One Small Step – the Apollo 11 Moon Landing

by Lianne Walker

“One Small Step for Man, One Giant Leap for Mankind” – the now famous words of Neil Armstrong the first man to set foot on the Moon from the Apollo 11 Moon Landing.



Almost 50 years ago 3 astronauts achieved the seemingly impossible by being part of the team that first set foot on the Earth’s Moon, some 384,000 km away.

In doing this they fulfilled what was thought by many as the greatest achievement of the 20th Century.

The idea was one thing, achieving it was another but achieve it they did.


The rockets that launched the Apollo 11 astronauts into space and would reach the Moon on July 20 1969 came from very humble beginnings many centuries ago.

The first gun powder rockets were used back in the 13th century by the Chinese, the rocket is thought to have first been built by the Song Dynasty in the 12th century.

Various forms of rocket developed over the ensuing years and by the 17th and 18th century was being used a tool of war. Rockets were used in the Napoleonic wars, the Battles of Baltimore and of Waterloo.

By the start of the 20th century, encouraged by works from Jules Verne and HG Wells, interest in interplanetary travel grew and it was then realised, that the rocket was a technology that could help to achieve this.

In 1903, the same year as the Wright brother’s flight, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Russian mathematics teacher, published The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices, in which he derived the basic theory and principles of rocket science. His work was little known outside of Russia, and it was the American, Robert Goddard who made the fundamental connection that led to the modern era of rocket development and space travel.

In 1912, Robert Goddard found ways that solid fuel rockets could be further improved for space travel and he patented his concepts in 1914. Further developments arose out of rockets used in World War 1 and in 1920 Goddard published a paper called a Method of Reaching Extreme altitude in which in mentioned “sending a rocket to the Moon”.

The remarks were met with derision and interest in equal measure but undeterred he continued his work and in 1926, in Massachusetts Goddard launched the first liquid fuelled rocket.


During the 1920s and 30s rocket research grew across the world, including the use of long range missiles during World War 2.

Following the end of the war, it was to the German scientists that nations looked for their expertise; the Russians and US gaining most from this during secret missions called Operation Osoaviakhim (OZVIAKIM) and Operation Paperclip respectively.

Operation Osoaviakhim was a Soviet operation that took place in October 1946, with Soviet army units recruiting more than 2,000 German technical specialists and scientists for employment in the Soviet Union. These came from within the WWII Soviet occupation zone of Germany.

Similarly, Operation Paperclip (formerly Operation Overcast) was a secret program in 1946 for the US Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency. During that Operation, more than 1,600 German scientists, engineers, and technicians, such as top German rocket specialists Wernher von Braun and his V-2 rocket team, were recruited in Germany and taken to the U.S. for government employment, at the end of World War II.

While Operation Paperclip may have brought many top German rocket specialists to the US, it was the Soviet Union who would routinely make headlines by being the first to achieve many advances in space exploration.

Race to Space

The “race to space” as it was called was started on October 4, 1957 with the successful launch by the Soviet Union of Sputnik 1.

Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, measured the size of a beach ball (58 cm or 23 inches in diameter), weighed only 83.6 kg (184 lbs), and orbited the Earth in 98 minutes on an elliptical path. Although relatively small, its impact was huge.

Sputnik’s launch had dramatic repercussions for the Cold War rivals. The Americans didn’t want to be left in the side lines by the Soviet’s technological advances.

The Sputnik launch also led directly to the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In July 1958, Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act (commonly called the “Space Act”), which created NASA on October 1, 1958.

The “race to space” was further advanced for the US following John F Kennedy’s inauguration.

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy spoke before a special joint session of Congress and challenged the country, before the end of the decade to send an American to the Moon and return home safely. This is what he said.


“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.”


President Kennedy’s vision for the three-year old NASA motivated the United States to develop enormous technological capabilities and inspired the nation to reach new heights.

Sadly however, John F Kennedy would not live to see his dream fulfilled.

At the time of President Kennedy’s challenge, the American space program had a total of 16 minutes in space, it had never put a man in orbit and had no spacecraft capable of even getting close to the moon.

They had just nine years to invent, test, and deploy technology to meet this enormous challenge but meet it they did.


Meeting the Challenge

It was soon realised that such an ambitious undertaking would require the biggest rocket ever built; this would be the 363-foot-tall (111 meters) Saturn 5.

Also, the facilities at Cape Canaveral couldn’t support such an enormous rocket, so space agency officials had to look for another site.

They settled on nearby Merritt Island the new facility was started in 1962. It is now called the Kennedy Space Center and was given that name on Nov. 29, 1963, to commemorate President JFK who had been assassinated in Dallas just one week earlier.

On Jan. 27, 1967, three astronauts set to fly the first Apollo mission the following month — Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee but sadly they lost their lives in a flash fire that swept through their command module during a launch pad test.

In the spring of 1967, the flight originally scheduled for these 3 astronauts was officially designated Apollo 1.

The maiden voyage of an Apollo crew was the Apollo 7 Earth orbital mission on Oct. 11, 1968.

Just two months later, the Apollo 8 astronauts flew the first lunar orbital mission on Dec. 21, 1968.  During that historic mission people sat spellbound on Christmas Eve watching a live broadcast by the astronauts orbiting the moon, as they presented amazing, never-before-seen images like “Earthrise” over the lunar surface.

Apollo 9 proved that the lunar module could indeed fly in space, if only in Earth orbit.

Apollo 10 would take and fly the lunar module in actual lunar orbit to within an altitude of 8.4 nautical miles of the moon’s surface.

These lunar orbital missions demonstrated that it was possible to reach the moon and return, but it was up to the Apollo 11 crew to prove that they could not only get there, but also land on the moon and return home.

At Kennedy Space Centre, three astronauts — Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin, along with the Kennedy launch team, prepared for a test like no humans had ever faced before.


apollo 11 crew

the crew of apollo 11

Apollo 11 Moon Landing

On the morning of July 16, 1969, Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins sat in the command module, Columbia, on Saturn V. Launch took place at 9:32 a.m. EDT.

Three days later, on July 19, the command module flew behind the moon and entered lunar orbit.

After 30 trips around the moon, on July 20 the lunar module Eagle with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin inside detached from Columbia and began its descent onto the surface of the moon.

The early parts of the descent were marked by communication difficulties, and Aldrin and Armstrong noticed that they were seeing landmarks on the lunar surface early in their flight; this suggested that they would overshoot the planned landing site.

They had to find a safer place to land and to protect the lunar module.

Unable to land short, Armstrong and Aldrin had to fly over the field, further overshooting their landing target; this caused delays and used up vital fuel.

Touchdown on the lunar surface happened at 4:17pm EDT on July 20 1969 some 102 hours, 45 minutes, and 45 seconds after the mission began.

They had just 25 seconds of fuel remaining onboard.

Thirteen seconds later, Neil Armstrong uttered some of the most incredible words the world had waited to hear

 “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”


Shortly after landing, while the pair were preparing for the first lunar walk, Buzz Aldrin sent the following broadcast,


“This is the LM (lunar module) pilot. I’d 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.”


At 10:56pm EDT on July 20th, 1969 Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the surface of the moon, uttering his now famous line,


One Small Step

“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”


This event was heard and seen live by over 600 million people across the world.

Fifteen minutes later, Buzz Aldrin joined Neil Armstrong on the surface. He described the lunar landscape as a “magnificent desolation.”

The two travelled only about 400 feet from the lunar module to what is known as “East Crater.” They spent a total of two hours and 36 minutes on their lunar walk and collected over 47 pounds of moon rocks.

Before leaving the lunar surface, Aldrin and Armstrong left a memorial package dedicated to deceased astronauts Yuri Gagarin, Vladimir Komarov (the first man to die on a spaceflight), and Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee.

After their lunar walk, the pair climbed back into the lunar module and began preparing for the trip back to Columbia, where they would rejoin Collins. Although a vital member of the Apollo 11 team Collins didn’t get the opportunity to walk on the Moon’s surface, something he says he has never regretted – he always felt “that he was Aldrin and Armstrong every step of the way”.

After a few hours rest, Aldrin and Armstrong launched from the lunar surface and rejoined Michael Collins aboard Columbia. They brought with them the 47 pounds of moon rocks, and left behind the experiments, the memorial bag, and the lunar module descent ladder which had a plaque on it that read:

“Here Men From The Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D., We Came in Peace For All Mankind.”

Returning Home

On July 24th, 1969, the mission ended with the command module Columbia splashing down safely in the Pacific Ocean.

The eight-day mission took the crew on a 935,000-mile journey to another world.

The trio were picked up by rescue teams stationed aboard the USS Hornet, and at that moment, President Kennedy’s challenge to the American people earlier in the decade had been fulfilled with just a few months left of the decade.

After three weeks in quarantine, to ensure they had not brought anything back with them, the three were welcomed back as heroes with awards and accolades heaped on them including a ticker tape parade in New York.

Since that day, 20 July 1969, the Apollo 11 mission is recognised not only as an historic, scientific and physical achievement but much more than that.

For despite it all, for that moment in time, on that One Day the world came together to marvel at the achievement not of a few individuals, not of a single country, but of mankind as a whole.


This is the transcript of the opening episode of the Wonder Podcast. 

Each week I bring you Tales of Wonder and Curiosity from across the globe.


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