On July 16, 1969, a small group of astronauts took one
small step for man, and one giant leap for mankind.
It’s been 45 years since Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong became the first people to walk on the moon, leaving those back on Earth to stare at their television screens in awe. The men spent two hours collecting lunar rocks to bring back home to Earth to study.
The iconic imagery and audio from the mission is certainly seared into humankind’s collective consciousness, but there are a handful of side stories from the mission that are often overlooked. Here are some of the historical anecdotes that will change the way you remember man’s first foray on the moon.
10. “In the Event of Moon Disaster”
Had the Apollo 11 moon landing gone horribly wrong, the world may have immortalized the words of William Safire, Richard Nixon’s speechwriter. You see, Safire had written a statement for Nixon to deliver in the wake of a hypothetical moon disaster. Rather than Neil Armstrong’s famous words, we may have committed an equally poetic phrase to memory: “Fate has ordained that men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.”
9. A Famous Misquote?
When Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon, he actually meant to say “That’s one small step for a man.” People have argued whether a shoddy radio connection caused the misquote, or if Armstrong had a case of global stage fright and skipped over the tiny, but important, word.
8. Speaking of Those ‘First’ Words…
Armstrong gets all the credit for uttering the first words on the moon, but “That’s one small step…” wasn’t the first lunar sentence spoken — technically. Bob Berman, Slooh astronomer and author of Zoom, tells a different story that came out of an interview with Aldrin years ago. Berman says Aldrin was actually the first man to speak on the moon, but his quote wasn’t nearly as sexy. When the lander touched down, Aldrin simply said, “OK, engines stop.”
(For more insider stories about the Apollo 11 landing, be sure to tune into Slooh’s live webcast of the moon’s surface in HD — complete with commentary from Berman and other special guests.)
7. Armstrong Was Too Good of a Pilot
Although it seems counter-intuitive, Armstrong landed the Eagle too softly on the surface of the moon. Berman says Armstrong was supposed to cut the engines when the lander was a few feet from the surface. NASA scientists built the lander with legs that would crumple upon impact to absorb the shock. Since Armstrong was such an ace pilot, the lander’s legs never crumpled. As a result, the astronauts had to exit the lander several feet higher than intended, which means that first small step was more of a leap.
6. That’s One Soggy Step
Armstrong was the first human to step foot on the moon, but Aldrin holds the title as the first man to urinate on it. Upon stepping foot on the moon, Aldrin promptly emptied his bladder into his space suit’s internal urine collector. Unfortunately, Armstrong’s piloting skills came back to haunt Aldrin: when he made his higher-than-expected leap from the Eagle, his urine collector broke upon sticking the landing. As a result, one of Aldrin’s boots filled with pee when he relieved himself, Berman says. Fully aware that he was on a live radio feed, Aldrin kept that bit of information to himself.
5. The Moon’s Aroma
Have you ever wondered what the moon smells like? When Aldrin and Armstrong, caked with moon dust, returned to the Eagle lander, they reported that the moon smelled a bit like wet ashes and gunpowder. Pressurizing the cabin upon their return was in itself a worrisome operation: some folks believed lunar dust was flammable, and would ignite as soon as it came in contact with oxygen. Luckily, that wasn’t the case.
4. Broadcasting in HD
We all remember that iconic video feed beamed to hundreds of millions of earthlings in 1969, but the video was actually captured in higher quality than we ever saw. That’s because the camera captured video in a format that commercial television stations couldn’t broadcast. NASA used a scan converter to adapt the video for U.S. broadcast signals, but by the time the images appeared on home television sets, the feed was substantially degraded.
However, thanks to technology, you can watch restored versions of the moon landing.
3. A Mother’s Concern
There are myriad things a moonwalker’s mother could worry about, but Neil Armstrong’s mom had just one real concern: that the lunar crust was too delicate and wouldn’t support her son’s weight when he walked on it.
2. What We Left Behind
Although every man on the Apollo 11 mission returned to Earth safely, they left plenty of artifacts back on the moon. Some items, such as a golden olive branch, American flag, Apollo 1 patch and a moon memorial disk, served a symbolic function.
But there was also plenty of junk left behind, including television cables, a camera, urine and defecation collection devices, tongs and a hammer to name a few. NASA has compiled a list of every single item the Apollo missions left behind on the moon.
1. A Second Chance
Aldrin may have never had the chance to walk on the moon because NASA turned down his initial application to become an astronaut. He tried again, and was accepted in the third group of astronauts in 1963; he became known as “Dr. Rendezvous.”
Buzz Aldrin: Famed astronaut, second man on the moon, and puncher of smug faces.
Sunday marks the 45th anniversary of the lunar landing — unless, of course, it never happened and the government faked the whole danged thing to make America look super powerful at the height of the Cold War. Is that conspiracy theory likely? Probably not, though there are some who ardently believe in it.
Bart Sibrel is one of those lunar truthers. And back in 2002, he ambushed Aldrin outside a Los Angeles hotel and berated him about his supposed role in the hoax, asking him to swear on a Bible he landed on the moon and calling him a “liar” and a “coward.” Offended that someone would question his integrity, and fed up with being pestered for so long, Aldrin finally snapped and socked Sibrel in the face.
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
In the thralls of the Cold War, the United States and the USSR battled for supremacy in the space exploration arena. Shortly after the Soviets struck first in 1957 with the successful launch of Sputnik I, the United States passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, and NASA began operation.
At the same time, the two countries were embroiled in a fervent nuclear race. With the development of the first nuclear warheads in the early 1940s, the United States sparked the “Atomic Age” and subsequently spent somewhere north of $8.75 trillion to produce 70,000 nuclear missiles. By the early 1950s, an air of nuclear optimism pervaded the U.S. In the same regard that the nuclear bomb had rendered all other explosives obsolete, the nuclear power plant would one-up coal, oil, and other sources of energy. At the Nevada Test Site (the U.S Department of Energy’s primary nuclear bomb testing ground) thousands gathered in folding chairs to watch atomic detonations.
Following a Post-Hiroshima rhetoric, America’s citizens were ready for nuclear technology to be utilized in positive, productive ways. Then, the U.S. Government put a top-secret plan in place to nuke the Moon.
As far back as 1949, Chicago’s Armour Research Institute (known as the IIT Research Institute today) had studied the effects of nuclear explosions on the environment and atmosphere. In 1958, the program was approached by the United States Air Force and asked to determine the hypothetical consequences of a nuclear explosion on the Moon. Sensing that national morale was low after the Soviets launched Sputnik, the U.S. government coined a plan: they’d nuke the Moon, causing an explosion so big that it’d be visible from Earth. They hoped the explosion would not only boost the confidence and approval of Americans, but serve as a show of power to the Soviets.
Led by renowned physicist Leonard Reiffel, a ten-person research team was formed under a rather auspicious project title: “A Study of Lunar Research Flights” (or, “Project A-119”). Immediately, the team began studying “the potential visibility of the explosion, benefits to science, and implications for the lunar surface.” An essential element to ensuring that the explosion would be seen from Earth was determining the mathematical projection of the expansion of the resulting dust cloud in space; Carl Sagan, a young doctoral student at the time, was brought in to help find an answer.
Cover of ‘A Study of Lunar Research Flights’ — Volume I
Scientists initially wanted to use a hydrogen bomb, but it would prove to be too heavy for a missile to propel, and the team “settled” on a W25 warhead — a small, lighter bomb. At 1.7 kiloton-yield (a nuke’s measure of energy output), the W25 would also produce a much smaller explosion than Hiroshima’s Little Boy bomb, which had a yield in the vicinity of 15 kilotons. Ultimately, the team put a plan in place: the bomb would be launched toward the dark side of the Moon, would detonate on impact, and would create a dust cloud that would be lit by the Sun, making it visible from Earth.
But a few concerns lingered. Researchers and government officials feared that the public wouldn’t react favorably — would it truly be a morale boost? The stakes were also high: should the missile-launched bomb miss its target, it might return to Earth and detonate. Lastly, Reiffel, the lead scientist, had high hopes for future Moon colonization; a nuclear fallout could have grave implications on this, and could clutter the natural radioactivities of the moon with additional radioactivity from the Earth. Ultimately, in January 1959, the project was abandoned.
It was subsequently revealed that the Soviets were planning a Moon explosion of their own. Merely dubbed “E-4,” their plan was part of a series of initiatives to assert dominance in the lunar landscape and display force. Like the American plan, it was called off due to safety concerns.
Years later, in a CNN interview, an 85-year-old Reiffel revealed some shocking details of the mission that had never come to light. According to Reiffel, “The motivation for such a detonation [was] clearly threefold: scientific, military and political,” and wasn’t merely intended to boost American morale.
Rather, Project A119 had sought to provide information “concerning the capability of nuclear weapons for space warfare.” At the time, says Reiffel, “there was discussion of the moon as military high ground,” and the United States was interested in getting there first. Military plans included setting up nuclear launch sites on the Moon so that, in the event that the Soviets attacked the United States’ homefront, “we could launch warheads from the Moon.” Reiffel elaborates on the project’s main motivation:
“People were worried very much by Sputnik and the very great accomplishments of the Soviet Union in those days, and in comparison, the United States was feared to be looking puny. So this was a concept to sort of reassure people that the United States could maintain a mutually-assured deterrence, and therefore avoid any huge conflagration on the Earth.”
In the mid-60s, the project’s files disappeared from the Pentagon, and the government made every effort to conceal the mission — even after Carl Sagan accidentally revealed top secret information in a job interview years later.
“These are horrendous concepts,” Reiffel admits, “and they are hopefully going to remain in the realm of science fiction for the rest of eternity.”