Vintage photos of the Apollo 11 moon mission show why it's still arguably NASA's greatest feat, 50 years later

NASA Goddard Spaceflight CenterAstronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy put a monumental goal before Congress:

“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,” Kennedy said. “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.”

It took eight years to reach the moon after that, and NASA burned through $US25.4 billion dollars before the Apollo program was finished. But on July 20, 1969, as people throughout the world gathered around fuzzy television sets, astronaut Neil Armstrong announced: “the Eagle has landed.”

Here’s how the US made it to the moon 50 years ago.

The first planned crewed Apollo mission, Apollo 1, ended in tragedy in 1967. All three crew members died in a fire inside their capsule during a pre-launch test on the launch pad.

NASAFrom left, Apollo 1 astronauts Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee in front of their Saturn 1 rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

NASA said design changes after the accident made the Apollo spacecraft safer for journeys to the moon.

By July 1969, NASA astronauts had flown to the moon’s orbit twice, and the crew of Apollo 11 was ready to attempt a landing on the lunar surface.

NASA/APThe Apollo 11 crew. From left to right: commander Neil Armstrong, command-module pilot Michael Collins, and lunar-module pilot Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin.

The first two crewed missions to the moon flew astronauts into the moon’s orbit (Apollo 8) and 50,000 feet above the lunar surface (Apollo 10.)

The Apollo team practiced their moon-landing plan on Earth first. They flew this Lunar Landing Research Vehicle for the first time in 1964.

NASAThe Lunar Landing Research Vehicle simulated the moon landings.

The flights didn’t always go smoothly: Neil Armstrong was at the helm in 1968 when he had to eject himself seconds before it crashed.

Armstrong also practiced what it would be like to step foot on the moon and how to get back into the lunar landing module, called the Eagle.

NASANeil Armstrong practices getting to the first rung of the ladder on the Lunar Module in his space suit.

In 1962, President Kennedy said the US was spending 50 cents per week “for every man, woman, and child in the United States” on the space program. It took another seven years after that statement for humans to land on the moon.

On the morning of July 16, 1969, the 363-foot-tall Saturn V rocket launched from Complex 39 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

NASAApollo 11 blasted off at 9:32 a.m. ET on July 16, 1969.

The rocket used 7.5 million pounds of thrust to get the astronauts into space.

NASAThe launch of Apollo 11 is seen behind an American flag on July 16, 1969.

Source: NASA

People camped out on beaches and roads nearby to see the rocket blast off.

NASAPeople camped out by Kennedy Space Center to see the launch.

Former President Lyndon B. Johnson and sitting Vice President Spiro Agnew were there to see the three astronauts off.

NASASpectators at the launch of Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969.

After launch, the three astronauts inside the spacecraft spent four days travelling to the moon.

NASABuzz Aldrin in space on the Apollo 11 mission.

Finally, command pilot Michael Collins lined up the hatches of the Columbia spacecraft and Eagle moon lander so that Aldrin and Armstrong could head down to the moon.

NASAThe Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle photographed in lunar orbit from Columbia. The long, skinny rods under the landing pods are lunar surface-sensing probes.

Source: Smithsonian

Things got a little chaotic during the landing: The guidance computer crashed, and Armstrong had to change the landing site at the last minute. But the astronauts landed on the moon safely after a few tense minutes. Aldrin snapped this shot of his crewmate Armstrong.

NASANeil Armstrong, Apollo 11 commander, inside the Lunar Module while it rested on the lunar surface.

Source: Smithsonian

At 10:56 p.m. ET on July 20, Armstrong stuck his boot into the soft grey regolith dust of the moon and uttered the famous words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

NASAA photo of one of the first footprints on the moon. It will be there for a long time because there’s no wind to smooth out the dust.

Armstrong described the moon’s surface as “fine and powdery.”

“I can pick it up loosely with my toe,” he said, mentioning that the regolith was kind of messy and adhered “like powdered charcoal to the sole and sides of my boots.”

On Earth, mission control celebrated the successful landing.

NASANASA officials and flight controllers celebrate the successful conclusion of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission in the Mission Control Center.

Minutes later, Aldrin got out of the Eagle lander and joined Armstrong on the moon, joking that he was “making sure not to lock it on my way out.”

NASAAstronaut Buzz Aldrin steps out of the Eagle.

Source: NASA

The two spent two and a half hours collecting samples, taking pictures, and of course, planting this flag.

Some of the equipment the astronauts brought to the moon was designed for experiments.

NASABuzz Aldrin set out to plop the experiments on the surface of the moon.

The gear included a Swiss aluminium-foil panel for monitoring solar wind, four seismometers, and a reflector toward which scientists on Earth could shoot laser beams.

NASABuzz Aldrin deployed the Early Apollo Scientific Experiments Package, including the solar-powered seismic experiment to his right, and the Laser Ranging Retro-Reflector beyond that.

Source: Smithsonian

Aldrin called the moonscape a scene of “magnificent desolation.”

NASABuzz Aldrin on the Moon.

Source: NASA

This is the farthest the astronauts wandered from their lander.

NASANeil Armstrong took this photo of the Lunar Module from the rim of Little West Crater.

The Eagle moon lander wasn’t built to fly back to Earth. Instead, the vehicle rocketed Aldrin and Armstrong back to the command module Columbia, where Collins was waiting for them in orbit. The three caught this glimpse of the moon as they headed home.

NASAWhen this picture was taken, the spacecraft was 10,000 nautical miles away from the moon.

The Eagle lander was then left in lunar orbit after the astronauts hopped back in their main capsule.

“It is assumed that it crashed into the lunar surface sometime within the following one to four months,” NASA said.

On July 24, the Apollo 11 astronauts plunked down in the waters of the Pacific near Hawaii.

File photo/APA member of the US Navy, protected by a ‘biological isolation garment,’ recovers the Apollo 11 crew from the re-entry vehicle, which landed in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969, after an eight day mission on the moon.

Then they waited for a helicopter to get them.

NASAAll four men are wearing biological isolation garments in this image taken July 24, 1969.

Because scientists weren’t sure what kind of “lunar contagions” the astronauts might have brought back, the three were quarantined for 21 days. But President Richard Nixon stopped by to say hi.

NASAPresident Nixon welcomed the Apollo 11 astronauts back to Earth on the USS Hornet.

Source: Smithsonian

So did their wives, of course.

NASAThe Apollo 11 crewmen, greeted by their wives.

On August 13, the day the astronauts were allowed back outside, they were showered with ticker tape in New York City.

NASANew York City welcomes Apollo 11 crewmen in a showering of ticker tape down Broadway and Park Avenue.

The New York Times said the confetti was “so dense that the astronauts could hardly see.”

NASAA ticker tape parade celebrated the astronauts in New York. Sitting atop the lead car, from the right, are Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin.

Source: CBS

The US spent two and a half more years shuttling men to the moon. The last Apollo flight ended in December 1972. Since then, NASA has explored the moon as well as other planets, like Mars, using rovers and cameras, but not with any human crews.

NASA-JPLNASA’s Mars Curiosity rover.

For the past two decades, NASA has also invested $US100 billion into the International Space Station.


Source: Business Insider

But many astronauts say the main reasons no humans have touched the moon (or any other planet) since 1972 aren’t scientific or technical challenges. Instead, it’s due a lack of cash and political waffling.

AP Photo/Bebeto MatthewsAstronaut Buzz Aldrin walks the runway during the unveiling of a Mars-themed fashion collection at men’s Fashion Week, January 31, 2017, in New York.

“American leadership is inspiring the world by consistently doing what no other nation is capable of doing,” Aldrin told Congress in 2015. “We demonstrated that for a brief time 45 years ago. I do not believe we have done it since.”

Update: This story was originally published on July 20, 2018.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.