Monday, July 20, 2009

40 Years Later: Mankind's First Lunar Landing


Forty years ago today, two NASA astronauts brought a golden spacecraft down upon the Moon's surface, and stepped onto another world as America walked upon the lunar surface for the first time.

Launched on July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 mission was commanded by Neil A. Armstrong. Command module pilot Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Lunar Module Pilot Michael Collins rounded out the crew. This was the second space flight by each astronaut.

After traveling for a few days, the trio reached lunar orbit; and it was time for Neil and Buzz to leave Collins in the command module Columbia, and take the lunar module Eagle down to the surface.

With only sixty seconds of fuel left to keep them aloft, Armstrong, steered their tiny lunar lander away from a boulder field in which the craft's computer was sending them to land in. Alarms then began to go off in the cabin alerting them. The alarms, Mission Control in Houston would later state, was telling them that the computer was not able to process all the data coming in.

"30 seconds," called CAPCOM Charlie Duke in Houston to the Apollo 11 lander, Eagle, warning of how much time Armstrong and Aldrin had left in order to land or abort the entire landing.

Then suddenly, as millions of Americans watched their televisions, mankind began to realize that it happened by the words Armstrong used, "Contact Light. O.K., engines stop..."

Then at 4:18 pm EDT, the words humankind had waited to hear and what helped define America ever since, "Houston, Tranquillity Base here, the Eagle has landed!"

"Roger, Tranquillity. We copy you on the ground," radioed Duke back to the moon from the control center. "We've got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again, thanks a lot."

Duke's reference that the 4:17 pm minute was very much a "hold your breath" and a "hope Neil gets that lander down in time" moment in mission control.

Next up for the Neil and Buzz was the moonwalk.

After resting and grabbing a quick meal, the pair dressed into their lunar tuxedos and opened the hatch to the Eagle.

At 10:56 pm EDT, Armstong arrived on the last step of the ladder a foot from the surface. He looked around and noted to Mission Control that the surface was grey and like a "fine powder", and then paused as he stepped of the ladder.

"That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind."

Eight years following then-president John F. Kennedy's national commitment "to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth" before the end of the decade had happened -- with a moon walk to boot!

At 11:16 pm, Aldrin came down the ladder and became the second human to walk on the moon. In all, NASA's first moonwalk lasted two 1/2 hours and the pair was able to collect several pounds of moon rocks and set up a few science experiments.

After sleeping for a few hours on the moon inside the small cabin of Eagle, the two astronauts prepared on July 21st for the first lunar liftoff.

At the time, this was a very unknown element of the flight. Eagle was a two part spacecraft with the living quarters at the top and the lander section below. Under the crew quarters was a engine and nozzle to support the lunar launch. The lander section acted as a launch pad...

...and so at 1:54 pm EDT, Neil and Buzz punched the ignition switch and successfully fired the engine which gave the two a nice ride back into lunar orbit. Hours later, they rejoined Collins and left the moon for their return home.

Less than four months later, America left once again for our second landing upon the moon's surface.

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