We have only one subject today…
Today is the 50th anniversary of the day when human beings first stepped foot on the moon. Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins flew their spacecraft to the moon, and then Armstrong and Aldrin took the lunar lander to the surface. On July 20, 1969 Neil Armstrong descended the ladder, put his foot on the moon’s surface and said, “That’s one small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind.”
I was 13 years old. The only thing more exciting to me that summer was that the Cubs were in first place and it looked like they were going to win the pennant. Alas, the “Miracle Mets” passed them and this young boy’s dreams were dashed. But we went to the moon! And I was one of millions of people who were glued to the TV set watching every movement, intent on every word spoken. Like the little boy in this wonderful photo, I was transfixed.
A few facts you might not know about Apollo 11 and its story…
Neil Armstrong almost died during training for Apollo 9, when the lunar module he was testing crashed.
- It took 400,000 people to make the moon mission happen.
- The spacesuits they wore were made by Playtex, who convinced NASA that they knew something about making garments that were both form-fitting and flexible! The division that emerged from Playtex still makes spacesuits for NASA.
- The Apollo computer was the first computer of any significance to use integrated circuits — computer chips.
- Goodyear made the tires for the lunar rovers, using a mesh made of piano wire in the shape of a tire, which gave the rover traction and allowed some of the dirt to slip inside. As the wheels turned, the mesh flexed open, the dirt dropped back out and the wheels returned to their tire shape. Each tire required 3,000 feet of piano wire.
- When the original landing area turned out to be full of large boulders, Neil Armstrong took the controls of the Lunar Module, skimmed across the top of the Lunar surface, and manually found a safe spot to touch down. When they landed at Tranquility Base, they had only 17 seconds of fuel left.
- Buzz Aldrin said the moon smelled like burnt charcoal.
- Only three people in the country were trained and licensed by the FAA to fold Apollo parachutes — Norma Cretal, Buzz Corey and Jimmy Calunga — and they handled all 11 Apollo missions. Their skills were considered so essential that NASA forbade them from ever riding in the same car together lest they all perish in an accident.
- The heat shield on the re-entry vehicle was made of a special resin that was held in a honeycomb framework consisting of 370,000 individual cells. These had to be filled one by one by hand. The labor was done mostly by women who came to be called “gunners,” and they required two week’s training before they could work.
- Upon re-entry, the Service Module separated from the Command Module, which held the crew. The Service Module was supposed to have then performed a series of maneuvers to take it out of the way, so that debris from it breaking up would not endanger the Command Module. However, this did not happen, and luckily, the crew made it home safely. The problem wasn’t discovered until much later and it was learned that Apollo 8, 10, 11 and 12 all had the same unrecognized flaw. Any one of those missions could have ended in disaster.
- The crew was quarantined for 3 weeks after returning from the moon for fear of “moon bugs” they might have brought back to earth.
The journey of Apollo 11 in pictures…
Apollo 11 had competition, won the race…
Apollo 11 was not alone out there in space circling the moon. The Soviet spacecraft Luna 15, in an attempt to outpace the U.S. effort, reached the moon before the American ship entered orbit. The unmanned spacecraft was there to land, scoop up moon rocks, and return to earth with the first samples from the lunar surface. It was the USSR’s last ditch effort to win the “space race.”
The Luna program began long before we here in the U.S. set a course for the moon — back in 1955. Amy Shira Teitel gives an overview of its accomplishments:
…The climax of the program as [Sergei Korolev] conceived of it was a sample return mission.
The sample return would be fairly simple. A modular spacecraft with a descent stage, ascent stage and Earth return vehicle would land on the surface. Once there, an instrument would then collect a sample and transfer it to the Earth return vehicle. Sample collection complete, the ascent stage would fire, sending the sample on its way back towards Earth. The descent stage would stay on the lunar surface.
…The first Luna mission launched on January 2, 1959, and from the start the program was a stunning success, especially given how early it was in the space age. The program accomplished a number of space firsts: the first flyby (Luna 1), the first spacecraft to impact the Moon (Luna 2), the first spacecraft to photograph the Moon’s far side (Luna 3), and the first spacecraft to land on the Moon (Luna 9), first robotic sample return (Luna 16) and first robotic rover (Luna 17). Yes, a handful of Luna missions ended with crashes and some never even reached orbit, but progress was steady and overall the program was a stunning success.
Luna 15 was at least the second attempt at a lunar sample return mission; a previous effort in June had failed to reach Earth orbit. But it wasn’t limited to sample return. On its way to the Moon the spacecraft would study circumlunar space, the lunar gravitational field, the chemical composition of lunar rocks, and take a bunch of photographs.
NASA was concerned that Luna 15, which they figured would get to the moon about the same time as Apollo 11 might disrupt their communications with the U.S. astronauts. Luna 15 did indeed beat Apollo 11 to moon orbit, arriving on July 17, 1969. When the Eagle landed, Luna 15 was still in orbit, making 52 trips around the moon in all. But as the U.S. astronauts prepared to leave the moon’s surface, Luna began getting ready to descend. And descend it did, though it would never return to earth. Before Armstrong and Aldrin lifted off, Luna 15 crashed into Mare Crisium, the Sea of Crises.
Soon the Americans left the surface, reunited with the Command Module and Michael Collins, and returned to earth triumphant.
The first food eaten on the moon was holy…
“This is the LM pilot. I would like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.”
Those were Buzz Aldrin’s words shortly after the Eagle lunar lander touched down on the moon on July 20, 1969. Reaching into his astronaut’s “personal preference bag,” he pulled out a small chalice, wine, and bread, read John 15:5 silently to himself from a note card, and then partook of the Body and Blood of Christ.
“I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me,” he recalled in a 1970 article for Guideposts magazine. “In the one-sixth gravity of the moon the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup. It was interesting to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there, were communion elements.”
Aldrin’s church, Webster Presbyterian Church in Houston, known as the “church of the astronauts” because so many astronauts and NASA employees found a faith community there, still celebrates Lunar Communion Sunday every year on the Sunday closest to the July 20 anniversary of the moon landing.