Apollo 11: What the Moon Smells Like

Apollo 11: What the Moon Smells Like

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Author Charles Fishman talks about how the Apollo 11 astronauts discovered one strange thing about the moon, that it has a smell.

Encyclopedia of Trivia

The Moon was formed 4.6 billion years ago, around some 30󈞞 million years after the formation of the solar system.

The realization that the moon does not itself shine but reflects sunlight dates back to Pythagoras in the 6th century BC.

2,500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras correctly determined that the moon was a rock and not a god. He was arrested and exiled for his findings.

In 1178 five Canterbury monks observed what was possibly the Giordano Bruno crater being formed. It is believed that the current oscillations of the Moon's distance from the Earth are a result of this collision.

Christopher Columbus once used his knowledge of a lunar eclipse at night to convince Native Americans to provide him with supplies.

The Moon, tinted reddish, during a lunar eclipse. By Alfredo Garcia, Jr, [2] - Flickr [1] Wikipedia Commons

The first Great Moon Hoax article was published in The Sun, a New York newspaper, on August 25, 1835, chronicling the "discovery" of life on the Moon. It was the first of a series of six articles about the supposed discovery of life and even civilization on the Moon. The discoveries were falsely attributed to Sir John Herschel, one of the best-known contemporary astronomers of that time.

February 1865 is the only month in recorded history not to have had a full moon.

Luna 2, a Soviet space probe, became the first man-made object to reach the Moon on September 14, 1959. It crashed into it at around 7,500 mph.

Luna 2 Soviet moon probe.

The first photos of the far side of the Moon in 1959 were transmitted to Earth from a distance of 292,000 miles (470,000 km) by the Soviet Luna III .

The first spacecraft to perform a successful lunar soft landing was the Russian-built Luna 9 in 1966.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 made it illegal for countries to establish military bases on the Moon.

Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969, closely followed by Buzz Aldrin, during the Apollo 11 mission.

The Russian space probe Luna 16 landed on the Moon on September 20, 1970 to collect samples from its surface. It was the first unmanned probe to bring objects back from space, returning home with 100g of soil and rock.

Apollo 15 astronauts David Scott and James Irwin were history's first moon riders. They took their lunar dune buggy for a two-hour drive on the surface of the moon on July 31, 1971.

The Lunar Roving Vehicle at its final resting place after EVA-3.

There is over 180,000 kg of man-made trash and debris on the moon, including 96 bags of urine, feces, and vomit.

In 2005 ESA's Smart-1 lunar orbiter discovered elements such as aluminium, calcium, iron, silicon, and other surface elements on the moon.

Chang'e 3 was an unmanned lunar exploration mission operated by the China National Space Administration, incorporating a robotic lander and China's first lunar rover, the Yutu rover. It became the first spacecraft to land on the Moon since 1976 on December 14, 2013.

Chang'e 3, China's first Moon lander, imaged by the Yutu rover. Wikipedia

Chang'e 4 achieved the first soft-landing on the far side of the Moon, when it touched down on January 3, 2019 at 02:26 UTC. Like its predecessors, the mission is named after Chang'e, the Chinese Moon goddess.

A full moon is around nine times brighter than a half moon.

Full moon as seen from Earth's northern hemisphere. By Gregory H. Revera, Wikipedia Commons

According to Apollo astronauts, the Moon smells like burnt gunpowder.

The Moon weighs 73,476,730,924,573,500 million kg. The Earth is more than 81 times as big.

The Moon gets hit by over 6,000 pounds of meteor material per day.

The giant far-side South Pole–Aitken basin is some 2,240 km (1,390 mi) in diameter. It the largest crater on the Moon and the second-largest confirmed impact crater in the Solar System.

The highest point on the Moon is higher above its surface than Mount Everest on Earth.

The gravity on the Moon is about 17% what it is on the Earth. So if you weigh 200 pounds on Earth, you will weigh 34 pounds on the Moon.

All the American flags on the moon have been bleached white by radiation from the sun.

Our moon doesn't have a cool name like Europa, Io, or Triton because for most of history, humans thought the Earth's moon was the only moon. People didn't know other moons existed until Galileo Galilei discovered four satellites orbiting Jupiter in 1610.

We can see the Moon only because light from the Sun bounces off it back to Earth. If the Sun wasn’t there, we wouldn’t be able to see the Moon.

The moon orbits the Earth once every 27.322 days. It also takes approximately 27 days for the moon to rotate once on its axis. As a result, the moon does not seem to be spinning but appears to observers from Earth to be keeping almost perfectly still. Scientists call this synchronous rotation.

Owing to its synchronous rotation around Earth, the Moon always shows the same face: its near side.

Only 59% of the moon's surface is visible from the Earth.

Moon setting in western sky over the High Desert in California. By Jessie Eastland - Wikipedia Commons

People in the southern hemisphere see the moon upside down compared to the north.

Although other planets have larger satellites than our Moon, the ratio of our Moon’s diameter to that of Earth is the largest in the solar system.

Research shows that people in the UK are most likely to be bitten by dogs when the moon is full.

The distance from the Earth to the moon varies between 221,500 miles to 252,700 miles. This is because the Moon orbits in an elliptical pattern, which means the actual distance can vary.

The Sun is 400 times further from the Earth than the Moon, but the Moon is 400 times smaller than the Sun. This results in the moon and the sun being the same size in the sky, a coincidence not shared by any other known planet-moon combination.

A day on the Moon is so slow that you could outrun the sun in a car and stay in perpetual sunlight.

The Moon is slowly moving further away from Earth at about 4cm a year

The average gravitational pull on the Moon is only a sixth of that on Earth.

Astronauts on the moon only weigh one-sixth of what they do on earth.

"Moon" is the only word occurring twice in the top 10 songs of the 20th century. "Moon River" was the third most performed song of the 20th century, "Blue Moon" was eighth.

The surface temperature on the Moon varies between �C and 123C.

There are places that remain in permanent shadow at the bottoms of many polar craters. These dark craters are extremely cold: Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter measured the lowest summer temperatures in craters at the southern pole at just 26 K (� °C � °F) close to the winter solstice in north polar Hermite Crater. This is the coldest temperature in the Solar System ever measured by a spacecraft, colder even than the surface of Pluto.

Where Does The Moon’s Smell Come From?

In 1969, mankind got its first few whiffs of the lunar surface after astronauts tracked moon dust into the Apollo lander.

In an article on Space.com, Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt describes the Moon’s scent as being similar to spent gunpowder. Buzz Aldrin of Apollo 11 says it smells like charcoal, or fireplace ashes sprinkled with water. And scientist Larry Taylor, director of the Planetary Geosciences Institute at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, thinks he knows where the lunar regolith — the layer of dust, sand, and rock on the Moon’s surface — derives its scorched aroma: the broken electron bonds between atoms. Columnist Leonard David explains:

Apparently the rest of space smells like a Nascar race for similar reasons.

Apollo 11: Eleven things you didn't know about the moon landings

From the CIA's involvement in the Apollo programme and much more - Sky News sheds light on the dark side of the moon landings.

By Alexander J Martin, technology reporter

Monday 15 July 2019 20:13, UK

The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission which took man to the moon is fast approaching, and the story will be retold many times - but what are the secrets that people aren't really aware of?

Sky News has created an interactive Apollo 11 article for readers to find out about the enormous technological advances over the course of that half century since the mission.

The mission itself was the single greatest test of human bravery and ingenuity which has ever taken place - and you can read our anatomy of what happened during that test.

But conspiracy theories abound about the Apollo programme, from the wildly misplaced claim it was faked, through to the confirmed involvement of the CIA, although probably not for the reason you'd think.

Read on as Sky News sheds some light on the dark side of the moon landings, the first of which took place on 20 July 1969, and the programme behind them.

11. There were plans to abandon the astronauts on the moon

For the Apollo 11 mission a speech had been prepared for President Nixon titled "In the Event of Moon Disaster" to be read on television in case the astronauts were stranded on the moon.

According to the plans for the - fortunately unfulfilled eventuality - Mission Control was to stop communicating with the astronauts. The president would have telephoned each of the widows-to-be, and then make the following speech:

More on Apollo 11

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An assault on the senses: What attending a rocket launch is like

Apollo 11 moon landing mission as it happened in 1969

"Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

"These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

"These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

"They will be mourned by their families and friends they will be mourned by their nation they will be mourned by the people of the world they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

"In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

"In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

"Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man's search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

"For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind."

10. The moon smells

Jack Schmitt, the last man to ever walk on the moon as part of the Apollo 17 mission, reported that "everyone's instant impression of the smell was that of spent gunpowder".

"Not that it was 'metallic' or 'acrid'. Spent gunpowder smell probably was much more implanted in our memories than other comparable odours," he added.

It has since been suggested that this smell was caused by the astronauts' nasal membranes reacting to the highly electrically charged lunar dust - something which Schmitt himself supposed, as a trained scientist.

9. It became a race issue

Race and class were tightly intertwined topics in America in the 60s and 70s, especially when it came to the motivations and concerns of the civil rights movement.

Two years after the murder of Dr Martin Luther King in 1968 and a year after the 1969 moon landing, poet and activist Gil Scott-Heron released his response to Armstrong's famous claim that the Apollo 11 mission marked a "giant leap for mankind" with a visceral poem about the economic hardship ordinary people, especially black people, were facing:

A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face and arms began to swell.
(and Whitey's on the moon)
I can't pay no doctor bill.
(but Whitey's on the moon)
Ten years from now I'll be paying still.
(while Whitey's on the moon)

Access to healthcare insurance remains a contentious political debate in America 50 years on.

8. The crew had to sign customs declarations when returning to the US

The laws of nature proved surmountable to the Apollo 11 crew, but nothing gets past US Customs - the three astronauts had to declare that they were importing moon rock and moon dust samples.

Well, they didn't really have to. NASA officials have stated that it was a bit of a little joke between the agencies - but the declaration is completely authentic and was made shortly after the crew splashed down in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

7. The flag was accidentally knocked over

As the Eagle lander lifted up from the surface of the moon the exhaust from its engine caused the American flag to topple over - although not before Armstrong snapped a picture of it.

All of the subsequent Apollo missions planted the flag much further from the landing module.

Contrary to suggestions that the solar wind helped keep the flags upright and fluttering, they were fitted with small extendable poles to try and keep them in shape.

6. Armstrong broke the switch to the circuit breaker and Aldrin used a pen to save them

When Armstrong and Aldrin got back into the lunar module, Armstrong accidentally bumped into the circuit breaker switch with the bulky life support system in the backpack of his suit.

The switch was essential to activate the module's ascent engine which would have flown them up into orbit where they would board again with the command module that would take them back to Earth.

Unfortunately, he broke it off, potentially stranding them on the moon.

Forced by circumstance to improvise, Aldrin found a pen which he used to engage the circuit breaker and trigger the ascent engine. It worked and the pen is now on display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

5. One of the astronauts believed in aliens

Edgar Mitchell, the lunar module pilot for Apollo 14, publicly stated he was personally 90% sure that many reports of unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, "belong to visitors from other planets".

He suggested that he had met officials from foreign countries who had personal encounters with alien beings, and suggested that governments were covering up such contacts.

However he always maintained that he had never seen a UFO, and that he had never been threatened regarding those claims. He also said that UFOs being covered-up was his own personal speculation.

4. The original tapes of the Apollo 11 landings are missing

The original tapes of the Apollo 11 moon landing have been missing for decades, alongside hundreds of boxes of magnetic tape holding Apollo programme data.

This, of course, has encouraged conspiracy theorists - with little evidence supporting any claims that the tapes were stolen by the Soviets, or destroyed because they contained evidence the landings were faked.

On the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch the international team attempting to locate the tapes reported that they believed they had been accidentally reused and overwritten.

However, during their search for the original tapes they did find copies which were of a higher quality than anything which had been in the public domain before. NASA subsequently released about three hours of this restored footage.

3. The Apollo 17 rover was repaired with duct tape

NASA is pretty high-tech. Getting to the moon is literally rocket science. But it took a bit of salt-of-the-Earth graft to fix the Apollo 17 rover on 11 December 1972.

Astronauts Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt, incidentally the last men to walk on the moon, landed the lunar module Challenger in a lunar valley chosen for the diversity of the geological environment - with mountains and boulders, glass lava beads and lunar dust.

There was too much to see to just walk around, so NASA had sent a moon buggy with them - but the rear right fender was damaged before they were able to take it for a drive.

Without the fender protecting the wheel well, the electrically charged dust from the surface of the moon could have been thrown up into the air around the astronauts, at best obscuring their view, and at worst damaging their spaceship and preventing them from returning home.

Four printed maps and a lot of duct tape helped save the day.

2. The longest standing flag on the moon is a Union flag

Technically - and it is very much a technicality - the longest standing flag on the lunar surface is a British flag.

That's according to Keith Wright, a British engineer who worked on some of the experiments of the Apollo 11 mission.

Mr Wright told a BBC show that when his team was working on the experiments, Armstrong and Aldrin came to the Kennedy Space Centre to be shown how everything needed to be operated.

On one of the brackets designed to hold the solar panels while the experiment was being transported to the moon, the engineers began to sign their names.

"I signed my name and thought, well, I'll put 'UK'," said Mr Wright, before adding: "Then I thought, I'll draw a little Union flag."

Although the US flag was planted first, before the astronauts laid down the solar panels, that flag was knocked over when the Eagle lunar module took off to return back to Earth.

Those solar panels remain on the lunar surface to this day. Give that man a knighthood.

1.The CIA was involved in the Apollo programme

Conspiracy theories alleging that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) manufactured the moon landings to embarrass Soviet Russia are completely accurate, they just fail to credit NASA for actually pulling it off.

In fact the Apollo 8 mission was effectively commissioned by the CIA for propaganda purposes.

The CIA discovered that the Soviet space programme was developing a lunar fly-by before the end of 1968, according to the commander of the Apollo 8 mission, Frank Borman, who said the fact was relayed to him in Houston.

His manager told him that America was changing the Apollo 8 mission from an Earth orbital mission into a lunar orbital flight, and asked him if he wanted to do it.

A declassified CIA memo from 1968 featured Carl Duckett, the agency's deputy director for science and technology, claiming credit for the successful Apollo 8 mission.

"The likelihood that the US will conduct a manned circumlunar flight with the Apollo 8 vehicle in December is a result of the direct intelligence support that Foreign Missile and Space Analysis Centre has provided to NASA on present and future Soviet plans in space."

:: Read our interactive piece here about how the last 50 years have changed space exploration
:: Read our anatomy of the Apollo 11 moon landing

Women of Apollo

Fifty years ago—on July 20, 1969—the world held its collective breath as U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong took "one giant leap" and landed safely on the Moon. That one unforgettable moment showed us that what we once thought impossible was now within our reach.

Though the "public face" of the U.S. space program in the 1960s was male, many women played essential roles in building the Apollo program and making the Moon landing a success. As we mark the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, here are a few women whose stories deserve to be celebrated.


Frances “Poppy” Northcutt

When the Apollo 11 spacecraft took off on July 16, 1969, return-to-Earth specialist Poppy Northcutt watched nervously. The NASA engineer—and the first woman to work in a technical role in Mission Control—had helped design and build the engine that would be used in the craft’s descent on the Moon. During the mission, an unexpected challenge arose when flight control could not figure out why the craft’s return trajectory map was incorrect. The team looked to Northcutt to recalculate the trajectory, ensuring the crew returned home safely.

“I thought it was important that people understand that women can do these jobs—going into science, going into technology, doing something that’s not stereotypical,” Northcutt says in a 2019 PBS documentary, Chasing the Moon.

Katherine Johnson

Mathematician Katherine Johnson started working in NASA’s “colored computers” lab in 1953. As an African American woman working in a predominantly white, male environment, Johnson faced persistent discrimination in the workplace but her brilliance carried her forward—a story portrayed in the popular film, Hidden Figures. From the Mercury missions to the Moon landing, Johnson did the math that made space exploration possible. During the Apollo 11 mission, she calculated trajectories and executed backup navigational charts in preparation for possible failures. Johnson’s team checked and re-checked the math behind every part of the mission, from takeoff to splashdown.

In 2015, President Obama awarded Johnson, at age 97, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. The Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility stands in Johnson’s honor at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia today.

The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, Inc., NASA

Margaret Hamilton

On July 20, 1969, as the Apollo 11 lunar module approached the Moon’s surface, its computers began flashing error messages. For a moment, Mission Control faced a “go / no-go” decision, but with confidence in the software developed by computer scientist Margaret Hamilton and her team, they cleared the astronauts to proceed.

Hamilton, then the 32-year-old Director of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, developed the coding used in Apollo’s on-board flight software and lunar landing machinery. She insisted that the system be error-proof and added a program to recognize error messages and force the computer to prioritize the most important tasks. Thanks to Hamilton, the system performed as needed at a crucial moment, and the Apollo 11 crew landed on schedule.

“Because software was a mystery, a black box, upper management gave us total freedom and trust. We had to find a way and we did,” Hamilton said of her work on Apollo 11. “Looking back, we were the luckiest people in the world there was no choice but to be pioneers."

In 1969, most Americans weren’t thinking about what the Apollo 11 astronauts would eat during their historic flight, but Rita Rapp made it her personal mission. As head of the Apollo Food System team, Rapp designed a nutrition regimen and food stowage system for the astronauts, focused on delivering the right mix of calories, vitamins, and nutrients to get the job done.

Rapp, who held a Master’s in anatomy from the St. Louis University Graduate School of Medicine, took pride in providing the Apollo crews with the flavors and comforts of home. Working with the astronauts, her team experimented with new recipes in the food lab. They eventually replaced the conventional “tubes and cubes” style of space food with everyday meals like grits, shrimp cocktail, beefsteak, cereal, fruits and vegetables, and the astronauts’ personal favorite—homemade sugar cookies.

NASA, Courtesy National Air and Space Museum Archives

Spacesuit Seamstresses

Following President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 promise to land an American on the Moon, several military and engineering contractors submitted bids to make NASA’s spacesuits. One unlikely firm won out: the International Latex Corporation, now known as Playtex.

At the company’s factory in Delaware, a talented group of women set to work constructing Apollo spacesuits out of nylon, latex, Teflon and Lycra—the same materials used to make Playtex bras. The seamstresses, including Hazel Fellows, pictured, sewed 21 layers of thin fabric together with a 1/64 th -inch tolerance stitch to keep the astronauts comfortable and, more importantly, alive. The resulting state-of-the-art spacesuits withstood the lunar vacuum and extreme temperatures but were also soft, flexible and attractive. Redesigned versions of the original suit were eventually worn by all 12 Apollo astronauts who walked on the Moon.

Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit, recently conserved by the National Air and Space Museum, remains an iconic symbol of American achievement and a lasting testament to these women’s design ingenuity and skill.

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Mucus membranes in space

Larry Taylor, director of the Planetary Geosciences Institute at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, agrees with Schmitt's take. He served in the "back-room" at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston during the Apollo 17 mission, and was one of those who directly advised the astronauts on the moon during their trots across the lunar landscape.

"When the entire subject of the dust smell came up several years ago, I put forth that what the astronauts were smelling, that is, what their mucus membrane sensed, was highly activated dust particles with 'dangling bonds,'" Taylor said.

Taylor said that when a geologist smashes a rock here on Earth, that person will smell some odor that has been generated by the smashing of minerals, thereby creating the so-called dangling bonds.

But on the moon, the dangling bonds can exist for a long time, Taylor said. And because lunar rock and soil is roughly 43-percent oxygen, most of these unsatisfied bonds are from oxygen.

"In a nut-shell, I believe that the astronauts all smelled unsatisfied dangling bonds on the lunar dust … which were readily satisfied in a second by the lunar module atmosphere, or nose membrane moisture," Taylor told Space.com.

‘To the Moon and Back.’ See LIFE’s Complete Special Issue on Apollo 11

For millions of people who witnessed the Apollo 11 mission, watching on television or following it on the radio as humanity improbably, literally walked on the moon, the event perhaps did not feel quite real until, more than two weeks later, LIFE published its definitive account of the epic journey.

Waiting two weeks was simply the price one paid for getting it right. One look through the page spreads in this gallery (we recommend viewing all of the slides in “full screen” mode) makes it clear that, with this special issue, LIFE created not only the best first draft of history around the 1969 lunar landing, but produced an astonishingly comprehensive, coherent and, at times, poetic account of what LIFE’s editors called “history’s greatest exploration.”

As Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and command module pilot Michael Collins reached out for destiny all those years ago, 500 million people around the world watched in awe as the grainy black-and-white television footage beamed back to Earth from the cold surface of the moon and it seemed then, for America, that anything was possible. In a sense, LIFE magazine shared in that triumph, as it had rigorously followed and reported on the soaring successes and the tragedies of America’s space program since well before President John Kennedy, in 1961, challenged the country to set foot on the moon.

Less than a decade after JFK’s bold proclamation, America did just that. This is what it looked like, and what it felt like, to be a part of it for the three men who flew, and for the countless others on Earth who watched, and marveled, and willed the trio safely back home.

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969.

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. July 20, 1969: “Neil Armstrong’s booted foot pressed firmly in the lunar soil. . . .”

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “In orbit 63 miles high the Lunar Module approaches the landing zone.”

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “The Eagle has landed.”

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Buzz Aldrin eased down Eagle‘s ladder, paused on the last rung and jumped the final three feet.”

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Aldrin’s gold visor mirrored Eagle and Armstrong, who took most of these pictures.”

LIFE Magazine

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Aldrin walked from the Lunar Module to set up two experimental packages—the laser beam reflector and the seismometer.”

LIFE Magazine

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Adrin made final adjustments to the seisometer, left behind to monitor possible moon quakes. Earlier he unfurled the ‘solar wind sheet,’ designed to trap tiny particles hurled from the distant Sun.”

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Nine hours after his arrival, man had littered the moonscape with his paraphernalia.”

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “On the windless plain Aldrin saluted the American flag, stiffened with wire so that it would ‘wave’. . . .”

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Eagle landed 125 feet west of a rock strewn-crater, several feet deep and 80 feet across.”

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Left: Aldrin inspected the condition of the Lunar Modules footpad. Right: The view from Eagle‘s window after the walk.”

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “The simplest mark of man’s first visit footprints in the fine moon sand.”

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “As seen at some distance from Columbia, Eagle rolled left and closed for rendezvous 69 miles above moon …”

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Eagle turned its docking port towards Columbia moments before hookup. earth is in upper right corner of large picture …”

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Tired but triumphant Armstrong got ready for the trip back …”

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Left:The plaque left behind with the Lunar Module’s descent stage. Right: Aldrin, Collins and Armstrong heroes of history’s greatest exploration …”

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Three kids bound for the moon. From left: Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins …”

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Neil Armstrong: He could fly before he could drive …”

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Despite a relentless schedule Armstrong sometimes found moments for normal family life …”

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Away from work Armstrong enjoyed a few frivolous moments …”

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin: ‘The best scientific mind in space’ …”

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Aldrin is like most astronauts, an exercise buff who spends nearly an hour a day keeping fit …”

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Aldrin with his wife and daughter …”

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Mike Collins: An engineer who does not love machines …”

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Before the moon flight Collins spent time at home with his family …”

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Collins with his wife and daughter …”

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “A Calendar of Space Flight: Man’s Countdown for the Moon …”

LIFE Magazine

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “A Calendar of Space Flight: Man’s Countdown for the Moon …”

LIFE Magazine

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “A Calendar of Space Flight: Man’s Countdown for the Moon …”

LIFE Magazine

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “A Calendar of Space Flight: Man’s Countdown for the Moon …”

LIFE Magazine

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Unlocking the ancient mysteries of the Moon …”

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Anatomy of the Lunar Receiving Lab …”

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “What the Moon Samples Might Tell Us …”

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “What the Moon Samples Might Tell Us …”

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “So long to the good old moon …”

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “So long to the good old moon …”

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “The dawn of the day man left his planetary cradle. Right: Armstrong led the way from gantry to spacecraft …”

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Apollo 11 lifts off …”

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Journalists— nearly 3,500 of them from the U.S. and 55 other countries — watched in hushed expectant awe as Apollo began its slow climb skyward …”

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Jan Armstrong raised a hand to ward off the bright morning sun and watched her husband’s spacecraft rear toward a rendezvous with the moon …”

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “At Disneyland (left) hundreds gave up ‘moon rides’ to watch the real thing. While in Manhattan people cheered and worried in front of huge TV screens. Las Vegas casino crowds paused over Baccarat (below) and passengers jammed a waiting room at JFK airport (right) to watching Armstrong’s walk …”

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “The moonwalk was broadcast live in London (left) and other world capitals, although Moscow viewers (right) had to wait several hours for an edited version. Pope Paul got a telescopic close-up of the moon, while South Koreans clamored around a 20-foot-square TV screen. GIs read of lunar adventure …”

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Andy Aldrin watched with grim determination as his father set foot on the moon, while at the Collins home Pat and friends followed the walk on two television sets. Joan Aldrin collapsed on the floor in happy relief when Eagle lifted safely off the moon …”

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “The fiery sideshow as Apollo comes home …”

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “The capsule was first righted by floatation bags. Then as astronauts in special insulation suits watched, frogmen scrubbed it down with disinfectant. (right). Apollo crew waved as they entered quarantine aboard [the recovery ship] the USS Hornet …”

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “In Houston the splashdown joy was personal and intense. NASA workers leaped from their consoles waving flags, and at home Jan Armstrong (below left) beamed and sighed in relief. Joan Aldrin applauded as Buzz Aldrin struggled into the raft and Pat Collins served champagne to a house full of happy friends …”

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin grinned jubilantly from inside their quarantine chamber on the carrier Hornet before their flight home to Houston …”

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind …”

Interview Highlights

On how the Apollo program helped spark a digital revolution

"That little computer that flew the spaceships to the moon and back was an absolute marvel. A small computer in the 1960s was the size of three or four refrigerators lined up, and MIT created a computer that was more powerful than the four refrigerators, and faster, and it was run by the people who were using it &mdash which was completely unheard of. And that computer was the first computer to use integrated circuits. It was the first computer to use computer chips."

In this July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, walks on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity. (Neil Armstrong/NASA via AP)

On the Apollo program's cost

"I don't think it was very expensive. To me, that's one of the myths of Apollo that's worth unpacking. Apollo cost $19.4 billion. There were two years of the Vietnam War each of which cost more than the entire space mission. Apollo lasted from '61 to '72 &mdash let's call it $20 billion. From 1961 to 1972, Americans spent $40 billion buying cigarettes."

On how Apollo astronauts managed to make the American flag appear perfectly for photographs

"The story of the flag is kind of a little bit of a silly side story, but a reminder [of] how hard even simple things were. First of all, NASA hadn't even planned to take a flag, and in April &mdash 12 weeks before we went to the moon &mdash somebody said, 'Well how are we going to celebrate this moment?' And a technical engineer in Houston, a guy named Jack Kinzler, proposed the plaque which rode on the lunar module attached to the leg, 'We came in peace for all mankind,' and he came to NASA officials with this very ingenious flag design, and his idea was that there were actually going to be two aluminum poles. There was the vertical one, and it was hinged at the top to a pole that was horizontal. And if you look at the pictures, it's very clear that the flag is quote-unquote 'flying' because it's hanging from a horizontal pole as well."

Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, the first men to land on the moon, plant the U.S. flag on the lunar surface, July 20, 1969. (NASA via AP)

On the U.S. not sending people back to the moon in nearly 50 years

"Not only we haven't sent anybody back to the moon, no one's gone back to the moon since 1972, and once we had done it, there were no economic imperatives to keep going. I think what's really exciting in the world of space today in fact is what's going on in near-Earth orbit, what Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and a guy named Robert Bigelow are doing. They're trying to make spaceflight inexpensive, routine and unthinkingly safe the way air travel is. What will be really interesting is, if you can lower the price of going to space from $100 million a flight to a million dollars a flight, you'll unleash the kind of innovation that happened when we went from modems to high-speed internet."

On sending robots to the moon instead of humans, and why we haven't gone back

"There's no question that robots do wonderful science. But human contribution is invaluable and also can't be predicted. There's this wonderful moment when [Neil] Armstrong and [Buzz] Aldrin on Apollo 11 get back in the lunar module, they unsnap their helmets and the entire cabin of the lunar module is filled with this smell, the smell of lunar dirt, sort of like burned charcoal &mdash Aldrin said, 'The smell of the air after a fireworks show.' No robot could tell you that the moon had a smell.

"We haven't gone back because there hasn't been either an economic or political imperative. And it is really hard. If it were easy, we would have gone back. Mars is 100 times harder than the moon. It's the difference between travelling for three days and traveling for three years."

The Apollo 11 moon landing was a distraction from America's problems

O n a bright winter morning in 2014, I pressed my head against the glass of my bedroom window and asked a man who had walked on the moon to tell me about the colors there. The black sky as seen from that planet, Alan Bean said, on the phone from Texas, was “glossy” like “patent leather”. It’s a recording I’ve listened to many times since, trying to understand the particular solitude of the mid-century astronaut, a person who could explore another world while his own spun in flames.

As a girl raised in the fallout of liberal northern California’s anti-war revolution, men like him had always been objects of disdain to me – products of the military-industrial complex, upholders of white patriarchy – though somehow their achievements, the spacesuits and rockets, had escaped my scorn. But as research for my novel about the Apollo program deepened, a strange inversion was taking place: I was coming to revere the men who defined it, whose conservative politics I despised, but coming to question what they’d done, the celestial explorations I’d always assumed existed outside of politics.

As though you could understand the unhappiness of a marriage by the details of an affair that went on outside of it, my understanding of the cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s had always come directly from the left-most, long-haired side of it, the stories and biases of my parents, people who had lived excessively and died young, their memories of that time never more than a happy tap of the ashtray away. They met as reporters at the Oakland Tribune in 1987, he a member of the Silent Generation conditioned to petrify his ideas in private, she a Boomer who lived like a slogan, bold and loud. She danced to the Dead, making strange shapes in the air, and he read about the nature of time, making trippy notes in the margins.

Buzz Aldrin walks on the surface of the moon. Photograph: NASA

Where her rebellion was public and bodily, his was existential and sub rosa, and the compound result, in their parenting, was that I was never asked to brush my hair, but always required to have an opinion. As a child, I felt an outsider’s near erotic longing at the idea of things like made beds and time-outs. The year I was seven, I sobbed at the incorrect clock on my mother’s kitchen wall – red and white and never changed for daylight savings – already beginning to believe that only the small organizations of life might protect us against the meaner waves of it. Twenty-odd years later, reading about the psychological testing Neil Armstrong endured in the brutalist Nasa complex in Houston, I felt a deep serenity. After passing into a pitch-dark room with the orders to come out in two hours, he sang to himself, a nursery rhyme on repeat – “there were 10 in the bed and the little one said: roll over, roll over” and emerged only seconds off.

In the image of that man in the quiet of that black, he is only a body, his mind secondary to his circumstances, and there was a peace in that I could not ignore, a dissolution of ego I had not expected to find on the political side of polished shoes and war mongering. Somehow, that story was an antidote to the pain I felt as the child of individualists, always loved but often forgotten, deciding to walk when the car was late or didn’t show, left alone in my afternoon and my thinking. My father would have called that time Armstrong spent in a room depersonalization, a favorite invective, an insult leveled by his hero Norman Mailer at the Apollo astronauts (“they were depersonalized to the extent they were true Christians,” he wrote in Life in 1967), but to me it seemed a great feat to forget yourself, an enlightenment purer than that possible on the LSD and psilocybin my parents espoused.

Taking syringeful after syringeful of ice cold water in his ear, sitting in a room of 120F, doing all of it without so much as a raise in his heart rate: Armstrong had stepped into the void without help, had approached and chosen it. But if my childhood loved this part of the research – about the mental purity of the other side, the focus possible when the individual was done away with – my adulthood kept pulling on another thread.

Spectators watch the launch of the Apollo 11 space mission at Cape Kennedy (later Cape Canaveral) in Florida. Photograph: Ralph Crane/The Life Picture Collection via Getty Images

The deeper I looked, a sinister shadow followed the light of the program’s marvels: courting the descriptions of something called “earthshine”, the strange charred smells of lunar dust, the Astrud Gilberto cassette tapes and family photos brought to the moon, were machinations of war and cries of injustice. There was the fact that in 1962, the year he gave his famous address at Rice University and secured a blank check from Congress to land a man on the moon, Kennedy had already approved 3,205 American “advisers” to the government of South Vietnam, as well as the use of the dioxin Agent Orange. There was the fact that the brilliant rocket engineers whom that blank check paid were Nazis, Wernher von Braun and Arthur Rudolph, the project that showcased their talents the V-2 rocket that killed 30,000 – built by forced Jewish laborers from the concentration camp Mittelbau-Dora.

No matter how I loved the image of the Apollo 11 launch – a million exultant people transforming the beaches, binoculars held aloft from yachts where they drank Chardonnay or trucks where they tailgated with Budweiser – there was the fact that the evening before, the civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy led a group of 500 activists behind mule-drawn carts to meet with Nasa’s deputy administrator, Thomas Paine. One fifth of the country was living without proper healthcare, food and shelter, Abernathy pointed out, an inordinate portion of them black. “I am here,” he said, “to demonstrate with poor people in a symbolic way against the tragic and inexcusable gulf that exists between America’s technological abilities and our social injustices.” The year before, he had held Martin Luther King Jr as he bled to death, and he must have wondered where that image fit in the minds of the audience.

Billions for space, the signs said. Pennies for the hungry.”

A ‘Poor People’s’ protest at the Apollo 11 launch. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis via Getty Images

A note I’d made, about a GI who confronted Neil Armstrong during a GSO tour – why, he wanted to know, was his country “so interested in the moon instead of the conflict in Vietnam” – grew different legs, walking across the page to affix itself to something Alan Bean had said: asked about how the Earth looked from the moon, he had two words: “Disappointingly small.”

No more bread and circuses, went an anti-Apollo protest chant, referencing the Roman poet Juvenal, his polemic against the grain subsidy autocrats afforded the lower classes in an attempt to subdue them. Even if I set aside the issue of money – $24bn spent on the program, in 1973 currency, or roughly $150bn today – there was the purer question of American attention, how we guided it.

In an era of limited airtime, was the color and sound spent on astronauts and their wives and children something like a crime? Was it agitprop, a western for the cold war audience that made no mention of certain earthly atrocities – of the black military companies who suffered gangrene for lack of the fresh socks their white peers received, of the systematic environmental devastation of a country smaller than California, of children killed and mutilated by teenagers? To say so would be easy, and you might mention the camp and artificiality shot through all things Apollo – the telescopic arm designed to hold up a flag in a place without wind, the golf ball Alan Shepard teed off the lunar surface, the basalt craters Nasa named the Sea of Fertility.

Joan Aldrin applauding her husband as she watches TV coverage of splashdown at end of mission. Photograph: Vernon Merritt III/The Life Picture Collection via Getty Images

A parade for the Apollo 11 astronauts in New York. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

In Kennedy’s address that made all that came possible, given 18 months after the early stain on his presidency that was the Bay of Pigs and five weeks shy of the Cuban Missile Crisis, he does a funny thing with progress, asking the audience to consider all achievements of man as happening in the last 50 years: “Christianity began less than two years ago. The printing press came this year … Newton explored the meaning of gravity … Only last week did we discover penicillin and television and nuclear power, and now, if America’s new spacecraft succeeds in reaching Venus, we will have literally reached the stars before midnight tonight.”

Entreating his country in this way, playing that trick with time, he rang a prominent bell in the American psyche: to be a part of a superpower is to be a part of history, and the temptation, in playing a minor part of history, is to see other lives, other parts, as minor – over and absorbed, after all, in a few relative turns of the planet. It is also, perhaps, to hope less for yourself.

Looking back on his position in history, Alan Bean was practical and pragmatic. In training, he said, you replicated all possible smells, the feeling of the spacesuit air conditioner mounted on your back, the half-second delay of communications between Earth and not Earth, so that you could linger in other observations. “The sun was much brighter than it ever seemed in training on Earth,” he said. “The shadows were much darker.”

The Apollo 11 coverage on TV. Photograph: ABC Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

Thinking of the freedom in this – planning so well, knowing so much, that you needed only notice flexions in light – and wanting to string a line from one side of my country to the other, I tried to liken those impressions of darkness to the sort of enlightenment I inevitably chased, the other worlds on Earth that I went after.

I tried psychedelics first at 15, not long after my father died in his armchair, still surrounded by Carlos Castaneda paperbacks and printouts of Pete Seeger lyrics he’d pinned up in his cluttered rental. I remembered a morning, in an isolated beach town known for removing the signs that announced it, that I left my place by the ocean in search of some water I could drink. I’d eaten acid all night, spoken very little, and I was close to naked as I walked uphill through the sunrise and mist, wearing only someone else’s cut off sweatshirt. The pink of the sky felt like a taste in my mouth, and the sound of the birds like something I could see, their chirp responsible for the movement of leaves.

On the side of a one-storey church, which was white and wooden and peaked with a small belfry, I uncurled a green hose and drank a long time. When a woman with a key ring appeared, waving in a kind of admonishment, she seemed like my invention, something that had formed in my careful study of the fog. How did I seem to her, my eyes enormous and empty, the water I’d been desperate for spilled down that dirty, sandy cotton? It must have appeared I’d forgotten everything – my shoes, my manners, the school day that was about to begin without me – except the first and most primal needs of my accidental life.

Supporters of the Rev Ralph Abernathy’s Poor People’s Campaign demonstrate at the supreme court. Photograph: Wally McNamee/ Getty Images

To identify the ligature between those trips, deep into space or deep into the mind, to find the thread between the bell sleeves and roach clips that were my mother’s country and the 4am steak-and-egg breakfasts that were Alan Bean’s, was not to understand two American cultures – one who waged war under the guise of protecting democracy, the other who used democracy to denounce that war – but to clearly see a certain American problem of the self. If the goal of one side was total control of the mind, the goal of the other total freedom, the crucial tools involved were never really the systems or institutions – the military or government, the school or church – that supported or repressed those ends. They were always the inner resources of one, for the United States has always been a country that tends to leave you, in so many ways, alone. Alone without a doctor, alone without a union, alone without a guaranteed education, and alone without much of a history, a record so short that what stands out are always the personalities that rose above it – not the six Apollo landings made possible by Nasa, but Armstrong’s laconic announcement during one of them not the systematic redlining of cities, which kept black Americans from home ownership, but a few soundbites of Martin Luther King to be played exactly once a year in a country that hasn’t changed enough since he died for it.

By the time Bean died, in 2018, the novel was done but the facts remained in my mind unarranged, something like the last things unpacked in a move between very different buildings, fragile, difficult to display in another setting. The sickness of my young country, what it did to people, what it allowed them to do, couldn’t be explained by statistics of armament or dissent, although there was a story I read that stuck with me, a narrative of ameliorative diversion that held the whole Apollo program in its speculative palm. The anecdote is simple: an 18-year-old boy, about to be deployed in 1969, a bag slung over the shoulder of his uniform, calls through the open front door to the driveway where his mother’s car is idling. He wants a few more minutes in front of the television, where Neil Armstrong has just taken his step, and though they’re very late she allows him that, hoping maybe, if he feels the satiety of wonder at what his country has done, he might be able to get some sleep, something he’s been missing given what his country has asked him to do.

While it’s certain the war crimes of My Lai or Khe Sanh would have occurred with or without a grand and expensive show going on in the sky above them, it might be true that it did something for how Americans treated each other, then. Answering Ralph Abernathy, Thomas Paine said: “If we could solve the problems of poverty by not pushing the button to launch men to the moon tomorrow, then we would not push that button.” He asked that the leader of the Southern Poverty Law Center “regard the space program … as an encouraging demonstration of what the American people could accomplish when they had vision, leadership and adequate resources,” and to pray for the safety of the astronauts.

Finally, he offered Abernathy and the activists VIP seating to watch the Saturn lift off, and the two peaceably shook hands. Thinking of Abernathy watching that launch, I understood it as the zenith of American pain: that you should be, in the same breath, denied your rights, assured of your smallness, and awarded front-row tickets to combustive, deafening glory.

Kathleen Alcott is the author of the critically acclaimed novels America Was Hard to Find, Infinite Home and The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets

5 Things You Likely Never Knew About Apollo 11

As the 50th anniversary of the first Moon walk looms ever closer, there has been a cornucopia of new books on almost every angle of NASA’s Apollo program. But veteran journalist Charles Fishman’s “One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us To The Moon,” manages to find several intriguing takes on this oft-told tale.

Dust from the Moon had a rather bizarre odor.

The astronauts often compared it to the high desert of the American West. But no matter how beguiling from afar once the astronauts set foot in it, lunar dust became both a nuisance and potential hazard, particularly given the delicate nature of the lunar module’s operating systems.

To Armstrong, it was “the scent of wet ashes to crewmate Buzz Aldrin, it was “the smell in the air after a firecracker has gone off,” Fishman writes, noting that the two astronauts even slept in their helmets and gloves to avoid breathing the clingy, irritating dust.

Rich in iron, calcium, and magnesium bound up in minerals such as olivine and pyroxene, NASA says that one hypothesis for the smell is simply that the Moon is like one large 4 billion-year-old desert. And once its dust comes into contact with a moist atmosphere like the one designed to support life inside the lunar module, the dust’s molecules became noticeable to the astronaut’s own olfactory systems. But its odd, gunpowder-like smell remains a mystery.

Tang, Teflon, and Velcro were never NASA spinoff technologies.

Tang was created in 1957 by William Mitchell, the same guy who invented Cool Whip, writes Fishman. In 1962, when astronaut John Glenn performed eating experiments in orbit, NASA reports that Tang was selected for the menu. And ironically, as Fishman notes, the crew of Apollo 11 specifically rejected Tang as part of their food supplies.

Teflon was invented for DuPont in the late 1930s, but as NASA notes, the agency applied it to heat shields, space suits, and cargo hold liners. And although it is a Swiss invention from the 1940s, NASA says Velcro was used during the Apollo missions to anchor equipment for astronauts' convenience in zero gravity situations.

Apollo’s ability to guide and navigate its way to the Moon and back owes its roots in World War II-era technology.

In early February 1953, MIT engineers demonstrated a cutting-edge navigational and guidance technology that would prove crucial to both America’s Cold War efforts as well as NASA’s Apollo program.

One of the first key tests of such technology came on the morning of February 8, 1953, when an aging B-29 Superfortress bomber took off from Bedford, Mass., to Los Angeles, Fishman notes. Weighing in at 2,700 pounds, this experimental inertial guidance system had been mounted toward the rear of the plane’s fuselage.

The goal of any such system is to provide autonomous guidance and navigation for a moving vessel without the need for ground- or space-based reference points, but merely by relying on the constant measurement of the vehicle’s movements: its position, orientation, and velocity. Its aim was to fly the B-29 from coast to coast using gyroscopes, accelerometers, a pendulum, and a clock, all connected to an early onboard computer, writes Fishman.

Over some thirteen hours, it flew nearly 2600 miles without any pilot assistance, or shortly before it was time to land at what is now LAX airport. By the time the chief pilot took control of the aircraft, it was only ten miles off course. Of course, these guidance systems would have to be miniaturized and perfected in order to incorporate them into actual spacecraft.

But it’s not a stretch to say that without such accurate systems, Apollo spacecraft would have never had the kind of precision guidance needed to take the Apollo 11 crew from Florida to the Sea of Tranquility.

Courtesy Simon and Schuster

NASA learned early on that one false computer programming move could lead to disaster.

Mariner 1, NASA’s first attempt to send a robotic probe on a flyby of Venus, went badly awry on the morning of July 22, 1962. Only three and half minutes into its trajectory, the Atlas-Agena rocket on which Mariner 1 rode was off course, out of control, and headed for the shipping lanes of the North Atlantic, Fishman writes. Thus, he notes “at 4 minutes and 50 seconds into the flight, a range safety officer at Cape Canaveral flipped two switches, and explosives in the Atlas blew the rocket apart.”

The problem? Handwritten computer code iterated dozens of times in lines of guidance equations was missing a crucial “bar” above the letter “R” (for “Radius”) symbol. This coding error confused ground computers which mistakenly began sending the rocket unnecessary course corrections. And thus, NASA’s first attempt at an interplanetary mission was doomed before it ever left Earth orbit.

But NASA took this painful lesson to heart and Apollo 11’s onboard computers came through with flying colors, even though at times, they were overloaded at times and had computational powers that are a fraction of what is possible today.

The Soviets made one last desperate attempt to upstage Apollo.

The Soviet Luna 15 mission, assumed to be a robotic lunar sample return mission, launched on July 13, 1969, some three days in advance of Apollo 11. But although Luna 15 arrived in lunar orbit two days ahead of Apollo 11, the Soviet craft’s altimeter “showed wildly varying readings for the projected landing area,” as Fishman notes. Thus, by the time Luna 15 got around to attempting a lunar landing, Armstrong and Armstrong had already come and gone. Britain’s Jodrell Bank Observatory’s was tracking Luna 15’s maneuvers and was first to report that its radio signals had ended abruptly, Fishman writes. Even after orbiting the Moon more than 50 times, Luna 15 slammed into a nearside lunar mountain. Apollo had clearly won the day.

Tragically, the man who inspired it all never lived to see Armstrong and Aldrin’s first tenuous steps on the lunar surface . But a week before his assassination President John F. Kennedy did visit Cape Canaveral and got to see a Saturn I rocket on the launch pad before helicoptering out to a navy observation ship to watch a submarine launch one of its first Polaris missiles. As Fishman notes, the Navy even had Kennedy give the firing order.

Fishman makes a final paradoxical argument that if Kennedy had lived and won a second term as President, his stated goal of sending astronauts to the Moon and back before the decade was out may never have seen fruition. For privately within his own administration, JFK seemed to be wavering in his support for a near-term crewed lunar return mission, as Fishman notes. According to internal memos, he writes, JFK was even considering U.S.-Soviet cooperation for such a mission.

But if anything, his tragic death only seemed to solidify public support for NASA making this historic giant leap all on its own.