One small step for a man, but one giant leap for mankind, are the words that reverberated like a bomb on July 20, 1969 and were heard by about 500 million people who were watching or listening to a broadcast on their televisions or radios at the time when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the closest celestial body to us, the Moon.
In the early 1950s, the famous "space race" between the then Soviet Union and the United States began. The Soviet Union launched the first Sputnik 1 satellite in 1957, and although it was a huge success for the Soviet Union, it was also a cause for concern around the world that the Soviets could use the rocket with which Sputnik was launched to launch intercontinental missiles. Americans joined the "space race" by launching NASA and the Mercury program, and the first American into space, Alan Shepard, was launched into Earth orbit and spent 15 minutes in Earth orbit.
In 1961, President J.F. Kennedy stated at a session of Congress that the nation should dedicate itself to landing man on the Moon and returning him home safely. That same year, Kennedy met with Nikita Khrushchev, the prime minister of the Soviet Union, and suggested that the Americans and the Soviets take part in this demanding project together, but Khrushchev refused.
In the same year, the Apollo program was launched and it was decided that the Apollo spacecraft would consist of 3 major parts:
- Command module with a cabin in which there were 3 astronauts, that was also the only part that returned to earth
- Service module that would drive the command module and supply it with electricity, oxygen and water
- The lunar module, which itself had two stages, which consisted of a part for landing and taking off from the Moon.
All three parts were placed on a single Saturn V rocket, which at the time was the tallest, most powerful and heaviest rocket in the world.
The technology and procedure for the Apollo program were developed during the Gemini Project which was NASA’s second manned space program, which consisted of 2 astronauts flying in Earth’s lower orbit. The Gemin project consisted of a total of 12 missions.
The Apollo program encountered difficulties at the very beginning when 3 astronauts were killed in the fire, and the program was briefly stopped in order to conduct an investigation and eliminate the difficulties. Apollo missions 4, 5 and 6 were unmanned because the spacecraft was tested in different conditions so that the human crew would not be endangered. The mission of Apollo 7 was to test the command module in Earth orbit, Apollo 8 was to test the command module in lunar orbit, Apollo 9 was to test the lunar module in Earth orbit in which the command and service module merged with the lunar in Earth orbit and Apollo 10 was was a dress rehearsal for Apollo 11.
The crew of this famous Apollo 11 consisted of Commander Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins pilot of the command module and Edwin "Buzz" Aldra pilot of the lunar module. The reserve crew included James Lovell (Commander), William Anders (pilot of the command module) and Fred Haise (pilot of the lunar module).
Apollo 11 was launched on July 16, 1969 at 9:32 Central Eastern Time. The launch on Cape Canaveral alone was followed by about a million people standing near the launch site, over 3,500 journalists and over 25 million people in the United States alone who have watched the launch on their TVs, and millions of others around the world. Three days after the launch, Apollo 11 entered orbit around the Moon and made 30 orbits around it until finally, Armstrong and Aldrin entered the lunar module on July 20 and began final preparations for landing on the Moon. However, this landing on the Moon did not go smoothly. Five minutes after starting the engine to slow down the lunar module, astronauts are alerted by alarms 1201 and 1202, which meant that the computer did not manage to do all its tasks on time and some tasks had to be postponed. Since trouble never comes alone, a crater prevented them to land so they had to use a significant amount of fuel to find a safe place to land. "The eagle landed," Armstrong said after landing on the Moon at 20:17 Central European Time, and 3 hours after landing, Armstrong and Aldrin began preparations for a lunar walk that lasted 6 hours. When the pressure in the lunar module was equal to the pressure on the Moon, it was time for Armstrong and Aldrin to come out of the lunar module.
After exiting the module and descending the ladder, Armstrong uttered a sentence that will forever be written in history textbooks "One small step for man but a great one for humanity". The first steps of a man on the Moon were followed by about 600 million people, which was 1/6 of the population back then. Aldrin and Armstrong spent just over 2 hours walking on the Moon, collecting over 22 kilograms of moonstones and heading back to the Moon module, where they rested for 7 hours. After resting, they took off in the launch module and rejoined Collins who was orbiting in lunar orbit all the time in the Colombia command module. Today, this Colombia command module is located alongside other important aircraft in the famous Smithsonian, the National Museum of Aviation and Astronautics in Washington.
The Apollo 11 crew returned to Earth on July 24, 1969 after a three-day journey from the Moon to Earth. They landed in the Pacific Ocean, 400km south of Johnston Atoll, about 20 kilometers from where the American aircraft carrier Hornet sailed to transport astronauts to land. It is interesting to mention that on landing, Armstrong, Aldrin and Colins had to wear contaminated suits until they reached the isolation rooms on the Hornet because it was not known whether there was life on Moon or not, and the Apollo crew had to spend 21 days in quarantine. After 3 weeks of isolation, they were found to be perfectly healthy and in the following months they participated in many events.