Fifty years ago this week, three brave men aided by the greatest country in the history of mankind were on their way to the greatest human accomplishment in the history of mankind. My question is where were you at that anxious moment when Neil Armstrong proclaimed, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind?” Here is my answer plus more interesting facts about this heroic event.
Coincidentally, on that Wednesday, July 16th, when the Apollo 11 crew of three blasted off, I was flying an Air Force training flight as a student at Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Oklahoma. In the program to become an Air Force pilot, I was as excited about flying jets as the two Air Force pilots and one former Navy pilot were about landing on the moon. I actually remember feeling a kindred spirit with mission commander Neil Armstrong, lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin, and command module pilot Michael Collins. All three had once been where I was learning to master the challenge and joy of military flying that words can’t express.
Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins lifted off at 9:32 EDT with the understanding that a thousand things could go wrong and with no guarantee of ever returning. Such a complex mission was not without extreme risk. We all learned two moon missions later just how easily things could turn south so unexpectedly when the Apollo 13 crew had to abort their mission due to an on-board explosion and almost didn’t make it back. Two years earlier, there had been the tragedy of the Apollo 1 crew who lost their lives in a prelaunch cabin fire. But this Wednesday, the adrenaline level of the three, knowing over 500 million people were watching, pushed fear aside. At 12:56 pm, in earth orbit, they separated from the Saturn Five booster rocket, rotated their command module (CM) “Columbia”, and docked nose-to-nose with their accompanying lunar excursion module (LEM), dubbed “Eagle” before departing earth’s orbit at 2:13 pm.
For about three days, they watched the moon grow in their windscreen as they sped toward it at speeds up to 25,000 miles per hour. Collins fired the burners to begin circling the moon on Saturday, July 19th at 1:21 pm. On Sunday morning, July 20th, Armstrong and Aldrin entered the LEM and tested all systems. At 3:08 pm, Aldrin fired the burners to separate the LEM from the CM and begin the decent. Thus far, this mission had been much like the two practice missions to the moon weeks earlier. But that was all about to change. This wasn’t a practice low approach in the LEM. This was real!
At 4:18 pm, Armstrong, having had to take manual control of the LEM due to unanticipated terrain issues and guidance computer failure, touched down with a cloud of moon dust on the moon plain called Sea of Tranquility. Armstrong generated a huge sigh of relief heard around the world with the words, “The Eagle has landed.” After about 6 1/2 hours of post-flight checks and well-deserved rest, Neil Armstrong donned his space suit and head gear, opened the LEM hatch, climbed down the ladder, and made that famous footprint as he voiced the proclamation almost everyone knows by memory. It was 10:56 pm on the east coast. Nineteen minutes later, Buzz Aldrin joined his history-making partner for a few minutes of exploration and photo ops. What a moment!
On Monday, July 21st, after about 21 hours on the moon’s surface, the two were back in the LEM, and Aldrin fired the launch rockets at 1:54 pm to blast themselves back into moon orbit. The rendezvous with a welcoming Collins was uneventful as he was more than ready to fly them back home. Splashdown was on Thursday, July 24th, at 12:50 pm 900 miles southwest of Hawaii. Mission accomplished! God bless America!
My wife and I drove from Enid to Oklahoma City on that Sunday to watch the incredible event with a couple who were dear college friends and classmates. I will never forget sitting in front of the TV, the four of us mesmerized by the minute-by-minute playing out of history. As I watched, I fantasized about becoming an astronaut. Maybe I would walk on the moon someday. Maybe mars! I must say this dream wouldn’t have been too far-fetched if America had kept up the momentum of space travel. I have been disappointed that our country has languished with the shuttle program. Nevertheless, I still often relive in my mind that awesome July 20, 1969, when I was blessed to be part of the generation that put the first men on the moon.
Both Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins are still alive and in relatively good health at age 89 and 88 respectively. All three crew members were born in 1930. Sadly, Neil Armstrong died in 2012.
Please reply with your whereabouts and any other pertinent information regarding your witness of the first moon landing. To my under-50 friends, sorry you missed it.