On July 20, 1969 — exactly 50 years ago today— humans did what had never been done before: set foot on another celestial body.
It's one of mankind's single greatest achievements. For starters, the Moon is 384,403 kilometres away. Till then, no man had ever set foot there.
It was a colossal project. Massive advances in flight science were required — in a relatively short time. There were many unknowns: prolonged weightlessness, radiation, docking and meteoroid hazard.
Giant rockets were needed. Every part had to be tested for reliability. The mission required razor-sharp precision in staging, handling, rendezvous, rocket propulsion. Everything looked impossible.
Until it became possible.
News of this great feat gripped the world.
What happened on July 20, 1969?
On this day, the Apollo lunar module, called Eagle, landed on the Moon's surface. Astronaut Neil Armstrong came out first. He walked on the lunar surface, upon which he uttered one of the most popular quotes of modern history: "That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind." He was the first man on the Moon.
Armstrong's colleague Buzz Aldrin followed him 19 minutes later. A third astronaut, Michael Collins, piloted the lunar Command and Service Module (CSM), called Columbia, orbiting some 60 miles (96.5km) above the Moon's surface.
The two — Armstrong and Aldrin — did their assigned tasks for about 21 hours on the lunar surface, during which Collins, on board the CSM, orbited the Moon 30 times.
Afterwards, the moon lander fired its ascent rocket to bring Armstrong and Aldin to a rendezvous and docking with SCM, for the journey back to Earth. The SCM splashed down in the Pacific four days later, on July 24, 1969.
It culminated years of work put together by about 300,000 people involved in the project.
About 650 million people watched the moment on TV. It was one of the most important moments in history.
Why did the Americans send manned missions to the Moon?
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched "Sputnik 1". It was the Earth's first artificial satellite.
On September 13, 1959, the Soviets' Luna 2 mission sent the first man-made object to the surface of the Moon. Then cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space on April 12, 1961. These events came as a big shock to the Americans.
A few days after Gagarin's feat, on May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space — but Shepard only flew on a short sub-orbital flight instead of orbiting the Earth, as Gagarin had done.
President John F. Kennedy felt a massive pressure to respond: to have the US "catch up to and overtake" the Soviet Union in the "space race."
On May 25, 1961, Kennedy declared an ambitious goal — to send an American to the Moon and back safely before the end of the decade (1960s).
In setting his sights on landing an American on the Moon, Kennedy was realistic. He declared the project was fraught with immense risks. Failure rate was high: Between 1958 to 1965, only three out of the 18 US uncrewed lunar missions succeeded, while two were only partially successful — a >80 per cent + failure rate.
But it was an era of space exploration.
Kennedy reiterated the challenge in subsequent speeches — thereby pumping up Nasa and the whole of America to prove their technological supremacy. The race with the Soviets was on.
How much was the total cost of the manned Moon landing programme?
$25.4 billion (from 1961 to 1973). The amount included the Projects Mercury (in its latter stages), Gemini and Apollo. This was the figure reported to the US Congres in 1973.
By far the most expensive parts of the mission were the Apollo spacecraft (the CSM, the Lunar Modules) and the monstrous Saturn V launch vehicles.
Altogether, the project cost is equivalent to $153 billion in 2018 dollars.
When did the Apollo 11 spacecraft leave the Earth, when did it land on the Moon, and when did the astronauts come back?
It took nine days — and the work of up to 300,000 people — to complete the Apollo 11 mission which landed the first man on the moon.
July 16, 1969: Apollo 11 crew lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center on top of the massive Saturn V rocket.
July 20, 1969: The crew landed on the Moon.
July 24, 1969: Splashdown in the North Pacific Ocean, near Hawaii.
Who were the astronauts on the Apollo 11 mission?
Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin landed the Apollo Lunar Module "Eagle" on July 20, 1969, at 20:17 UTC (12.17am on July 21, 1969 in the UAE).
Six hours later, at on July 21 at 02:56:15 UTC, Armstrong stepped of the Eagle onto the lunar surface; Aldrin joined him 19 minutes later. They spent about two hours and 15 minutes together outside the spacecraft, and collected 47.5 pounds (21.5 kg) of lunar material to bring back to Earth.
Command module pilot Michael Collins flew the command module "Columbia" alone in lunar orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin were on the Moon's surface. Armstrong and Aldrin spent 21.5 hours on the lunar surface at a site they named "Tranquility Base" before rejoining Columbia in lunar orbit.
Neil Armstrong, born August 5, 1930; died August 25, 2012
Fighter jet pilot in Korea, X-15 test pilot, one of only two civilians selected for the second astronaut group in 1962, Gemini 8 command pilot, backup commander of Apollo 8 and, finally, commander of Apollo 11. In 1966, three years before the Apollo 11 mission, he had to gain control of his tumbling Gemini 8 spacecraft and brought it down early. (Project Gemini was Nasa's second human spaceflight programme, conducted between projects Mercury and Apollo). The Gemini spacecraft carried a two-astronaut crew. Armstrong had ejected from a lunar lander training device in 1968 just before it crashed in a fireball in Texas. Armstrong died on August 25, 2012 after complications from heart surgery, at age 82.
Michael Collins, born October 31, 1930
Michael Collins was an X-15 test pilot before he became an astronaut. Selected as part of the third group of 14 astronauts in 1963, he flew into space twice. The first was on Gemini 10, in which he and Command Pilot John Young performed orbital rendezvous with two different spacecraft and undertook two extravehicular activities (EVAs, also known as "spacewalks"). His second spaceflight was as command module Pilot for Apollo 11. He stayed in orbit around the Moon, which he orbited 30 times. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left in the Apollo Lunar Module "Eagle" to make the first crewed landing on its surface.
Collins is one of 24 people to have flown to the Moon. He was the seventeenth American in space, the fourth person (and third American) to perform a spacewalk, the first person to have performed more than one spacewalk. Collins was the second person to orbit the Moon alone. He retired as a major general of the US Air Force Reserves.
Edwin Eugene "Buzz" Aldrin Jr.; born January 20, 1930
Aldrin is an American engineer, astronaut and fighter pilot. As the Apollo Lunar Module pilot on the Apollo 11 mission, he and mission commander Neil Armstrong were the first two humans to land on the Moon.
Aldrin graduated third in his US Military Academy at West Point Class 1951, with a degree in mechanical engineering.
He was commissioned into the US Air Force, and served as a jet fighter pilot during the Korean War. Before he became an astronaut, he clocked in 2,500 hours of flying time, of which 2,200 was in jets.
He flew 66 combat missions, shot down two MiG-15 aircraft. From 1956 to 1959 he flew F-100 Super Sabres equipped with nuclear weapons as a flight commander in the 22nd Fighter Squadron, 36th Fighter Wing. He earned a doctorate degree in astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Selected as a member of Nasa's Astronaut Group 3, this made him the first astronaut with a doctoral degree. His doctoral thesis was "Line-of-Sight Guidance Techniques for Manned Orbital Rendezvous", earning him the nickname "Dr. Rendezvous" from fellow astronauts.
His first space flight was in 1966 on Gemini 12 during which he spent over five hours on extravehicular activity. Three years later, Aldrin set foot on the Moon at 03:15:16 on July 21, 1969 (UTC), 19 minutes after Armstrong first touched the surface.
6. What did the pre-Apollo missions do?
There were two US manned spaceflight projects before Apollo: Mercury and Gemini. When President Kennedy announced in 1961 America's aim to put a man on the Moon, Project Mercury (America's first human spaceflight programme) was already underway.
On April 9, 1959, Nasa introduced the "Mercury Seven" (photo below), focussing on initial objectives needed to get to the moon. From 1959-1964, Project Mercury proved human spaceflight was possible. During that period, six human-tended flights and eight automated flights were completed.
Project Gemini, tested the skills Nasa needed to go to the Moon, and had four main goals:
Gemini followed from 1965 and 1966. Ten Gemini crews flew low Earth orbit (LEO) missions, placing the US ahead of the Soviets. Gemini's aim was to develop space travel techniques to support the Apollo mission to land astronauts on the Moon. The Gemini missions had a mixed record: an epic fail of Gemini 4 rendezvous; successful crewed rendezvous (between Gemini 6A-7), and an unsuccessful gravity-gradient stabilization test (Gemini 11).
Astronauts on Gemini 9 and 11 had suffered from fatigue carrying out tasks during extra-vehicular activity (EVA, or spacewalk). Michael Collins, though, had a successful EVA on Gemini 10, suggested that the order in which he had performed his EVA tasks was an key factor.
The Apollo 11 mission itself was wrought with many risks. Would they make it to the Moon? And if they do, what bacteria would they bring back to Earth — if they're able to make the homeward bound trip at all?
It was a complex procedure that required precision planning and impeccable execution. If the ascent rocket that took the astronauts from the Moon back to the Columbia orbiter malfunctioned — or didn't fire — both Armstrong and Aldrin would have died on the Moon from starvation and oxygen.
What rockets were used in the Apollo missions?
The Apollo spacecraft were launched on top of the massive Saturn V rocket. Until now, Saturn V remains the biggest rocket ever built by man.
The Saturn V was made of three stages. The first two stages used up their fuel reaching orbit. The third stage was used to push the Apollo Command Module and Lunar Module to the moon. The Apollo programme, however, used four types of launch vehicles.
Saturn V, was by far the tallest (363 feet, about 1/7th the height of Burj Khalifa) and most powerful rocket system ever. It burnt some 20 tonnes of fuel per second at launch. Propellant accounted for 85% of its overall weight.
It was the only one that helped carry humans beyond Earth's orbit. It was used for both uncrewed and crewed earth orbit and lunar missions. The Marshall Space Flight Center designed the Saturn rockets.
The same rockets were also used for an Apollo Applications Program, which sent the Skylab, a space station that supported three crewed missions from 1973 through 1974, and the Apollo–Soyuz Test Project, a joint Earth orbit mission with the Soviet Union in 1975.
What did the other Apollo missions do? And what really happened to Apollo 13?
The Apollo project ran from 1961 to 1972. A major setback was the 1967 Apollo 1 cabin fire that killed the entire crew during a pre-launch test. Apollo 8 was the first crewed spacecraft to orbit another celestial body.
Out of the planned 10 Moon landings, only six crewed US landings (between 1969 and 1972) were carried out. Budget cuts forced the cancellation of three of these. Five of the six missions achieved successful landings.
The final mission, Apollo 17 (from December 7-19, 1972), marked the sixth Moon landing.
An oxygen tank explosion which damaged the CSM's propulsion and life support while in transit to the Moon prevented the Apollo 13 Moon landing. The crew returned to Earth safely by using the Lunar Module as a "lifeboat".
How did the Apollo 11 mission unfold?
It was a delicate dance — between man, machine and celestrial bodies. Strapped on top of the masive Saturn family of rockets, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins blasted off from the Kennedy Space Centre on July 16 and traveled for four days, stayed there fore 21 hours, and went on return journey.
The Saturn V had three stages:
After the third stage travelled for about 40 minutes — while going at 40,320 km/h — the command and service module (CSM, "Columbia") performed a delicate 180-degree turn.
This is a complicated manoeuvre: Docking the CSM with lunar module (called "Eagle"), while in zooming in outer space at 14.7 times the speed of a bullet (average bullet travels at around 1,700 mph or 2,435.9 km/h).
Then both Columbia and Eagle, now in a Moon-ready position, hurtled towards the Moon. Three days later they reached lunar orbit and separated.
Collins remained in the CSM/Columbia orbitting at 6,000km/h about 60 miles above the Moon's surface, or 30x over a period of 21 hours.
"Eagle", piloted by Armstrong, entered the lunar atmosphere, and controlled the fall by firing the descent (retro) rocket for a soft landing. Armstrong and Aldrin stayed for 21 hours to do a long checklist of tasks. Then they fired the ascent rocket for a rendezvous with CSM overhead. Together, the three astronauts flew back to Earth.
The total distance covered by the command module was 952,700 miles. The Apollo program returned 842 pounds (382 kg) of lunar rocks and soil to Earth, giving a greater understanding of the Moon's composition and geological history.
21hnumber of hours Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stayed on the Moon.
$25.4bCost of the Apollo programme from 1961 to 1973, equivalent to $153 billion in today's dollars.
In this July 20, 2009 file photo, Apollo 11 astronauts, from left, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and Neil Armstrong stand in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, on the 40th anniversary of the mission's moon landing. Image Credit: AP
This March 30, 1969 photo made available by NASA shows the crew of the Apollo 11, from left, Neil Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, module pilot; Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, lunar module pilot. Apollo 11 was the first manned mission to the surface of the moon. Image Credit: NASA
Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin
- Test an astronaut's ability to fly long-duration missions (up to two weeks in space);
- Understand how spacecraft could rendezvous and dock in orbit around the Earth and the Moon;
- Perfect re-entry and landing methods; and
- Further understand the effects of longer space flights on astronauts.
- "Little Joe II", used to develop an uncrewed sub-orbital launch escape system.
- Saturn I, used for uncrewed suborbital and orbital hardware development.
- Saturn IB, used for preparatory uncrewed missions and Apollo 7.
- Saturn V, the biggest of them all, stood 363 feet tall, and had a lift-off thrust of 7.6 million pounds, called men to the Moon.
- Stage 1: Rocket accelerated it to 6,000 mph (9,656 km/h) in 2.5 minutes until it reached an altitude of 68km
- Stage 2: Increased speed to more than 15,000 mph (24,140 km/h) and took the spacecraft to an altitude of 176km;
- Stage 3: Accelerated rocket to 25,000 mph (40,320 km/h) — enough speed to escape Earth's gravity. Propelled it to orbit the earth 1-1/2 times before hurtling itself on course to the moon, some 384,403 km away.
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