On July 20, 1969, millions of people gathered around their televisions to watch two U.S. astronauts do something no one had ever done before. Wearing bulky space suits and backpacks of oxygen to breathe, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the first human beings to walk on the moon.
After the two stepped onto the lunar surface, Armstrong proclaimed these famous words: “That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."
Humans were only able to make that small step after several other space firsts happened. In 1957 the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched into space by Russia. The United States launched several satellites of their own afterward. Both countries hoped to be the first to send a human into space.
It wasn’t until 1961 that a person went to space: On April 12, Russia’s Yuri Gagarin became the first. Less than a month later the United States’ Alan Shepard became the first American in space. Following these milestones, President John F. Kennedy issued a challenge to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to put a human on the moon in 10 years or less.
NASA went to work. On July 16, 1969, the spacecraft Apollo 11 prepared to launch a crew of three astronauts into space … and the history books.
NASA officials selected Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins as the astronauts who would make the historic trip from Earth on Apollo 11. Just four days after launching from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the spacecraft neared the moon’s surface.
Before touching down, the three men split up. Collins boarded Apollo 11’s command module, the Columbia, where he would remain in orbit around the moon. Armstrong and Aldrin boarded Apollo 11’s lunar module, the Eagle, and began to descend to the moon’s surface.
The Eagle made a risky landing in a shallow moon crater named the Sea of Tranquility. (Most people watching the landing on TV didn’t know that the Eagle had only 20 seconds of landing fuel left at this point.) Armstrong and Aldrin looked out the windows of the module at the lifeless and barren lunar landscape.
After six and a half hours pass, the pair inside the Eagle prepared to exit the module. As mission commander, Armstrong stepped out first … and became the first person on the moon.
Twenty minutes later, Aldrin climbed down the ladder and joined his partner. After reading a plaque that said they “came in peace for all mankind,” the two planted the United States’ flag on the surface. President Richard Nixon called to congratulate the astronauts.
Armstrong and Aldrin went back to work collecting samples of moon rocks and dust. After over two hours, the astronauts brought 47 pounds back onto the lunar module and prepared to rejoin Collins. It was time to go home.
DOWN TO EARTH
The Apollo 11 crew returned to Earth on July 24, 1969. Over the next several years, 10 astronauts would follow in Armstrong and Aldrin’s footsteps. The last mission to the moon was in 1972.
Though humans haven’t returned to the moon since, they have continued to explore space. They even built the International Space Station (ISS), a space research station, where they can conduct experiments and study space up close.
Today NASA is working on sending humans to another planet: Mars. Thanks to the Apollo 11 moon landing, NASA is hopeful about its chances. The act of putting three people on the moon—and then safely bringing them back home—proved that successful human exploration in space is possible.
Text adapted from Ladders Earth Science: Exploring Above and Beyond by Stephanie Harvey and Space Encyclopedia: A Tour of Our Solar System and Beyond by David A. Aguilar and Patricia Daniels