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This Week In History

One small step… July 20, 1969.

Apollo 11 was the spaceflight that first landed humans on the Moon. Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin formed the American crew that landed the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle on July 20, 1969, at 20:17 UTC. Armstrong became the first person to step onto the lunar surface six hours and 39 minutes later on July 21 at 02:56 UTC; Aldrin joined him 19 minutes later. They spent about two and a quarter hours together outside the spacecraft, and they collected 47.5 pounds (21.5 kg) of lunar material to bring back to Earth. Command module pilot Michael Collins flew the Command Module Columbia alone in lunar orbit while they were on the Moon’s surface. Armstrong and Aldrin spent 21 hours, 36 minutes on the lunar surface at a site they named Tranquility Base before lifting off to rejoin Columbia in lunar orbit.

Apollo 11 was launched by a Saturn V rocket from Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida, on July 16 at 13:32 UTC, and it was the fifth crewed mission of NASA‘s Apollo program. The Apollo spacecraft had three parts: a command module (CM) with a cabin for the three astronauts, the only part that returned to Earth; a service module (SM), which supported the command module with propulsion, electrical power, oxygen, and water; and a lunar module (LM) that had two stages—a descent stage for landing on the Moon and an ascent stage to place the astronauts back into lunar orbit.

After being sent to the Moon by the Saturn V’s third stage, the astronauts separated the spacecraft from it and traveled for three days until they entered lunar orbit. Armstrong and Aldrin then moved into Eagle and landed in the Sea of Tranquility on July 20. The astronauts used Eagle‘s ascent stage to lift off from the lunar surface and rejoin Collins in the command module. They jettisoned Eagle before they performed the maneuvers that propelled Columbia out of the last of its 30 lunar orbits onto a trajectory back to Earth. They returned to Earth and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24 after more than eight days in space.

Armstrong’s first step onto the lunar surface was broadcast on live TV to a worldwide audience. He described the event as “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind“. Apollo 11 effectively ended the Space Race and fulfilled a national goal proposed in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy: “before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

Humans walking on the Moon and returning safely to Earth accomplished Kennedy’s goal set eight years earlier. In Mission Control during the Apollo 11 landing, Kennedy’s speech flashed on the screen, followed by the words “TASK ACCOMPLISHED, July 1969″.The success of Apollo 11 demonstrated the United States’ technological superiority; and with the success of Apollo 11, America had won the Space Race.

New phrases permeated into the English language. “If they can send a man to the Moon, why can’t they …?” became a common saying following Apollo 11. Armstrong’s words on the lunar surface (one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind) also spun off various parodies.

Twenty percent of the world’s population watched humans walk on the Moon for the first time. While Apollo 11 sparked the interest of the world, the follow-on Apollo missions did not hold the interest of the nation. One possible explanation was the shift in complexity. Landing someone on the Moon was an easy goal to understand; lunar geology was too abstract for the average person.

The Apollo 11 50th Anniversary commemorative coins were issued by the United States Mint in 2019 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first crewed landing on the Moon by Apollo 11 astronauts. Consisting of a gold half eagle ($5 coin), two different sizes of silver dollars, and a copper-nickel clad half dollar, each of the four was issued in proof condition, with all but the larger silver dollar also issued in uncirculated.

All four coins have the same design. The obverse depicts a bootprint on the lunar surface, based on a photograph taken by Aldrin. That design is by Maine sculptor Gary Cooper, with engraving by Joseph Menna of the Mint. The reverse, as mandated by Congress, depicts the visor and surrounding helmet of Aldrin’s space suit, with Armstrong, the U.S. flag and the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle in the reflection. This is based on a well-known photograph taken by Armstrong, and was created and engraved by Phebe Hemphill of the Mint. The depiction of Aldrin made him the seventh individual to appear on a U.S. coin who was alive at the time the coins were struck.

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