On May 25, 1961, American President John F. Kennedy delivered a message before an audience at Rice University in Houston, articulating a goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” by the end of the decade.
The president wouldn’t live to see it, but his pledge would come to life 53 years ago, today. July 20, 1969.
The accomplishments of the Apollo series seem almost foreordained to us, the massive complexities of the undertaking, all but forgotten.
In the modern era, the most powerful supercomputers on earth put space telescopes into orbit, albeit sometimes with “vision” needing to be corrected with “glasses”, as in the case of the Hubbell space telescope.
In 1969, these guys were sending human beings 240,000 miles into space to land on the moon and come back again, on less computing “horsepower” than your cellphone.
Any one of countless calculations could have misfired, slinging three astronauts into the black void of space, there to spend eternity, in a flying tomb.
The Apollo spacecraft consisted of three components: a Command Module (CM) with a cabin for the three astronauts, a Service Module (SM) supporting the CM with propulsion, electrical power, oxygen and water; and a Lunar Module (LM) for the actual landing.
The vehicle was launched into space by a Saturn V rocket, designed to break apart as each of a series of rocket stages were exhausted, and separated from the main craft.
The 363-foot, nearly seven million pound Saturn V launch vehicle lifted off from the John F. Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island Florida on July 16, carrying mission commander Neil Armstrong, Lunar module pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Command Module pilot, Michael Collins.
The Command/Service Module passed behind the moon at 12:21 Eastern Standard Time on July 19, firing its service propulsion engine and inserting the craft into lunar orbit.
Aldrin and Armstrong next moved into the LM, the only component to actually land on the lunar surface, with Collins remaining to orbit the moon in the CM.
The pair landed on a flat plain called the “Sea of Tranquility” on this day in 1969, three-foot probes touching the lunar surface at 4:18pm eastern standard time followed within seconds, by the LM itself. There were fifteen seconds of fuel left, in the “gas tank”.
Two men had landed in the 1/6th gravity of the moon, in a vehicle so delicate that the thing couldn’t support its own weight, back on earth. Half the world heard the words “Tranquility base, the eagle has landed”.
Back in Houston, controllers joked about turning blue. Now at last, they could breathe.
The schedule called for a break. A few hours to rest before that now-famous walk, on the surface of the moon.
Is there anyone alive that day who doesn’t remember Neil Armstrong’s words, as he stepped onto the lunar surface “There’s one small step for [a] man, and one great leap for mankind“. Yet something else happened up there only hours earlier, and most of us never heard about it.
Buzz Aldrin was a Christian. An elder in the Presbyterian church. He wanted to mark this momentous occasion and so he discussed it, with his pastor. The two agreed. He would bring with him the bread and the wine of Christian sacrament. He would receive holy communion, on the surface of the moon.
Conscious that this was a moment for all mankind and not only Christians, Aldrin invited listeners to pause, to reflect on the significance of the moment and to give thanks, in their own way. Then he opened the bread and the wine. Let him tell this part of the story, himself:
“In the radio blackout, I opened the little plastic packages which contained the bread and the wine. I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine slowly curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup. Then I read the Scripture, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing.” I had intended to read my communion passage back to earth, but at the last minute [they] had requested that I not do this. NASA was already embroiled in a legal battle with Madelyn Murray O’Hare [sic], the celebrated opponent of religion, over the Apollo 8 crew reading from Genesis while orbiting the moon at Christmas. I agreed reluctantly. I ate the tiny Host and swallowed the wine. I gave thanks for the intelligence and spirit that had brought two young pilots to the Sea of Tranquility. It was interesting for me to think: the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the communion elements. And of course, it’s interesting to think that some of the first words spoken on the moon were the words of Jesus Christ, who made the Earth and the moon — and Who, in the immortal words of Dante, is Himself the “Love that moves the Sun and other stars”.Buzz Aldrin
At 10:39 Eastern Daylight Time, Neil Armstrong opened the door. And stepped onto the surface of the moon.