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40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing
Submitted: Friday, 15th May 2009 by Mike Salway

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40th Anniversay of Apollo 11

July 20th, 2009 (July 21 in Australia) marks the 40th Anniversary since the Apollo 11 Moon Landing. Almost anyone alive at the time will be able to tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing, the moment that Apollo 11 Commander, Neil Armstrong, first stepped onto the Moon and spoke those now immortal words:

"One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind".

The Challenge

It all started in 1961, when US President John F. Kennedy put out the challenge:

"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."

While no easy feat, this bold challenge united and focused the efforts of thousands of NASA engineers and contractors to overcome immense technical barriers in their desire to achieve the presidents goal.


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40th Anniversary of Apollo 11

Over the next 8 years, through Projects Mercury, Gemini and finally Apollo, the US built up its expertise and experience in unmanned and manned spaceflight - catching up to, and eventually overtaking the Russians in the race to land a man on the Moon and return him safely.

Apollo 11 Crew

The crew of Apollo 11 consisted of Neil Armstrong (Commander), Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin Jr (Lunar Module Pilot) and Michael Collins (Command Module Pilot).

All 3 astronauts had been in space before - Armstrong was the Command Pilot On Gemini 8, Aldrin was pilot on Gemini 12, and Collins on Gemini 10.

Armstrong was born in Ohio on August 5, 1930. He served in the US Navy before flying as a test pilot for NACA. His first space flight was aboard Gemini 8 in 1966.

Aldrin was born in New Jersey on January 20, 1930. He served in the US Airforce before flying as a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base. His first space flight was aboard Gemini 12 in 1966.

Collins was born in Italy on October 31, 1930. He served in the US Airforce before flying as a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base. His first space flight was aboard Gemini 10 in 1966.



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Official Apollo 11 Crew Photo - Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin

Apollo 11 Launch and Lunar Orbit

Apollo 11 was launched by a Saturn V rocket from the Kennedy Space Centre on the 16th July, 9:32am local time, and entered into Earth's orbit 12 minutes later.

After a trans-lunar coast of almost 3 days, Apollo 11 entered lunar orbit about 76 hours into the mission. The crew rested before Armstrong and Aldrin entered the Lunar Module to prepare for descent to the lunar surface.

At approx 100 hours into the mission, the Lunar Module separated from the Command and Service Modules and began the descent phase.


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Apollo 11 Launched by the Saturn V rocket

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Earth and the Lunar Module during Trans-Lunar Coast

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Earthrise during Lunar Orbit

Apollo 11 Moon Landing

The Apollo 11 landing site was chosen based on a number of criteria (from Lunar and Planetary Institute):

The Apollo 11 landing site in Mare Tranquillitatis was one of three sites selected for the first lunar landing from a list of 30 sites originally under consideration. Final site choices were based on the following factors:

  • Smoothness:  Relatively few craters and boulders
  • Approach:  No large hills, high cliffs, or deep craters that could cause incorrect altitude signals to the lunar module landing radar
  • Propellant Requirements:  The least expenditure of spacecraft propellants
  • Recycle:  Effective launch preparation recycling if the Apollo Saturn V countdown is delayed
  • Free Return:  Within reach of the spacecraft launched on a free-return translunar trajectory
  • Slope:  Less than 2° slope in the approach path and landing site

During the descent to the surface, fuel began to run low, and some "program overflow" alarms gave the astronauts a potentially serious problem that may have caused them to abort. Neil Armstrong says:

"In the final phases of the descent after a number of program alarms, we looked at the landing area and found a very large crater. This is the area we decided we would not go into; we extended the range downrange."

With only 30 seconds of fuel remaning, the Apollo 11 Lunar Module touched down at Mare Tranquillitatis at 3:17pm EST on July 20, 1969. At touchdown, Neil Armstrong broadcast these words to the waiting world:

"Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

Charles Duke, the CapCom for Apollo 11 expressed the nerves of the millions of people worldwide, holding their breath waiting for landing:

“Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You've got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot.”


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Lunar Module undocked from the Command Service Module

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A picture out of the Lunar Module window during descent

First Men on the Moon

6 hours after landing, at 10:56pm EDT July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong exited the Lunar Module and became the first man to walk on the surface of another celestial body. His famous words now hold a special place to generations of humans who were alive to witness it:

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

15 minutes later, Buzz Aldrin joined Neil on the surface and the pair spent the next 2.5 hours collecting samples, performing experiments and deploying scientific instruments.

They also planted the US Flag, which caused a few problems. First, one of the telescopic arms which were designed to keep the flag extended and perpendicular wouldn't extend all the way - giving the flag the 'wave'. Secondly, they had trouble pushing the pole into the lunar soil far enough so that it wouldn't fall over. Although the top few centimetres was dusty, fine and almost powder-like material, it was hard beneath and the flag was only precariously standing. Aldrin recalls that he saw the flag blow over from the blast of the ascent rockets during liftoff.


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Aldrin exiting the Lunar Module

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Aldrin's boot print in the lunar regolith

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Famous picture of Aldrin, with Armstrong and the LM reflected in the visor

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Aldrin with the American Flag

Ascent and Return to Earth

After their 2.5 hour EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity), the astronauts tried to rest and it was 7 hours later when they started preparing the Lunar Module for the return flight. A further 2.5 hours later, they fired the ascent engines to blast off the lunar surface to dock once again with the Command Service Module, Columbia. They left a plaque behind, which read:

"Here Men From Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon The Moon. July 1969 A.D. We Came In Peace For All Mankind."

After a flawless docking with Columbia, the Apollo 11 crew started their return journey back to Earth and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24th, 1969.


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Lunar Module during Ascent phase to dock with Columbia

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Apollo 11 crew in their life raft waiting to be picked up after splashdown

Australia's Role in the Moon Landings

On Monday 21st July, 1969, the Parkes Observatory played a crucial role in allowing 600 million people worldwide to watch Man's first steps on the Moon.

Three tracking stations were setup to receive signal from the Moon - Goldstone in California, Honeysuckle Creek outside Canberra, and CSIRO's Parkes Radio Telescope. NASA alternated between Goldstone and Honeysuckle creek, searching for the best quality signal as the Moon had not yet risen in Parkes.

Armstrong and Aldrin moved their planned EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) forward and Parkes would not have received signal at all, but donning their spacesuits and depressurising the Lunar Module cabin took longer than expected, so by the time the Armstrong stepped out of the Lunar Module the Moon had just started rising above the horizon at Parkes.

With the telescope tipped all the way onto its side to track the rising Moon, severe gusts of wind shook the foundations, almost causing structural problems with the telescope - but luckily the wind abated literally minutes before Armstrong walked on the surface.

By this time, the Moon was in full view for the Parkes Radio Telescope and the quality of pictures was so good that NASA stayed with the Parkes broadcast for the entire 2.5 hour EVA.

The brilliant movie, The Dish, depicts this exciting time for the Parkes Radio Telescope.


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Parkes Observatory in the 1960's


Project Apollo was a triumph of human endeavour. To overcome immense technical integration and system engineering challenges, the engineers and management at NASA pulled together to achieve President Kenney's goal.

The technical achievements delivered great progress in the fields of rocketry and aeronautics, as well many civilian fields including civil, mechanical and electrical engineering.

It is planned that as part of the Consellation Program, NASA will send astronauts back to the Moon, perhaps around 2018-2020. I really want to see this in my lifetime. With the technological improvements over the last 40 years, the images and the science that will be returned will be simply stunning.

Happy 40th Anniversary, Apollo 11.

References and Further Reading


Article by Mike Salway (iceman). Discuss this article on the IceInSpace Forum.
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