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Behind the scenes: Photos of the first moon landing on 50th anniversary

Behind the scenes: Photos of the first moon landing on 50th anniversary


Fifty years ago on July 20, 1969, the men who flew the Apollo 11 mission landed on the moon for the first time. The mission was as dangerous as it was imaginative and tested the whit and intuition of the astronauts who flew the mission. Danger confronted them at every turn, and a new collection of “behind the scenes” photos reveal the perils of the historic mission.

Commander Armstrong in control

It was March 16, 1966, and astronauts Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott were about to take on NASA’s most important mission to date: they were going to rendezvous with another spaceship, while in orbit around earth. The astronaut’s Gemini spacecraft was performing well and made docking with the unmanned, Agena Target Vehicle look easy.


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The two ships were about to go out of contact with ground control, and mission control gave one final command, “If… Agena goes wild, just… turn it off and take control of the spacecraft.” It would prove to be a prophetic statement, as both astronauts finished a meal of chicken and gravy with a dry brownie, they realized their ship was spinning, and they weren’t in control.

Gemini 8 spins on all three axis

The spinning was happening more rapidly, and worse yet Armstrong and Scott could not communicate with ground control for help. They took mission controls advice and let the Agena go, sending it off into its own orbit. But this had the opposite effect, and the spacecraft began to spin one revolution every second.


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Both men were cemented to their chairs, and bits of brownie struck their faces until everything not tied down was pinned to the wall. They tried to reset controls but nothing worked. Breathing became strained as G forces crushed their chest. If they didn’t something soon they’d pass out, and that would be the end.

Armstrong fights for control

First Armstrong puked, and so did Scott. Communications were restored and Scott said, “We have serious problems here. We’re tumbling end over end.” Then he passed out, leaving just Armstrong to pilot the ship. He turned on the reentry thrusters and despite the spacecraft tumbling on all three axis, he gained control.



With most of their fuel depleted they were ordered to return home. The mission that was supposed to last three days lasted under 11 hours. Despite this fact, the astronauts still managed to accomplish their mission, which became a crucial step in NASA’s objective of sending men to the moon.

The dangers of the mission

Ten months after Armstrong and Scott’s historic Gemini 8 mission, NASA was ready to begin the Apollo program, which would end with astronauts walking on the moon. But the program got off to a nearly catastrophic start, during the test later named Apollo 1.


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On Jan. 27, 1967, the best crew NASA had assembled — Mercury program veteran “Gus” Grissom, Gemini veteran Ed White, and Roger Chaffee — were all killed when a fire erupted in their spacecraft. The hatch failed, and they were dead within a minute. It was a grim reminder of the dangers each crew confronted, and Armstrong was all too aware.

The crew to land on the moon is assembled

On Dece. 23, 1968, Apollo 8 was orbiting the moon, as the first spacecraft to do so. The mission was so historic that astronauts Jim Lovell, William Anders, and Frank Borman were named TIME magazine’s Men of the Year. Back on earth, Armstrong was cornered in the bathroom by his commander and was told he would command Apollo 11 — the first mission to land on the moon.

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Armstrong’s crew came together the next day. Michael Collins was actually supposed to be apart of Apollo 8 but was replaced when he had to have back surgery. Instead, he would fly in Apollo 11. Armstrong was given the choice between the commander of Apollo 8 Jim Lovell, or Gemini veteran Buzz Aldrin the for the number two spot, and he chose Aldrin.

Training was extremely dangerous

NASA announced to the world on Jan. 9, 1969, that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins would be the first to the moon. Training began immediately and was extremely intense. They were training for a mission that had never been tried before, and the methods were brand new.


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That’s Commander Armstrong in the Luner Landing Research Vehicle, which was extremely difficult to control. This photograph was likely taken on June 16, 1969, when he flew 300-feet high in a six-minute flight. What’s impressive is that he was still doing these flights after one of the Vehicle’s almost killed him.

Armstrong ejects, half a second from death

The photograph below is another picture of the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, nicknamed “Flying Bedsteads.” Again, there’s Commander Armstrong, only this time he’s dangling from a parachute as he floats to earth. On May 6, 1968, Armstrong was flying just 100 feet off the ground the controls became unresponsive, and the Vehicle suddenly rolled.



Armstrong immediately ejected out of the Vehicle. He was so low that if he had waited a split second longer his parachute wouldn’t have had time to deploy, and Armstrong would be dead. He did, however, bite his tongue so badly that he couldn’t speak for a week after the crash.

‘That’s one small step for… man?’

Commander Armstrong practiced the first step on the moon many times in the months preceding the launch at the Kennedy Space Center. What he actually should’ve done was practice his first words on the moon. Armstrong later claimed he came up with his famous line just before he stepped on the moon, while his brother claims he recited it to him well before launch.


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Whichever version you believe, Armstrong likely bungled the first words on the moon. Instead of saying, “That’s one small step for man…” he meant to say, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” He denied that he messed up, but most analysis shows that he did indeed drop the “a.”

The cameras that filmed the moon landing

As you can see from the photograph below, camera footage from the surface of the moon was taken from a camera attached to Neil Armstrong’s chest. This ensured that he could use his hands for other tasks. Photographs used to be an afterthought for NASA, but once they started dispersing images from space the entire world wanted more.


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In case you were wondering how Commander Armstrong was filmed coming down the latter of the lunar module, it’s because there was a black and white television camera mounted on the outside of the vehicle. It broadcasted the first images from the surface of the moon, which was an extremely dangerous mission for the astronauts.

Game face

On the morning of Wednesday, July 16, 1969, astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins readied themselves for launch. They woke up at 4:15 a.m. and shared a 25-minute breakfast that included steak, eggs, toast, juice, and coffee. Then, after getting four electrodes attached to their bodies to monitor their bodily functions, they put on their $100,000, 35-pound spacesuits.


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The crew then put their masks on and walked past the press, and the only thing they heard was their own breathing. They then got into an elevator and climbed 320-feet to the top of the Saturn V rocket that was taking them to space. As they went up, they read the letters on the outside of the rocket, “S-E-T-A-T-S–D-E-T-I-N-U.”

Blast off!

At 9: 31:48 a.m. on July 16, 1969, from Launch Complex 39 at the Kennedy Space Center, Apollo 11 was T-minus 12 seconds from launch. Rocket fuel pumped into the engines of the Saturn V rocket as a 500-volt spark lit the launchpad on fire. Giant clamps kept the rumbling rocket from lifting off — building up thrust and waiting to be unleashed like a meteor from a slingshot.



At 9:32 a.m., the mission to the moon was unleashed, and the 6.5-million-pound rocket barely moved. The rocket that created almost 8-million-pounds of thrust took 15 agonizing seconds to clear the 360-foot tower (the crew said it felt much longer). The mission to the moon was on its way.

President Johnson looks on at liftoff

A million people camped out along the Florida coast to catch the Apollo 11 launch firsthand. There were also an astounding 3,500 representatives from the media, and 20,000 VIPs on hand at Cape Canaveral to see and feel the blast-off.


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Pictured above are President Johnson and Vice President Spiro Agnew. It’s interesting because Johnson wasn’t the president when Apollo 11 lifted off, as Richard Nixon had been elected the previous year. But Johnson had been an early advocate of the space program and helped drive Kennedy’s dream of putting a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s.

Onboard Apollo 11

For four long days the three men crammed into the tiny amount of space offered by the Lunar Module, which was named Eagle, and the Service Module, which was named Columbia. That’s Buzz Aldrin in the photograph below in the Lunar Module, as his official title was Lunar Module pilot.



The three men had no illusions about the hazards of their mission. It was later reported that they each signed hundreds of copies of photos of themselves, so their families could raise money if they didn’t make it back. All this because they couldn’t afford life insurance policies for astronauts.

Eating in space in 1969

Out of all the inventions that were necessary to make the Apollo 11 mission happen, perhaps none was more innovative than the food. Packages of food that could be squirt through were stored in airtight packages that kept them fresh. What you see below from left to right is chicken and vegetables, beef hash, and beef and gravy.


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Apollo 11 didn’t bring the quintessential astronaut orange drink, Tang, nor did they bring ice cream. They opted for a mixture of grapefruit orange for their citrus, and bite-sized brownies for dessert. Armstrong’s favorite food was spaghetti, while Aldrin’s favorite, oddly enough, was shrimp cocktail.

Time to land

The timing of the launch back in Florida had to be perfect to ensure the sun was shining on the part of the moon where they wanted to land. They only had a 14-minute window. After roughly four days and four hours Eagle, with Armstrong and Aldrin, was finally disengaged from Columbia, which still had Collins aboard.



After Armstrong throttled back to generate separation between the two spaceships, he conducted a series of pirouettes — slowly spinning Eagle in all directions. The maneuver was meant to enable Collins to give Eagle an eye check and make sure nothing was damaged. When he said everything was fine, Armstrong radioed in, “The Eagle has wings!”

Problems from the start

Collins was able to snap a few fantastic shots of the Eagle as it picked up speed during its descent to the moon’s surface. As for Armstrong and Aldrin, they were wearing their 35-pound space suits (minus the helmets) and in full focus on the task in hand — landing the Eagle. The eyes of the world were on them.


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The Eagle was going faster than anticipated. Then, at 6,000 feet from the moon’s surface, an alarm went off in the spaceship — something was wrong. Before they could figure out what was wrong, the guidance computer sounded another alarm. They radioed in to ground control back on earth, and asked for help.

Commander Armstrong takes control

Ground control determined that alarm codes 1201 and 1202 were not threatening to the Eagle — Armstrong was given permission to land. The two noticed that certain landmarks on the moon were passing by quicker than anticipated, which meant the Eagle was flying too fast. Not only that, but the automatic pilot controls were steering them into a giant boulder field.


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Their primary landing site had to be aborted, so Commander Armstrong took manual control of the Eagle. He steered the ship away to a better landing site, but when he got to just 250 off the moon’s surface he discovered there was a giant crater in the middle. He would have to find another sight, and he was running low on fuel.

Armstrong lands the Eagle

At 100 feet rocks and dust began to get kicked up and Armstrong could see it out the window. He then used it to determine how fast he was descending. At 67 feet a dangling contact wire hit the moon’s surface and Aldrin called out, “Contact light!” Armstrong was supposed to shut down the engine but he forgot.



Three seconds later at 8:17:40 EST, Armstrong landed the Eagle with just 25 seconds of usable fuel left. But mission control had been in the dark from their communications and held their breath. Armstrong radioed in, “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Mission control responded, “You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”

Everyone watched the first steps on the moon, everyone

The landing on the moon became the most watched event in the history of the world (today it’s the fifth most). There were an estimated 600,000,000 people who watched Neil Armstrong descend the steps of the Eagle, touch one foot on the surface of the moon and say, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”


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It filled the world with such hope and brought so many people together. For example, the above photograph shows Pope Paul VI at his summer villa in Castel Gandolfo, and even he couldn’t help get swept up in the joy of watching a man take their first steps on the moon.

Armstrong and Aldrin descend the ladder

After they landed but before Aldrin walked on the moon, he conducted a first on the moon — he took communion. He couldn’t broadcast his communion, because NASA was already facing a lawsuit from when Apollo 8 astronauts read from the book of Genesis during their mission.


Aldrin radioed in, “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.” He then turned off the radio, read a passage from the book of John, and took man’s first communion on the moon.

Armstrong’s walk

Armstrong was walking on the moon for a good 20 minutes before Aldrin joined him. Everything they did was carefully scripted, but the 2018 movie “First Man” showed him doing something that was never confirmed — he left a bracelet that belonged to his deceased daughter, “Karen,” in a crater on the moon.

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Many astronauts talked about leaving mementos on the surface of the moon that belonged to their loved ones. Armstrong never admitted that he did it, but experts agree that it is very likely that he placed the bracelet in a crater to honor and remember his beloved daughter, who died seven-and-a-half-years earlier.

Collins alone in the Columbia

While Armstrong and Aldrin were conducting their historic walk on the moon, Columbia pilot Michael Collins orbited around the moon for nearly an entire day. That meant every few hours that he was on the dark side of the moon for 48 minutes — alone. A broadcast from Mission Control said, “Not since Adam has any human known such solitude.”


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But Collins maintains that he never felt a sort of fear when he was alone. He later said he felt, “awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation.” He even managed to sleep, as he got himself and Columbia ready to rendezvous with Eagle.

Back on the surface of the moon

Within seven minutes of walking on the surface, Armstrong collected a sample just in case they had to abort early. When Aldrin finally stepped on the moon’s surface, he said, “Remarkable desolation.” He then began testing the limits of his movement by hopping around two-footed like a kangaroo.


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Most of the photographs of the astronauts are of Aldrin because Armstrong was the one with the camera. Here Aldrin is seen deploying the EASEP, which was a seismography among other things. In all, the two men spent 2.5 hours walking on the moon and collected nearly 50 pounds worth of rocks and dust.

Botched job on the flag

In all, Armstrong and Aldrin spent about 22 hours with each other. After roughly seven hours of sleep, the two men prepared to leave. Among things they left behind were an Apollo 1 mission patch, a disc containing a goodwill message from five presidents, and a plaque that read “We came in peace for all mankind.”


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Aldrin later said, “Of all the jobs I had to do on the Moon the one I wanted to go the smoothest was the flag raising.” They were only able to stick the pole a few inches into the ground. So when Eagle lifted off from the moon’s surface at 1:54 p.m. on July 21, 1969, the rocket blast knocked the flag over. The subsequent mission would place the flag farther from Lunar Modules.

Aldrin makes a simple, yet genius move

After Armstrong landed the Eagle and prepared to walk on the moon, the Eagle was so small that Aldrin whipped around and broke the ignition switch. The switch was essential for their efforts to liftoff. Aldrin used the tip of a felt pen to realign the circuit and was able to make it functional.


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At 9:35 p.m. Eagle and Columbia were finally rejoined, and Armstrong and Aldrin were reunited with Collins. Six minutes later they said goodbye to Eagle for good and jettisoned the spacecraft. Evidence suggests it was in orbit for a little while, but likely crashed into the surface of the moon.


The return trip to earth was a smooth ride for the most part. In all, it took some 400,000 engineers and workers to land two men on the moon. On July 23, they made a television broadcast in which each one of them took time to thank the supporting people who, “put their hearts and all their abilities into those crafts,” as Armstrong said.

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Due to inclement weather, the astronauts had to adjust their landing zone. At 12:50 p.m. on July 24, Columbia splashed down into the Pacific Ocean. It actually landed upside down and took 10 minutes to roll over. Dive crews made contact with the ship and rubbed it down with Betadine, in case it carried any contaminants from the moon.

Customs, really?

The photograph below is of the Apollo astronauts as they wait for a helicopter to take them away. The divers who met with them handed them biological isolation garments in case they brought back any pathogens from the moon’s surface. In all, from liftoff to splashdown, Apollo 11 lasted eight days, three hours, and 18 minutes.


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When the three astronauts returned to earth they were quarantined in Columbia for a time. Then, upon arriving on the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, they went through customs. Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins had to fill out a customs form to declare the 50 pounds of rocks they brought home. Good grief.

17 days of quarantine

Armstrong and Aldrin spoke to President Nixon from the surface of the moon in a conversation that was broadcasted on radio and television. When the astronauts arrived on the deck of the USS Hornet and were transferred to the Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF), President Nixon was there to welcome them home.


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President Nixon said, “As a result of what you’ve done, the world has never been closer together before.” Each of their wives also greeted them, after spending over a week worrying about their explorer husbands. In all, the astronauts would spend 17 days in quarantine, both in the MQF and then in a laboratory in Pearl Harbor.

Ticker tape parade

On August 10, 1969, the three astronauts were released from quarantine, and on August 13th they were greeted in New York and Chicago to giant ticker tape parades. It’s estimated that six million people attended the one in New York. Starting on Sept. 29, they would go on a 38 day, 22 country world tour.


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They also arrived in the halls of Congress on Sept. 16, and after making speeches dedicated two flags that had been brought to the moon — one for the House of Representatives, and one for the Senate. On top of everything else, President Nixon honored each man with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award possible for a civilian.

The big three

The three-man crew that conducted the historic Apollo 11 mission each went their separate ways after the mission but continued to come together for public appearances. Aldrin ended up staying close to the astronaut corps, and still advocates for expanded space exploration to this day.


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Collins became a successful businessman, having left NASA for good after the mission. As for Armstrong, his humble nature never changed, and after working at NASA for a few years after the mission he mostly shied away from public life. The days of Apollo 11 would be each man’s last in space, putting the exclamation point on a race that captured the world’s imagination.