Former Astronauts Recall Historic First Moon Landing

By Bob Granath


Apollo astronauts participate in a panel discussion held for employees in the KSC Training Auditorium at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.NASA

"Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed!"

With these words, American astronaut Neil Armstrong announced that he and Buzz Aldrin had become the first persons to travel to and land on another celestial world -- 45 years ago.One of humankind's greatest achievements, the Apollo 11 mission began with the July 16, 1969, liftoff of a Saturn V rocket from NASA's Kennedy Space Center and set the stage for the historic lunar landing.

Following a July 21 ceremony to rename the Florida spaceport's Operations and Checkout Building, or O&C, in honor of Armstrong, space center employees had an opportunity to hear from Apollo 11 crew members Mike Collins and Aldrin, along with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Kennedy Director Bob Cabana. They also were joined by former Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell. The O&C is where Apollo spacecraft were prepared for flight and where the agency's Orion capsule is being processed for future missions beyond the moon.

Michael Collins in Apollo 11NASA

As his fellow Apollo 11 crew members explored the lunar surface, Collins orbited the moon in the command module. Commenting on the global impact of the first lunar landing, Collins recalled that he, Armstrong and Aldrin made an extensive trip around the world following the mission. The reactions of some were unexpected."The thing that really surprised me was that everywhere we went people didn't say, 'Well you Americans finally did it,'" he said. "They said, 'We did it.' All of us together, we did it. It was a wonderful sensation."Lovell agreed, explaining his reaction after Apollo 11 returned to Earth."We did it." he said "We actually put people on the surface of the moon."

Apollo 11 lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center xxxxxxxNASA

The July 20, 1969, lunar landing was the culmination of a goal set eight years earlier by President John F. Kennedy during the peak of the Cold War. It was a time of technological advances as well as global social and political upheaval.Lovell served on the first crew to leave Earth orbit and travel to orbit the moon in December 1968. He noted that in spite of problems in the world, Apollo brought people around the world together to celebrate the achievement."You have to remember what the United States was like in 1968 with the Vietnam War, the murders (of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy) and the riots," he said. "Apollo 8 was the high point in my space career. NASA put a spacecraft around the moon on Christmas Eve, and it changed the whole attitude of the country."The Apollo 11 landing also was an event that united the population of Earth.

Jim Lovell in the control centerNASA

Armstrong climbed down the ladder of the lunar module the crew had named, Eagle. At 10:56 p.m. EDT, on the day of the landing, he pressed the sole of his left boot to the primeval soil of the lunar surface."That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind," he said as an estimated 530 million people around the world watched on television. In the United States, 93 percent of the population's TVs were tuned to one of the three major networks covering the occasion.Cabana asked Aldrin, Collins and Lovell to recall memories of the event.Aldrin noted that as he prepared to exit the lunar module, it was important to remember even small details.

Apollo 11 Mission image - Astronaut Edwin Aldrin descends the Lu (1969-07-20)NASA

"Careful not to lock it!"

"I watched out the window to see Neil go down the ladder," he said. "When it was my turn to back out, I remember the check list said to reach back carefully and close the hatch, being careful not to lock it."As Aldrin said that on the moon, Armstrong laughed, "Particularly good thought!"Aldrin recalled that Collins tried to find the Tranquility Base landing site with the sextant, but couldn't."I didn't know where you were," said Collins, who performed two spacewalks during Gemini 10 in July 1966. "The sextant was like looking down the barrel of a rifle. It had a really narrow field of view."

Buzz Aldrin works at the deployed Passive Seismic Experiment PackageNASA

"The most lonesome person in the whole universe"

Cabana asked Collins what it was like in the command module performing experiments and photographing the lunar surface."I was the most lonesome person in the whole universe -- at least according to the newspapers," Collins said. "Actually, I was so glad to get behind the moon so Mission Control would shut up. Then I had some peace and quiet."His comment immediately resulted in laughter from the audience.Aldrin, who flew with Lovell on Gemini 12 in November 1966, explained that some things worked differently in the lunar environment."The TV camera had a wire going back to the lunar module," he said, "so they tested it on Earth, and the wire would lie flat on the ground. In the moon's one sixth G . . . nah! . . . just waiting for some clumsy guy to not see it."

Apollo astronauts participate in a panel discussion held for employees in the KSC Training Auditorium at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.NASA

When Cabana asked each to give his impression of the legacy of Apollo, Aldrin stated that it was about meeting a challenge even though it was something many believed could not be done. He recalled a line from Kennedy's speech at Rice University in Houston on Sept. 12, 1962."We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things," Kennedy said, "not because they are easy, but because they are hard.""The legacy of Apollo is, if you set your mind to do something, get everybody together and everybody agrees we should accomplish it, and then we go ahead, it became something we all could be proud of," said Lovell, the first person to fly in space four times. He was a member of the crews for Gemini 7 and 12, as well as Apollo 8 and 13.

Apollo 11 lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center xxxxxxxNASA

Collins pointed to the budget, the deadline and the quality of the NASA people as the keys to Apollo's success."We had three important things going for us, two of which we don't have today," he said. "The first one was, I wouldn't say money was no object, but we were getting slightly over three percent of the federal budget. The second one was a deadline -- by the end of the decade. You could motivate people… saying, 'We gotta do this by the end of the decade.' It was a very powerful tool."The third thing, we still have," Collins said. "We had a lot of smart people, young people, dedicated people who got to work early, stayed at work late. You didn't have to tell them they were part of a team, they knew they were part of a team."

Training Session at the Kennedy Space CenterNASA

While in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building, Lovell, Aldrin and Collins were given an opportunity to get an up-close look at NASA's new Orion spacecraft."All the stuff you learned from Apollo is now being applied it to Orion," Lovell said.Collins observed, "Orion is (shaped) geometrically like the Apollo command module. It looks to me like Orion is well on its way to becoming as good or better flying machine than the Apollo command module."When Bolden asked for advice as we move forward with Orion, Collins encouraged the NASA workforce to stay focused."The path you are on is a good path, perhaps the best path," Collins said. "From everything I've seen around here today, NASA's future is in very capable hands and you'll be as successful as Apollo."

Credits: Story

First Appeared: July 25, 2014 on
By Bob Granath
NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Florida
Last Updated: Aug. 7, 2017
Editor: Bob Granath

Credits: All media
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