One Small Step for [a] Man

It was 30 years ago Tuesday that Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong piloted the Eagle — the first manned lunar-landing spacecraft — to the surface of the moon.

He had to land manually, as the onboard computer couldn’t process instructions fast enough as they sped toward a field of boulders; landing on them would have surely meant death. But he settled down with less than 30 seconds of fuel remaining and, after a few hours of rest, stepped onto the surface of our moon, followed shortly by Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, while Michael Collins circled less than 10 miles overhead in the command module, Columbia.

Driven by dreams — and funded by a burning desire to beat the Russians — the first moon landing on July 20, 1969, was a defining moment in history. Never before had so many people, in so many countries, watched a single event with such awe.

“It was probably the greatest singular human endeavor, certainly in modern times, maybe in the history of all mankind,” said former astronaut Gene Cernan last week. Now 65, Cernan was the last of the 12 men to walk on the moon, from Apollo 17 in 1972.

In a rare interview last week, Armstrong said that at the time of launch, he guessed their chances of returning alive were about 90 percent, and the chances of a successful landing on the moon were only 50 percent. But they went anyway, and gladly.

Everyone in the program knew there were significant risks — right up to the top. President Richard Nixon was ready to address the nation in case of failure. Nixon speechwriter William Safire (now a columnist for the New York Times) wrote the words Nixon never had to use.

The memo was titled “IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER”:

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.

Imagine the pressure they must have felt! But they thought it was important to take such risks. True heroes indeed, and it was worth it: their bold steps inspired an entire generation, not just of Americans, but of the entire human race.

Including me — I started my career as a science writer, with a specialty in explaining complex topics to a lay audience, proudly working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for ten years, where I loved being shoulder to shoulder with the people that make our reach toward the stars happen.

For a terrific summary of the Apollo 11 mission — as told by the astronauts while it was fresh in their minds — well illustrated with great photos, see NASA’s The First Lunar Landing site — released for the landing’s 20th Anniversary!

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I had the honor later of attending Neil Armstrong’s final public appearance.

15 Comments on “One Small Step for [a] Man

  1. Great story!

    One of the reasons that the module was being hand flown was that NASA had not accounted for the small push that the leftover air in the hatch would give to space landing vehicle. It was enough of a push to require them to select an alternate field, as they would miss the original planned landing field (a nice, safe, flat area) and end up over a rocky one. So… hats off even more to the pilot who had to deal with what could have easily been a total disaster.

  2. I too had a real interest in the space program. My dad was an engineer for Aerojet General, the Liquid Propolusion side of things. Aerojet was responsible for the Saturn V rocket so I recall watching every launch and splashdown! Thanks for bringing back such a great memory.

    Very cool, George! We lived in Burbank, on a hill overlooking Burbank airport, where there was a big Lockheed facility. Some of my earliest memories involve sonic booms from the various experimental aircraft Lockheed was developing at its “Skunkworks”. -rc

  3. July 20, 1969 Hollywood, FL

    I was 16 years old and sick with the mumps, something considered quite hazardous for boys my age. I had been confined to my bed for a long time already and asked frequently to be allowed to see the planned moon landing.

    Finally, when the astronauts were at the moon, but had not yet landed, I was allowed to walk slowly and with assistance to the other end of the house where our television was located.

    As the lunar module was piloted down I almost passed out. I had forgotten to breathe. Such was the excitement of the event. Never before and nearly never since, has anything impressed me to that point. It truly was a miracle for mankind.

  4. My 107-year-old great aunt and her family were sitting in front of a 25 inch color television watching the first step on the moon.

    She recalled the first time she saw a man fly when she was a little girl. It was a Frenchman in a hot air balloon at a World’s Fair. She said that was just as exciting as the moon landing.

  5. I was nineteen that summer, and stationed on a fire lookout about 50 miles from Portland, Oregon, and at least 20 miles from the nearest thing that could be called “civilization”. I watched the landing on a 4″ Sony portable television. It was roughly 12″ x 15″ x 6″ and weighed nearly 15 lbs; I had to steal dry cell batteries from my communication radio to power it. By today’s standards, that is ancient technology, but I was filled with wonder at the time to be able to see pictures direct from the Moon in my remote location. Even today, I still tear up when I hear Armstrong say, “The Eagle has landed.”

  6. I was 11 when this happened. My family had a small black and white television set that we watched it on. My mother and I both loved to read science fiction stories, and here we were living one vicariously. Back then, we were sure that by 40 years later, there would be permanent settlements on the Moon. *sigh*

  7. My husband and I had been intrigued with the previous programs and were following every step of the Apollo flights.

    He was fossil hunting with friends that weekend but made it home before the scheduled broadcast. Our older son was 6 months old and we sat with him in my lap to watch.

    Four years later, my husband was in charge of producing the map of the moon landing site for Apollo 17! That was the flight when the fender was damaged and the astronauts used copies of the map and duct tape to create a new fender for the Lunar Explorer. They brought it back and it hangs in the Space Display at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

  8. July 20th is my birthday, and on July 20, 1969 I received the best birthday present of my life, thanks to NASA, the Apollo astronauts, and a country then not afraid to lead.

  9. Just a minor correction; the Command Module was, if memory serves, in an elliptical orbit with perilune (closest approach to the moon) about 60 miles, and apolune (furthest distance) about 120.

    I too have distinct memories of being permitted to stay up late to watch the first steps on the moon. A real high point, if not *the* high point (so far), for our species.

    PS: if you haven’t done a Zero Gravity training flight yet, do so. My entire family flew one last year, and it is worth every penny. In all the accounts I have read on space flight, I have never seen a really good description of what freefall feels like, and now I know why — it is very hard to describe (but it doesn’t feel like you’re falling!)

    I agree that the use of “circled” is misleading, since he didn’t stay in a <10-mile circular orbit, but indeed the orbit dropped that low for the lunar descent by Armstrong and Aldrin:

    On July 20, Armstrong and Aldrin entered the LM again, made a final check, and at 100 hours, 12 minutes into the flight, the Eagle undocked and separated from Columbia for visual inspection. At 101 hours, 36 minutes, when the LM was behind the moon on its 13th orbit, the LM descent engine fired for 30 seconds to provide retrograde thrust and commence descent orbit insertion, changing to an orbit of 9 by 67 miles, on a trajectory that was virtually identical to that flown by Apollo 10. At 102 hours, 33 minutes, after Columbia and Eagle had reappeared from behind the moon and when the LM was about 300 miles uprange, powered descent initiation was performed with the descent engine firing for 756.3 seconds.

    And it continues from there. (Source: NASA) -rc

  10. My folks dragged the TV into the dining room so we didn’t miss anything. I wanted to stay up to see them jettison their trash, but the excitement wore me down. It’s disturbing how little media coverage there is of space exploration today. All the gadgets that allow us to tweet and Facebook are possible because of the engineering that space exploration required. I also think it’s interesting that the astronauts don’t consider themselves heroes. To a man, they said they were just doing their jobs. As an aside, RIP Uncle Walter.

  11. A touching and inspiring memoir. I was 10 years old at the time of the moon landing. It has stayed with me as a high point of my childhood.

    Let us not forget the contributions of Jack Parsons, who co-founded the JPL, and whose contributions to rocket science made it possible for the space program to take off (pun very much intended).

    In 1937 Parsons addressed a meeting of the science fiction club founded and conducted by Ray Bradbury, then a senior in high school. His parting words were: “Do not give up on your dreams. We will land on the Moon in your lifetime.” Sadly, this was true of Bradbury but not Parsons himself.

  12. “He had to land manually, as the onboard computer couldn’t process instructions fast enough as they sped toward a field of boulders.”

    AIUI this is not true. It was always part of the plan that the crew would have and probably use the ability to steer the lander (or as Armstrong put it afterwards, exercise his “God-given right to be wishy-washy about where I was going to land”), but the computer was an essential part of the Apollo flight controls. Attempts were made in the simulator to fly the lander fully manually but they failed – the lunar lander was simply too unstable to be handled without electronic mediation.

    It’s true that the onboard computer issued alarm codes during descent (“1202 alarms”) which indicated it was heavily loaded. However it’s important to realise that the computer was a multi-tasking machine and had other roles than mediating the flight controls. One of these was monitoring the lander’s 2 radars, one aimed at the lunar surface for the landing, the other aimed back at the command module for docking and undocking.

    The exact explanation of what happened is a little unclear but it seems that the computer was only specced to handle the volume of radar data from one radar at once. However during the descent both were active, or at least appeared to be from the computer’s point of view, and it was getting swamped. It therefore did what it was designed to do in this situation – drop the lowest priority tasks (the rendezvous radar calculations) in order to ensure the higher priority flight control tasks got the resources they needed. It then popped up an alarm to let astronauts and ground control know what was happening.

    I’ll end with a few articles which go into the story with more depth and/or eloquence than I’ve managed above.

    I was being necessarily brief. The computer didn’t crash per se, but Armstrong did have to alter the landing location at the last moment because of unanticipated boulders in the way. The 1201 and 1202 alarms were definitely a distraction, and in a simulation 11 days before launch, the flight director, not understanding the alarms (that were included on purpose) aborted the landing. That turned out to be a good thing, since when they popped up during the actual landing, they knew it was a simple overload situation and that it was OK to proceed.

    For a more technical description of the LM’s onboard computer systems see

  13. Thank you for acknowledging that it was indeed “…one small step for a man…”. I remember it vividly- I had just returned from Vietnam (and discharged from the USAF) two months previously, and my Mom and I were in the Living Room, glued to the TV, just as we were in Nov., 1963. I always wondered what ever happened to that “a”, and what else in our history has been “corrected” that we don’t notice!

    I acknowledged that he meant to say “a man”. What he actually said, however, was “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” — dropping the “a”. Analysis of the tapes have shown that it was not dropped from the transmission, but rather not said in the first place. -rc

  14. On 20July1969, my Marine unit, 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment and I, after having been pulled out of Vietnam by presidential order, diembarked at Okinawa. We found out later that day what happened on the moon.

    Talk about mixed emotions! You missed witnessing fabulous history, but getting out of ‘nam is a pretty good reason. -rc

  15. One quick correction — Michael Collins orbited in Columbia approximately 66 miles above, not 10.

    “Later, a second burn of the SPS for 17 seconds placed the docked vehicles into a lunar orbit of 62 by 70.5 miles…”

    I got that quote from here:

    The confusion may be from the fact that the Lunar Module was initially in an orbit that would take it only 10 miles from the surface at it’s perigee, before it entered the landing phase. But the Command Module Columbia, with Michael Collins in it, never got closer than 62 miles from the surface.

    Thanks for not only clearing that up, but for figuring out where the error came from! -rc

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