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Remembering the moon landing

Saturday will mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, which took place July 20, 1969.

Until it actually succeeded, many considered this an impossible goal. It would require unprecedented imagination and innovation for the mission to succeed.

During the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy promised that, if he were elected, America would win the space race against the Soviets. It was the height of the Cold War, and the idea of the Russians getting ahead in the space race incensed many Americans. Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin went into orbit April 12, 1961, the first man to fly in space. Kennedy made a major statement reinforcing his commitment to space exploration during his 'State of the Union' speech in front of Congress May 25, 1961.

"Now it is time to take longer strides, time for a great new American enterprise, time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth," Kennedy said. "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. 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. … But in a very real sense it will not be one man going to the moon. If we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation, for all of us must work to put him there."

Kennedy made more space race-related comments during a speech at Rice University Stadium in Houston, Texas, Sept. 12, 1962. The city of Houston was chosen as the site for NASA's Mission Control Center, used during the Apollo program. Today it is the International Space Station Flight Control Room.

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard," Kennedy said. "Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone and one which we intend to win. [...] Space is there and we're going to climb it. And the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail, we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked."

Tragically, President Kennedy never lived to see his dream come true. After several years of research and development by NASA scientists, the Apollo program was created in September 1967. The idea was to test every possible propulsion scenario and piece of equipment that could conspire to get a man to the moon and back to Earth safely.

The first mission, Apollo 1, ended in a devastating failure. Three astronauts – Grand Rapids native Roger B. Chaffee, Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Ed White – were killed in a fire during a launch simulation on Jan. 27, 1967.

It took many failed attempts, but NASA eventually developed two brand new types of rocket during the Apollo program. The two-stage Saturn I rocket was 22 stories high and was successfully used to test the capsule that the astronauts would eventually ride in. The Saturn V rocket was 36 stories high and had three “stages,” rockets that would flare out, detach and burn up in the atmosphere. All of that thrust would propel the manned capsule to the moon. The manned spacecraft NASA invented was known as the command module. It was about the size of a small car, there was just enough space for three astronauts and their gear. The lunar module was a two-piece vehicle that would separate from the command module and carry two of the three astronauts to the surface of the moon. The bottom half of the lunar module acted as landing gear, and as a platform from which the top half could launch itself into orbit to meet the command module after the mission was completed. The bottom half of the Apollo 11 lunar module remains on the moon to this day.

After a few unmanned test flights, Dec. 24, 1968, the three Apollo 8 astronauts, Frank Borman, Bill Anders and Jim Lovell, became the first Americans to orbit the moon, which they did 10 times. Apollos 9 and 10 were further test flights, this time with people inside the spacecraft. Finally, NASA was reasonably confident that astronauts would survive a trip to the moon and back, and the historic Apollo 11 mission was approved. The crew consisted of commander Neil Armstrong, lunar module pilot Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and command module pilot Michael Collins. The lunar module was named “Eagle” and the command module was named “Columbia.”

The Apollo 11 mission launch took place at Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, Fla., at 9:32 a.m. July 16, 1969. The event was attended by former president Lyndon Johnson, former first lady Lady Bird Johnson, then-vice president Spiro Agnew and Army general William Westmoreland, plus four cabinet members, 19 governors, 40 mayors, 60 ambassadors, 200 congressmen and more than 3,500 news reporters. It was televised live in 33 countries, and it is estimated that 25 million in the U.S. and millions more across the world tuned in, including President Richard Nixon, who watched it on television in the Oval Office.

Three days after the launch, they entered lunar orbit. The next day, the Eagle and Columbia separated. Columbia remained in orbit with Collins on board while Aldrin and Armstrong rode the Eagle down to the surface of the moon. There were a few problems during the descent, and the mission was nearly abandoned. First, Armstrong and Aldrin determined that the Eagle was traveling too fast when they noticed that they were passing landmarks on the surface a couple seconds before they should have been. They calculated that they would land several miles west of their target if they continued at that speed. Then computer alarms began to ring when they were 6,000 feet above the surface. After conferring with mission control, they were given the go-ahead to land. Armstrong was forced to take the controls and land the Eagle semi-manually. When they landed, there was only enough fuel for 25 to 50 seconds of travel, then they would have had no choice but to land. The touchdown occurred at 4:17 Eastern time Sunday, July 20, 1969.

More than 600 million Earthlings watched the historic event live on television. Upon landing, they couldn't simply open the door, hop out and start running around on the moon. It took six hours of fastidious preparation to get all their equipment set up and ready before Armstrong and Aldrin could set foot on the surface of the moon.

Armstrong was first to exit the Eagle. As he set foot on the moon, Armstrong said, “That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The entire mission lasted eight days, three hours, 18 minutes and 35 seconds – 21 hours and 36 minutes of that was spent by Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon. During the mission, Armstrong and Aldrin took photos, picked up soil, rock and core samples and planted a U.S. flag at the landing site, which they named “Tranquility Base.” Meanwhile, Collins remained in orbit in the Columbia, waiting for the Eagle to rejoin it. NASA only allowed Armstrong and Aldrin to spend about two and a half hours exploring the surface of the moon because, at that time, they had no idea how long the water-cooled backpacks would be able to keep them cool. The moon has no atmosphere, so there was nothing but spacesuits to protect their skin from the sun.

President Richard Nixon spoke to the astronauts while they were on the moon via a telephone/radio transmission.

"I just can't tell you how proud we all are of what you've done," Nixon said. "For every American, this has to be the proudest day of our lives. And for people all over the world, I am sure they too join with Americans in recognizing what an immense feat this is. Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man's world. And as you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth. For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one: one in their pride in what you have done, and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth."

"Thank you, Mr. President," Armstrong replied. "It's a great honor and privilege for us to be here, representing not only the United States, but men of peace of all nations, and with interest and curiosity, and men with a vision for the future. It's an honor for us to be able to participate here today."

The astronauts reported that moon dust was very fine, it got into every nook and cranny and it even stained their perfectly white space suits gray. Moon gravity is a sixth of that on Earth, so they had a little trouble keeping their balance when maneuvering around the moon, but they also had some fun hopping around like kangaroos. After their time on the moon's surface, they returned to the Eagle where they slept for seven hours. Then it was time to rejoin the Columbia in orbit. Unfortunately, Aldrin accidentally broke the circuit breaker that controlled the Eagle's main engine. Luckily, they were able to fix it by jamming a felt tip pen in there, and the switch activated. Eagle and Columbia rendezvoused without incident at 5:24 p.m. Eastern July 21, 1969. They splashed down in the Pacific Ocean near Wake Island at 12:51 p.m. Eastern July 24, 1969. Nobody knew what kind of weird space diseases they might have brought back from the moon, so the astronauts were quarantined for 21 days. During the quarantine, they were visited by President Nixon.

“As a result of what you've done, the world has never been closer together before,” Nixon said.

Upon their release, Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins were honored by huge public parades in Chicago and New York City, they were presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and they spoke before Congress. Them they went on a 38-day world tour through 22 countries and visited with leaders of various nations.

Although modern cars and even everyday household appliances such as dishwashers are more technologically advanced, in 1969 it was the most complex machine ever built by human beings. It contained more than three million individual components and was capable of 7.5 million pounds of thrust. The energy generated by the launch could have powered New York City for 75 minutes. All this in an era when a lot of people were still watching television in black and white. The Apollo project ended up costing $25 billion, more than any nation has ever spent on a peacetime project.

Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins left behind a plaque on the moon. It says, “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”

The Apollo 11 command module is currently on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.



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