That's One Small Step For Man...

If you've been following the news at all, you'll know that this week is the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11! The Saturn V launched from Cape Canaveral on July 16, 1969, sending Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins on their 4-day journey to the moon and forever into the history books

Apollo 11 liftoff | July 16, 1969, 9:32AM. HD original launch footage here

The world has been readily anticipating this enormous milestone for months now; Kennedy Space Center just unveiled this imposing bronze statue, and similar commemorations will take place around the globe. You'd think it'd be easy for me to write an article on the greatest space mission of all time,  but in many ways this unbelievable achievement is far beyond my ability to add or detract. That is, until I started researching all the ways Apollo 11 nearly failed

Mark my words, one day when I walk on Mars, they'll build an even bigger statue for me

Neil Armstrong almost died on his first spaceflight

On Gemini 8 in 1966, Armstrong and David Scott rendezvoused with the unmanned Agena target vehicle to attempt the first-ever orbital docking of two spacecraft, a maneuver that had to be mastered before any lunar landing. Though their docking was successful, things quickly spiraled out of control when Scott noticed that the spacecraft was rolling. Assuming the Agena was malfunctioning, they decided to undock their capsule. Turns out, it was a thruster on their own Gemini capsule that got stuck open, so upon detaching the added mass of the Agena, the two astronauts started spinning so fast (~1 rev/second) that they were in danger of blacking out and certain death. Armstrong's quick reaction and expert piloting stabilized the spacecraft and saved their lives, but they used up so much fuel that the mission had to be immediately aborted

Gemini 8 Launch | Illustration of docking (credit) | Armstrong and Scott | Capsule recovery | Mission insignia

These great clips from the movie First Man bring the launch and the emergency to life!

The harrowing lunar descent

Two problems nearly forced Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to abort their lunar landing - first, as the lunar module (LM) was descending, an unforeseen issue with the Apollo Guidance Computer overwhelmed its measly 72KB of memory with unnecessary interrupt signals, freezing the computer and reporting error codes 1202 and 1201. Confused, the astronauts asked Houston for help. One NASA engineer, Jack Garman, saved the mission because he happened to have prepared a handwritten note of all the possible error codes, so he knew the glitch could be ignored 

The cheat sheet that saved the mission, and the Apollo Guidance Computer

Second, the LM's surface radar malfunctioned during descent and the astronauts overshot their landing, finding huge boulders beneath them instead of a flat plain. Armstrong quickly took over manual control, and by the time they landed, they only had 25 seconds of fuel left!

Here's proof how stressful the landing was - we all remember Neil Armstrong's immortal words, "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." But we forget what Mission Control's response was, back in Houston - "Roger Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again."

Neil and Buzz were almost stranded on the moon

In the cramped LM, Armstrong's life support backpack accidentally smashed the switch that fired the ascent engine to launch them off the moon. NASA had no obvious fix, but Buzz pulled a felt-tip pen from his spacesuit pocket and poked the busted button; sure enough, the engine fired. Another disaster averted! 

Buzz still has the pen that saved his and Neil's life! If a pen saved my life, I'd keep it too! | Credit: Christina Korp (Buzz Aldrin's manager)

In the event of moon disaster

There's one last thing I wanted to share. 50 years later, we so easily take Apollo 11's success for granted that we forget the monumental efforts of all the people behind the Apollo Program and the unbelievable bravery shown by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. President Nixon had a speech prepared in case Armstrong and Aldrin died on the moon, and although it thankfully never had to be issued, I feel it's worth reading so we appreciate the risks they took on for all humanity...


Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man

In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man's search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind


  1. It sounds so stressful reading about all the mishaps let alone living through that!

  2. I got stressed reading the mishaps. I'm glad Buzz and Neil survived :)