Apollo 11: we heard it first

“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

These eight words are among the most famous ever spoken.

And, it’s a little known fact, that Australians heard them first.

That’s because it took the transmission from the Apollo 11 astronauts on the Moon about 0.3 seconds to travel from Australia where they were received to the United States (and the rest of the world). 

Spoken at 20:17 Greenwich Mean Time on July 20, 1969, they would be followed six hours six hours and 39 minutes later by an even more famous sentence.

“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

They will be forever remembered as the first words ever spoken from the Moon by a human being.

That human was Neil Armstrong, who along with Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, was was the first of just 12 men to set foot upon a body of the solar system other than Earth.

Apollo 11 left the surface of Earth at 13:32 GMT on July 16, firing upwards from Cape Kennedy on Florida’s south-eastern tip.

At the top of the 110 metre, 33 storey tall Saturn V rocket, the most powerful rocket yet built, Armstrong and Aldrin were joined by Michael Collins, a man soon to become the loneliest human being in space.

Each of the F-1 rockets that powered the first stage was able to produce 1.5 million pounds of thrust.

To feed these incredible machines were pumps capable of passing 15 tons of specially formulated fuel into the engines per second.

This was needed as the Saturn V was more than double the height of the rockets that had taken Mercury and Gemini astronauts into Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

Apollo 11 was the culmination of the program set in place by President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

His speech promised an American manned Moon landing “by the end of this decade”.

An exhaustive set of tests found men that possessed “The Right Stuff”.

The Mercury program launched a single man into space, the Gemini program hosted a duo.

One of these missions had Armstrong aboard.

In a test flight that designed to measure the ability of docking procedures to work, however, the Gemini craft piloted by Armstrong tumbled out of control after a small thruster locked in the firing position.

Without Armstrong’s ice-cold handling of the situation, both men aboard would have blacked out and most likely would have perished.

The first Apollo launch was delayed due to an unforeseen set of circumstances.

Three astronauts, just three weeks from their test launch, perished in a fire inside a fully oxygenated capsule.

It was found later that a single spark had caused the blaze, thanks to the cracked insulation of a creased cable.

Refinement and evolution of the Saturn V and attached crew modules eventually resulted in successful launches into Earth orbit and finally, Apollo 10’s lunar orbits.

The door to a manned Moon landing had been opened.

Unlike Aldrin and Collins, Armstrong was actually a civilian.

Collins had graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1952.

Aldrin also had graduated from the USMA, albeit a year before, and had been presented with a Doctorate in Mechanical Engineering.

In 1963 he also gained a Doctorate in Science in Astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, making him, effectively, the most “educated” astronaut aboard the Apollo 11.

In what was the first of six missions that were successful in reaching the Moon’s surface, training to learn about conditions on the Moon was minimal — compared with the final mission.

Just 151 minutes were spent outside the confines of the Lunar Module, dubbed “Eagle”.

A total of 21.5kg of rock samples were taken, considered priceless because the came from the Moon.

Meanwile, Collins remained In orbit around the Moon.

If anything had gone wrong on the surface below, he would have been making the journey back to Earth alone.

A picture he took during his orbits shows the Moon , the Lunar Module, and Earth.

It was later catchphrased: “This makes him the only person ever to have lived who was not inside the frame of the photo.” 

Although the Apollo  11 mission was successful, it wasn’t without some heart-stopping moments.

As the pair prepared to lift off from the Moon’s surface, Aldrin was forced to use a pen to enable a switch mechanism after a circuit breaker tripped.

Without the switch they wouldn’t have been able to fire the ascent engine and would have been stranded on the lunar surface.

Then there’s the famous 1201 and 1202 alarms, where data from the onboard computers simply overloaded what was a cutting edge memory retrieval system.

The normally unflappable Armstrong’s heart rate doubled within seconds, because the alarms coincided with a call that their remaining fuel reserves were down to 30 seconds — in fact 15 seconds worth — before Armstrong’s manual landing had “Eagle” hit the powder with just 8 seconds of fuel left.

At 16:50 GMT on July 24, the three landed in the Pacific Ocean after hitting a speed of almost 40,000km/h at the intersection of the Earth’s atmosphere 122km above.

A later and extremely thorough analysis of the Apollo 11 mission found that all parameters had been met — the mission was deemed a complete success.

Since then, just 10 other men, and five other pilots, have walked upon and orbited the body of rock we call the Moon.



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