The Moon is elusive.
Most people experience the Moon in their daily lives as something that is ever-present, yet simultaneously inaccessible. The Moon is a constant backdrop for nightly adventures, beautiful landscapes, and symbolic rituals — but no more than twelve humans have actually stepped foot on its surface. For that reason, the Moon has always been an emblem for hidden truths and treasures.
To look up at the night sky and see an orb of light so far away — it seems so unattainable, so impossible to reach. To grasp both realities that the Moon is a permanent fixture in the horizon, but also dappled with footprints, requires the mind to bend a little.
On April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union made history when teams successfully launched the first human being into space. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and completed a single orbit around the globe.
Less than a month later, NASA astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space — but his small suborbital flight was substantially less ambitious than Gagarin’s journey had been.
President John F. Kennedy reacted to the alarm about the Soviet Union’s gains in the space race with a speech before a special joint session of Congress. On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy announced that the United States would land a human on the Moon before the end of the decade.
In order to reach this ambitious goal, NASA developed a series of programs that would slowly build all of the capabilities needed to safely land astronauts on the lunar surface and bring them back to Earth.
The Mercury project, which lasted between 1961 and 1963, focused efforts on orbiting humans around the Earth, studying the effects of space on the human body, and safely recovering humans and spacecraft from space missions. The Gemini missions, which flew between 1965 and 1966, practiced rendezvous and docking between two separate spacecraft while in orbit, perfected landing and re-entry methods, and further studied the effects of space on the human body — only this time for missions of longer durations, up to two weeks.
Both Mercury and Gemini succeeded in preparing NASA before attempting to land a person on the Moon with the Apollo program. However, the Apollo program could not have had a rockier start.
On January 27, 1967, astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee lost their lives during a preflight test for the Apollo 1 mission. A fire consumed the command module on the launchpad due to a combination of faulty wiring, the flammability of a pure-oxygen environment inside of the capsule, and the difficulty of the process to open the hatch.
The tragedy set the Apollo program back as NASA picked up the pieces of what had happened, determined to prevent anything like it from ever happening again. The next Apollo flight didn’t get off the ground until a year and a half later with the launch of Apollo 7 on October 11, 1968.
By the time Apollo 11 launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 16, 1969, the Apollo program had practiced every step toward landing a person on the Moon aside from the act itself. NASA astronauts had practiced disconnecting and reconnecting the command module from the lunar module, the actual vehicle that would ferry crew members down to the Moon’s surface. Astronauts had even practiced orbiting around the Moon and using its gravity to slingshot themselves back to Earth.
Three days after the launch, Apollo 11 entered lunar orbit. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin climbed into the lunar module, code named Eagle, and began their descent to the lunar surface while Michael Collins remained in the command module Columbia. After manually piloting the lunar module to avoid landing on rocky terrain, Armstrong radioed from Tranquility Base: “The Eagle has landed.”
Half a billion people around the world watched as Armstrong became the first to set foot on another world. Aldrin followed closely behind. Together they captured imagery, collected Moon rocks, and set up experiments on the surface of the Moon.
After returning to Earth, Armstrong praised the “hundreds of thousands” of people who contributed to the first Moon landing: “Every guy that’s setting up the tests, cranking the torque wrench, and so on, is saying, man or woman, ‘If anything goes wrong here, it’s not going to be my fault.’” In fact, over four hundred thousand people put efforts into the Apollo 11 mission.
We not only celebrate the historic Apollo 11 Moon landing today — we actively apply the accumulated knowledge and experience of the Apollo program to prepare us to send humans to the Moon once again. NASA’s Artemis missions will once again bring us to that elusive orb in the sky, only this time, there will be some key differences.
Under Artemis, NASA will land the first woman and the first person of color to the lunar surface. Long-term habitation on the surface will provide us with invaluable information that will eventually prepare us for human missions to Mars.
To those still in doubt of the Apollo 11 mission, the evidence is there —in the night sky. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission captured images of all the Apollo landing sites as it mapped the entire surface of the Moon. Among the identifiable landmarks are several experiments that Armstrong and Aldrin left behind, as well as their footsteps moving back and forth between them and the indentation left behind by the Eagle.
Under the light of the Moon, the darkness is lifted, and the truth is revealed. Although the Moon has eluded us for millennia, more people will gain access to our celestial neighbor with NASA’s Artemis missions, which build off the success of Apollo.