To The Moon & Back

Special Features


This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Many of you may remember crowding around the black and white set to watch the excitement of history being made and the pinnacle of scientific advancement happen right before your eyes. 

Most of us take the moon for granted as it is such a constant in our lives but when we look up at it on a clear night it is still awe inspiring to imagine men walking upon its surface. And of course, the moon is so much more than the sphere that glows incandescently, lighting up the night sky – it causes the tides, and unbelievably also has a huge impact on the length of our days too. 

In the feature this month we look at the momentous occasion of the moon landing which made many children dream of becoming astronauts and some of the events that are happening to celebrate the anniversary, as well as some facts about the moon.

■ A Saturn V launches Apollo 11 in 1969. Image © NASA

The Apollo Programme

During the Cold War era, tensions were obviously high between the USA and the Soviet Union. The United States were trailing the Soviet Union in space developments and then President John F. Kennedy was not happy about it. In an appeal to Congress in May 1961 he sparked the famous ‘space race’ by saying, “I believe 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 Earth.” He shocked the world a couple of years later by suggesting that the two enemy countries collaborate launch a joint expedition to the moon. This idea was abandoned after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. 

An international team of scientists and engineers at NASA worked on it for five years, and in 1966 they were ready to launch the first Apollo mission in an unmanned test to check the proposed launch vehicle and spacecraft combination. This unfortunately did not prevent tragedy which would follow in 1967 at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. On January 27th, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were the three astronauts inside Apollo 1 spacecraft for a routine prelaunch test. A massive fire tore through the cabin’s pure oxygen atmosphere as it sat on the launch pad – triggered by faulty wiring. The men were unable to escape through the hatch due to a complicated latch system and by the time ground crews managed to open it, the astronauts had tragically perished from asphyxiation. This horrific accident grounded the Apollo programme for 18 months, but NASA made crucial design adjustments to increase safety as a result.

There were more test missions required before America was ready to step foot on the moon. Apollo 7 was the first manned mission in October 1968 which orbited Earth and tested the systems required to conduct a moon landing. Two months later Apollo 8 safely took three astronauts to the dark side of the moon and back, then in March 1969 Apollo 9 tested the lunar module while in Earth orbit. Apollo 10 was the final test in May 1969 when it took three astronauts around the moon in a dry run. 

Including missions following the moon landing, the Apollo Programme cost a whopping $24 billion (equivalent to about $100 billion today) and involved around 400,000 scientists, technicians and engineers. The US Government justified the expense by Kennedy’s plea to beat the Soviets, but once this had been achieved, the programme lost its viability.

The Moon Landing

The world was watching when Apollo 11 took off from Kennedy Space Centre on the 16th July at 9.32am EDT. Aboard were astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. The men travelled 240,000 miles in 76 hours, with 38-year-old civilian research pilot Armstrong in command of the mission. The spacecraft entered lunar orbit on the 19th July and the following day the lunar module named Eagle with Armstrong and Aldrin aboard, separated from the main command module. At 4.17pm the craft touched down on the moon, at the southwestern edge of the Sea of Tranquillity and Armstrong radioed the famous phrase “The Eagle has landed.”

Hundreds of millions of people back on Earth were glued to television screens as Armstrong made his way down the module ladder with a camera recording his progress. As he placed his foot onto the powdery surface of the moon, he uttered the renowned words, “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

■ Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, Apollo 11, July 20–21, 1969. Image © NASA

Aldrin joined Armstrong on the surface and the pair took photographs, ran scientific tests and planted a US flag. They also spoke to President Richard Nixon via a telephone radio transmission – a call which Nixon considered to be ‘the most historic phone call ever made from the White House.’ As well as the flag left on the moon, the pair also left a plaque which read ‘Here men from the planet Earth first set foot on the moon – July 1969 A.D. – We came in peace for all mankind.’

After spending several hours on the surface, both astronauts re-entered the lunar module and closed the hatch. They spent the night there before the Eagle began its ascent to re-join the command module and Collins. On the 22nd July, Apollo 11 began its journey back to Earth, landing safely in the Pacific Ocean at 12.50pm on the 24th. 

Following this epic journey to the moon’s surface, there were five more successful lunar landing missions and one aborted. The last men to walk on the moon were Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt of the Apollo 17 mission. 

The reaction of the Soviet Union to the successful moon landing was mixed. Alexei Leonov was the Soviet chosen for first man on the moon had they got there first. He said in his book Two Sides of the Moon “When Apollo 11 had soared away from Cape Kennedy I had my fingers crossed. I wanted man to succeed in making it to the moon. If it couldn’t be me, let it be this crew I thought, with what we in Russia call ‘white envy’ – envy mixed with admiration.

“On the morning of 21st July 1969 everyone forgot, for a few moments, that we were all citizens of different countries on Earth. That moment really united the human race. Even in the military centre where I stood, where military men were observing the achievements of our rival superpower, there was loud applause.”

Leonov added that some of the administers weren’t happy about the US winning the race and blamed lack of resources for the Soviet Lunar programme. Party leaders made no public comment about Apollo 11, but the Soviet Union did send a letter of congratulations to America. 

50th Anniversary Events

The 50th anniversary of this epic, life altering journey is being celebrated all over the world, with special events taking place across the USA at NASA space centres, and the Royal Observatory in London to name just a couple. Closer to home here in Yorkshire, there are plenty of events and exhibitions to choose from, here are a selection;

Leeds City Museum – 20th July 11am

The weekly family Saturday Club, Rory’s Tiger Club is celebrating the 50th anniversary. Learn some interesting facts about the moon and space, make your own astronaut or alien mask and enjoy puzzles, colouring and story writing. There is the chance to re-enact the first moon walk with Rory the tiger himself and also to touch a real piece of meteorite which is as old as the solar system!

Visit for more information

The National Science and Media Museum, Bradford – 20th & 21st July

As part of the Bradford Science Festival 2019, the museum is celebrating the moon landing anniversary with lots of activities, talks and shows. Drop in activities include building hydrogen powered cars, creating a space themed diorama, exploring lunar landscapes using LEGO, and space inspired face painting. Look out for the Bouncing Astronauts around the festival too! In addition to these activities taking place, a temporary exhibition opens on the 19th July, running until January next year titled Hello Universe which takes you on a mesmerising journey through the incredible sights and sounds of space – from the earliest paintings of planets to today’s super high definition photographs of deepest space.

Visit for more information

Yorkshire Air Museum, Elvington – 21st July

Martin Lunn MBE FRAS, Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society who appears regularly on radio and in the press, will be presenting talks about space and stars, women in space and the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. A team from RAF Fylingdales will also be at the museum talking about the work they do from monitoring missile launches to tracking space debris. There is the chance to build your own space rocket to see if it will work, and radio transmission workshops are taking place, whilst listening out for the International Space Station as it passes overhead. All this in addition to the museum exhibitions!

Visit for more information

■ The Apollo 11 crew and President Nixon during the post-mission quarantine period. Image © NASA

Interesting Facts About the Moon!

  • The moon was formed 4.6 billion years ago – around 30-50 billion years after the solar system
  • The same side of the moon is always facing Earth. This is because it is in synchronous rotation with Earth
  • It measures 3475km across its diameter
  • The surface temperature varies between -233 – 123°c
  • The moon is drifting away from Earth by around 3.8cm each year. So, in around 50 billion years the moon will take around 47 days to orbit the Earth compared to the current 27.3 days
  • People weigh only around one sixth of their Earth weight on the moon because of its weaker gravity due to its much smaller mass. 
  • The moon has only been walked on by 12 people who are all American males
  • The moon has quakes caused by the gravitational pull of the Earth
  • It is the fifth largest natural satellite in the solar system

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