“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” astronaut Neil Armstrong said 45 years ago, as he descended from a short ladder and stepped onto the moon.
On July 20, 1969, Armstrong and Edwin Eugene “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. were the first men to land on the moon.
In an effort to outpace the Soviet Union in “The Space Race,” Time reports that President John F. Kennedy finally made good on his 1961 promise to get an American on the lunar surface with the success of the Apollo 11 mission. (Although President Richard Nixon was in office at the time of the landing.)
Apollo 11 launched from Cape Kennedy on July 16, 1969, carrying Armstrong as commander, Michael Collins as command module pilot, and Aldrin as lunar module pilot, according to NASA.
According to The Lunar and Planetary Institute, the Apollo 11 astronauts had several tasks to accomplish during extravehicular operations (EVA) while on the moon’s surface: Collect lunar samples, deploy several experiments, and examine and photograph the lunar surface. The two men performed “all scientific activities satisfactorily,” according to the Institute, and were in EVA for 2.5 hours.
Sounds simple enough, but the mission itself carried grave dangers.
The risks were otherworldly. If the engine designed to launch the men failed, they would crash. If the engine designed to lift them out of the moon’s orbit failed, they would be forever lost in space. If the engine designed to return them to Earth failed, they would burn to death.
Just a couple of years before the Apollo 11 mission launched, three US astronauts died in a fire while trapped in their command module during an on-ground launch simulation.
But the show still went on, and NASA says that an estimated 530 million people tuned in their televisions to watch the successful moon landing. Commemorative medallions bearing the names of the three Apollo 1 astronauts who lost their lives in a launch pad fire, and two other cosmonauts who died in accidents, were left on the moon.
The historic moon landing not only asserted America’s global dominance, but also capped a decade of turbulence, including the Civil Rights Movement, JFK’s assassination, and the burgeoning Vietnam War.