These Photos Go Behind the Scenes of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing

President John F. Kennedy set the goal of landing a man on the moon: an ambitious objective that the United States achieved on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made it to the moon and Michael Collins stayed in orbit above them. You’ve probably seen a few photos of the moon landing, especially if you’ve heard about conspiracy theories that the whole thing was faked.

But if you want to look behind the scenes of the Apollo 11 mission and learn how NASA really pulled off the moon landing, you can’t miss the rare photos ahead.

It took NASA about 8 years to get to the moon

Neil Armstrong practices re-entering the lunar module for Apollo 11

Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong practices getting back to the first rung of the ladder on the Lunar Module. | NASA

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy declared that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” To meet that timeline, NASA had its work cut out for it:

  • NASA first had to secure funding. Its annual budget increased from $500 million in 1960 to $5.2 billion in 1965.
  • It also needed to mobilize personnel across NASA, at research universities, and in the private sector.
  • And unfortunately, the costs of the Apollo program weren’t just economic. The first manned Apollo mission ended in tragedy in 1967, when Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger B. Chaffee died in a fire during a launch test.

Next: NASA had to settle this controversial argument before it could move forward. 

NASA had to decide how to get astronauts to the moon

John C. Houbolt explains the concept of Lunar Orbital Rendezvous

John C. Houbolt stands at a blackboard, showing his space rendezvous concept for lunar landings. | NASA On the Commons/ Flickr

After JFK’s declaration, NASA had to make an early decision on how to get to the moon. It doesn’t sound like a controversial topic. But there were many arguments over the three basic approaches:

  • Direct ascent: A huge booster would launch a spacecraft, set it on course to the moon, land a large vehicle, and send part of it back to Earth.
  • Earth-orbit rendezvous: The modules needed for a moon landing would launch into orbit above the earth. At a space station, they would rendezvous, assemble into a single system, refuel, and then go to the moon.
  • Lunar-orbit rendezvous: The entire lunar spacecraft would go up in one launch, head to the moon, enter into orbit, and dispatch a small lander to the lunar surface.

The NASA Rendezvous Panel at Langley Research Center, headed by John C. Houbolt, advocated for the lunar-orbit rendezvous. It eventually persuaded the rest of NASA’s leadership to go in that direction.

Next: NASA had to answer some big questions.

The moon landing required NASA to solve some big problems

Maxwell W. Goode explains the Lunar Landing Simulator

Roger B. Chaffee receives instruction from Maxwell W. Goode on the operation of the Lunar Landing Simulator. | NASA On the Commons/ Flickr

After deciding how to get to the moon, NASA could begin engineering the Apollo spacecraft, the Saturn V booster, and the lunar module. It also undertook a variety of new projects to do the work that would make the moon landing possible:

  • The Apollo missions would test the command and lunar modules, orbit the moon, and photograph its surface.
  • Project Gemini would figure out how to dock two spacecraft together, how to enable astronauts to work in space, and how to collect physiological data about astronauts’ response to extended spaceflight.
  • Project Ranger, the Lunar Orbiter, and Project Surveyor would learn about the composition and geography of the moon, determine if the moon could support a lander, and determine how communications would work.

Next: NASA had to choose the Apollo 11’s crew members. 

NASA selected astronauts for the moon landing

Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot; Neil A. Armstrong, commander; and Michael Collins, command module pilot

The Apollo 11 crew pose with a lunar module mockup beside Building 1 at what’s now the Johnson Space Center. | NASA On the Commons/ Flickr

Before the historic moon landing, NASA had already flown astronauts into the moon’s orbit (on the Apollo 8 and Apollo 10 missions). But for the Apollo 11 mission, it had to select the astronauts who would be the first humans to set foot on the moon. NASA chose three astronauts who had all already flown in space as part of Project Gemini:

  • Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., otherwise known as Buzz Aldrin, would serve as the lunar module pilot.
  • Neil A. Armstrong would be the mission’s commander.
  • Michael Collins would serve as the command module pilot.

Next: The astronauts had to undergo extensive training. 

The astronauts practiced for the moon landing

Neil Armstrong training at Langley's Lunar Landing Research Facility

Neil Armstrong trained on equipment that canceled all but one-sixth of Earth’s gravitational force to match that of the moon’s. | NASA

The crew of the Apollo 11 spent months training intensively as a team, practicing everything they would need to do for a successful moon landing on earth. That included walking, running, and performing tasks on the moon while wearing a bulky spacesuit and dealing with reduced gravity.

  • Neil Armstrong trained at Langley’s Lunar Landing Research Facility on equipment that canceled all but one-sixth of Earth’s gravitational force to match that of the moon.
  • Langley used overhead cables to support a model lander.
  • Later, when asked what it was like to land on the moon, Armstrong replied, “Like Langley.”

Next: The crew had to get used to this condition. 

They had to get used to the weightless conditions they would experience on the moon

Buzz Aldrin trains under weightless conditions for the first moon landing

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin trains under weightless conditions aboard a KC-135 aircraft from the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. | NASA

In preparation for the first moon landing, the astronauts had to practice all of the tasks they’d need to perform on the moon. But they also had to get used to moving around while wearing a spacesuit and dealing with the reduced gravity on the moon. Buzz Aldrin spent time training under weightless conditions aboard a KC-135 aircraft from the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Next: Aldrin and Armstrong also had to learn to do this. 

They also had to learn to use tools on the moon

Apollo 11 crew members practice using lunar tools

Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong practice using lunar tools for the first moon landing. | NASA

While preparing for the moon landing, the crew of the Apollo 11 also had to practice using all of the tools that NASA built for them. They also had to prepare to set up the scientific experiments and collect the samples that NASA’s scientists wanted them to bring back.

  • In the photo above you can see Buzz Aldrin using a scoop and tongs to pick up a soil sample. Neil Armstrong holds a bag to receive the sample. Behind them is a Lunar Module mockup.

Next: NASA had to conduct countless tests.  

Many tests had to take place before the moon landing

Apollo 11 crew after the countdown demonstration test

Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins participate in a test. | NASA

 

In the photo above, the Apollo 11 crew donned their spacesuits for a countdown demonstration test. That test took place on June 26, 1969, and represented one of the last major milestones before the Apollo 11 launch on July 16.

  • NASA carried out many other tests to ensure that everything — hardware, systems, and people — were ready for the moon landing.
  • The astronauts themselves even conducted checks in the command and lunar modules to ensure that everything was in place for the mission and moon landing.

Next: The astronauts spent their time doing this before the first moon landing. 

The astronauts had to practice every part of the moon landing

Michael Collins practices in a simulator prior to Apollo 11 launch

Michael Collins practices docking hatch removal. | NASA on the Commons/ Flickr

 

Anyone could guess that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would have to practice walking around on the moon (or piloting the lunar lander). But Michael Collins, who didn’t land on the moon, had plenty of his own procedures to practice.

  • Collins needed to pilot the command module Columbia when Aldrin and Armstrong landed on the moon.
  • He had to keep Columbia in orbit around the moon until they could return to it following 21.5 hours spent on the surface of the moon.
  • In the photo above, Collins practiced the docking hatch removal in a simulator at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Next: This continued up until the day the Apollo 11 launched. 

Preparations continued until the day of the launch

Apollo 11 astronauts review lunar charts before the first moon landing

Donald K. Slayton reviews lunar charts with Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin. | NASA

Preparations for the Apollo 11 mission continued until the day of the launch, and the astronauts continued to review information about where they’d be going and what they’d be doing.

  • In the photo above, chief astronaut and director of flight crew operations Donald Slayton reviews lunar charts with Michael Collins, Neil Amstrong, and Buzz Aldrin during breakfast a few days before the launch.

Next: NASA staff made these preparations just a few days before the launch. 

Cooks prepared food for the astronauts

Cooks prepare meals for the Apollo 11 crew

Cooks prepared meals for the Apollo 11 astronauts a few days before the first moon landing. | NASA

Speaking of food, all of the meals that the astronauts would need while they were in space had to be prepared on the ground. In the photo above, you can see cooks at the astronaut quarters of the NASA Kennedy Space Center preparing meals for the Apollo 11 astronauts just a few days before the first moon landing mission.

Next: The astronauts took precautions at their final press conference before launch day. 

NASA didn’t want the astronauts exposed to any germs at the last minute

Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins conduct a press conference

Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins conduct a press conference the night before leaving on the Apollo 11. |

In the final few days before the Apollo 11 launch, NASA didn’t want the mission’s crew to be exposed to any germs that could make them sick while they were in space. While NASA allowed the crew members to take part in a press conference the night before the launch date, they did so via a closed-circuit press conference.

  • Members of the press posed their questions to the astronauts via intercom.
  • NASA explains that the press conference “was held under semi-isolation conditions to avoid exposing the astronauts to possible illness at the last minute.”

Next: This is what the control room looked like on the day Apollo 11 launched. 

Every console in the control room was manned on the day of the launch

Members of the Kennedy Space Center control room at the Apollo 11 launch

Members of the Kennedy Space Center control room team rise from their consoles to see the liftoff of the Apollo 11 mission 16 July 1969. | NASA/ AFP/ Getty Images

NASA reports that when the launch day for the Apollo 11 arrived, every console was manned in firing room 1 of the Kennedy Space Flight Center control center. The Apollo 11 would launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida via the Saturn V launch vehicle developed at the Marshall Space Flight Center, and Apollo program director Lieutenant General Samuel C. Phillips monitored the pre-launch activities for the mission.

Next: Apollo 11 crew members each did this before the launch. 

The astronauts performed final checks of their communications systems

Apollo 11 astronauts complete final check of their communication systems

Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin perform final checks of their communication systems communications system before the boarding of the Apollo 11 mission. | NASA

 

Before they boarded the Apollo 11, each of the crew members did a final check of their communications systems. NASA put a lot of thought into how the astronauts would communicate with each other — and with people back home on planet earth.

  • A lot of information has to pass between a spacecraft and the ground crews on any mission, Popular Science reports. That includes telemetry, computer upload information, and voice communication. As early as 1962, NASA realized that the Apollo 11 would need a unique communication system.
  • The solution — Unified S-band — combined tracking, ranging, command, voice, and TV data into one antenna.
  • To broadcast the first moon landing live on television, NASA contracted RCA to build a camera for the command module and Westinghouse Electric to create a camera for the lunar module. The result? The crew could broadcast footage of man’s first steps on the moon.

Next: The mission finally got underway. 

Apollo 11 launched on July 16, 1969

The Apollo 11 lifts off for the first moon landing

Apollo 11 lifts off from launch complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. | NASA

The Apollo 11, propelled by the Saturn V launch vehicle, lifted off from launch complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.  Then, the astronauts could begin their three-day trip to the moon.

  • To achieve the “escape velocity” needed to leave the earth’s surface and break through the planet’s gravitational pull, the astronauts used the three-stage Saturn V rocket.
  • At launch, they traveled at a velocity of more than 25,000 miles per hour, Space.com reports.
  • The lunar lander was tucked into the top of the third stage of the rocket, and the astronauts rode in the Apollo command module atop the rocket as they made a successful launch.

Next: Many people wanted to see the astronauts off. 

People flocked to Florida to see the liftoff

People gathered near the NASA Kennedy Space Center for the Apollo 11 launch

People gathered near Kennedy Space Center for the launch of the Apollo 11. | NASA

In anticipation of the Apollo 11 launch, people flocked to highways and beaches near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to watch.

  • Hundreds of people camped out on beaches and roadways the night before the launch so that they could watch the Apollo 11 lift off.
  • About a million people visited the Spaceport area to see the historic launch, which was the United States’ first attempt to land Americans on the surface of the moon.

Next: This former president also attended the launch. 

Even Lyndon B. Johnson watched the launch of the Apollo 11

Vice President Spiro Agnew And Former President Lyndon Johnson watch the Apollo 11 launch

Vice President Spiro Agnew And Former President Lyndon Johnson watch the launch of the Apollo 11. | NASA/ Getty Images

In addition to all of the NASA personnel and all of the regular Americans who gathered to watch the Apollo 11 launch, a few politicians were on hand for the historic event. Even former President Lyndon B. Johnson and sitting Vice President Spiro Agnew made the trip to Florida to watch the launch and send the astronauts off.

  • NASA also reports that thousands of news reporters from around the world gathered at the designated press site.
  • They took countless photographs as the Saturn V launch vehicle lifted off.
  • A total of 3,497 news people officially registered to cover the launch.

Next: This is how everyone felt once the Apollo 11 launched. 

NASA officials relaxed — for a moment — after the launch

Apollo 11 Mission Official Relax After Apollo 11 Liftoff

Apollo 11 mission officials relax in the Launch Control Center following the successful Apollo 11 liftoff on July 16, 1969. | NASA on the Commons/ Flickr

NASA reports that Apollo 11 mission officials could breathe easy, at least for a moment, after the spacecraft successfully lifted off. In the photo above, you can see:

  • Charles W. Mathews, Deputy Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight
  • Wernher von Braun, Director of the Marshall Space Flight Center
  • George Mueller, Associate Administrator for the Office of Manned Space Flight
  • Lt. Gen. Samuel C. Phillips, Director of the Apollo Program in the Launch Control Center

Next: The astronauts had to do this before traveling to the moon. 

The astronauts traveled to the moon, but not before detaching the Saturn V rocket

Michael Collins practices procedures with the Apollo docking mechanism

Michael Collins practices procedures with the Apollo docking mechanism in preparation for Apollo 11. | NASA

Just a few minutes after the Apollo 11’s launch, Michael Collins had some vital work to do, according to Forbes. Collins had to pilot the command module — Columbia — through the maneuvers that would detach it from the third stage of the Saturn V rocket, which had propelled them into space.

  • Detaching the Columbia from the Saturn V uncovered the lunar landing module, Eagle.
  • Eagle was tucked safely behind Columbia inside the third stage of the rocket.
  • Then, Collins had to turn Columbia around, and position its nose to dock with the top of Eagle.
  • Because of the possibility of a collision, the astronauts all wore their spacesuits as Collins (successfully) performed the task.

Next: The crew did this on the way to the moon. 

On the way to the moon, they photographed the earth from space

View of Earth taken by Apollo 11 crewmembers

This view of Earth was photographed from the Apollo 11 spacecraft during its journey toward the moon. | NASA

As they made their way to the moon, the astronauts took the opportunity to snap some photos of the earth from space. Though photos of the earth are common today, they were still a relatively new sight at the time of the moon landing.

  • The first photographs of the earth from space date to 1946.
  • It wasn’t until the Apollo missions of the 1960s that we saw the first images of the earth taken from the moon.
  • NASA explains that when the Apollo 11 crew took the photograph above, their spacecraft was already about 10,000 nautical miles from earth.

Next: Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong had to do this to prepare for the moon landing. 

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had to move from the command module to the lunar module

The Apollo 11 lunar module 'Eagle' in lunar orbit

The Apollo 11 Lunar Module “Eagle” in landing configuration. | NASA on the Commons/ Flickr

When the Apollo 11 reached the right place, it was time for the astronauts to split up. As Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong got situated in the lunar module — and made a television transmission — Collins remained in the command module. In the photo above, you can see the view of the lunar module from the command module.

  • The Eagle is in landing configuration.
  • The module has lunar surface sensing probes at the ready to make contact with the moon’s surface.
  • When they touched the lunar surface, the probes would signal to the crew to shut down the descent engine.

Next: Two astronauts went to the moon, and one stayed behind. 

Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong set off for the moon, leaving Collins behind

Buzz Aldrin in the Apollo 11 Lunar Module

Neil Armstrong took this photo of Buzz Aldrin Buzz Aldrin in the Apollo 11’s lunar module. | NASA

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were tasked with making the first moon landing in history. But Michael Collins needed to stay behind, alone, keeping the Columbia in orbit around the moon to carry the three back home to earth. According to The Guardian, Collins radioed to the other two astronauts as they drifted away from the Columbia and descended to the moon, “Keep talking to me, guys.”

Next: They achieved this milestone. 

The astronauts made the first moon landing in history

The Apollo 11's lunar module landed on the moon

The shadow of one of the Apollo 11 astronauts can be seen as the other snaps a shot of the lunar module on its landing site. | NASA

On their final descent to the moon, Armstrong noticed that the automatic landing system was guiding Eagle toward the floor of a crater the size of a football field. So he took manual control and skimmed over the crater, landing in a flat plain beyond it in the moon’s Sea of Tranquility. Eagle had only about 30 seconds’ worth of fuel left when it touched down, Space.com reports. The lunar module consisted of two parts:

  • It had a lower or descent stage with landing gear, engines, and fuel needed for the moon landing.
  • Later, when the lunar module blasted off from the moon, the descent stage would serve as the launching pad for the ascent stage.
  • The ascent stage carried the two astronauts who would set foot on the surface of the moon.
  • The lunar module also carried gear that enabled the astronauts to communicate, navigate, and rendezvous.

Next: Armstrong said these famous words. 

Neil Armstrong took ‘one small step for man — one giant leap for mankind’

An Apollo 11 astronaut's foot and footprint in the lunar soil

The foot and footprint of one of the Apollo 11 astronauts on the moon. | NASA

At 10:56 p.m. on July 20, Neil Armstrong set foot on the surface of the moon. His first steps on the moon were broadcast live on television. And Armstrong told the millions who saw and heard him on earth that it was “one small step for man” but “one giant leap for mankind.”

Next: Aldrin followed Armstrong onto the moon.

Buzz Aldrin soon followed Armstrong onto the lunar surface

Buzz Aldrin prepares to take his first steps on the moon

Buzz Aldrin exits the lunar module to take his first steps on the moon. | NASA

Buzz Aldrin soon followed Armstrong onto the surface of the moon. In the photo above, you can see Aldrin exiting the lunar module and preparing to take his first steps on the moon.

  • Everybody knows the famous words that Armstrong uttered when he first set foot on the moon. But Aldrin had his own thoughts about the moon.
  • NASA explains that Aldrin later characterized the lunar surface as “magnificent desolation.”

Next: Aldrin and Armstrong spent their time doing this. 

The astronauts set up science experiments

Buzz Aldrin carries the Passive Seismic Experiments Package and the Laser Ranging Retroreflector

Buzz Aldrin carries the Passive Seismic Experiments Package and the Laser Ranging Retroreflector. | NASA

The Apollo 11 crew set up several scientific experiments while they were on the lunar surface. NASA explains, “The scientific experiments placed on the Moon and the lunar soil samples returned through Project Apollo have provided grist for scientists’ investigations of the Solar System ever since.”

  • The photo above, taken at Tranquility Base in the moon’s Sea of Tranquility, shows Buzz Aldrin carrying the Passive Seismic Experiments Package in his left hand and the Laser Ranging Retroreflector in his right to the deployment area.
  • Together, the two experiments comprised the Early Apollo Scientific Experiment Package.
  • Aldrin also set up the Solar Wind Composition experiment during the moon landing.

Next: NASA scientists also had the astronauts do this. 

The astronauts collected samples during the moon landing

Buzz Aldrin uses the core sampler on the first moon landing

Buzz Aldrin uses the core sampler to collect scientific samples on the Apollo 11’s mission. |

During the moon landing, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin collected numerous samples from the surface of the moon. NASA explains that in the photo above, Aldrin is using the core sampler, “one of the many tools used by the astronauts to collect samples.” During their 2.5 hour exploration of the lunar surface, Armstrong and Aldrin collected 47 pounds of lunar surface material. It returned with them to earth for analysis.

But to bring back so many samples, they had to leave behind everything they didn’t need, Forbes reports. A few of the things they left behind?

  • The Passive Seismic Experiment, which used seismic readings from meteoroid impacts to map the moon’s structure
  • A laser reflector that measured the distance from the earth to the moon
  • Tongs, sample scoops, a scale, and a hammer
  • Container, brackets, lunar overshoes, portable life support systems, and food bags
  • Armrests, a few days of food packets, a TV camera, ad an insulated blanket
  • Urine containers, “defecation collection devices,” and airsickness bags

Next: The astronauts left a couple more items behind. 

They also left a flag and a commemorative plaque on the moon

Buzz Aldrin poses beside the deployed United States flag during Apollo 11 extravehicular activity on the lunar surface

Buzz Aldrin poses for a photo beside the U.S. flag on the moon. | NASA

 

Most people know that the astronauts planted an American flag on the moon’s surface. But they also left behind a plaque to commemorate the historic moon landing. The plaque was attached to the ladder on the landing gear strut on the descent stage of the Apollo 11 lunar module, and had been covered with a sheet of stainless steel during flight.

  • The plaque was engraved with the message, “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July, 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all of mankind.”
  • It bore the signatures of Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Richard Nixon.

Next: You can thank Armstrong for most of these photographs. 

Armstrong took most of the photos of the first moon landing

A photo by Buzz Aldrin shows Neil Armstrong during the first moon landing

Neil Armstrong at work near the lunar module Eagle. | NASA

NASA reports that “As commander of Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong took most of the photographs from the historic moonwalk.” But Buzz Aldrin took a few photos, too, including this rare shot that shows Armstrong working near the Eagle lunar module.

Next: What did Michael Collins do as Aldrin and Armstrong walked around on the moon?

Meanwhile, Michael Collins remained, alone, in the Columbia

Apollo 11 Lunar Module ascent stage photographed from Command Module

Astronaut Michael Collins, command module pilot, remained with the Command/Service Module in lunar orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin explored the Moon. | NASA on the Commons/ Flickr

The moon might look pretty desolate. But as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their moon landing together, Michael Collins orbited the moon alone for 21.5 hours. According to Forbes, Collins “experienced periods of the most profound solitude any human being has ever known: 48 minutes at a time alone on the far side of the Moon, with no radio contact with Earth or his crewmates and a 2100 mile-wide ball of rock between him and every other human who ever lived.”

  • Collins later recalled that he didn’t feel alone during those moments.
  • But The Guardian reports that the astronaut spent those 21.5 hours in fear that “he would be the only survivor of an Apollo 11 disaster and that he was destined to return on his own to the United States as ‘a marked man.'”
  • Everybody involved in the mission worried about such hypotheticals. But privately, all three crew members of the Apollo 11 worried that Armstrong and Aldrin’s prospects of making it back to earth were only 50-50, given their concerns about the reliability of their lunar lander.

Next: Armstrong and Aldrin took their chances and did this next. 

The astronauts launched back to the Apollo capsule

Buzz Aldrin during the first moon landing, with Neil Armstrong reflected in his visor

Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon before the lunar module departed for rendezvous with the command module. | NASA

Armstrong and Aldrin spent 21.5 hours away from the Columbia. But eventually, they had to attempt to return to the command module, in which Collins was still orbiting around the moon. That would have been a scary undertaking for a few reasons:

  • All three astronauts believed there was a possibility that the ascent engine of the Eagle lunar lander might fail to ignite, stranding Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon to die when their oxygen ran out.
  • Or, if the engine failed to burn for at least seven minutes, the two astronauts would either crash back to the moon or get stuck in low orbit around it, with no way to reach the Columbia.
  • Fortunately, when Armstrong pressed the engine’s firing button, Eagle “soared perfectly above the lunar surface towards the waiting Collins,” The Guardian reports.
  • The astronauts made their rendezvous on the far side of the moon, and Collins successfully docked the two modules. Then, they began their return trip to earth.

Next: They made a successful return home. 

The Apollo 11 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24

Apollo 11 Recovery Area

Pararescueman Lt. Clancy Hatleberg closes the Apollo 11 spacecraft hatch as astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin, Jr., await helicopter pickup from their life raft. |

The astronauts made a safe return from the moon, re-entered earth’s atmosphere, and splashed down in the Pacific on July 24, 1969. The recovery operation took place in the Pacific Ocean, where Navy para-rescue men retrieved the capsule that housed the Apollo 11 crew:

  • The three astronauts waited in a life raft as a pararescueman closed and secured the capsule hatch.
  • One of the rescue men disinfected the astronauts in the life raft.
  • The Apollo 11 crew splashed down about 812 nautical miles southwest of Hawaii, and only 12 nautical miles from the aircraft carrier, which was there waiting for them.
  • The crew was airlifted by helicopter and transported to the U.S.S. Hornet.
  • The Apollo 11’s command module — the only part of the spacecraft to return to earth — also went to the U.S.S. Hornet with its crew.

Next: Mission control’s large screen flashed these words when the Apollo 11 crew splashed down. 

Mission control flashed JFK’s words when Apollo 11 returned

The Mission Operations Control Room in the Mission Control Center at the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center celebrates the success of Apollo 11

The Mission Operations Control Room celebrates after the Apollo 11 crew was recovered in the Pacific Ocean. |

NASA reports that when the Apollo 11 safely landed, Mission Control in Houston “flashed the words of President Kennedy announcing the Apollo commitment on its big screen. Those phrases were followed with these: ‘TASK ACCOMPLISHED, July 1969.'”

  • When the astronauts returned to earth, people around the world celebrated the success of the Apollo 11 mission.
  • The Apollo 11 would eventually embark on a global goodwill tour of ticker tape parades, speaking engagements, and public relations events.
  • Five more landing missions followed at approximately six-month intervals through December 1972. Each of them increased the amount of time spent on the moon, but NASA notes that “none of them equaled the excitement of Apollo 11.”

Next: This was the next stop for the Apollo 11 crew. 

The astronauts were quarantined aboard the U.S.S. Hornet

The Apollo 11 crew walks to a mobile quarantine facility

The Apollo 11 astronauts wave as they move to a mobile quarantine facility after recovery. | NASA

Even though the Apollo 11 crew had finally made it back to earth, their journey wasn’t over yet. When Aldrin, Armstrong, and Collins landed in a recovery helicopter aboard the U.S.S. Hornet, they were wearing biological isolation garments, which they had put on before leaving their spacecraft. Then, the astronauts went into the Mobile Quarantine Facility on the aircraft carrier.

Next: This dignitary was on hand to congratulate the crew.

President Richard Nixon congratulated the astronauts on their accomplishment

President Nixon visits Apollo 11 crew in quarantine

President Richard M. Nixon was in the central Pacific recovery area to welcome the Apollo 11 astronauts aboard the U.S.S. Hornet. |

Even though the crew of the Apollo 11 needed to spend some time in quarantine after they got back to earth, that didn’t stop people from celebrating their safe return. NASA explains that even President Richard Nixon arrived to watch the recovery operations and congratulate the crew of the Apollo 11. He looks happy in the photos — and for good reason.

  • As The Guardian reports, Nixon had to prepare for the possibility of disaster, and even had written a speech that he would deliver in the event of the lunar lander’s engine failing and leaving Armstrong and Aldrin stranded on the moon.
  • In the photo above, you can see Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin inside the Mobile Quarantine Facility as Nixon speaks to them via intercom.
  • The president waited aboard the recovery vessel for the astronauts’ return.
  • One photo of the encounter shows Nixon joining the crew and the USS Hornet Chaplain in prayer. And there was even an official cake-cutting ceremony in their honor.

Next: They had to stay in quarantine for longer than you might expect. 

They stayed in quarantine for 21 days

The Apollo 11 crew inside the mobile quarantine facility after their return to earth

The Apollo 11 crew was taken to safety aboard the USS Hornet, where they were quartered in a mobile quarantine facility. | NASA

The Mobile Quarantine Facility served as the astronauts’ home for 21 days following the Apollo 11 mission. As NASA explains, the Apollo 11 crew remained in this portable facility “until they reached the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) Lunar Receiving Laboratory in Houston, Texas.”

  • The Apollo 11 crew even had to speak to their wives via telephone patch as they remained in quarantine.
  • NASA has photos of Neil Armstrong playing ukulele in the quarantine facility.
  • The quarantine was carried out to protect against the remote possibility of lunar contagion, and the quarantine process was discontinued altogether after Apollo 14.

Next: They started this process while still under quarantine. 

They underwent debriefings after the mission

The Apollo 11 crew undergoes their first debriefing

The three members of the Apollo 11 crew, still inside the mobile quarantine facility, undergo their first debriefing. Behind the glass are Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins, and Neil Armstrong. |

When Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin finally reached the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) Lunar Receiving Laboratory, then NASA could begin the process of debriefing them after their mission. The photo above shows the three astronauts undergoing their first debriefing on August 3, 1969. Behind the glass, you can see Aldrin, Collins, and Armstrong.

Next: The astronauts went on this trip next. 

They went on a goodwill tour of the world

New York City welcomes the Apollo 11 crew

New York City welcomes the Apollo 11 crew in a showering of ticker tape. | NASA/ Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

After they made a successful return to earth and got out of quarantine, the three members of the Apollo 11 crew were ready to celebrate NASA’s achievement of the first moon landing. They embarked on a goodwill tour around the world.

  • They took a  37-day journey to visit nations ranging from Mexico to Yugoslavia to Zaire, seeing some 100 million people along the way.
  • However, at least one country refused a visit by the beloved astronauts. The Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine notes that Hungary didn’t want the famous trio to visit, thanks to tense relations between the United States and the central European country.

Next: Not everyone believes NASA’s photos of the first moon landing. 

The moon landing would later become a source of controversy

Neil Armstrong poses during a talk show years after the first moon landing

Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong poses during a TV show, on July 10, 1979, in Paris. | Pierre Guillaud/ AFP/ Getty Images

The scientific community regards the first moon landing as a major accomplishment for NASA. But if you’ve heard anything about the Apollo 11, then you know that the first moon landing later became a source of controversy among the American public. Forbes explains the origin of conspiracy theories about the moon landing:

  • “Numerous people didn’t believe it at the time, just as many people don’t believe anything,” Forbes notes.
  • The idea of landing a man on the moon seemed impossible to most people. And to people who didn’t understand the science of engineering behind the Apollo 11 mission, it still seemed impossible, even when the TV broadcasts and photographs shared by NASA proved that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had set foot on the moon.
  • According to Forbes, the first person to create a real platform for moon landing conspiracy theories was Bill Kaysing, who eventually self-published a book called, “We never went to the moon.”
  • The Washington Post reports that “The ‘moon landing hoax’ was among the first conspiracy theories to gain traction with the American public. In the years since, the theories have multiplied like jack rabbits, swarming all corners of the cultural landscape.”

Next: Why do people still believe these conspiracy theories? 

Many people still believe conspiracy theories about the first moon landing

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk across the mobile launcher to enter the Apollo 11 spacecraft

Neil Armstrong and Buzz walk across the mobile launcher to enter their Apollo 11 spacecraft. | NASA

Even today, conspiracy theorists claim that the iconic moon landing was faked. Among the arguments they cite, according to The Washington Post:

  • The flag the Apollo 11 crew planted on the moon seemed to flutter in videos, which shouldn’t happen because there isn’t any wind on the moon.
  • Mini-meteors should have killed the astronauts as soon as they ventured outside the lunar module.

The Post notes that though it’s easy to dismiss conspiracy theories in the face of all the evidence, people’s attraction to such theories “stems from a very logical desire to make sense of the world.” Conspiracy theories also supply an ego boost, since people who subscribe to them think that they’re part of a select group who has figured out what’s going on. While it frustrated Apollo 11 crew members, including Buzz Aldrin, to hear that people think they faked the moon landing, the phenomenon likely has nothing to do with the specifics of the mission after all.

Read more: Have What It Takes to Be an Astronaut? You Need These 5 Things

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