As the peak of the space race, and perhaps the crowning glory of the American century, the arrival of two US astronauts on the moon on 20 July, provided a chance for writers such as Anthony Tucker to write a first draft of history. His account of the Eagle’s landing remains thrilling 50 years on. Meanwhile, Alistair Cooke, the Guardian’s famous US correspondent from the mid-40s until 1972, took in the response from those in the US watching, for days on end, on television.
Other stories in this edition include optimistic news about France no longer standing in the way of the UK joining the common market and news that the Sun newspaper, founded five years earlier, would likely fold by the end of the year. Of course, Rupert Murdoch bought the title a few months later and the rest is … history.
Men are on the moon. At 3:56 am on Monday morning – nearly four hours ahead of schedule – Armstrong, the lunar module commander, opened the hatch and clambered slowly down to the surface of the moon. Minutes later Aldrin followed him down the steps of the ladder – already renamed Tranquility Base – to join in this moving, clumsy culmination of eight years of intense dedication. It was the fulfilment of a dream which men have shared since the beginning of recorded history.
The decision to walk early was made three hours after the lunar module Eagle had made a perfect landing at 9:17pm, four miles downrange from the chosen site. The spacecraft was steered manually to clear a boulder-strewn crater “the size of a football pitch”. It was a moment of extraordinary tension and silence.
The lunar module curved gently down over the Sea of Tranquility, the drama heightened by the calm, almost casual voices of the astronauts and the mission controller at Houston.
The man who fell to earth
The casualness was deceptive: from 500ft above the surface and all too aware that an error could lead to irretrievable disaster, Aldrin brought the spacecraft down under Armstrong’s direction. At the moment of approach Armstrong’s heartbeat rose from its normal 70 to 156. Yet his voice was calm and flat: “Contact light: engines stopped? The Eagle has landed.”
The landing was perfect. Spaceflight Centre and the world seemed momentarily stunned by emotion: only Armstrong, Aldrin – and above them, Collins – seemed unmoved at the end of the drama which began with a characteristically laconic acceptance of the “go” for separation of the lunar module shortly before 7 p.m.
“You got a bunch of guys who’re about to turn blue”, said the Houston space controller, when the module had landed. “We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.” […]
Ten minutes after landing Aldrin radioed: “We’ll get to the details of what’s around here, but it looks like a collection of just about every kind of rock. Colour depends on what angle you’re looking at?”
The close look already began to bile the image gained from centuries of examining lunar reflectivity – for that is what we see by – and the more detailed examination from orbit by man and camera. And from there, in the Sea of Tranquility, the colourful earth is simply bright. “It’s big, and bright and beautiful,” said Armstrong.
They said they had no difficulty in adapting to the moon’s gravity. The conversation from the moon’s surface came through loud and clear.
Apollo 11: the fight for the first footprint on the moon
Separation began on this side of the moon, but the descent itself – the journey to which President Kennedy committed his nation eight years ago – began with a firing of the lunar module’s motor after a long separating half-orbit on the far side of the moon and out of touch with the control centre back at Houston. The world waited for the static-filled radio silence to be broken by an astronaut’s affirmative. After what seemed on earth to be an age, the disappointed millions who had hoped to watch the first steps of separation on television, at last heard a calm and distant Armstrong confirm that the landing trajectory was good. The first minor miracle had been performed.
From that moment, with the tension mounting second by second and with the minimum of interrogation from earth, or from the orbiting Collins, the lunar module bore Armstrong and Aldrin downward, using its motor as a brake and slowly tilting until it was upright and ready for landing.