First Humans Land on the Moon

Apollo 11 was the first mission to land humans on the Moon and return them to Earth, meeting a goal articulated by President John F. Kennedy at the height of the Cold War and the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Summary of Event

On May 25, 1961, U.S. president John F. Kennedy Kennedy, John F.
[p]Kennedy, John F.;space program issued a challenge to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration National Aeronautics and Space Administration;Apollo program (NASA) and the American aerospace community: “. . . 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. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.” Apollo space program
Space program, U.S.;Apollo program
Lunar exploration
Astronauts and cosmonauts
[kw]First Humans Land on the Moon (July 20, 1969)
[kw]Humans Land on the Moon, First (July 20, 1969)
[kw]Moon, First Humans Land on the (July 20, 1969)
Apollo space program
Space program, U.S.;Apollo program
Lunar exploration
Astronauts and cosmonauts
[g]North America;July 20, 1969: First Humans Land on the Moon[10350]
[g]United States;July 20, 1969: First Humans Land on the Moon[10350]
[c]Space and aviation;July 20, 1969: First Humans Land on the Moon[10350]
[c]Science and technology;July 20, 1969: First Humans Land on the Moon[10350]
Armstrong, Neil
Collins, Michael
Aldrin, Buzz

The piloted lunar landing project began in the infancy of NASA on June 18, 1959. It was to be the culmination of years of technology development and testing. Although it would be an ambitious undertaking, requiring launch vehicles many times larger than any in existence, it could be realized by following a systematic plan of building on existing hardware until the technology caught up with the vision.

The first step was Project Mercury, designed to place a piloted spacecraft into orbit for twenty-four hours. The basic skills of safely getting a human up and back, as well as being kept alive in the hostile environment of space, materialized. Project Gemini developed the techniques necessary for accomplishing the Moon landing, including rendezvous and docking of two orbiting spacecraft, and extravehicular activity Extravehicular activity (EVA), or space walks. The two-person Gemini spacecraft was a vast improvement over its forerunner. It incorporated a modular system of components that permitted relatively easy servicing and replacement.

The United States’ program to land a human on the Moon had been named Apollo—after the Greek god of music, prophecy, medicine, light, and progress—because the “image of the god Apollo riding his chariot across the sun gave the best representation of the grand scale of the proposed program.”

The command module (CM) was a conical spacecraft that carried the three astronauts to and from the Moon. The service module (SM) contained the engines used for maneuvers, oxygen and water, the electrical power system, and the large communications antenna. The lunar module (LM), a two-stage, spiderlike vehicle, was designed to carry two astronauts to the lunar surface and provide a shelter for them during their stay. The descent stage had a single, throttleable engine that would slow the craft and permit a soft landing on its four spindly legs. The ascent stage contained the pressurized crew compartment, a system of small altitude control engines, and a single, fixed-thrust engine to lift the astronauts and their cargo back into lunar orbit.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin stands by the U.S. flag on the Moon.


The first piloted flights in the Apollo program were to be launched atop the Saturn 1B. First would come a few flights using only the command and service modules (CSM), followed by dual launches of the CSM and LM to test rendezvous and docking.

On January 27, 1967, during a ground test of the spacecraft and launch vehicle, a fire broke out inside the command module, which was pressurized with pure oxygen. The fire rapidly spread, generating toxic fumes and eventually rupturing the pressure vessel of the spacecraft. The astronaut crew, Gus Grissom Grissom, Gus , Edward H. White White, Edward H. , and Roger B. Chaffee Chaffee, Roger B. , died from a combination of the toxic fumes and the heat of the fire.

The piloted orbital flight of Apollo 7, after nearly two years of waiting, was quickly followed by the circumlunar Apollo 8 mission. Apollo 9 tested the CSM and LM in Earth’s orbit, while Apollo 10 did the same in lunar orbit. By mid-1969, everything was ready for Apollo 11. Apollo 11 began its journey at 9:32 a.m. eastern daylight time on July 16, 1969, atop the Saturn 5, the height of which equaled the length of a football field. It rode a flame three times its length and climbed slowly into the warm Florida air. Twelve minutes later, the spacecraft and its crew were safely in Earth’s orbit. Two and one-half hours later, the third stage propelled its cargo toward the Moon. The CSM separated from the stage, turned 180 degrees, and pulled out the LM. The spacecraft were placed in a “barbecue” mode, rotating around the long axis at a rate of three revolutions per minute, permitting even heating of the spacecraft by the Sun.

Seventy-six hours after launch, the spacecraft entered lunar orbit. Final checkout of the landing craft began almost immediately. A final sleep and rest period commenced on the morning of the fifth day. At 7:00 a.m., the crew awakened and ate their breakfast. Later, the LM’s systems were powered up, and the crew donned their pressure suits. At 1:44 p.m., the LM undocked from the CSM and began its descent to the lunar surface. Michael Collins, who was inside the CM Columbia, Columbia (spacecraft) told his companions in the LM Eagle
Eagle (spacecraft) to “take care.” Neil A. Armstrong replied that they would see him later.

A 29.8-second burn of the descent engine put the LM into a 106 by 16 kilometer (66 by 10 mile) orbit. Forty minutes later, the engine ignited again to begin powered descent. Eagle was 15 kilometers (9 miles) above the lunar surface, 554 kilometers (344 miles) from the landing target, flying face down, landing gear forward. At an altitude of 12 kilometers (7.5 miles), the LM rolled face up and the crew could no longer see the lunar surface. At 2.4 kilometers (1.5 miles) above the surface on its final approach, Eagle was pitched upright and Armstrong began to look for the landing site. At 1,500 meters (4,920 feet) above the surface, the hovering phase began and Armstrong had to decide where to land. Several alarms sounded in the cockpit—the computer was being overloaded with data. A probe attached to one of Eagle’s legs contacted the surface and a blue light illuminated in the cabin.

The LM settled onto the lunar surface in the southwestern part of Mare Tranquillitatis at 4:17 p.m. on the evening of July 20. Immediately, the crew began procedures for an emergency liftoff. Things went well, and the two astronauts were given a “go” for the moonwalk. They ate their first lunch on the Moon but bypassed a rest period because they were eager to proceed with the EVA. Airpack donning and equipment checkout took longer than anticipated. After a bit of trouble bleeding off the remnants of their cabin air, the hatch at the front of the LM opened and the EVA began.

Armstrong, being the mission commander, was the first out of the LM. He pulled a lanyard, which opened a compartment on the descent stage containing a television camera. Armstrong then climbed down the ladder attached to the front leg of the LM and stepped from the foot pad. It was 10:56 P.M. “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” he said. Cautiously, he began moving around on the surface. He took photographs and collected a small sample of soil and rocks, which he placed in a pocket on the leg of his spacesuit.

Nineteen minutes later, Buzz Aldrin joined him on the surface. “Beautiful view. Magnificent desolation.” The two astronauts walked, hopped, and loped around the landing site collecting 21 kilograms (46 pounds) of bulk and documented soil samples. They exposed a sheet of aluminum to the solar wind and deployed a scientific package consisting of a passive seismometer and the Laser Ranging Retroreflector, an array of mirrored cubes that would bounce a laser beam from Earth back to the ground station.

After two and a half hours on the surface, they climbed back aboard Eagle. At 1:55 p.m. on July 21, the ascent stage’s engine ignited and carried them back to Columbia. They entered the command module with their cargo of moon rocks, sealed the connecting hatch, and jettisoned Eagle. At fifty-five minutes past midnight on July 22, the Service Propulsion System engine ignited and Apollo 11 headed home. On July 24, the CM separated from the SM and began its fiery reentry. Later, the three main parachutes opened, slowing the CM for a soft water landing. At 12:50 p.m., the goal set by President Kennedy eight years earlier was met.


The first piloted lunar landing was perhaps modern humankind’s greatest accomplishment. There would be five more landings and ten other astronauts would stay longer, travel farther, deploy more experiments, and collect more samples. Someone had to be first, and it was this distinction that separated the flight of Apollo 11 from the rest. Two humans traveled where no human had gone before, putting their lives in the hands of the technology that had carried them so far.

The next flight, Apollo 12, would show that its predecessor had not been a fluke. Its lunar module made a pinpoint landing, within 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) of its target site. Apollo 13 almost proved to be as unlucky as its number might indicate: An oxygen tank exploded in the service module on the way to the Moon. A little luck and a lot of skill on the part of the crew and ground controllers brought the flight to a safe conclusion.

An investigation into the Apollo 13 accident delayed the next flight for nearly a year. Apollo 14 took two astronauts, including Alan Shepard Shepard, Alan , to a region of the Moon called Fra Mauro. Shepard, America’s first astronaut in space, became the first (and, so far, only) lunar golfer when he attached a specially made club head to the end of a sample return container handle and swung at a genuine golf ball.

The final three lunar landing missions were designed to provide a maximum amount of scientific investigation. They utilized the first lunar “dune buggies,” battery-powered roving vehicles that could extend the distance traveled from the LM to 10 kilometers (6 miles).

After Apollo 17, NASA swung into the Skylab program, a project designed to place a laboratory into Earth’s orbit, where it could be staffed for periods up to three months. Skylab was not a true space station, although many have called it one. It could not be staffed permanently and could not be resupplied with its most important consumable: oxygen.

On July 24, 1975, six years after Apollo 11 splashed down, America’s last flight of an expendable piloted spacecraft concluded. The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project was a joint Soviet-American venture. The space race had given way to détente.

The United States would not journey into space for almost six years. A new era in space exploration was beginning: the age of reusable spacecraft called space shuttles. The Space Transportation System was to make space accessible to ordinary people, even a teacher. Satellites would be carried into orbit and gently deployed. If the satellites became disabled, astronauts could fix them or bring them back to Earth for repairs. In the years since Apollo 11, piloted spaceflight has become almost routine, but not without its dangers and tragedies. Apollo space program
Space program, U.S.;Apollo program
Lunar exploration
Astronauts and cosmonauts

Further Reading

  • Aldrin, Edwin “Buzz” E., Jr., and Malcolm McConnell. Men from Earth. New York: Bantam Books, 1991. As one of the first humans on the Moon, Aldrin tells the story of America’s journey to the lunar surface from a perspective unavailable to most. His description of the Apollo 11 landing reads like a good novel. Annotated, extensive bibliography and photographs.
  • Aldrin, Edwin “Buzz” E., Jr., with Wayne Warga. Return to Earth. New York: Random House, 1973. Aldrin chronicles his career from his glory days as an astronaut to his post-Apollo battle with alcohol and depression.
  • Armstrong, Neil, Michael Collins, and Edwin E. Aldrin. First on the Moon. New York: Williams Konecky Associates, 2002. A retelling of the story of Apollo 11, from the earliest preparations to the final touchdown back on Earth. Includes photographs.
  • Brooks, Courtney G., James M. Grimwood, and Loyd S. Swenson, Jr. Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft. NASA SP-4205. Washington, D.C.: Scientific and Technical Information Branch, 1979. The “official” record of America’s voyage to the Moon. There are many black-and-white photographs of the flights leading to the Apollo 11 mission. Detailed source notes, annotated bibliography.
  • Collins, Michael. Liftoff: The Story of America’s Adventure in Space. New York: Grove Press, 1988. An evenly written tale of accomplishments and failures. Takes a personal look at space travel from a perspective inaccessible to the majority of readers.
  • Compton, William David. Where No Man Has Gone Before: A History of Apollo Lunar Exploration Missions. NASA SP-4214. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1989. Discusses NASA’s astronauts and introduces the people behind the scenes of launches. Black-and-white photographs, drawings, annotated source listing.
  • Godwin, Robert, ed. Apollo 11: The NASA Mission Reports. Vol. 1. Burlington, Ont.: Apogee Books, 1999. This volume contains reprints of the Apollo 11 press kit, pre- and postflight mission operation reports, and the Apollo 11 postflight press conference. CD-ROM includes film footage of the flight and more than thirteen hundred still pictures taken during the mission.
  • _______. Apollo 11: The NASA Mission Reports. Vol. 2. Burlington, Ont.: Apogee Books, 1999. This volume contains a reprint of the Apollo 11 technical crew debriefing. CD-ROM includes an exclusive interview with Buzz Aldrin, a unique interactive panoramic image of Tranquillity Base, and the entire unedited television broadcast from Tranquillity Base.
  • _______. Apollo 11: The NASA Mission Reports. Vol. 3. Burlington, Ont.: Apogee Books, 2002. This volume includes the Apollo 11 mission report, which details the results of the first piloted lunar-landing mission. The book includes a DVD of an exclusive movie, Apollo 11: Moon Walk, a 140-minute composition from two camera angles with unique panoramas and still images.
  • MacKinnon, Douglas, and Joseph Baldanza. Footprints: The Twelve Men Who Walked on the Moon Reflect on Their Flights, Their Lives, and the Future. Washington, D.C.: Acropolis Books, 1989. One of the best books on the Apollo 11 mission. The authors interviewed the twelve men who have walked on the Moon.
  • Murray, Charles, and Catherine Bly Cox. Apollo: The Race to the Moon. Burkittsville, Md.: South Mountain Books, 2004. An intriguing look at the people who worked on the Apollo program. Reference notes, black-and-white photographs.
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Apollo Mission Press Kits. Official preflight information about Apollo 6 through Apollo 17.
  • Wagener, Leon. One Giant Leap: Neil Armstrong’s Stellar American Journey. New York: Forge Books, 2004. This first biography of Neil Armstrong was based on hundreds of interviews with family and friends and on NASA files.

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