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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: "The Eagle Has Landed!"

On July 20, 1969, millions of people fidgeted, held their breath, or prayed. They were waiting for the announcement that the lunar landing craft Eagle was safely on the surface of the Moon. The Eagle descended from an orbit 70 miles above the surface of the Moon. It had separated from Columbia, the "mother" spacecraft, when both were out of sight behind the Moon, cutting off communication with the earth. When the two came back into sight, Michael Collins, commander of Columbia, reported, "The Eagle has wings." The news that the landing craft was performing as expected brought a sigh of relief, but one of the most dangerous parts of the mission lay ahead.

Guidance computers in the Mission Control Center at the Manned Spacecraft Center (Johnson Space Center) in Houston took the Eagle out of orbit and controlled its descent until it was suspended 160 feet from the Moon's surface. The landing site chosen by the computer turned out to be a boulder-strewn crater that could have toppled the Eagle and made a later take-off impossible. A signal indicated only 114 seconds of fuel left. If the Eagle could not land within those few seconds, the astronauts would have to abort the mission and return to Columbia. It was then that Neil Armstrong, aided by Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, took control from the computers and manually maneuvered Eagle to a landing on the relatively smooth terrain of the Sea of Tranquility. Armstrong coolly reported: "Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." There were tears and cheers, and loud applause from the scientists, engineers, and reporters in the control room as Houston responded: "Roger, Tranquility. You got a bunch of boys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot." The time was 4:17 p.m., EDT.

For the next several hours, the astronauts checked their instruments to make sure the Eagle had not been damaged by the landing and prepared it for a quick takeoff, should it have been necessary. The astronauts were supposed to sleep for four hours before they began their walk on the Moon, but they were too excited to relax. They wanted to begin their walk immediately.

At 10:57 p.m. Armstrong opened the door of the Eagle, began to climb down the ladder, and opened the pack that protected the television camera that would record the remainder of his climb down to the Moon's surface. When his nine-and-a-half size boots stepped onto the Moon, he uttered words that summarized the nation's feelings about the moon landing: "That's one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind."

Armstrong then set up a television camera to record the astronauts' activities on the Moon. All the while, he chattered away like any tourist in new surroundings; he snapped photograph after photograph and provided detailed descriptions of his surroundings. Houston had to remind him four times to get back to the high-priority task of gathering lunar soil, so it would be ready to carry back to earth in case the mission had to be aborted. After 30 minutes, Buzz Aldrin came down the ladder, and as soon as he touched the Moon's surface, he paused to jump back to the ladder three times, just to show how easy it was. Then, excited by his weightlessness, he broke into a run.

The two men stayed on the Moon's surface for two and a half hours, gathering 60 pounds of rocks, digging into the Moon's surface for core samples, and setting up scientific equipment. They stopped their work just once, to receive a message from President Richard Nixon who told them, "This certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made.... All the people on this earth are truly one in their pride in what you have done." Mission Control in Houston flashed the words of President Kennedy announcing the Apollo commitment on its big screen. Kennedy's words were followed with these: "TASK ACCOMPLISHED, July 1969."¹

Finally, the men at the Mission Control Center ordered the two men to "head on up the ladder." Armstrong and Aldrin left behind the American flag they had put on the Moon's surface and a plaque reading "We came in peace for all mankind." The plaque was signed by the President and the three astronauts. They left medals and shoulder patches as memorials to Soviet astronauts Yuri Gagarin and Vladimir Komarov, and American astronauts Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Edward White, all of whom had died while serving in their nations' space programs. (They also brought medals back to earth and presented them to the widows of the Americans.) They left a disk containing statements by Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, as well as the leaders of 72 other nations, and Pope Paul VI. They also left the bottom part of the lunar module, which they had used as a launch pad, and the backpacks, boots, and other items that had been contaminated with lunar dust. The next day they returned to the Apollo capsule and set off back to Earth. They safely splashed down in the Pacific on July 24.

Radios and televisions around the world carried the events of the successful moon landing live. American soldiers in Vietnam stopped to listen despite the war raging around them. The Russians tried to jam Voice of America radio frequencies and buried reports on the moon landing in routine news broadcasts. In most other countries, radio and television stations did their best to make sure that viewers would not miss the moon walk. Streets in some cities were deserted as residents stayed home to watch television coverage. In other countries, television screens were set up out of doors. The worldwide television audience watching the Apollo moon landing was the largest in history.

Questions for Reading 3

1. Why do you think the landing craft was controlled from Houston? Why did Armstrong and Aldrin override the computer control and handle the landing themselves?

2. After Armstrong and Aldrin stepped out of the landing craft, how did they react to the huge audience that was watching them on television? What was the first thing each man did? Do you think they should have behaved differently? Why or why not?

3. Why was it so important for someone to remain in the Columbia during the walk on the Moon?

4. What did the astronauts leave on the Moon? Why do you think they selected those items?

5. Based on the reading, do you think the Apollo program accomplished what President Kennedy hoped it would?

Reading 3 was adapted from articles in the [Washington] Evening Star, July 21, 1969; Time, July 25, 1969, and Newsweek, July 28, 1969.

¹"Project Apollo: A Retrospective Analysis" web site, History Office, Office of Policy and Plans, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 19.

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