The Eagle Has Landed!
On July 20, 1969 the lunar module (LM) Eagle separated from the command module Columbia. Collins, alone aboard Columbia, inspected Eagle as it pirouetted before him to ensure the craft was not damaged.
As the descent began, Armstrong and Aldrin found that they were passing landmarks on the surface 4 seconds early and reported that they were “long”: they would land miles west of their target point.
The LM navigation and guidance computer distracted the crew with several unusual “1201” and “1202” program alarms. Inside Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas, computer engineer Jack Garman told guidance officer Steve Bales it was safe to continue the descent and this was relayed to the crew.
When Armstrong again looked outside, he saw that the computer’s landing target was in a boulder-strewn area just north and east of a 400 meter diameter crater (later determined to be “West crater”, named for its location in the western part of the originally planned landing ellipse). Armstrong took semi-automatic control and, with Aldrin calling out altitude and velocity data, landed at 20:17 UTC on July 20 with about 25 seconds of fuel left.
Buzz Aldrin spoke the first words (albeit technical jargon) from the LM on the lunar surface. Throughout the descent Aldrin had called out navigation data to Armstrong, who was busy piloting the LM. As Eagle landed Aldrin said, “Contact light! Okay, engine stop. ACA – out of detent.” Armstrong acknowledged “Out of detent” and Aldrin continued, “Mode control – both auto. Descent engine command override off. Engine arm – off. 413 is in.”
It was then that Armstrong said the famous words, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Armstrong’s abrupt change of call sign from “Eagle” to “Tranquility Base” caused momentary confusion at Mission Control. Charles Duke, acting as CAPCOM during the landing phase, acknowledged their landing, expressing the relief of a Mission Control made nervous by a long landing that almost expended all of the lunar module Eagle’s fuel. Duke’s famous first words to the Apollo 11 crew on the surface of the moon were flustered: “Roger, Twank…Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue here. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot!” expressing the relief of Mission Control after the unexpectedly drawn-out descent.
Shortly after landing, before preparations began for the EVA, Aldrin broadcast that:
“This is the LM pilot. 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 took Communion privately. At this time NASA was still fighting a lawsuit brought by atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair (who had objected to the Apollo 8 crew reading from the Book of Genesis) which demanded that their astronauts refrain from religious activities while in space. As such, Aldrin chose to refrain from directly mentioning this. He had kept the plan quiet (not even mentioning it to his wife) and did not reveal it publicly for several years. Buzz Aldrin was an elder at Webster Presbyterian Church in Webster, TX. His communion kit was prepared by the pastor of the church, the Rev. Dean Woodruff. Aldrin described communion on the moon and the involvement of his church and pastor in the October, 1970 edition of Guideposts magazine and in his book “Return to Earth.” Webster Presbyterian possesses the chalice used on the moon, and commemorates the Lunar Communion each year on the Sunday closest to July 20.
At 02:56 UTC on July 21 (10:56pm EDT, July 20), 1969, Armstrong began his descent to the Moon’s surface. The Remote Control Unit controls on his chest kept him from seeing his feet. Climbing down the nine-rung ladder, Armstrong pulled a D-ring to deploy the Modular Equipment Stowage Assembly (MESA) folded against Eagle’s side and activate the TV camera. The first landing used slow-scan television incompatible with commercial TV, so it was displayed on a special monitor and a conventional TV camera viewed this monitor, significantly reducing the quality of the picture. The signal was received at Goldstone in the USA but with better fidelity by Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station in Australia. Minutes later the feed was switched to the more sensitive Parkes radio telescope in Australia. Despite some technical and weather difficulties, ghostly black and white images of the first lunar EVA were received and broadcast to at least 600 million people on Earth. Although copies of this video in broadcast format were saved and are widely available, recordings of the original slow scan source transmission from the moon were accidentally destroyed during routine magnetic tape re-use at NASA. Archived copies of the footage were eventually located in Perth, Australia, which was one of the sites that originally received the Moon broadcast.
After describing the surface dust (“fine and almost like a powder”), Armstrong stepped off Eagle’s footpad and into history as the first human to set foot on another world. It was then that he uttered his famous line “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” six and a half hours after landing. Aldrin joined him, describing the view as “Magnificent desolation.”