This article was originally published in the December 1969 issue of the magazine.
The talk was weighted with cryptic exchanges of scientific data, but still it rang with the stupendous drama of the greatest achievement in the history of exploration. For these were the voices of Apollo 11—voices carrying over nearly a quarter of a million miles to tell of man’s first steps on the moon. The world listened as Neil Armstrong, Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, and Michael Collins spoke to each other and to CapCom, the capsule communicator in Houston. And as Eagle (the lunar module) separated from Columbia (the command module) and touched down in the dust of that desolate, windless world on July 20, at 4:17 and 43 seconds p.m. EDT—102 hours, 45 minutes, and 43 seconds after launch—this in part is what was said:
ARMSTRONG: Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.
CAPCOM (Astronaut Charles M. Duke): Roger, Tranquillity, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.
COLLINS (in Columbia): Fantastic!
ARMSTRONG: Houston, that may have seemed like a very long final phase. The autotargeting was taking us right into a ... crater, with a large number of big boulders and rocks ... and it required ... flying manually over the rock field to find a reasonably good area.
CAPCOM: Roger, we copy. It was beautiful from here, Tranquillity. Over.
ALDRIN: We’ll get to the details of what’s around here, but it looks like a collection of just about every variety of shape—angularity, granularity, about every variety of rock ... The colors—well ... There doesn’t appear to be too much of a general color at all; however, it looks as though some of the rocks and boulders [are] going to have some interesting colors to them. Over.
CAPCOM: Rog, Tranquillity. Be advised there are lots of smiling faces in this room and all over the world. Over.
ARMSTRONG: There are two of them up here.
COLLINS: And don’t forget one in the command module ... And thanks for putting me on relay, Houston. I was missing all the action.
CAPCOM: Rog, Columbia ... Say something. They ought to be able to hear you ...
COLLINS: Roger. Tranquillity Base, it sure sounded great from up here. You guys did a fantastic job.
ARMSTRONG: Thank you. Just keep that orbiting base ready for us up there now.
CAPCOM: Tranquillity Base ... Houston. All your consumables are solid [normal consumptions of fuel and oxygen]. You’re looking good in every respect ... Everything is copacetic. Over.
ARMSTRONG: You might be interested to know that I don’t think we notice any difficulty at all in adapting to ⅙ g; at least, immediately natural to move in this environment.
CAPCOM: Roger, Tranquillity. We copy. Over.
ARMSTRONG: [Outside the] window is a relatively level plain cratered with a fairly large number of craters of the five- to fifty foot variety and some ridges, small, twenty, thirty feet high, I would guess, and literally thousands of little one- and two-foot craters around the area. We see some angular blocks out several hundred feet in front of us that are probably two feet in size and have angular edges. There is a hill in view, just ... ahead of us, difficult to estimate but might be a half a mile or a mile.
COLLINS: Sounds like it looks a lot better now than it did yesterday at that very low sun angle. It looked rough as a cob then.
ALDRIN: ... I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way. Over.
The astronauts begin preparations to leave the LM, first having made a detailed check of their craft to make sure all is in order for eventual lift-off. Armstrong will be the first out, about 6½ hours after the landing.
ARMSTRONG: The hatch is coming open.
ALDRIN: Neil, you’re lined up nicely. Toward me a little bit. O.K., down.
ARMSTRONG: How am I doing?
ALDRIN: You’re doing fine.
ARMSTRONG: O.K., Houston, I'm on the porch.
CAPCOM (now Astronaut Bruce McCandless): Man, we’re getting a picture on the TV.
ALDRIN: Oh, you got a good picture, huh?
CAPCOM: There’s a great deal of contrast in it, and currently it’s upside down on our monitor, but we can make out a fair amount of detail. ... O.K., Neil, we can see you coming down the ladder now.
ARMSTRONG: I’m at the foot of the ladder. The LM [lunar module] footpads are only depressed in the surface about one or two inches, although the surface appears to be very, very fine grained, as you get close to it. It’s almost like a powder. Now and then it’s very fine. I’m going to step off the LM now. That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.
The television camera on the LM records Armstrong’s first movements through the moon’s dark shadows and blinding sunlight.
ARMSTRONG: The surface is fine and powdery. I can—I can pick it up loosely with my toe. It does adhere in fine layers like powdered charcoal to the sole and sides of my boots. I only go in a small fraction of an inch, maybe an eighth of an inch, but I can see the footprints of my boots and the treads in the fine sandy particles.
CAPCOM: Neil, this is Houston. We’re copying.
ARMSTRONG: There seems to be no difficulty in moving around. As we suspected, it’s even perhaps easier than the simulations at ⅙ g that we performed ... on the ground. It’s actually no trouble to walk around.
The descent engine did not leave a crater of any size ... We’re essentially on a very level place here. I can see some evidence of rays emanating from the descent engine, but very insignificant amount. O.K., Buzz, we’re ready to bring down the camera.
ALDRIN: I’m all ready.
ARMSTRONG: O.K., it’s quite dark here in the shadow and a little hard for me to see that I have good footing. I’ll work my way over into the sunlight here without looking directly into the sun.
ALDRIN: O.K., going to get the contingency sample now, Neil?
ARMSTRONG: This is very interesting. It’s a very soft surface, but here and there where I plug with the contingency sample collector, I run into a very hard surface, but it appears to be very cohesive material of the same sort. I’ll try to get a rock in here. Here’s a couple.
ALDRIN: That looks beautiful from here, Neil.
ARMSTRONG: It has a stark beauty all its own. It’s like much of the high desert of the United States. It’s different, but it’s very pretty out here.
ALDRIN: Are you ready for me to come out?
ARMSTRONG: All set. O.K., you saw what difficulties I was having. I’ll try to watch your PLSS [portable life-support system] from underneath here.
ALDRIN: Now I want to back up and partially close the hatch. Making sure not to lock it.
ARMSTRONG: A particularly good thought.
ALDRIN: That’s our home for the next couple of hours and we want to take good care of it ... That’s a very simple matter to hop down from one step to the next.
ARMSTRONG: There you go.
ALDRIN: Beautiful view.
ARMSTRONG: Isn’t that something? Magnificent sight out here ... Isn’t it fun?
ALDRIN: ... The rocks are rather slippery ... Have to be careful that you are leaning in the direction you want to go ... You have to cross your foot over to stay underneath where your center of mass is. And, Neil, didn’t I say we might see some purple rocks?
ARMSTRONG: Find a purple rock?
ALDRIN: Yep. Very small, sparkly ...
ARMSTRONG: For those who haven’t read the plaque, we’ll read the plaque that’s on the front landing gear of this LM. First there’s two hemispheres, one showing each of the two hemispheres of earth. Underneath it says, “HERE MEN FROM THE PLANET EARTH FIRST SET FOOT UPON THE MOON JULY 1969, A.D. WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND.” It has the crew members’ signatures and the signature of the President of the United States.
COLLINS (in Columbia): ... This is history.
CAPCOM: Roger ... I believe they are setting up the flag now.
CAPCOM: I guess you’re about the only person around that doesn’t have TV coverage.
COLLINS: That’s right. That’s all right. I don’t mind a bit. How is the quality of the TV?
CAPCOM: Oh, it’s beautiful, Mike. Really is.
COLLINS: Oh, gee, that’s great. Is the lighting halfway decent?
CAPCOM: Yes, indeed. They’ve got the flag up now and you can see the Stars and Stripes on the lunar surface.
COLLINS: Beautiful. Just beautiful.
ALDRIN: You do have to be rather careful to keep track of where your center of mass is. Sometimes it takes about two or three paces to make sure that you’ve got your feet underneath you ...
CAPCOM: Neil and Buzz, the President of the United States is in his office now and would like to say a few words to you. Over.
ARMSTRONG: That would be an honor.
CAPCOM: Go ahead, Mr. President.
PRESIDENT NIXON: Hello, Neil and Buzz, I am talking to you by telephone from the Oval Room at the White House. And this certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made from the White House.
I just can’t tell you how proud we all are of what you have done. For every American, this has to be the proudest day of our lives, and for people all over the world I am sure they, too, join with Americans in recognizing what an immense feat this is.
Because of what you have done, the heavens have become 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 tranquillity 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.
ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Mr. President. It’s a great honor and privilege for us to be here representing not only the United States, but men of peace of all nations. And with interest and a curiosity and a vision for the future. It’s an honor for us to be able to participate here today.
ALDRIN: How’s the bulk sample coming, Neil?
ARMSTRONG: Bulk sample is ... sealed.
ALDRIN: Houston. The passive seismometer has been deployed manually.
ARMSTRONG: These boulders look like basalt and they have probably 2 percent white minerals in them ...
Armstrong has been on the surface of the moon nearly two hours now. The astronauts have devoted most of their time to setting up scientific instruments and taking samples of moon material. Houston advises them that they have about ten minutes left before beginning preparations to re-enter the LM.
ALDRIN (collecting a core sample): I hope you’re watching how hard I have to hit this into the ground to the tune of about five inches ... It almost looks wet.
CAPCOM: Buzz, this is Houston. It’s about time for you to start your EVA [extravehicular activity] close-out activities.
ARMSTRONG: ... I’m picking up several pieces of really vesicular rock out here now.
CAPCOM: Roger, Neil and Buzz. Let’s press on ... We’re running a little low on time.
ALDRIN: ... I’ll head on up the ladder ... Adios, amigos.
Just as he was the first to step onto the moon, Neil Armstrong is the last to step off. After loading about fifty pounds of rocks and soil in the LM by means of a rope-and-pulley hoist, he climbs up the ladder. Aldrin guides him through the hatch.
ALDRIN: ... Now start arching your back. That’s good. Plenty of room.
ARMSTRONG: Thank you. I’m bumping now?
ALDRIN: Now you’re clear. You’re rubbing up against me a little bit ... Now move your foot and I’ll get the hatch ... The hatch is closed and latched.
CAPCOM: ... The crew of Tranquillity Base is back inside their base... everything went beautifully.
ARMSTRONG: Houston, Tranquillity Base. Repress [repressurization] complete.
CAPCOM: Roger, Tranquillity. We observed your equipment jettison on TV, and the passive seismic experiment reported shocks when each PLSS hit the surface. Over.
ARMSTRONG: You can’t get away with anything any more, can you?
CAPCOM: ... We would like to say from all of us down here in Houston and really from all of us in all the countries and in the entire world, we think that you have done a magnificent job up there today. Over.
ALDRIN: Thank you very much. It has been a long day.
CAPCOM: Yes, indeed. Get some rest there ...
ALDRIN: Houston, Tranquillity. Have you had enough TV for today?
CAPCOM: Tranquillity, this is Houston. Yes, indeed; a mighty fine presentation.
ALDRIN: O.K., signing off. See you tomorrow.
It is nearly 12 hours since Eagle’s landing when the television camera on the moon stops transmitting. Armstrong and Aldrin rest before the critical lift-off. If the engine fails to ignite, there will be no return to earth for the two astronauts. Houston announces that ignition is two minutes away. And then:
ALDRIN: ... That was beautiful. Twenty-six, 36 feet per second up ... very smooth ... very quiet ride. There’s that one crater down there.
CAPCOM (now Astronaut Ronald Evans): Eagle, Houston. One minute and you’re looking good.
ALDRIN: ... 150 up. Beautiful.
CAPCOM: ... You are go ... everything is looking good.
ARMSTRONG: I’m going right down U.S. 1.
What remains now is Eagle’s docking with Columbia, the 60-hour ride back to earth, and the searing reentry. The spacecraft come together, only to be gripped in a moment of unexpected motion.
COLLINS: That was a funny one ... did it appear ... that you were jerking around quite a bit during the retract cycle?
ARMSTRONG: Yeah. It seemed to happen at the time I put the plus X [upward] thrust to it ...
COLLINS: Yeah, I was sure busy there for a couple of seconds.
CAPCOM: ... You’re looking great. It’s been a mighty fine day.
COLLINS: Boy, you’re not kidding.