The First Lunar Explorers

At 9:32 a.m. Eastern daylight time on July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 left Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center, bound for the moon. Four days later, at 4:18 p.m. EDT on July 20, Neil Armstrong skilfully set the lunar module Eagle down in the Sea of Tranquility and reported, "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."26 For the next 10 minutes Armstrong and Aldrin were occupied with several post-landing procedures, reconfiguring switches and systems. Armstrong found time to report to Mission Control what he had been too busy to tell them during the landing: that he had manually flown the lunar module over the rockstrewn crater where the automatic landing system was taking it. Then he made his first quick-look science report:
We'll get to the details of what's around here, but it looks like a collection of just about every variety of shape, angularity, granularity, about every variety of rock you could find. . . . There doesn't appear to be too much of a general color at all. However, it looks as though some of the rocks and boulders, of which there are quite a few in the near area, it looks as though they're going to have some interesting colors to them. . . .27
After giving Houston as many clues as he could to the location of their module, he added some more description:
The area out the left-hand window is a relatively level plain cratered with a fairly large number of craters of the 5- to 50-foot variety, and some ridges - small, 20, 30 feet high, I would guess, and literally thousands of little 1- and 2-foot craters around the area. We see some angular blocks out several hundred feet in front of us that are probably 2 feet in size and have angular edges. There is a hill in view, just about on the ground track ahead of us. Difficult to estimate, but might be half a mile or a mile.28
Armstrong and Aldrin then started preparing their spacecraft for takeoff, setting up critical systems to be ready in case something happened and they had to leave the lunar surface quickly. A short break in this activity gave Armstrong a chance to pass along more information about the landing site:
. . . The local surface is very comparable to that we observed from orbit at this sun angle, about 10 degrees sun angle, or that nature. It's pretty much without color. It's . . . a very white, chalky gray, as you look into the zero-phase line [directly toward the sun]; and it's considerably darker gray, more like . . . ashen gray as you look out 90 degrees to the sun. Some of the surface rocks in close here that have been fractured or disturbed by the rocket engine plume are coated with this light gray on the outside; but where they've been broken, they display a dark, very dark gray interior; and it looks like it could be country basalt.29
Setting up the spacecraft systems took another hour and a half to complete; then they were ready to get out and explore. The flight plan called for them to eat and then rest for four hours, but Aldrin called Mission Control to recommend starting their surface exploration in about three hours' time. Houston concurred.30 Although they had been awake almost 11 hours and had gone through some stressful moments during the landing,* it seemed too much to expect the first men on the moon to take a nap before they made history.

While Armstrong and Aldrin tended to their postlanding chores, Mike Collins, orbiting 60 nautical miles (112 kilometers) overhead in the command module Columbia, had little to do. Houston enlisted his aid in an attempt to locate Eagle, giving him the best map coordinates they could derive from the sketchy information available. With his navigational sextant Collins scanned several spots, without success; Columbia passed over the landing site too rapidly to allow him to search the area thoroughly and he never found the lunar module.31 Determination of its exact location had to wait for postmission analysis of Armstrong's descriptions of the area and examination of the spacecraft's landing trajectory.

Getting ready to leave the lunar module took longer than the crew had anticipated. It was after 9:30 p.m. in Houston, an hour and a half later than they had hoped, when they opened the hatch. Armstrong carefully worked his way out onto the "porch," then climbed down the ladder, pausing on the lowest rung to comment on the texture of the surface and the depth to which the footpads had penetrated. At 9:56 p.m. he stepped onto the moon's surface, proclaiming, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" - inadvertently omitting an "a" before "man" and slightly changing the meaning he intended to convey.32

Armstrong made a cursory inspection of the lunar module and reported his reactions to the new environment. Aldrin then lowered a camera on the lunar equipment carrier - a clothesline and pulley arrangement that seemed out of place in the high-technology environment of Apollo - which Armstrong immediately began using. Mission Control reminded him to scoop up the contingency sample, which he did. "I'll try to get a rock in here. Just a couple." He noted that the collecting tool met resistance after penetrating a short distance into the surface material. He then stowed the sample in a bag that he tucked into a pocket of his suit. To the scientists on earth he remarked, "Be advised that a lot of the rock samples out here, the hard rock samples, have what appear to be vesicles in the surface. Also, I am looking at one now that appears to have some sort of phenocryst."** 33

Aldrin then joined Armstrong on the surface, and they spent the next several minutes inspecting the landing craft and reporting on its condition, adjusting to the low lunar gravity and trying various ways of getting around on the surface. After a brief commemorative ceremony (reading the plaque attached to the lunar module) and a short conversation with President Richard Nixon, they began unloading and emplacing the scientific instruments and collecting samples. They supplemented earth's limited television view of their activities with descriptions of what they were seeing and doing. On a couple of occasions they acted like field geologists. Aldrin reported that he saw a rock that sparkled "like some kind of biotite," but he "would leave that to further analysis."*** After closely examining some rounded boulders near the spacecraft, Armstrong said they looked "like basalt, and they have probably two percent white minerals in them. . . . And the thing that I reported as vesicular before, I don't believe that any more. . . . they look like little impact craters where BB shot has hit the surface."34

The geologists in Houston watching this surface activity on television were quite pleased with the astronauts' performance. At one point Armstrong disappeared from the field of view of the TV camera, causing some momentary anxiety at his apparent departure from the plan. It turned out that some unusual rocks had attracted his attention and he had gone off a few meters to collect them. That was exactly the kind of thing the geologists had hoped people on the moon would do.35 By the time the crew had taken two core samples, again experiencing difficulty in driving a sampling tool into the surface, and filled their sample return containers, Houston notified them that it was time to wind up their activity. Just before midnight CapCom**** Bruce McCandless told Aldrin to "head on up the ladder," and at 12:11 a.m. Houston time both men and their samples were back in the lunar module and the hatch was sealed.36 Humanity's first excursion on the surface of another celestial body had lasted 2 hours, 31 minutes, and 40 seconds.

Back inside the lunar module, Armstrong and Aldrin removed their lunar surface suits and portable life-support systems and used up their remaining film. Houston passed up some more instructions in preparation for liftoff and tentatively signed off for the night, but before long CapCom Owen Garriott, who had relieved McCandless, came on the line with some questions from the scientists about the nature of the surface and the problems in driving sampling tools into the surface. Three hours after they returned to the lunar module, the lunar explorers finally were able to turn in for a few hours of fitful sleep.37

Next morning Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins spent most of their time setting up Eagle and Columbia for liftoff and rendezvous. Before the lunar module left the moon, however, Armstrong gave Mission Control a detailed description of the landing approach path and landing area, in the hope of helping scientists locate their exact landing spot, and summarized the characteristics of the soil and rocks around the area.38

Liftoff and rendezvous went smoothly. When the two spacecraft were locked together Collins cracked Columbia's oxygen supply valve and Aldrin opened the lunar module's vent valve, to create a gas flow into the LM when the hatches were opened - part of the procedure to minimize back-contamination-while Aldrin and Armstrong vacuumed the lunar dust from their suits as best they could. Their vacuum cleaner, a brush attached to the exhaust hose of the LM suit system, was not very powerful and the tenacious dust came off only with difficulty. There was not nearly as much loose dust in the lunar module as they had expected when they returned from the surface; evidently it stuck tightly to whatever it touched.39 They passed the rock boxes and other items over to Collins and then clambered into the command module, where they removed their suits and stowed them in the bags provided. After jettisoning the lunar module and straightening up the command module, the three astronauts settled in for an uneventful trip back to earth.40

In the early morning hours of July 24, 8 days, 3 hours, 18 minutes, and 18 seconds after leaving Kennedy Space Center, Columbia plopped down into the Pacific Ocean about 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) south of Johnston Island. Recovery crews from the U.S.S. Hornet arrived quickly and tossed the biological isolation garments into the spacecraft. After the cocooned astronauts emerged from the spacecraft the swimmers swabbed the hatch down with Betadine (an organic iodine solution); then astronauts and recovery personnel decontaminated each other's protective garments with sodium hypochlorite solution. The biological isolation garments were not uncomfortable in the recovery raft, but aboard the helicopter they began accumulating heat. Both Collins and Armstrong felt that they were approaching the limit of their tolerance by the time they reached the ship.41 An hour after splashdown they were inside the mobile quarantine facility. As soon as they had changed into clean flight suits, the astronauts went to the large window at the rear end of the mobile quarantine facility to accept the nation's congratulations from President Nixon, who had flown out to the Hornet to meet them.42

Meanwhile, recovery crews brought Columbia on board and connected it to the astronauts' temporary home by means of a plastic tunnel. Through this, the film magazines and sample return containers were taken into the quarantine trailer, then passed out through a decontamination lock. Sample return container no. 2, holding the documented sample, was packed in a shipping container along with film magazines and tape recorders and flown to Johnston Island, where it was immediately loaded aboard a C-141 aircraft and dispatched to Ellington Air Force Base near MSC. Six and a half hours later the other sample return container was flown to Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, and thence to Houston.43

* While Armstrong was maneuvering to avoid a boulder field, alarms sounded in the lunar module indicating that the computer was overloaded. Mission Control quickly told the crew to proceed. Then, as fuel was running low, a dust cloud obscured the surface and Armstrong had to touch down without a good view of his landing spot.

** That is, the rocks had surface pits resembling those caused by the escape of gases from molten material (which could indicate a volcanic origin), and one seemed to have a prominent embedded crystal.

*** This comment drew criticism from some scientists on the ground that biotite (a mica-like mineral) could not have formed on the moon. The criticism was unwarranted, because Aldrin had not said that it was biotite, but that it looked like biotite he had seen on field trips; the criticism was mildly detrimental, because it made the next crew more reluctant to use technical terminology, with which some of the astronauts felt uncomfortable anyway, in describing what they saw. H. H. Schmitt interview, May 30, 1984.

**** The "Capsule Communicator" - a term left over from the Mercury days when spacecraft were called "capsules" - normally was the only person who talked to crews in space over the radio circuit. All CapComs were astronauts, most often astronauts who had not yet flown. Appendix 6 lists CapCom assignments for all Apollo flights.

26. Brooks, Grimwood, and Swenson,Chariots, pp. 337-44; MSC, "Apollo 11 Technical Air-to-Ground Voice Transcription (GOSS Net 1)," July 1969 (hereinafter cited as "Air-to-Ground"), p. 317.

27. Air-to-Ground, p. 319.

28. Ibid., p. 321.

29. Ibid., p. 324.

30. Ibid., p. 335.

31. Ibid., pp. 322, 332-33, 336, 343-46, 349-50, 412-15.

32. Air-to-Ground, p. 377; Brooks, Grimwood, and Swenson,Chariots, p. 346. After the crew returned to Houston, press representatives repeatedly asked what Armstrong had actually said. The Apollo news center at MSC issued the following release (copy in box 078-56, JSC History Office files) on July 30, 1969: "Armstrong said that his words when he first stepped onto the moon were: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind" not "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" as originally transcribed."

33. Air-to-Ground, pp. 377-79.

34. Ibid., pp. 379-400.

35. King interview.

36. Air-to-Ground, pp. 400-406.

37. Ibid., pp. 407-30.

38. Ibid., pp. 434-5-l.

39. Ibid., pp. 460-88; MSC, "Apollo 11 Technical Crew Debriefing, July 31, 1969," pp. 12-41 to 12-43.

40. Air-to-Ground, pp. 488-505.

41. Brooks, Grimwood, and Swenson, Chariots, pp. 355-57; "Technical Crew Debriefing," pp. 16-7 to 16- 12; Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., to Dir., Flight Crew Operations, "Suitability of the Biological Isolation Garments," Oct. 2, 1969.

42. Brooks, Grimwood, and Swenson,Chariots, p. 357.

43. "Apollo 11 Mission Report," MSC-00171, pp. 13-3 to 13-5.