Just for Fun: 50 Facts To Celebrate The 50th Anniversary Of The Moon Landing
Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing; we’re celebrating with 50 fascinating facts about the Apollo mission – as well as our latest prize draw, which offers you the chance to win a TK1 Telescope & Astronomy Kit.
50 Facts To Celebrate The 50th Anniversary Of The First Moon Landing
- The moon landing was the peak of the Space Race; a competition between the US and USSR to be the first to make key achievements in space exploration.
- The USSR claimed many early victories, including the first artificial satellite (Sputnik 1), the first unmanned lunar probe (Luna 2), and the first human (Yuri Gagarin) in space.
- To focus its efforts and resources, the US created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
- NASA’s first human spaceflight program was Project Mercury (1958-1963), which aimed to put a person into Earth orbit. A successful suborbital flight was achieved on 5th May 1961, 3 weeks after Yuri Gagarin became the first human in orbit.
- Project Mercury paved the way for Project Gemini (1961-1963); the name comes from the Latin for “twins” in reference to the project’s development of two person spacecraft.
- The US needed a major victory to catch up. Two options were considered – establishing an Earth orbital space station or landing a man on the moon. A moon landing was considered more viable and in 1961 President John F. Kennedy asked Congress to commit to landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade – the aim of NASA’s third human spaceflight program, Project Apollo (1961-1972).
- Apollo involved over 400,000 people (including astronauts, mission controllers, contractors, factory workers, engineers, scientists, doctors, mathematicians, and programmers) and relied on contributions from over 20,000 industrial firms and universities.
- In the 1970s, it was estimated that Project Apollo had cost $25.4 billion – today it would cost over $150 billion.
- Apollo 11 was the fifth manned Apollo mission, the third Apollo mission to reach the vicinity of the moon, and the first of five Apollo missions to involve a successful moon landing.
- Apollo spacecraft contained a combined command and service module (CSM) and a lunar module (LM). The CM was 3.48m tall x 3.91m in diameter, the SM was 7.5m tall x 3.91m in diameter, and the LM was 7.04m tall x 9.4m x 9.4m.
- The CM contained the control centre and living quarters, while the SM contained a propulsion engine and supplies for the main consumables (oxygen, water, hydrogen, and propellent). The LM was a separate vehicle designed to land two astronauts on the moon and return them into lunar orbit. It had a “descent stage”, supporting a powered landing and surface activity before becoming the launch pad for the “ascent stage”, which contained the crew cabin and an engine for returning to lunar orbit.
- Only the CM returned to earth. The SM was jettisoned before re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere and both parts of the LM were abandoned. Of the ten Apollo LMs launched, six remain on the moon, one is in heliocentric orbit, and the rest either crashed into the moon or burned up in Earth’s atmosphere.
- Each Apollo mission assigned call names to its modules. After Apollo 10’s crew chose Charlie Brown and Snoopy, NASA decided the task wasn’t being taken seriously enough, and Apollo 11’s original choices (Snowcone and Haystack – inspired by their shapes) were rejected in favour of Columbia (inspired by Columbiad, a spacecraft from Jules Verne’s novel From The Earth To the Moon, and Columbia, an early name for America) and Eagle (the national bird).
- A variety of launch vehicles were developed for Project Apollo, culminating in the Saturn V rocket, which launched Apollo missions 4, 6, and 8-17.
- The Saturn V remains the tallest, heaviest, and most powerful rocket brought to operational status. Each rocket measured 110.6m high with a 10.1m diameter, weighed 2,970,000 kg, and produced 7.6 million pounds of thrust.
- The Saturn V was assembled in the Vehicle Assembly Building in the Kennedy Space Centre. The VAB is the largest single-storey building in the world and has its own weather, with rain clouds forming just below the ceiling on very humid days.
- Apollo spacecraft reached speeds of around 24,000 miles per hour – or 6.67 miles per second.
- Apollo 11’s computer had about as much computing power as a modern pocket calculator. At the time computers capable of batch processing the amount of information required for each mission filled entire rooms; the Apollo Guidance Computer became the smallest, fastest computer in a single package in the world, measuring just 61cm x 32cm x 17cm.
- This computer was the most complex, sophisticated device on the spacecraft but its rudimentary display could only show a series of numbers – displaying status information or codes. These codes could then be looked up in a manual or relayed to mission control so that the issue could be identified and relayed (along with a fix) back to the crew.
- The mission was also equipped with less high-tech tools, including paper star charts and a sextant to take star sightings and cross-check the computer’s navigation – this method of navigation was developed in the 18th century.
- Many items required for the mission were handmade, including spacesuits, parachutes, heat shields (which were applied by hand), and computer software, which was stitched together from wire using specialised looms.
- A lingerie company won the contract for Apollo’s spacesuits – twice! International Latex Corporation’s design won but they were partnered with a sub-contractor who secretly submitted their own prototype – which failed. ILC was blamed and lost the contract. Three years later, when the contract re-opened, ILC staff broke into the offices of their old partners to steal back their original designs, which they used as the basis for a new design that won the contract. ILC still supplies NASA with space equipment, such as the airbags for the two Mars Rovers.
- All of the crew members had previous spaceflight experience with Project Gemini; Neil Armstrong was the Command Pilot of Gemini 8, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin was Pilot of Gemini 12, and Michael Collins was Pilot of Gemini 10.
- Armstrong was Mission Commander, Aldrin was LM Pilot, and Collins was CSM pilot. Aldrin and Collins were both officers of the US Air Force, while Armstrong was a civilian who had worked as a test pilot.
- Collins designed the Apollo 11 insignia; Jim Lovell (Apollo 11’s backup commander) suggested an eagle (symbol of the US) and Tom Wilson (a simulator instructor) suggested an olive branch (symbol of peace). Originally, the eagle carried the olive branch in its beak but it was moved after it was suggested that the bird’s talons looked too aggressive.
- All three astronauts were born in 1930; at the time of the mission their average age was 38 (Armstrong was the joint youngest Apollo commander). The average age of the control team was 27, while the flight commander in charge of the mission, Gene Kranz, was the oldest flight director involved – at just 36.
- The entire mission took 195 hours, 18 minutes, and 35 seconds (just over 8 days) – 36 minutes longer than planned! Apollo 11 launched at 13:32 (UTC) on July 16th 1969 and arrived in orbit around the moon just under 76 hours later.
- The lunar module spent 21 hours and 36 minutes on the moon’s surface, with Armstrong and Aldrin’s moonwalk taking just under 2 hours and 32 minutes.
- The final stage of landing on the moon took 13 minutes and didn’t quite go to plan. Radio communications with mission control became patchy and the guidance computer threw out errors that neither astronaut recognised. They also realised they were “long” – i.e. they were going to overshoot their planned landing site because they were travelling too fast.
- A backroom engineer, Jack Garman, recognised the error codes from an earlier simulation. The computer was running out of capacity for new tasks, causing it to reboot and then restart only the most critical tasks – triggering 1201 and 1202 errors. Jack notified guidance officer Steve Bales, who confirmed to Gene Kranz that they didn’t need to abort.
- They were travelling 6 miles per second faster than they should have been, which put their speed halfway towards the limit at which they would have to abort and placed their landing site in an area full of craters and boulders. Armstrong took manual control, with Aldrin reading out altitude and descent rate readings to help guide the landing.
- They were also low on fuel; a 60 second fuel warning went off when they were still 30 metres above the surface and they were still metres away when the thirty second warning sounded. It’s estimated that they landed with around 20-25 seconds worth of fuel left before they would have had to abort.
- The astronauts were scheduled for a nap after landing but asked permission to skip it. Permission was granted on the condition that they sleep as soon as they returned to the lunar module.
- Armstrong’s famous quote is actually “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”. The missing “a” couldn’t be heard clearly during the transmission – possibly due to static or an intermittent signal.
- Armstrong’s first step wasn’t all that small. He’d landed the Eagle so gently that its shock absorbers hadn’t fully compressed – leaving a gap of nearly four feet between the bottom of the ladder and the surface of the moon.
- The moon has a distinctive smell, which Armstrong described as “the scent of wet ashes” and Aldrin as “the smell in the air after a firecracker has gone off”. Other astronauts have compared it to spent gunpowder. No one knows why it has a scent or why it seems like gunpowder, which is chemically very different to moon rock. The smell was only apparent in space (where moon dust accumulated on their suits); the oxygen rich atmosphere of Earth dispelled the scent completely.
- During their moonwalk, Armstrong and Aldrin collected 21.5 kg of lunar material samples, took photographs, conducted experiments, and received a telephone call from President Nixon.
- Back on Columbia, the only company Collins had was via radio communications – which cut off each time the module passed around the opposite side of the moon, leaving Collins in complete isolation for 48 minutes at a time.
- They left over 100 items on the moon, including the Eagle’s descent stage, a TV camera, two still cameras, sample collection tools, portable life support systems, boots, an American flag, experiment instruments, a laser beam reflector, and a seismic detector.
- NASA broadcast the moonwalk live across the world (with an estimated audience of 530 million) but the recordings of the footage have since been lost. The tapes may simply be missing or they may have been erased and reused – common practice at NASA during the 1980s. The surviving footage of Armstrong stepping onto the moon is actually a recording of a monitor playing the original tape.
- Almost all of the photographs from the moonwalk are of Aldrin because Armstrong carried the camera while Aldrin deployed the Early Apollo Surface Experiments Package (EASEP). One of the few images of Armstrong on the moon is one that captured his reflection in the visor of Aldrin’s helmet.
- Aldrin caused quite a bit of worry as he experimented with moving about in the moon’s low gravity, while wearing a bulky spacesuit. No one knew how well they would be able to move and there were concerns about them falling or damaging their suits. Aldrin tried various methods – including kangaroo hops – before settling on a kind of loping hop, putting one foot in front of the other and then pushing off with the back foot to land on the front foot.
- When they returned to the Eagle, they discovered that a switch needed to ignite the engine had been damaged during their exit from the module. They fixed the problem by jamming a pen into the mechanism to create a make-shift switch.
- The exhaust given off by the Eagle’s engines during lift-off was so powerful it knocked down the flag they had planted.
- The night before Columbia’s return to Earth, an antenna bearing in a NASA tracking station in Guam failed. The station was responsible for communications during the last stretch of the module’s descent. A permanent fix would take too long so Charles Force, the station director, came up with a quick-fix – packing grease around the bearing. No one at the station could reach through the 2½ inch gap in the bearing’s housing so he sent someone to pick up his 10-year-old son, Greg, who was small enough to accomplish the fix.
- The module splashed down in the Pacific Ocean at 16:50 (UTC) on 24th July 1969, 13 nautical miles from the recovery ship, the USS Hornet, and 825 nautical miles south west of Honolulu, Hawaii.
- The crew spent three weeks in quarantine before being given a clean bill of health. This practice was repeated for Apollo 12 and 14 before the moon was proven to be barren of life and the quarantine requirement was dropped.
- On 13th August, around six million people attended ticker-tape parades in New York and Chicago. Later that evening, President Nixon presented the astronauts with the Presidential Medal Of Freedom at a state dinner in Los Angeles. On 29th September, they embarked on a world tour, visiting 22 countries in 38 days.
- After learning that Apollo 11 might achieve a moon landing, the USSR retaliated by moving forward the launch of Luna 15, an unmanned spacecraft. NASA was concerned about radio interference and took the rare step of asking their rivals for information. The USSR shared their flight plan but not their objective of beating Apollo 11 back to Earth with a lunar sample (although there were plenty of rumours and speculation to that effect). While Luna 15 launched first (on 13th July) and reached lunar orbit 55 hours before Columbia, the Soviets struggled to find a suitable landing site. Just two hours before Armstrong and Aldrin returned to the Eagle with their samples, the Soviets attempted a landing. Four minutes later, the spacecraft’s signal was lost – it had crashed into the side of a mountain.
- The loss of Luna 15 was first reported by a team of scientists based in the UK. Lead by Sir Bernard Lovell, they used the Lovell Telescope based at Jodrell Bank, Cheshire to monitor and record transmissions from both Apollo 11 and Luna 15.
Have You Entered Our Cosmic Competition Yet? Win A Telescope & Astronomy Kit In Our Prize Draw
We’re also celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing with a free prize draw that gives you the chance to inspire your kids to explore the universe around them. We’ve got 20 TK1 Telescope & Astronomy Kits from Thames & Kosmos to give away. These kits include a high quality refractor telescope and accessories – perfect for all amateur astronomers.
All you have to do is visit our prize draw page to submit your name and a contact email. Entry is completely free and no purchase is necessary. The prize draw is open until 23:59 GMT on 1st September and winners will receive a notification email by 13th September. Full terms and conditions can be found on our website. GOOD LUCK!!!