When Neil Armstrong first placed foot upon the Moon in 1969, he summed up the feat with the memorable phrase “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” And as Armstrong and his fellow astronauts Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins had just reached arguably the pinnacle of human achievement, his words weren’t an overstatement. Since the history-making Apollo 11 crew made their lunar landing, however, voyages to the Moon have been few and far between – and the reasons why are tough to hear.
But how did man end up on the Moon in the first place? Well, the U.S. had long been trying to find out more about Earth’s natural satellite. Back in 1958, in fact, the United States Air Force had first attempted to launch a probe into orbit around the Moon. Pioneer 0, as the craft is now known, was equipped with a camera and other instruments to record data about the astronomical body. The probe only reached about ten miles into the air, however, before the rocket carrying it skyward stopped working properly and subsequently exploded.
Then, six years later in 1964, NASA succeeded in launching the U.S.’ first lunar probe. Ranger 7 took off on July 28 of that year, armed with top-notch cameras to capture epochal images of the Moon. And as it happens, more than 4,300 photos were taken throughout the last 17 minutes of the probe’s approach to the satellite.
Eventually, though, NASA shifted its focus to manned space flights. And four years after Ranger 7 snapped its thousands of photographs, Apollo 8 launched into space. During a six-day journey, James Lovell, William Anders and Frank Borman thus became the first people to ever travel from Earth into the Moon’s orbit.
On top of that, the trio witnessed something spectacular that they managed to capture on camera. You see, although Earth doesn’t actually rise or fall over the Moon, it may appear to do so from the perspective of the natural satellite itself. And so as Apollo 8 orbited the Moon, Earth appeared before it, and an amazing photo of the blue planet “rising” was taken.
Then, after Lovell, Anders and Borman’s pioneering journey, NASA continued apace in its quest to win the Space Race. In fact, just a year after the Apollo 8 team had completed their mission, Apollo 10 was successfully launched into space with a very specific mission of its own.
Simply put, Apollo 10 was intended as preparation for NASA’s next mission, which would hopefully see astronauts leave the comfort of their spaceship to walk on the lunar surface. Apollo 10 would mimic this intended journey, then, by flying within ten miles of the Moon’s surface – the point at which the next crew would begin their landing procedure.
Luckily for all at NASA, the Apollo 10 crew – consisting of Thomas Stafford, John Young and Eugene Cernan – successfully completed their mission and consequently paved the way for the launch of Apollo 11. This momentous flight would hopefully see astronauts strolling upon the surface of the Moon for the first time – and just two months after the Apollo 10 test.
And on July 16, 1969, approximately one million people gathered in and around the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to watch Apollo 11’s launch. There were some famous faces, too, among the crowd of media professionals and multinational bystanders, with former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson and then-Vice President Spiro Agnew both looking on.
The men tasked with taking Apollo 11 to the Moon, meanwhile, were Commander Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Collins and Lunar Module Pilot Aldrin. And the mission initially went smoothly, with the result being that the crew were able to fire into the astronomical body’s orbit on July 19, 1969.
When it came to landing, however, the astronauts had their eyes set on the Sea of Tranquility – a basin made of basalt rock that long ago had been mistaken by astronomers for a body of water. The area’s comparably smooth surface was thought to make an ideal spot for touchdown – not least because one of NASA’s Ranger probes had previously found its footing there.
Then, in preparation for the landing, Collins remained on board the command module of the Apollo, while Armstrong and Aldrin boarded the spacecraft’s lunar module Eagle. And as Armstrong and Aldrin approached the Moon, the former apparently shouted, “The Eagle has wings!”
But as Eagle descended toward the Moon’s surface, Armstrong and Aldrin realized that their calculations for touchdown were off. For starters, they kept reaching their landmarks a few seconds sooner than planned. And as the pair got closer to the satellite, Armstrong realized that they were poised to reach the Moon at a position atop some boulders and near a crater.
So, Armstrong took over the controls as Aldrin shouted navigation information to him. As the two men got to within 250 feet of the lunar surface, however, they realized that their updated point of touchdown was also a crater. In an intrepid rescue mission, then, Armstrong quickly rerouted with only 100 feet to go until Eagle met with the Moon.
All the while, experts at NASA’s Mission Control Center in Houston waited with bated breath to hear if Aldrin and Armstrong had successfully come to rest on the Moon. Then the team received a radio message from Armstrong. “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,” he said – likely much to the relief of all at NASA.
With that, Armstrong and Aldrin prepared to exit Eagle and make their way toward the moon’s surface. Armstrong would go first, exiting through the vessel’s hatch before making his way down the ladder. Then, less than seven hours after landing, he launched himself onto the face of the satellite and proclaimed, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
But the men couldn’t bask in making history forever, and so they ultimately got to work collecting samples of the Moon to bring back to Earth. Then there was the small matter of raising a U.S. flag in front of a camera. Aldrin actually feared that the flag would collapse as the nation watched – but, thankfully, there was no such hitch. Instead, the astronauts successfully assembled a pole and hung their country’s colors.
In total, Armstrong and Aldrin spent almost 22 hours on the Moon before they had to return to the command module. That happened on July 21, and just three days later the astronauts splashed back onto their home planet. Their vessel hit the Pacific Ocean in the early hours of July 24, 1969.
But NASA’s manned lunar explorations didn’t by any means end with the successful trip completed by Apollo 11. And in the three years that followed, the agency sent six more crews to the Moon, including the ill-fated Apollo 13. Apollo 17 – which launched in 1972 – ultimately marked the end of the space exploration program.
Yet NASA did continue to send astronauts beyond Earth’s atmosphere. From 1972 until 2011, the agency ran the Space Shuttle program, which launched more than 300 astronauts in total into orbit. And from 1993 NASA has contributed to the International Space Station – a joint endeavor with Europe, Russia, Canada and Japan.
So, why has human exploration of the Moon come to a halt since Apollo 17 traveled there and back? After all, a journey to the Moon today could be useful in helping establish a permanent base there. In effect, the natural satellite could then be able to serve as a fueling station for vessels on longer missions.
In fact, according to some, having a lunar base would make it possible to build groundbreaking telescopes that are capable of peering further into space than ever before. The Moon could even draw tourists and have a booming economy of its own. And to top it all off, a Moon station may very well make it simpler for humankind to settle on Mars.