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On This Day: Man Walks on the Moon

Last updated: February 15, 2023

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to set foot on the moon.

“One Giant Leap for Mankind”

The Apollo 11 spacecraft took off from Kennedy Space Center on 9:32 a.m. EDT on July 16 with Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., and Michael Collins on board. Soon after reaching lunar orbit about 76 hours into the mission, Armstrong and Aldrin entered the lunar module, the Eagle, and separated from the command module, the Columbia.

Armstrong guided the Eagle onto the moon’s surface, but not without trouble. The module’s computer erroneously sounded alarms, and just 30 seconds’ worth of fuel was left when it touched down on the Sea of Tranquility at 4:18 p.m. on July 20, according to NASA.

“Houston, Tranquility Base here,” Armstrong radioed. “The Eagle has landed.”

Sources in this Story

  • NASA: July 20, 1969: One Giant Leap For Mankind
  • Time: “A Giant Leap for Mankind”
  • Lunar and Planetary Institute: Apollo 11 Mission
  • U.S. Department of State: Office of the Historian: Sputnik, 1957
  • John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum: Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs
  • NASA: Apollo Missions

Hours later, at 10:56 p.m., Armstrong took the first steps out onto the moon’s surface. “The ghostly, white-clad figure slowly descended the ladder. … Then he extended his left foot, cautiously, tentatively, as if testing water in a pool—and, in fact, testing a wholly new environment for man,” wrote Time. “That groping foot, encased in a heavy multi-layered boot (size 9½B), would remain indelible in the minds of millions who watched it on TV, and a symbol of man’s determination to step—and forever keep stepping—toward the unknown.”

“That’s one small step for a man,” said Armstrong, “one giant leap for mankind.”

Aldrin joined Armstrong minutes later, and the two conducted several operations over the next two and a half hours, collecting rock samples and performing tests on the solar wind. They also planted an American flag on the lunar surface, left a patch honoring the Apollo 1 crew, and left a plaque commemorating Apollo 11 mission.

They then rejoined Collins in the Columbia and returned to Earth on July 24 in Hawaii.

Background: Space Race and the Apollo Program

NASA History

Since the end of the Second World War, the U.S. had been in a race against foreign powers to produce the most advanced space technology. In 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, Earth’s first artificial satellite, America quickened its pace.

President John F. Kennedy asked Congress in 1961 to devote more of its funds, resources and time to space exploration, and set a goal for the country to be first to send a man to the moon.

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieve the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth,” he said in a May 25 speech. “No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

Five manned Apollo missions were launched before the Apollo 11 crew touched down in 1969. None brought man to the moon, and the first ended before it even began when its command module burst into flames at Kennedy Space Station on Jan. 27, 1967.

Other attempts, however, were more successful and provided NASA researchers with photographs of the Earth and moon and the first live TV transmissions from space.

Biographies: The Apollo 11 crew

NASA provides biographies of Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins.

For more, read findingDulcinea’s profiles on Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

Reference: Images and Videos From Apollo 11

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library’s “We Choose the Moon” Web site recreates the Apollo 11 mission through audio of the mission transmission dubbed over animated video. It also includes photo and video galleries of the mission.

The National Aeronautics and Space Organization image gallery houses photographs of the Apollo 11 mission. See pictures of the liftoff, a footprint in lunar soil, and an image of the Earth rising over the moon.

Watch video footage of Armstrong taking his first steps on the crater-drenched moon surface, just like millions of viewers did in their living rooms on the night of July 20, 1969. This clip includes audio of Armstrong’s first impressions of how difficult it was to balance his center of mass in the foreign atmosphere.

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