Apollo 11's mission was a 'giant leap for mankind' - and cold war rivalry

Apollo 11's venture to the moon in 1969 was an extraordinary voyage of discovery - 'one giant leap for mankind' … and cold war rivalry

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 August, 2012, 11:57am


At 9.32am on July 16, 1969, a 2,900-tonne Saturn V rocket blasted off from Kennedy Space Centre in Florida carrying the Columbia lunar command module and the dreams of a generation.

The mission was Apollo 11, the commander was 38-year-old former navy pilot Neil Armstrong and the destination was the Sea of Tranquility, on the moon.

For the United States, the mission was a cold war manoeuvre, a bid to fulfil the vow made by president John F. Kennedy that Nasa could overtake the pioneering Russian space programme and put a man on the moon.

But for spellbound audiences around the world, it was also an extraordinary and optimistic voyage of discovery and engineering.

The huge rocket carried Columbia and its crew - Armstrong and fellow Nasa astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins - into earth's orbit before the third and final booster stage catapulted them towards the moon.

Columbia was docked with the Eagle lunar landing module, and three days later, the combined Apollo 11 craft found itself in orbit around the moon. On July 20, Armstrong and Aldrin uncoupled the Eagle and began their descent.

As they descended, monitored by Nasa mission control in Houston and watched by an audience of millions around the world in an unprecedented live broadcast, a computer error in the navigation computer caused two alarms to sound.

The computer recognised it was receiving spurious data and corrected itself, maintaining its descent. Propellant was also sloshing around Eagle's tanks more than had been expected, triggering a premature low-fuel warning.

With co-pilot Aldrin calling out flight data, Armstrong guided the craft, touching down in a 300-metre wide crater with only 25 seconds of fuel left. He and Aldrin began to work through their landing checklist.

"We copy you down, Eagle," said ground commander Charles Duke. Armstrong confirmed his engine was off before responding with the now legendary phrase: "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

The commander, who died at the weekend aged 82, had another now famous remark prepared for the moment more than two hours later when he jumped from a short ladder onto the lunar surface, the first human ever on an alien world. "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," he said.

Twenty minutes later, he was joined by Aldrin and the pair spent 21 hours on the moon's rocky and powdery surface, marvelling at a view of earth that no one had seen before, and gathering rocks as samples for study.

The journey home was no less complicated, the Eagle lander having to launch itself from the surface and rendezvous with Collins on Columbia before setting off to earth.

On July 24, the crew capsule ditched in the Pacific Ocean, with the triumphant trio onboard, braced for a heroes' welcome. Left behind them, planted firmly in the lunar dust, the Stars and Stripes symbolised America's victory.

For, if Apollo 11's mission had lasted just eight days, the moonwalk was also the culmination of a wager that had been made eight years earlier, when a young Kennedy had decided to challenge Moscow's lead in the space race.

The Soviet Union had put a satellite into orbit in 1957, and in 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Moscow trumpeted its advance as a sign of communism's superiority over the Western model of liberal capitalism.

With the cold war foes locked in a nuclear stand-off, the United States could not afford this slight to its technical expertise and economic strength.

Thanks to Nasa, its astronauts and US$25 billion - an estimated US$115 billion in today's terms - Kennedy got his wish, and 500 million television viewers around the world saw the star-spangled banner fly on the moon.

In 1970, a few months after the lunar landing, Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov wrote in an open letter to the Kremlin that America's ability to put a man on the moon proved the superiority of a democracy.

There were six more Apollo missions and 10 more humans walked on the surface of the earth's lone mysterious satellite that has fuelled dreams and imaginations since the earliest humans walked the planet.

But the last moonwalk was in 1972, and Nasa's manned space programme has been limited since the space shuttles were taken out of service last year.



Neil Armstrong. Apollo 11, 1969.
Buzz Aldrin. Apollo 11.
Charles Conrad. Apollo 12, 1969.
Alan Bean. Apollo 12.
Alan Shepard. Apollo 14, 1971.
Edgar Mitchell. Apollo 14.
David Scott. Apollo 15, 1971.
James Irwin. Apollo 15.
John Young. Apollo 16, 1972.
Charles Duke Jr. Apollo 16.
Eugene Cernan. Apollo 17, 1972.
Harrison Schmitt. Apollo 17.

Associated Press