The Eagle Has Landed: The Apollo 11 50th Anniversary

From July 3, 2019 through August 7, 2019, a special featured document display relating to the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11 Moon Landing is in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

Today’s post comes from Vincent Bartholomew from the National Archives History Office.

July 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. On July 20, 1969, Commander Neil Armstrong and Astronaut Buzz Aldrin landed the Apollo lunar module, Eagle, and spent the next 21.5 hours on the lunar surface, while Command Module Pilot Michael Collins orbited the Moon. 

Photograph of the Apollo 11 Crew. Left to Right, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin, 1969. (National Archives Identifier 4957611)

Approximately seven hours after Eagle touched down on the lunar surface, Armstrong became the first human to step onto the Moon. The moment was forever memorialized by Armstrong’s words: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” This marked the Apollo 11 mission as the single greatest moment of human space exploration.

The motivation for the Apollo Space Program and the goal of reaching the Moon were outlined in President John F. Kennedy’s speech to a Joint Session of Congress on May 25, 1961. Kennedy charged NASA with one goal: “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.”

Press copy of Special Message by the President on Urgent National Needs, May 25, 1961.  (National Archives Identifier 193915)

President Kennedy’s statement rallied intense national pride in the NASA Apollo Space Program, and for the next eight years the nation poured resources and technology into successfully completing Kennedy’s vision. 

The Apollo Program had a shaky start. On January 27, 1967, during a launch pad test simulation for Apollo 1, the interior of the command module caught fire and killed all three astronauts on board. Congress took action against NASA and removed two high-ranking executives from office, and NASA did not run a crewed mission again until Apollo 7 on October 11, 1968.

Then, on July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 mission was ready for launch. 

The Apollo 11 mission was launched from Launch Complex 39 at the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida, near Cape Canaveral on July 16, 1969, at 13:32 GMT (Greenwich Mean Time). Atop a Saturn V rocket, the three astronauts inside the command module blasted off toward the Moon.

Saturn V rockets consisted of three distinct stages. The first stage, S-IC stage, carried the rocket to an altitude of 42 miles, to a speed of 6,164 mph, and burned 4,700,000 pounds of fuel. It then separated and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean more than 300 miles from the space center.  

The second stage, S-II stage, propelled the craft to an altitude of 109 miles, to a speed of 15,647 mph and placed the rocket into a low-earth orbit. It then separated and splashed down in the Atlantic. 

The third stage, S-IVB stage, sent the spacecraft to a velocity of 25,053 mph and completed the trans-lunar injection. (Trans-lunar injection is a propulsion maneuver used to set a spacecraft on a trajectory that will cause it to arrive at the Moon.) This final stage then separated from the remaining spacecraft, which included the command module, Columbia, and service module.

Shortly thereafter, Collins performed the transposition, docking, and extraction maneuver. This maneuver consisted of turning the command module around and docking its nose with the lunar module, which was located in the upper portion of the S-IVB stage of the Saturn V rocket. This maneuver was unique to the Apollo missions.

Apollo 11 Flight Plan, 1969. (National Archives Identifier 6734365)

Fully prepared for lunar arrival, the Apollo 11 spacecraft continued on its trajectory for three days, traveling 238,900 miles into a lunar orbit. At 12:56 GMT, Armstrong and Aldrin entered Lunar Module Eagle. Nearly five hours later, at 17:44 GMT, Eagle separated from Columbia, and an excited Armstrong exclaimed, “The Eagle has wings!”

Eagle landed on the lunar surface at 20:17:40 GMT on July 20, 1969, 102 hours and 45 minutes after launch. Armstrong reported, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Armstrong spontaneously named the site Tranquility Base, and the two astronauts spent the next 21.5 hours there collecting samples, performing experiments, and placing instruments.

Approximately six and a half hours after landing on the lunar surface, the two astronauts were ready to become the first humans to step foot on the Moon. At 2:56:15 GMT, Armstrong stepped off Eagle’s ladder and declared it “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

During their 21 hours on the Moon, Armstrong and Aldrin collected nearly 50 pounds of lunar material to bring back to Earth. Armstrong placed a plaque on the lunar surface bearing a depiction of the eastern and western hemispheres along with the inscription, “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot on the Moon, July 21, 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”

Apollo 11 Mission Image – View of Apollo 11 plaque on the Lunar Module,  7/20/1969. (National Archives Identifier 16685128)

The astronauts also planted the United States flag into the lunar surface, a task that Aldrin remembered as “the one I wanted to go the smoothest.” Most famously, while on the Moon, the astronauts took “the most historic phone call ever made from the White House” in the words of President Richard Nixon.

Television split-screen shot of President Nixon in the Oval Office, speaking to the Apollo 11 astronauts on the Moon, 7/20/1969. (National Archives Identifier 66394157)

At 17:54 GMT on July 21, Eagle ascended to rendezvous with Columbia still in lunar orbit. Columbia pilot Collins eagerly anticipated Eagle’s arrival, since he had been orbiting the Moon for the past 21 hours alone. About his time alone in lunar orbit, Collins remarked that “not since Adam has any human known such solitude.”

At 21:35 GMT Eagle docked with Columbia, and the three astronauts were reunited, while Eagle was jettisoned into lunar orbit. 

Splashdown in the Pacific Ocean occurred at approximately 23:00 GMT on July 24, 1969. After eight years, President Kennedy’s vision had been fulfilled: the United States landed a man on the Moon and returned him safely to Earth.

Visit National Archives News for more information on our records related to Apollo 11.

Apollo 11 Launch – Item E-1 – Pad 39-1 Entire Vehicle, 7/16/1969. (National Archives Identifier 95109033)
The Eagle Has Landed, The Flight of Apollo 11, 1969 (excerpt)

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