📸 Aldrin alongside the Lunar Module of Apollo 11
On July 20th, 1969, human beings first walked on the surface of the Moon. Five decades out from that fateful day, this act stands among the greatest accomplishments of our species. Its characters and drama honed to near mythic status as a testament to humankind's potential. What is remembered less often is the story’s minutia: the small details and historical footnotes that collectively allowed for the Moon landing to happen at all. As the Apollo 11 crew was quick to remind, the mission’s success relied on thousands of scientists, engineers, and technicians who spent years laying the groundwork for the three men who would go to the Moon and back.
📸 Armstrong and Aldrin training for specimen collection
It was December 23, 1968, and astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were acting as backup crew members for Apollo 8, while Michael Collins served as a CapCom, communicating with the capsule. When Apollo 8 became the first mission to approach the Moon, Armstrong was approached by Deke Slayton, Director of Flight Crew Operations, about helming Apollo 11. Armstrong was quick to accept, but to that point it was unclear whether 11 would touch down on the Moon, or if delays to the lunar module would bump the landing to Apollo 12. The answer came on January 6, 1969 when the three formally received their flight assignments.
📸 Aldrin undergoing 1/6 gravity training aboard the "vomit comet"
Over the next seven months, NASA prepared to meet their objective of landing on the moon. In March, Apollo 9 saw the first deployment of the complete Apollo craft, while in May, Apollo 10 acted as a dress rehearsal for the final mission. On the ground, the Apollo 11 crew trained for their assignment.
Beyond the hundreds of flight simulations they flew, Armstrong and Aldrin undertook geology training, flew on “vomit comet” flights to simulate ⅙ gravity, and practiced with equipment on mockups of the Moon’s surface. A month out from the mission, the three were quarantined to establish a biological baseline to compare against after their return.
📸 Diagram of the Lunar Module (source: NASA)
After learning that they would be the first humans on the Moon, the Apollo 11 crew had only a few months for their final training, though the technology they would use had been carefully worked out years in advance.
NASA had hoped to deploy the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP), a suite of machines like a seismometer, gravimeter, radiation detector, and atmosphere reader, but the decision to have just one 2.5 hour excursion made the unit’s use impractical. Instead, the simpler Early Apollo Surface Experiments Package (EASEP) was used during Apollo 11. with later missions using the advanced suite.
📸 The mission patch
Before blasting off, there was also the question of whether Armstrong or Aldrin would be the first to step onto the Moon. During the Gemini flights, the mission commanders had stayed in the vehicle while their copilots had conducted spacewalks, suggesting Aldrin would exit first. In part because of simple practical matters, Armstrong was selected instead, as it would be easier for him to leave first based on the lander’s door configuration.
Another non-technical matter to be figured out include the mission’s patch, which was to be designed by the crew. Collins himself drew the base design, a bald eagle swooping down to the Moon, clutching an olive branch of peace. Initially, the branch was to be held in the eagle's beak, but it was moved to make the talons appear less intimidated. Collins figured the eagle looked a bit uncomfortable in the new orientation and was quoted as saying he "hoped [the eagle] dropped the olive branch before landing."
📸 Lyndon Johnson and Spiro Agnew watching the launch
At long last launch day came, July 16, 1969. A million spectators crowded around for miles surrounding Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. The Saturn V rocket that held the Command Service Module (CSM) and Lunar Module (LM) stood 363 feet tall, a skyscraper that would carry the Apollo astronauts into space.
The three men were awoken at 4:15 AM and, after a final medical checkup, donned their spacesuits and rode in a van to Launch Pad 39A, where a rickety elevator took them to the top of the Launch Umbilical Tower. In the White Room, the pad’s leader gave Armstrong a parting gift: a styrofoam Key to the Moon.
📸 A diagram of the journey to the Moon
Apollo 11 blasted off at 9:32 AM, watched by millions across live television broadcasts. The rocket shed its large first and second stages, leaving only its third stage to enter parking orbit, where the astronauts revolved once around the Earth before beginning the translunar injection that shot them towards the Moon. En route, Collins performed the delicate maneuver to connect the Command and Service Module to the Lunar Module, by detaching from the larger craft, turning around, and mating the two modules together. From there, the now joined Apollo craft separated from the remains of the Saturn V rocket and began its three day journey to the Moon.
📸 Aldrin on the Moon
Falling into lunar orbit, Armstrong and Aldrin transferred to the LM, nicknamed “Eagle,” while Collins remained aboard the CSM, nicknamed “Columbia.” The two modules separated, the LM heading to the surface while the CSM would orbit the Moon. On approach, Armstrong and Aldrin found their intended landing sight to be littered with boulders, necessitating Armstrong to manually pilot the module to a new site with just a small sliver of fuel left to spare. The Eagle touched down on the lunar surface at 4:17 PM EST.
The Moon landing was rife with symbolic moments: planting the American flag, President Nixon’s phone call to the astronauts, Armstrong’s famous words: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” But Apollo 11 was still a scientific endeavor. Much of Armstrong and Aldrin’s time on the surface was spent collecting rocks, deploying instruments, and scouting out the lunar surface. When they blasted off from the Moon the next day, they carried with them the first samples and data taken directly from our cosmic neighbor. After an incredible journey, it was time to return home.
📸 Apollo 11, under quarantine, reuniting with their wives.
📸 A small square of foil
As Armstrong and Aldrin traversed the lunar surface, Collins orbited alone in the Command Module (CM). This tiny little cylinder of metal was protected from solar radiation by sheets of kapton foil. Here at Mini Museum, we are proud to offer a genuine specimen of the foil from the CM, a small part of the mission that first landed humans on the Moon.
Acquired at auction, this material comes from the personal collection of retired NASA Production Control Engineer William R. Whipkey. Among space collectors, Whipkey is considered the most reliable source for kapton foil because he oversaw the decommissioning of the Command Modules from multiple missions. He was also responsible for making most of the commemorative displays for astronauts, VIPs, and others who worked on the Apollo Program.
Harland, David M. (David Michael). The First Men on the Moon : the Story of Apollo 11. New York ; Berlin: Springer, 2007. Print.
Hurt, Harry. For All Mankind. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988. Print.