On July 16, 1969, Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins boarded Apollo 11 at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and embarked on a historic mission to land a man on the moon.
Days later, on July 20, Armstrong set foot on lunar soil and uttered the immortal words: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Fifty years ago, the moon expedition, watched by more than 600 million people, captivated the attention and imagination of the world.
Colbe Mazzarella, a lawyer and teacher from East Boston, Massachusetts, told the Register her parents would gather their children in front of the television to watch the broadcast of every new rocket launch. But even for a young child, Apollo 11 stood out. Mazzarella said she remembered clearly the images of the astronauts stepping foot onto the moon and “leaping in low gravity.”
“It was very cool, like science fiction become real,” she said.
Duilia de Mello, a physics professor and vice provost and dean at The Catholic University of America and a researcher at NASA, told the Register the importance of Apollo 11 cannot be overstated.
“In maybe 500 years from now, when we think of the 20th century and what the major achievement of humanity was, I think it will be the landing on the moon,” she said.
De Mello, who grew up in Brazil, said she saw the feat as “a human achievement on behalf of everyone.”
She said the moon landing put “everything in perspective” for humanity, uniting everyone in a moment of wonder and giving a clear picture of the Earth from another celestial body.
A plaque on landing equipment left behind on the moon by the astronauts reads: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
After looking at the moon through a telescope at Castel Gandolfo and watching the landing live on TV, Pope Paul VI sent a message to the astronauts.
“Honor, greetings and blessings to you, conquerors of the moon, pale lamp of our nights and our dreams,” the Pope said.
Although she was too young to remember the lunar missions, De Mello said that all the moon landings “inspired generations of scientists after that, myself one of them.”
On the heels of the Apollo program, NASA sent satellites deep into the outer reaches of the solar system.
“I got so inspired by all those achievements that I became an astronomer, because I wanted to see ‘How is that possible?’” De Mello said. For De Mello, the scientific impetus for space exploration is closely bound up with a religious dimension. “Space exploration is driven by the curiosity of navigating through God’s creation,” she said.
“I tend to see God as a maestro: He’s a conductor and the whole universe flows through his conduction. So we are part of this big universe, part of his creation,” she said. “Visiting other planets, to me, makes us closer to God. People tend to see faith and science in conflict. I don’t see that. I see they complement each other pretty well. It’s a privilege, in a way, to be able to understand the universe and see the beauty of how things work so properly. The Master did a good job.”
As she sat at a friend’s house watching the first moonwalk in history, Teryle Watson, now a music teacher in Rochester, New York, felt “a tremendous amount of excitement and a tremendous amount of worry that people would be safe.” But she told the Register her uppermost thoughts 50 years ago were not on the space race with the Russians or the treasure haul of scientific research the mission would gain. “For me, the moon landing was totally scriptural,” she said. “I sort of likened it to the Easter vigil: It was like the realization of that first Genesis reading. Finally we had a concrete example of the width and breadth of God’s creation. We can see the extreme beauty of it and the fact that the whole celestial system was limitless.”
In a message issued shortly after the astronauts touched down on the lunar surface, Pope St. Paul VI honored those who had contributed to and made possible “this most daring flight … which extends to the depths of the heavens the wise and bold dominion of man.”
The Pontiff asked the astronauts to bring to the moon “the voice of the spirit, a hymn to God, our Creator and our Father.”
On July 23, 1969, the day before the Apollo 11 astronauts re-entered Earth, they made one last broadcast from space. Aldrin told viewers: “This has been far more than three men on a mission to the moon; more, still, than the efforts of a government and industry team; more, even, than the efforts of one nation. We feel that this stands as a symbol of the insatiable curiosity of all mankind to explore the unknown.”
He added, “Personally, in reflecting on the events of the past several days, a verse from Psalms comes to mind: ‘When I consider the heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man that thou art mindful of him?’”
Apollo 11 launched from Cape Kennedy on July 16, 1969, at 9:32am EDT, with Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins on board.
An estimated 650 million people — including Pope St. Paul VI — watched live as Armstrong set foot onto the moon on July 20, 1969.
The duration of the mission was eight days, three hours, 18 minutes and 35 seconds.
The total distance traveled was 953,054 miles.
The lunar-landing location was the moon’s Sea of Tranquility.
Armstrong and Aldrin spent 21 hours and 36 minutes on the moon’s surface.
Apollo 11 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969.