Neil Armstrong about to take the first step on the moon

Image courtesy NASA

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon and took their first steps on the lunar surface. Half a billion people around the world watched live television images that recorded the event. The landing was, without a doubt, one of the most significant achievements of modern civilization.

It is made even more remarkable by the fact that no human being had ever been in space before 1961. To go from "no human being in space" to "walking on the moon" in just eight years is startling. It happened because of a very intense learning process.

NASA was created in 1958, about a year after Russia's launch of the Sputnik satellite. President Kennedy announced the idea of the moon missions in his famous speech on May 25, 1961. In particular he said:

First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior.

Even in this paragraph we see an emphasis on research, and if you read the whole speech you see it even more.

The Apollo 11 crew with President Richard M. Nixon

Image courtesy NASA

Think about everything that NASA had to learn. It needed to know how to:

  • put a person in orbit
  • get the person back safely
  • operate rocket engines and spacecraft in a vacuum and without gravity
  • control huge multistage rockets
  • build space suits
  • space walk and moon walk
  • dock and undock spacecraft in orbit
  • get in and out of moon orbit
  • land on the moon and take back off

The Mercury missions gave NASA experience in getting people into orbit and back. The Gemini missions dealt with things like docking, space suits and space walking. In the early Apollo missions, NASA learned about orbiting the moon and getting home. And then Apollo 11 was able to put everything together.

Even today it's hard to believe that it all worked, especially given the rather primitive technology available at ­the time. That makes the achievement one of the most amazing in human history.

Neil Armstrong died on Aug. 25, 2012, at the age of 82, following complications from heart surgery [source: Reuters].

For more information on the moon landing and related topics, check out the links on the next page.