July 20, 1969—a day that would go down in history, as the first humans went on to set foot on the Moon. With an estimated 530 million people worldwide watching at the time, today’s generation can recall their parents or grandparents describe the chills they felt as Neil Armstrong spoke his famous words.1 People today tend to forget that there was a second man to touch down some fifteen minutes after Armstrong: Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, a man sometimes forgotten simply because he was not the first man on the Moon, on a mission that could have been quite capably another NASA tragedy.
The Apollo 11 Mission consisted of a crew of three men; Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins, and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Armstrong.2 On July 16, 1969, the crew prepared to launch from Cape Kennedy in Florida. Aldrin described what he saw, as his colleagues were being strapped into the rocket. He took in the moment and the magnitude of the journey the crew was about to embark on:
“As far as I could see there were people and cars lining the beaches and highways. The surf was just beginning to rise out of an azure-blue ocean. I could see the massiveness of the Saturn V rocket below and the magnificent precision of Apollo above. I savored the wait and marked the minutes in my mind as something I would always want to remember.”3
At 9:32 a.m. on July 16, 1969, the Saturn V Rocket ignited, launching the crew of Apollo 11 towards the Moon some 238,900 miles away. Aldrin poetically describes his view of Earth from space, “The thought reoccurred that wars are generally fought for territory or are disputes over borders; from space the arbitrary borders established on Earth cannot be seen.”4
On July 20, with the ever growing Moon in sight, the Lunar Module detached from the Command Module. From here on out, Aldrin was the pilot. It was his turn to etch his name in the history of humankind.
While advancing toward the Moon’s surface, the dreaded yellow caution light came on. Being so far away from Earth, yet so close to the surface of the Moon, the astronauts’ only hope was that the malfunction wasn’t critical. “Hearts shot up into throats while we waited to learn what would happen.”5 The crew received another caution warning before being told by their flight commander back in Houston to proceed. Following the first two warnings, Aldrin and Armstrong went on to receive at least three more warnings before being reassured, once again, that the mission was still a go.
July 20, 1969 at 4:17 p.m. — Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin successfully lands Lunar Module Eagle on the surface of the Moon in Mare Tranquillitatis (The Sea of Tranquility). Command Center has been painfully waiting four long days to hear Aldrin radio the words of success: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”6
Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the second man to set a pair of footprints on the surface of the Moon some fifteen minutes after his Command Leader Neil Armstrong initially touched down. When asked about the Moon’s scenery, Aldrin described it as “Beautiful, beautiful. Magnificent Desolation.”7 The crew spent the following hours taking samples from the Moon, taking photos, and of course, planting the American Flag on the Moon’s surface.
Twenty-one hours after landing, it was time to head back to Earth. The Eagle would meet back up with the Command Module Columbia and its pilot Michael Collins in the Moon’s orbit. The crew shared a brief celebratory moment before preparing their return voyage—back towards Earth’s orbit. The crew would return to Earth eight days after launch, landing in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969.8 In a stunning display of American science Buzz Armstrong, along with the rest of the Apollo 11 crew, ultimately ended the Space Race—heeding President John F Kennedy’s 1961 call to put American men on the Moon and safely return them before the decade’s end.
“And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.” — John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962