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by William H. Benson

July 23, 2009

     “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,” said Neil Armstrong from within the Landing Module at 4:17 p.m. EDT, Sunday, July 20, 1969, the moment of touchdown on the moon. To his fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin seated beside him, he said, “So far, so good.” He then turned back to his checklist and said, “Okay, let’s get on with it.” As Apollo 11’s mission commander, Armstrong was unemotional, professional, and all about getting the job done correctly.

     Meanwhile on Planet Earth jubilation broke out, for people everywhere were elated by the news: two Americans were on the moon. Walter Cronkite, the television newscaster, was struck by the magnitude of the moment and said, “Whew, boy! Man on the Moon!”

     Four days earlier, on Wednesday, July 16, from Kennedy Space Center, a Saturn V rocket had launched Apollo 11 into orbit, with Michael Collins, Edwin Buzz Aldrin Jr., and Neil Armstrong seated within the command module.

     The entire Apollo mission involved a number of discrete phases, each with a checklist. “You have to do things right away,” Armstrong explained, “and do them properly, so that was the focus. It was a complete concentration on getting through each phase and being ready to do the proper thing if anything went wrong in the next phase.”

     After one and a half orbits around the earth, the astronauts had fired an engine that had sent their spacecraft on a trajectory toward a rendezvous with the moon. Three days later, on July 19, they had entered into lunar orbit, and the next day Eagle, the lunar module, separated from Columbia, the command module. Collins remained alone in the command modulewhile Armstrong and Aldrin directed the Eagle down to the moon.

     After resting and then slipping into their space suits, Armstrong and Aldrin prepared to descend the nine rungs of the Eagle’s ladder to the moon’s surface. First, Armstrong pulled a D-ring that released the MESA table from under the lunar module that then focused a television camera upon the ladder, and Aldrin flipped the circuit breaker that started the black and white camera rolling. The image was beamed back to Earth, and there people saw upon their television sets Armstrong as he stepped down the ladder.

     On Sunday, July 20, at 10:57 p.m. EDT, Armstrong’s foot touched the lunar crust, and he uttered his now eternally famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” No one had prompted him, and he had spent little time thinking about what he would say, so focused he was. But he had thought the words and said them to a world of people anxiously watching their televisions 244,000 miles away.

     Aldrin followed Armstrong outside, and for the next two and a half hours, the two astronauts walked upon the moon’s surface. Aldrin called the scene before him “magnificent desolation.” Armstrong took photographs. They stuck a flagpole bearing a U.S. flag into the moon’s dust. They collected rock and dust samples, and then they listened as President Nixon from the Oval Office telephoned his congratulations. Continually they glanced up in the sky to “Spaceship Earth” hovering overhead.

     At 1:45 p.m. on Monday, July 21, the Eagle blasted off from the moon’s surface, without difficulty. “There was no time to sightsee,” Aldrin said. “I was concentrating intently on the computers, and Neil was studying the attitude indicator, but I looked up long enough to see the American flag fall over.” Seven minutes later, they had achieved a lunar orbit, and at 4:38 p.m. the Eagle docked with Columbia. Two hours later Armstrong and a smiling Aldrin joined a very pleased Collins in the command module. The men then cut loose Eagle. “It was a fond farewell,” Armstrong remembers.    

     Two and a half days later, on July 24, at 11:35 a.m. CDT, the command module slammed into the first fringes of air at some 400,000 feet above Earth; splashdown came minutes later at 11:51. Armstrong then radioed Houston, “Everyone okay inside. Our checklist is complete. Awaiting swimmers.”

     Forty years have elapsed since Apollo 11’s stunning success. Cronkite is now gone. Armstrong will turn 79 on August 5, and since 1972 no human has traveled beyond low-Earth orbit. “The Apollo program is the greatest technical achievement of mankind to date. Nothing since Apollo has come close to the excitement that was generated by those astronauts—Armstrong, Aldrin, and the ten others who followed them.”