July 16, 1969
Not long after sunrise on a flawless Florida morning, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins finish their breakfast of steak, eggs and orange juice in the crew quarters at Kennedy Space Center and board a bus to Launch Pad 39A. There, a towering Saturn V rocket sits waiting for them.
In high-speed elevators, they ascend 320 feet to the tiny spacecraft that will carry them to the moon. Armstrong climbs in first, taking the commander’s seat on the left. Then comes Collins, the command module pilot, on the right. Lunar module pilot Aldrin is in the middle seat.
At 9:32 a.m. local time, the crew of Apollo 11 launches into space, en route to a world 218,096 million nautical miles from our own. They are about to become the most distant explorers in human history, the very first Earthlings to walk upon the surface of the moon.
This is their journey.
Turn on audio for the full experience.
Photos and video by NASA
“Good luck and godspeed” are the last words from launch control before takeoff.
“Thank you very much,” Armstrong replies. “We know it will be a good flight.”
Twelve minutes after launch, Apollo 11 enters 100-nautical-mile-high orbit around Earth. Three hours after that, the spacecraft fires another engine stage, launching it on a trajectory toward the moon.
July 16-19, 1969
The voyage to the moon takes three days. Most of that time, the command module rotates “like a chicken on a spit” (in Collins’s words) to prevent any one part from overheating in the sun. The astronauts on board can’t see the planet they came from or the place they are headed.
All they see is stars.
Finally, they roll out of the maneuver into lunar orbit and are greeted by their very first Earthrise.
Collins: “Don’t you want to get the Earth coming up? It’s going to be nine minutes.”
Aldrin: “Yes, let’s take some pictures here first.”
Armstrong: “What a spectacular view!”
Collins: “God, look at that moon!”
Collins: “Fantastic. Look back there behind us, sure looks like a gigantic crater; look at the mountains going around it. My gosh, they're monsters.”
July 20, 1969
Armstrong and Aldrin crawl into the Eagle lunar module and begin landing system checks. Nearly six hours later, lying feet first and face down, they fire the craft’s descent engine and drop toward the moon.
The astronauts view with alarm the site where the computer has guided them. It is a steep-sided crater flanked by car-size boulders.
Armstrong takes manual control of the spacecraft, slows the descent and begins flying the Eagle like a helicopter, almost parallel to the ground. His heart rate rockets from a normal 77 beats per minute to 156. Every second he spends searching for a smooth place to land uses precious fuel.
For nine seconds, no one says anything.
Fueled by adrenaline, the crew quickly pushes to begin its first extravehicular activity, or EVA.
At 10:30 p.m. Eastern — perfect for primetime television viewers — Armstrong unlocks the lunar module hatch and squeezes through the opening. He lowers himself slowly down a 10-foot ladder, pausing for a moment on the final rung.
The astronauts have arrived in the Sea of Tranquillity, a flat lava plain coated in loose lunar soil called regolith.
Armstrong: “Yes, the surface is fine and powdery. I can kick it up loosely with my toe.”
Aldrin follows Armstrong out of the lunar module, arching his back to navigate in his helmet and bulky spacesuit. He partly closes the hatch behind him.
“Making sure not to lock it on my way out,” Aldrin says.
Armstrong laughs. “A pretty good thought.”
“This is our home for the next few hours,” Aldrin says, “and we want to take good care of it.”
Aldrin: “Beautiful view!”
Armstrong: “Isn't that something! Magnificent sight out here.”
Aldrin: “Magnificent desolation.”
Sixty miles above, on board the command module Columbia, Collins orbits the moon in solitude. He can’t watch the video of Aldrin and Armstrong, and when the command module passes behind the moon’s far side, he even loses radio communication. No person in the history of humanity has ever been so alone.
The astronauts are connected to a phone call from the Oval Office.
President Richard Nixon: “Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man's world. And as you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquillity, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth. For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one; one in their pride in what you have done, and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth.”
The astronauts spend two hours conducting science experiments on the lunar surface. Aldrin deploys a seismometer, which reveals clues about the moon’s interior. Armstrong collects rocks and regolith to bring back to Earth. In the years to come, scientists studying these materials will discover how the moon was made.
July 21, 1969
About an hour after midnight, Florida time, Aldrin and Armstrong return to the lunar module and are instructed to rest. But with the glowing blue orb of Earth shining through their window, they find it hard to sleep.
Five hours later, the astronauts are awakened by Mission Control and start to prepare for ascent. It is time to go home.
Armstrong: “The Eagle is back in orbit, having left Tranquillity Base and leaving behind a replica from our Apollo 11 patch and the olive branch.”
Houston: “We copy. The whole world is proud of you.”
Armstrong and Aldrin redock with Columbia, clamber back into the command module and jettison their landing craft.
They begin the return trip to Earth the next day.
Collins: “Nice to sit here and watch the Earth getting larger and larger and the moon smaller and smaller.”
July 24, 1969
The command module reenters Earth’s atmosphere two days after leaving lunar orbit. The swirl of ionized gases created by the heat of reentry causes them to lose radio contact for nine agonizing minutes.
The astronauts splash down 825 nautical miles southwest of Honolulu. A helicopter retrieves them from the floating command module and brings them to a recovery ship, where they are sprayed with a disinfectant to guard against the possibility of their contaminating Earth with “moon germs.”
They’ll be in quarantine for three days.
Speaking to them over an intercom, their president welcomes them home.
Nixon: “This is the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation. ... As a result of what you have done, the world's never been closer together. ... We can reach for the stars just as you have reached so far for the stars.
Photos and video by NASA