this trip.
About an hour into our flight to Houston, one of the pilots came back and spoke to astronaut Borman.
He leaned over and whispered loud enough for me to hear. “Colonel Borman, I have a message for you,” he began. “Mission Control and Apollo 12’s crew have pulled off the impossible. They have all systems up and tested, and the third stage just fired. Apollo 12 is outbound—it’s headed for the moon.”
Frank Borman threw his hands into the air, shouting, “They’re on their way. Twelve’s up and running.”
Everyone on board the charter shouted and yelled, and a tired bunch of reporters and astronauts and NASA officials had just one request: flight attendants, keep the booze coming.
The three navy commanders inside the command ship they had named Yankee Clipper sailed into orbit around the moon. Crew commander Pete Conrad planned to land within six hundred feet of an unmanned Surveyor robot that had touched down to scout the Ocean of Storms landing site thirty-one months before.
Conrad and Alan Bean had named their lunar module Intrepid, and the two naval aviators flew to the moon’s surface with incredible accuracy. Conrad sat Intrepid down only a short walk from the Surveyor and Mission Control shouted, “Outstanding!”
Pete Conrad told those on the ground, “I can’t wait to get outside! Those rocks have been waiting four-and-a-half billion years for us to come out and grab them. Holy cow, it’s beautiful out there.”
Astronauts Conrad and Bean took two four-hour walks from Intrepid, deploying scientific instruments and collecting seventy-five pounds of rocks and lunar-surface soil. They jogged down the slope to Surveyor, where they collected fifteen pounds of parts and pieces from the robot to return to Earth for study.
They were enjoying every moment of their stay, but Conrad had one complaint. The dust was getting into everything and during their rest and sleep periods inside Intrepid, they remained in their suits to keep everything working.
Back for their second moonwalk, Conrad and Bean found the unexpected—a group of conical mounds, looking like…small volcanoes. They found green rocks and tan dust, and scientists back home were beyond pleased.
The two moonwalkers left the Ocean of Storms and made a perfect flight to hook up with Dick Gordon and Yankee Clipper for the return trip home. JFK’s goal of landing astronauts on the moon and returning them safely to Earth before the decade of the 1960s was out had been achieved—twice.