July 20, 1969: 1st footsteps on moon

This week is the 50th anniversary of humanity’s historic first steps on the moon. The story in pictures, here.

Fuzzy black & white photo of astronaut stepping off ladder of lunar lander.

The world watched on television as Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969. It was the first time humans walked another world. As he stepped onto the lunar surface, Armstrong said, “That is one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

July 20, 1969. On this date, Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landed their moon module on a broad dark lunar lava flow, called the Sea of Tranquility. Six hours later, Neil Armstrong became the first human being to walk on the surface of a world beyond Earth.

Armstrong and Aldrin spent 21 1/2 hours on the moon’s surface. They collected 47.5 pounds (21.5 kg) of moon rocks for return to Earth. Then they blasted off in their module from the lunar surface to meet up with Michael Collins in the command module orbiting overhead.

They returned safely to Earth and landed in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969.

View from above of immensely tall rocket with flame and smoke far below.

Apollo 11 launch at 13:32:00 UTC (9:32:00 a.m. EDT local time) on July 16, 1969. Astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr., were aboard.

Distant ascending rocket with vast tail of orange flame.

Apollo 11 left Earth via a type of rocket now no longer used, called a Saturn V. The giant Saturn V rocket was 111 meters (363 feet) tall, about the height of a 36-story-tall building. Read more about the Saturn V rocket.

Cutaway diagram of conical module with inset showing where it was on the Saturn V.

The Apollo command module’s position atop the Saturn V at launch. The lunar module – the craft that descended to the moon’s surface – is positioned just below the command module in this diagram.

Orbital view of mostly clouded Earth with sun glinting from sea, blue along curved horizon, black sky.

Apollo 11 orbited Earth 1 1/2 times. Twelve minutes after launch, it separated from the Saturn V, as a propulsion maneuver sent it on a path toward the moon. Here is a view of Earth from Apollo 11, shortly after it left Earth orbit.

Eight happy, laughing men in white shirts with dark ties standing by control panels.

Happy Apollo 11 mission officials in the Launch Control Center following the successful Apollo 11 liftoff on July 16, 1969. The famous German rocket engineer Wernher von Braun is fourth from left (with binoculars). Read more about Wernher von Braun.

Blurry man's face with sunglasses on left, panel with many controls visible behind him.

Buzz Aldrin looks into a TV camera during the third broadcast from space on the way to the moon.

Earth, more than half lit, hanging in space with Africa and the Middle East visible through clouds.

Earth seen by Apollo 11 astronauts on their way to the moon.

Spacecraft with boxy top, gold central part, and four skinny bent legs with round pad feet.

Here is the Apollo 11 lunar module – the vehicle that would carry Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon’s surface. It was called “Eagle.” This photo shows the module in a landing configuration, photographed in lunar orbit from the command module, which was called “Columbia.” Astronaut Michael Collins, alone aboard Columbia, inspected Eagle as it pirouetted before him to ensure the craft was not damaged.

End view of shiny, metallic conical module against light tan lunar surface with craters.

The Eagle lunar module captured this image of the Columbia command module in lunar orbit. Columbia stayed in lunar orbit with Michael Collins aboard during Eagle’s descent and landing.

In the video below, you can hear the excitement in Armstrong’s voice at the successful landing of Eagle on the moon’s surface as he says:

Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.

An early concern of space engineers had been that the lunar regolith, the fine soil covering the moon, would be soft like quicksand. There was some fear that the Eagle lunar module would sink after landing. Hence Armstrong’s comment about the depth of the footpads in the lunar soil as he descended the ladder before stepping onto the moon.

Astronaut backing down a short ladder, gold covered body of lander to right, white landscape and black sky.

Buzz Aldrin descends the steps of the lunar module ladder as he becomes the second human being to walk on the moon.

Fuzzy black and white photo of lunar lander with astronaut and flag in front of it.

Armstrong and Aldrin at work on the moon. They deployed a U.S. flag and several science experiments, and collected moon rocks.

Astronaut in foreground with complicated device on the ground, lunar lander and flag in background.

Here is Buzz Aldrin, who piloted the lunar module Eagle to the moon’s surface, with the LR-3, a reflecting array designed to bounce laser beams fired from Earth back to Earth. This experiment, which helped refine our knowledge of the moon’s distance and the shape of its orbit around Earth, is still returning data from the moon.

Five irregular gray rocks of different sizes.

The Apollo astronauts brought the first moon rocks back to Earth. Here is sample number 10046.

Sunny side of boxy spacecraft on bent legs in distance, with astronaut's shadow on the ground.

The lunar module Eagle on the surface of the moon.

Boyish looking man in space suit with helmet off grinning at the camera.

Neil Armstrong in the lunar module Eagle shortly after his historic first moonwalk, when he became the first human to set foot on a world besides Earth.

Boxy spacecraft in middle distance high above lunar surface, with Earth peeking up over the horizon.

Michael Collins caught this photo of the lunar module with Armstrong and Aldrin inside – and with Earth in the distance – as the module ascended from the moon’s surface to rejoin the command module. The lunar module docked with the orbiting command module, and, shortly afterwards, the astronauts began their journey back to Earth.

Floating conical module, inflated orange collar at base, yellow inflated balls at top, & orange raft.

There were no runway landings in those days. Splashdown for the three astronauts was in the Pacific Ocean. Here, they await pickup by a helicopter from the USS Hornet.

Roomful of exhilarated men standing and waving American flags, control panels visible.

Celebration at Mission Control as Apollo 11 draws to a successful end.

Crowds of people in street between tall buildings with air full of paper bits and streamers.

Ticker-tape parade for the Apollo 11 astronauts in New York City on August 13, 1969. This section of Broadway is known as the Canyon of Heroes.

View straight down onto moon boot hovering over partly visible ridged boot print.

Human footprint on the moon.

Experience the Apollo 11 landing site as it appears today, in this video:

Bottom line: This week is the 50th anniversary of humanity’s historic first steps on the moon. The story in pictures, here.

Experience the Apollo 11 landing in video and actual sound at this cool site.

Don’t believe it? Try this video: Why the Apollo moon landings could not have been faked.

A complete Apollo 11 timeline from NASA

Deborah Byrd