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Fifty Years Ago: The Journey to the Moon Begins

John Uri |
July 16, 2019

An estimated 1 million people gathered on the beaches of central Florida to witness, firsthand, the launch of Apollo 11, while more than 500 million people around the world watched the event live on television.

Officially named as a crew just six months earlier, Commander Neil A. Armstrong, Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin and Command Module Pilot Michael Collins were prepared to undertake the historic mission. Previous Apollo crews had tested the spacecraft in Earth orbit and around the Moon and, only two months earlier, Apollo 10 had completed a dress rehearsal to sort out all the unknowns for the lunar landing. Now it was time to attempt the landing itself.   

The astronauts’ day on July 16, 1969, began with a 4 a.m. wake-up call from Chief of the Astronaut Office Donald K. “Deke” Slayton. After the traditional prelaunch breakfast with Slayton and backup CMP William A. Anders, the crew members donned their spacesuits and took the Astrovan to NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39A. Workers in the White Room assisted them into their seats in the Command Module (CM) Columbia, with Armstrong into the left-hand couch, Collins into the right and Aldrin into the middle. After the pad workers closed the hatch to the capsule, the astronauts settled in for the final two hours of the trouble-free countdown. As Armstrong noted just before liftoff, “It’s been a real smooth countdown.” 

Left: From left, Anders, Armstrong, Collins, Aldrin and Slayton have prelaunch breakfast in the crew quarters. Right: Apollo 11 astronauts (left to right) Aldrin, Collins and Armstrong leave crew quarters to enter the Astrovan for the ride to Launch Pad 39A. Image Credits: NASA

At precisely 8:32 a.m. CDT, Apollo 11 lifted off from Launch Pad 39A to begin humanity’s first attempt at a lunar landing. Engineers in Kennedy’s Firing Room 1, who had managed the countdown, handed over control of the flight to the Mission Control Center (MCC) at the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) in Houston, now Johnson Space Center, as soon as the rocket cleared the launch tower.

In the MCC, the Green team, led by Flight Director Clifford E. Charlesworth, took over control of the mission. The Capcom, or capsule communicator, during launch, the astronaut in the MCC who spoke directly with the crew, was Bruce McCandless. The three stages of the Saturn V performed flawlessly and successfully placed Apollo 11 into low-Earth orbit. For the next two-and-a-half hours, as the Apollo spacecraft—still attached to its S-IVB third stage—orbited Earth, the astronauts and MCC verified that all systems were functioning properly. 

McCandless then called up to the crew, “Apollo 11, you’re go for TLI [Trans Lunar Injection],” the second burn of the third-stage engine. This would send them on their way to the Moon.    

Liftoff of Apollo 11. Image Credits: NASA     

Left: A ring of condensation forms around the Saturn V rocket as it compresses the air around it during the launch of Apollo 11, framed with an American flag in the foreground. Middle: A view of a low pressure system taken during Apollo 11’s first orbit around Earth. Right: A view of Collins inside the CM during its first orbit around Earth. Image Credits: NASA

Two hours and 44 minutes after liftoff, the third-stage engine ignited for the six-minute TLI burn, increasing the spacecraft’s velocity to more than 24,000 mph—enough to escape Earth’s gravity. Armstrong called down to the ground after the burn, “That Saturn gave us a magnificent ride. It was beautiful.” 

A little over three hours after launch and already more than 3,000 miles from Earth, the Command and Service Module separated from the spent third stage to begin the transposition and docking maneuver. Collins flew Columbia out to a distance of about 100 feet and turned it around to face the now-exposed LM Eagle, still tucked into the top of the third stage. He slowly guided Columbia to a docking with Eagle and then extracted it from the third stage, which was sent on a path past the Moon and into orbit around the Sun. During the maneuver, the spacecraft had traveled another 3,000 miles away from Earth.    

Left: The LM Eagle still in the third stage during the transposition and docking maneuver, as seen from the CM Columbia. Right: Aldrin inside the LM Eagle during the first activation, on the way to the Moon. Image Credits: NASA

During the rest of their first day in space, the MCC informed the crew that because the launch and TLI had been so precise, the planned first midcourse correction would not be needed. The astronauts were then finally able to remove the spacesuits they’d been wearing since before launch.

Armstrong called down with birthday wishes for the state of California (200 years old) and for Dr. George E. Mueller, NASA associate administrator for Manned Space Flight (stated as “not that old”). In the MCC, Flight Director Eugene F. Kranz’s White team of controllers took over, with astronaut Charles M. Duke as the new Capcom. The astronauts provided a pleasant surprise with an unscheduled 16-minute color TV broadcast, treating viewers on Earth with spectacular scenes of their home planet. They then placed their spacecraft in the Passive Thermal Control (PTC), or barbecue mode, rotating at three revolutions per hour to evenly distribute temperature extremes. Finally, about 13 hours after launch and a very long day, the crew began its first sleep period, with Apollo 11 about 63,000 miles from Earth.

Overnight, Flight Director Glynn S. Lunney’s Black team of controllers, with astronaut Ronald E. Evans as Capcom, watched over the spacecraft’s systems. By the time the astronauts woke up, now almost 110,000 miles from Earth, Charlesworth’s Green team was back on console. Capcom McCandless provided a morning news update to the crew, including a status of the Soviet Luna 15 robotic spacecraft that had launched three days before Apollo 11 and was still on its way to the Moon.

About the time Apollo 11 reached the halfway mark in distance between Earth and the Moon, the following light-hearted exchange took place between backup Apollo 11 Commander James A. Lovell in the MCC and Armstrong aboard Columbia:

Lovell:                   Is the commander aboard? This is Jim Lovell calling Apollo 11.

Armstrong:          This is the commander.

Lovell:                   I was a little worried. This is the backup commander still standing by.

                              You haven't given me the word yet. Are you Go?

Armstrong:          You've lost your chance to take this one, Jim.

Lovell:                   Okay. I concede.

The crew conducted the only midcourse correction needed during the coast to the Moon, a three-second burn of the Service Propulsion System (SPS) engine to lower the closest point to the Moon from 200 miles to 69 miles. McCandless informed the astronauts that Luna 15 had entered an elliptical orbit around the Moon, but that its objectives were still unclear.      

Photographs taken from Apollo 11 show the receding Earth shortly after the transposition and docking maneuver; from 113,000 miles; from 144,300 miles; and from 234,800 miles. Image Credits: NASA

The crew conducted a scheduled TV broadcast from about 150,000 miles, showing views of a much smaller Earth, with Armstrong providing a detailed description of the planet. He then turned the camera inside the cabin for views of the astronauts, showing viewers their food pantry. He concluded by filming the Apollo 11 mission patch on their flight suits. The broadcast lasted 35 minutes, and the crew soon settled down for its second night’s sleep in space, which the MCC extended since another midcourse correction the next morning was not needed, as their trajectory remained very precise.

In Houston, astronaut Frank Borman and Christopher C. Kraft, director of Flight Crew Operations, held a press conference about Luna 15. NASA managers were concerned that with Luna 15 now in orbit around the Moon and its objectives still unclear, it might interfere in some way with Apollo 11. Borman had visited Moscow earlier in July and met with Academician Mstislav V. Keldysh, president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Taking advantage of this new acquaintance, Borman telephoned Keldysh and expressed NASA’s concerns. Keldysh assured Borman that Luna 15 would not interfere with Apollo 11 and, in an unprecedented action in American-Soviet space relations, he telegraphed Luna 15’s precise orbital parameters to Borman. The Soviets didn’t divulge Luna 15’s true intentions, stating only that it would stay in lunar orbit for two days.

The major activity for Apollo 11’s third day in space was the first activation and inspection of the LM Eagle, which the crew televised to the ground from about 201,000 miles away. Armstrong described the status of the docking mechanism, stating, “Mike must have done a smooth job in that docking. There isn't a dent or a mark on the probe”—a compliment to Collins’ excellent piloting skills.

When they opened the hatch to Eagle, the lights came on automatically, prompting Capcom Duke to say, “How about that. Just like the refrigerator.” 

Aldrin floated into the LM, taking the TV camera with him, and provided viewers with an excellent tour of all of its systems, as well as the astronauts’ spacesuit helmet visors and backpacks. The broadcast lasted one hour and 36 minutes, after which Aldrin and Armstrong returned to Columbia and closed the hatches. Soon after, Apollo 11 passed into the Moon’s gravitational sphere of influence, 214,086 miles from Earth and 38,929 miles from the Moon. The crew settled down for its third sleep period of the flight.

While the crew slept, MCC decided that a planned midcourse correction that day would also not be required, and they extended the crew’s rest. Shortly after they woke for their fourth day in space, Apollo 11 crossed into the Moon’s shadow, and they could observe the solar corona. They could see the Moon’s surface (lit by Earthshine) and, for the first time, they could see stars and constellations clearly. 

Capcom astronaut and backup Apollo 11 LMP Fred W. Haise read up the morning news to the crew. An item of interest was that in its reporting of the mission, the Soviet newspaper Pravda called Armstrong the “Czar of the Ship.” The Soviet press indicated that Luna 15 would accomplish everything that all previous Luna spacecraft had done—the first public hint that it might be trying to return samples from the Moon.

Armstrong provided the following description of the Moon, which the astronauts were seeing for the first time:

“The view of the Moon that we've been having recently is really spectacular. It fills about three-quarters of the hatch window and, of course, we can see the entire circumference, even though part of it is in complete shadow and part of it's in Earthshine. It's a view worth the price of the trip.”   

Three views of the lunar far side. Left: Crater Glazenap. Middle: Crater King. Right: Looking toward the Moon’s limb over the rim of Crater Mendeleev. Image Credits: NASA

Shortly after, as Apollo 8 and 10 had done before, Apollo 11 sailed behind the Moon, and all contact with Earth was cut off. Eight minutes later, they fired the SPS engine for the six-minute Lunar Orbit Insertion-1 (LOI-1) burn, and Apollo 11 entered into an elliptical lunar orbit. As Apollo 11 came around from the backside of the Moon, the crew members saw their first Earthrise. Aldrin reported their status to the MCC, saying, “The LOI-1 burn just nominal as all get-out, and everything's looking good.” 

A few minutes later, the astronauts got their first view of the approach to their landing site in the Sea of Tranquility, which was still in darkness. By the time of next day’s landing, the Sun will have risen at the landing site, with the low-angle illumination providing optimal lighting conditions.

It looks very much like the pictures, but like the difference between watching a real football game and one on TV,” Armstrong commented about the approach. “There’s no substitute for actually being here.” 

Two views of the Moon from Apollo 11’s first TV broadcast from lunar orbit. Left: The Crater Langrenus.  Right: The Mare Fecunditatis. Image Credits: NASA

During their second lunar orbit, the crew televised views of the Moon across much of the near side. At the end of that revolution and, once again behind the Moon, they fired the SPS engine for the 17-second LOI-2 burn to circularize their orbit. Armstrong and Aldrin entered the LM Eagle for the second time to begin activation and transfer of equipment, such as cameras. Aldrin reported that he could see the entire landing area as they flew over it. They returned to Columbia, and the entire crew settled down for their first sleep period in lunar orbit. It was also their final night before attempting the first Moon landing the next day.

From left, the Apollo 11 crew of Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin. Image Credit: NASA
From left, the Apollo 11 crew of Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin. Image Credit: NASA
Apollo 11 crew patch. Image Credit: NASA
Apollo 11 crew patch. Image Credit: NASA
Flight Director Clifford Charlesworth in the MCC during Apollo 11’s launch. Image Credit: NASA
Flight Director Clifford Charlesworth in the MCC during Apollo 11’s launch. Image Credit: NASA
Engineers in the Firing Room at Kennedy watch the launch after Apollo 11 clears the launch tower. Image Credit: NASA
Engineers in the Firing Room at Kennedy watch the launch after Apollo 11 clears the launch tower. Image Credit: NASA