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Tuesday 21 July 2020


I'm delighted to be taking part in this summer's Historical Writers Forum Blog Hop on the theme of Momentous Events. My chosen topic is that unforgettable moment in July 1969 when humans first set foot on the Moon.

Although the Moon Landings might feel like comparatively recent history – particularly in the minds of those who, like me, are old enough to remember them – the concept of space travel is not by any means a modern phenomenon.  As long ago as the middle of the 19th century, the idea had been anticipated by the French author Jules Verne, in his novel De la Terre à la Lune (1865) and its sequel Autour de la Lune (1869).  It was further developed by the English writer H G Wells in his story The First Men in the Moon (1900-1901), and by the pioneering French film director and magician Georges Méliès in his short film Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902), which was inspired partly by Verne's stories.  The film, featuring Méliès himself in the main role of Professor Barbenfouillis, can be seen here

Just over half a century later space travel became a reality, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 – the world’s first artificial satellite – on 4th October 1957.  This was followed on 3rd November 1957 by Sputnik 2, the first spacecraft to carry a living creature.  The passenger was Laika, a stray dog from the streets of Moscow.  But Sputnik 2 was not designed to return to Earth, and consequently (and controversially) Laika died in space.   A memorial to her can now be seen in Moscow.

The first successful USA satellite was Explorer 1, launched on 31st January 1958.  The space race had begun in earnest.

On 25th May 1961, four months after his inauguration, US President John F Kennedy announced to Congress: “I believe 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.”  You can see footage of his original speech here.  Because the Soviet Union was well ahead of the USA in the space race at this stage, having already sent a man into space (Yuri Gagarin, in Vostok 1) just over a month earlier, Kennedy’s bold challenge was exciting news for Cold-War-era America.

Sadly, John Kennedy did not live to see his goal achieved.  Less than three years later, an assassin’s bullet brought his term of office to a sudden and brutal end.  It is said that everyone who is old enough to remember the events of 22nd November 1963 can still recall what they were doing when they heard the sombre announcement: “President Kennedy is dead”.

But work on the USA space program continued, and in 1966 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) conducted the first (unmanned) Apollo mission.  The first manned flight was Apollo 7, which began in October 1968 and lasted for 11 days.  During the flight, the three astronauts (Walter Cunningham, Donn Eisele and Wally Schirra) made the first live television transmissions from inside a manned spacecraft – a feat which later earned them a special Emmy award.   

 Schirra & Eisele on board Apollo 7 (photo: NASA)

In December of the same year, Apollo 8 transported astronauts William Anders, Frank Borman and Jim Lovell to the far side of the moon in an iconic figure-of-eight orbit which became the mission’s logo:

This was followed in March 1969 by Apollo 9, which tested the lunar module whilst in orbit round the Earth, and in May 1969 by Apollo 10, which performed a dry run of the route for the forthcoming lunar landing mission two months later.

Apollo 11 blasted off from Cape Canaveral (re-named Cape Kennedy in honour of the former President) on 16th July 1969, carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin (“Buzz”) Aldrin  and Michael Collins.  

Photo: Time Life Pictures/NASA/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The 230,000-mile (395,000-km) journey to the moon took just over three days, after which Armstrong and Aldrin moved into the lunar module (known as the Eagle) and detached it from the command module to prepare for descent to the surface of the moon. 

The descent took around two hours, of which the final minutes were particularly fraught – both inside the Eagle and on the ground at Mission Control in Houston.  As the Eagle approached the lunar surface, and with its fuel supply almost exhausted, Armstrong realised that the craft’s auto-landing program was about to deposit them in the middle of a crater full of boulders.  A veteran test pilot, he swiftly took over manual control and skilfully manoeuvred the craft towards a clear spot beyond the crater.  The module came to rest in the Sea of Tranquility with just thirty seconds’ worth of fuel left.

The staff at Mission Control waited with bated breath until they heard Armstrong’s voice: “This is Tranquility Base.  The Eagle has landed.”

Roger, Tranquility,” came the response from Houston. “We copy you on the ground.  You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue.  We’re breathing again.”

Ten minutes later, Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon.  He stepped off the ladder on to the lunar surface, uttering the now famous words: “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”  Aldrin followed him down the ladder and the two men spent two hours on the moon, collecting soil and rock samples, conducting experiments and taking photographs.

Buzz Aldrin on the moon, photographed by Neil Armstrong (photo: NASA)

A plaque left on the moon bore the inscription:

JULY 1969, A.D.

together with the signatures of Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Edwin Aldrin, and US President Richard Nixon.

 (Photo: Buzz Aldrin on Twitter)

America had now achieved Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon, but the second half of his promise had still to be fulfilled: returning him safely to Earth.

This, too, was fraught with danger at every stage.  The Eagle first had to take off from the moon, then successfully re-engage with the command module in orbit.  And if the Eagle’s single ascent engine failed, there was a very real prospect that Armstrong and Aldrin could find themselves stranded on the moon.  It is a sobering thought that President Nixon had a condolence speech already prepared for this eventuality.  The speech began: “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace…”

Thankfully, Nixon’s speech was not needed.  Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins survived all the perils of the return journey: taking off from the moon, docking with the command module, and re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.  Apollo 11’s capsule, with the three astronauts safely inside, splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, 800 nautical miles south-west of Hawaii, on 28th July1969.  They remained in quarantine for 21 days before returning to their families.

All three astronauts went on to live to a ripe old age.  Neil Armstrong died on 25th August 2012 at the age of 82.  At the time of writing, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins (aged 90 and 89 respectively) are still living.


  • It used to be thought that the full moon caused madness.  The words “lunacy” and “lunatic” are both derived from luna, the Latin word for moon.
  • Sputnik 1 was the size of a beachball.
  • The Apollo astronauts’ spacesuits were designed by Playtex, a company better known for manufacturing ladies’ underwear.
  • The astronauts on Apollo 11 ate cereal (mixed with fruit and packed into cubes), but couldn’t have it with milk in case it floated out of the bowl.
  • The average smartphone today contains a more powerful computer than the spaceships which sent the astronauts to the moon.
  • Surprisingly, even today, some people apparently still believe that the moon landings were an elaborate hoax!  I wonder what they think could have happened...