This Day in History: Neil Armstrong steps onto the moon
On this day in 1969, Neil Armstrong becomes the first man to walk on the moon. Americans had won a “space race” to get there. We’d overcome the Soviet Union, which had been running ahead for much of that race.
Soviets sent the first artificial satellite into orbit, then a dog, then a person. Americans were just getting started, though. Soon President John F. Kennedy gave a memorable speech to Congress.
“Now it is time to take longer strides,” he exhorted, “time for a great new American enterprise . . . . 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.”
What a goal! At the time he gave this speech in 1961, NASA was not even 3 years old yet.
Following Kennedy’s speech, a few manned missions were sent into space. Unfortunately, one of these met with disaster when Apollo 1 caught fire during a preflight test. Three astronauts were killed.
Finally, on July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 was launched from Cape Kennedy with three men aboard: Commander Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. The trip to the moon, combined with efforts to prepare for a lunar landing, took a little more than 100 hours. On July 20, the lunar module was launched from the command module with Armstrong and Aldrin aboard. It landed in the moon’s Sea of Tranquility.
No one had any idea what to expect. Would Armstrong and Aldrin be able to move around, given the low gravity on the moon? Would the space suits keep the men cool enough? (It is 200 degrees Fahrenheit on the moon’s surface!) How long could the men reasonably expect to stay and collect data?
As you know, Neil Armstrong was the first to step out and actually walk on the moon. As he descended from the lunar module, he famously noted that he was taking “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Can you imagine what that must have felt like?!
Aldrin soon followed Armstrong onto the moon. Both men spoke to President Richard Nixon while they were there—effectively the first phone call from the Earth to the moon.
“[T]his certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made from the White House,” Nixon said. “I just can’t tell you how proud we all are . . . . Because of what you have done, the heavens have become part of man’s world.”
Armstrong and Aldrin spent a few hours on the moon before finally returning to the lunar module and beginning their trek home. They left behind a plaque, which read: “HERE MEN FROM THE PLANET EARTH FIRST SET FOOT UPON THE MOON JULY 1969, A.D. WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND.” They also planted a United States flag, but it was knocked over during their return to the command module.
The Apollo 11 crew returned to Earth on July 24. They were the first human beings ever to make the journey to the moon and back.
Kennedy never lived to see these feats, but don’t you know he would have been proud? And surely he would have been unsurprised to discover that American determination would ultimately win the day.
Alan Taylor, The Year Men Walked on the Moon (The Atlantic; July 15, 2014)
Apollo 11 (NASA website)
Buzz Aldrin, No Dream Is Too High: Life Lessons From a Man Who Walked on the Moon (2016)
Cathleen Lewis, Why Yuri Gagarin Remains the First Man in Space, Even Though He Did Not Land Inside His Spacecraft (Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum; April 12, 2010)
Elizabeth Howell, Neil Armstrong: First man on the moon (Space.com, Jan. 17, 2020)
James Fincannon, Six Flags on the Moon: What is Their Current Condition? (NASA website)
James R. Hansen, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong (2005)
John F. Kennedy, Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs (May 25, 1961)
Robert Krulwich, Neil Armstrong Talks About The First Moon Walk (NPR; Dec. 8, 2010)