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Apollo 11, 50 Years Later: The Space Race That Defined a Decade

Alight on the lunar surface alongside Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

apollo 11 moon landing
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1960s, America saw culture flourishing and technology advancing. Space exploration in particular was growing fast thanks to displaced Cold War tensions. American progress was largely spurred by the Soviet Union’s own rapid accomplishments: The Soviet Union was the first nation to send probes, unmanned rockets, and eventually a person into space to receive imagery and data of a world previously untouched. Fearful of what the Soviet Union could do with this information, the United States government began allocating more funds into their own space research and technology. The term “space race” was coined as President Kennedy and President Nixon made promises to put American men on the moon itself before the decade ended. Not only would a spectacular moon landing one-up the Soviets, but the whole world would see America’s scientific superiority. 

In Moon Shot, NASA colleagues Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton document the decisions and missions leading up to the moon landing, profiling the many personalities involved with thorough care.

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After years of extensive research and numerous prototypes, NASA engineers arrived at a plan and spacecraft for Apollo 1, the first mission attempt at landing men on the moon. However, in a fatal pre-flight test, the three chosen crewmembers, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger B. Chaffee, were unable to open the spacecraft’s door when a fire broke out inside the capsule. The 1967 tragedy was not only a setback for NASA, sending them back to the drawing board, but for the United States government as its first ever mission to touch down on the lunar surface never even left the Earth. The failure of Apollo 1 was sobering—the lives and safety of astronauts could not and would not be compromised in an effort to win the space race. 

In the following Apollo missions—most of which were unmanned—NASA was able to get as close to the moon, in order to gauge the terrain and scope out the safest and smoothest area for a crew to land. Some surveyors were landed on the moon, while others were purposely crashed into the surface. The area they chose was a 544-mile expanse appropriately named the Sea of Tranquility (Mare Tranquillitatis, in Latin) for its relative evenness and visibility on the moon’s surface. 

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With the location chosen, several test flights and landings were run to eliminate any malfunction. Three astronauts were nominated to climb on board mission Apollo 11—the second attempt to put man on the moon. Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins had a three day journey ahead of them to fulfill the mission that the crew of Apollo 1 tragically could not: Two of them would attempt to become the first men and Americans to walk on the moon. Though the rocket took off without a hitch, neither the astronauts nor the team tracking their flight from NASA were 100% certain about the voyage. 

Apollo 8 and 10 had successfully orbited the moon, but at from a safe distance from its gravitational pull. Apollo 11 would be the first spacecraft subjected to the gravity of another world. Though the test flights were extremely accurate, there would be little backup in the event that something goes awry. 

As Armstrong and Aldrin approached the moon’s orbit in their ship, Eagle, they made frequent contact with the team at home. Everything seemed to be running smoothly until they got within a few hundred feet of the moon’s surface and began hurtling downwards due to its gravity. This was expected, but what wasn’t was the Lunar Module quickly running out of fuel and flying past the projected landing site. The astronauts were in unfamiliar terrain with little time to decide if they should abort and save themselves. After receiving reassurance from the NASA team to keep going, they held their breath and prepared for touchdown. 

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In the excerpt below, Shepard and Slayton draw out a keen illustration of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s first few hours on the moon: what they saw, felt, the samples they collected. Although the majesty of experiencing such a moment for the first time can only be imagined, Shepard and Slayton’s work does much to illuminate the glory of being the first people on the moon.

Read on for an excerpt of Moon Shot, then download the book.




Moon Shot

By Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton

On July 20, 1969, eight years after President John F. Kennedy had promised to put a man on the moon, Neil Armstrong stepped from Apollo 11’s lunar module and climbed down Eagle’s ladder to the moon’s surface. There was no hurry. Moving into the unknown demanded patience, caution, and readiness for the unexpected. Armstrong stepped backward from the lunar module’s hatch. He headed for where no human had ever gone, toward the surface of a world devoid of life, a surface below with craters and endless dust—an alien world with the rubble of cosmic bombardment. He felt strangely comfortable. Both his booted feet touched the ladder’s rungs with confidence as billions on distant Earth were fixed on their television screen, on a ghostly figure of a space-suited human moving slowly and steadily down Eagle’s ladder.

Suddenly he was there. Billions watched as Neil jumped the final three and a half feet to the moon’s surface.


Then his left foot pressed down hard on a fine-grained surface at 10:56 P.M. American Eastern Time. He pushed his body slightly away. Both boots stood planted solidly beneath him.

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Immortal words spoken into his spacesuit radio for Earth to hear:

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

Then, he looked down, studied the lunar soil beneath his boots and squatted. A gloved hand gathered several ounces of rock and dirt and stuffed the small, invaluable collection of the moon in a suit pocket. If something should go wrong, and he had to scurry back inside Eagle, at least they would have a tiny sample of lunar soil. He managed a smile as he tucked the contingency sample safely away, and with their lunar lander systems hitting on all cylinders, Buzz was eager to follow. 

Fifteen minutes passed and Mission Control gave Aldrin the “Go.” He did not hesitate. He climbed down the ladder, stopping only when his boots were on the moon. It had happened as promised. The astronaut corps and NASA were happy, to say the least. Humans were on the moon before the decade had ended.

Neil began to move along the ground. Every step was an experiment. Every movement was an exploration. Every turn, walk, low-gravity jump was a first-time-ever adventure. Despite the cumbersome spacesuits, both men found moving about in one-sixth gravity exhilarating and described the experience as floating. “They would be on the moon for only a short visit, and they were in a hurry to try everything planned for them. They wanted to take advantage of lightweight gravity to make leaps impossible on earth. But while they weighed less, they still possessed body mass that restricted their ability to move as freely as they liked. When they leaped up, they found their efforts produced a loping movement. If they started to jog, the mass and velocity created kinetic energy. When they jogged at the fastest speed they could attain, their momentum made quick stops impossible.

apollo 11 crew
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  • Apollo 11 crew (left to right): Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin.

    Photo Credit: NASA

The clock ran down swiftly. There was much to do. They needed to complete their checklist in two hours before resealing themselves inside Eagle. NASA wanted no unexpected surprises. Not on this first venture to the moon.

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“The surface is fine and powdery,” Neil reported to a fascinated world. “It adheres in fine layers, like powdered charcoal, to the soles and sides of my boots. I only go in a fraction of an inch, maybe an eighth of an inch, but I can see the footprints of my boots and the treads in the fine, sandy particles.”

Neil didn’t know it at the time it would be these highly defined footprints that would be the “proof” that some armchair physicists would use to prove the moonwalk was a fake. Humans would rather think the worst of themselves than the best. Myth believers claimed that Neil and Buzz could have only left such firm, defined boot prints in soil with moisture. But close examination of the lunar soil brought back to Earth showed it to be virgin. The grains still had their sharp edges. They had not been rounded off by wind and erosion in an atmosphere. In their vacuum the sharp edges of lunar soil cling together, leaving a smooth surface much as moist sand does on a beach.

“Where were the stars?” the myth believers then asked. The cameras that NASA sent to the moon had to use short-exposure times to take pictures of the bright lunar surface and the moonwalkers’ white spacesuits. Stars’ images, easily seen by the moonwalkers, were too faint and underexposed to be seen as they are in photographs taken from space shuttles and the International Space Station.

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And why didn’t the descent rocket carve out a crater? Its thrust was simply too weak to make a huge dent in the lunar crust.

The two had problems jamming the American flag into the lunar surface. Though a metal rod held the flag extended, the subsurface soil was so hard that they had to bang and push on the pole to get it to barely remain upright. Their forcible actions left the flag’s staff rocking back and forth for an unusual length of time. The myth believers believe it’s wind blowing the flag.

There’s no wind on the moon, just vacuum. But an object forced into repeating motions in a vacuum repeats the motions many more times than it does in atmosphere. The flag’s motion was later duplicated in a vacuum chamber at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama for the Discovery Channel’s MythBusters television show.

With Old Glory standing, Neil moved off to take more pictures while Buzz set up various instruments. One was a multi-mirror target for returning laser beams fired from Earth—laser reflectors that have been used worldwide to determine the distance between Earth and the moon to the inch.

Forty years after the Apollo lunar landing, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, returned images of the moon landing sites. The pictures show five of the six Apollo descent stages that served as the moonwalkers’ launch platforms for their trips home, including Apollo 11’s resting where Neil and Buzz left it on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility. And the Apollo 14 landing area shows a faint trail of Alan Shepard’s and Edgar Mitchell’s two-mile round-trip walk to Cone Crater pulling their “rickshaw.”

It’s clear that there was no fraud.

As the clock ticked away, Neil put aside his checklist, awed by the beauty of the alien landscape. He took a long, slow look at the “moon’s surface. “It’s a very soft surface,” Neil radioed back to Mission Control. “But here and there where I bored with the contingency sample collector, I ran into a very hard surface. It appears to be a very cohesive material of some sort.”

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What he described astounded and fascinated listeners around the world.

“It has a very stark beauty all its own,” he said slowly. “It’s like much of the high desert areas of the United States. It’s different, but it’s pretty out here.”

To Buzz, the moon’s surface was: “Beautiful, beautiful! Magnificent desolation.” He was struck with the shocking contrasts of color. There were many shades of gray, a pale tan, and areas of utter black where rocks cast their shadows along the airless surface. 

Standing back from Eagle, they saw the silvery ascent stage and the gleaming crinkle-gold coating on the descent stage, the splayed spidery landing legs, and the wide semi-rounded footpads resting in gray dust.

The earth was a resplendent oasis of shifting colors, appearing far larger than the moon. And many times brighter as sunlight splashed off clouds and oceans.

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  • Neil Armstrong (reflected) takes a picture of Buzz Aldrin on the moon's surface.

    Photo Credit: NASA / Flickr

There were protocols to meet for the historic occasion. On the lunar dust they placed mementoes for the five-deceased American and Soviet spacemen, Gus Grissom, Ed White, Roger Chaffee, Vladimir Komarov, and Yuri Gagarin (who died in a plane crash in 1968). They unsheathed a metal disc on the descent stage with engraved messages to future moon visitors.

As Neil Armstrong read the plaque’s words, his voice carried throughout the world. 

“Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969, AD. We came in peace for all mankind.”

There was yet another small cargo—private and precious—carried by Neil Armstrong to the moon. It was not divulged at the time, but he carried the diamond-studded astronaut pin made especially for Deke Slayton by the three Apollo 1 astronauts and presented to him by their widows after that dreadful fire.

The two astronauts gathered fifty pounds of lunar soil samples, dust, and rocks, packed their precious find in sealed containers, and used a hand-powered pulley system to send the boxes up to the ascent stage. Working with untried equipment in vacuum, they struggled to get the boxes aboard their ship, kicking up a cloud of moon dust.

It was time to shut down the first moonwalk. They worked their way to the ladder and squeezed into their “flight deck,” and sealed and pressurized their cabin. They stowed gear not necessary for flight and went through their long checklist, following every procedure worked out before leaving their launch pad. Buzz had walked and jogged about the moon for one hour and forty-four minutes, Neil for two hours and fourteen minutes.

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Houston reminded them they needed to sleep for five hours before starting the countdown to liftoff. Easier said than done. They were cold in Eagle. Whatever had been set up to keep them warm on the airless world left much to be desired. Their available space was cramped and austere, and they were wound up tighter than alarm clocks with elation and excitement. At best, they slept fitfully.

Twenty-one hours after touchdown, Armstrong fired up the engine, and Eagle blasted free of its launch platform—the bottom half of the lunar module. Insulation material torn free by the rocket blast scattered widely in a shower of debris. Neil Armstrong, watching the surface, saw the first American flag deployed on the moon yield to the whoosh of dust and debris and fall slowly over on its side.

That was all the time the astronauts had for sightseeing as they manned controls and computers and radar systems for the three-and-a-half-hour trip to rendezvous with Mike Collins and the command ship orbiting sixty miles overhead. They flew Eagle skillfully and precisely. Collins watched the LM drive “steady as a rock” and “right down the center line of final approach” toward linkup. Ten minutes later Eagle was firmly docked with Columbia. The two ships were once again one.

Buzz and Neil floated back into the command module, which soon echoed to the wild cheers of three astronauts whose flight would forever change man’s view of his planet. At such a joyous moment, Collins related, these responsible, highly trained, extremely skilled men, who had just carried out the impossible, were “all smiles and giggles over our success."

Want to keep reading? Download Moon Shot now.

Fifty years after the moon landing, humans have their sights set on another world: Mars. While the Cold War with the Soviet Union is no longer a motivating factor in space exploration, there is still plenty of competition within the United States. Alongside NASA is Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, both of whom are also interested in exploring space–and possibly staying there. The untapped potential of mining and harvesting extraterrestrial resources is also alluring, as they could provide the key to saving the Earth and preserving the human species. Fifty years ago, setting foot on the moon was the greatest accomplishment to come from people on Earth, and certainly a win for Americans. While the moon landing’s importance can never be overstated, it was just the start of humankind’s venture into other worlds. 

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Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons