When Neil Armstrong first placed foot upon the Moon in 1969, he summed up the feat with the memorable phrase “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” And as Armstrong and his fellow astronauts Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins had just reached arguably the pinnacle of human achievement, his words weren’t an overstatement. Since the history-making Apollo 11 crew made their lunar landing, however, voyages to the Moon have been few and far between – and the reasons why are tough to hear.
But how did man end up on the Moon in the first place? Well, the U.S. had long been trying to find out more about Earth’s natural satellite. Back in 1958, in fact, the United States Air Force had first attempted to launch a probe into orbit around the Moon. Pioneer 0, as the craft is now known, was equipped with a camera and other instruments to record data about the astronomical body. The probe only reached about ten miles into the air, however, before the rocket carrying it skyward stopped working properly and subsequently exploded.
Then, six years later in 1964, NASA succeeded in launching the U.S.’ first lunar probe. Ranger 7 took off on July 28 of that year, armed with top-notch cameras to capture epochal images of the Moon. And as it happens, more than 4,300 photos were taken throughout the last 17 minutes of the probe’s approach to the satellite.
Eventually, though, NASA shifted its focus to manned space flights. And four years after Ranger 7 snapped its thousands of photographs, Apollo 8 launched into space. During a six-day journey, James Lovell, William Anders and Frank Borman thus became the first people to ever travel from Earth into the Moon’s orbit.
On top of that, the trio witnessed something spectacular that they managed to capture on camera. You see, although Earth doesn’t actually rise or fall over the Moon, it may appear to do so from the perspective of the natural satellite itself. And so as Apollo 8 orbited the Moon, Earth appeared before it, and an amazing photo of the blue planet “rising” was taken.
Then, after Lovell, Anders and Borman’s pioneering journey, NASA continued apace in its quest to win the Space Race. In fact, just a year after the Apollo 8 team had completed their mission, Apollo 10 was successfully launched into space with a very specific mission of its own.
Simply put, Apollo 10 was intended as preparation for NASA’s next mission, which would hopefully see astronauts leave the comfort of their spaceship to walk on the lunar surface. Apollo 10 would mimic this intended journey, then, by flying within ten miles of the Moon’s surface – the point at which the next crew would begin their landing procedure.
Luckily for all at NASA, the Apollo 10 crew – consisting of Thomas Stafford, John Young and Eugene Cernan – successfully completed their mission and consequently paved the way for the launch of Apollo 11. This momentous flight would hopefully see astronauts strolling upon the surface of the Moon for the first time – and just two months after the Apollo 10 test.
And on July 16, 1969, approximately one million people gathered in and around the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to watch Apollo 11’s launch. There were some famous faces, too, among the crowd of media professionals and multinational bystanders, with former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson and then-Vice President Spiro Agnew both looking on.
The men tasked with taking Apollo 11 to the Moon, meanwhile, were Commander Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Collins and Lunar Module Pilot Aldrin. And the mission initially went smoothly, with the result being that the crew were able to fire into the astronomical body’s orbit on July 19, 1969.
When it came to landing, however, the astronauts had their eyes set on the Sea of Tranquility – a basin made of basalt rock that long ago had been mistaken by astronomers for a body of water. The area’s comparably smooth surface was thought to make an ideal spot for touchdown – not least because one of NASA’s Ranger probes had previously found its footing there.
Then, in preparation for the landing, Collins remained on board the command module of the Apollo, while Armstrong and Aldrin boarded the spacecraft’s lunar module Eagle. And as Armstrong and Aldrin approached the Moon, the former apparently shouted, “The Eagle has wings!”
But as Eagle descended toward the Moon’s surface, Armstrong and Aldrin realized that their calculations for touchdown were off. For starters, they kept reaching their landmarks a few seconds sooner than planned. And as the pair got closer to the satellite, Armstrong realized that they were poised to reach the Moon at a position atop some boulders and near a crater.
So, Armstrong took over the controls as Aldrin shouted navigation information to him. As the two men got to within 250 feet of the lunar surface, however, they realized that their updated point of touchdown was also a crater. In an intrepid rescue mission, then, Armstrong quickly rerouted with only 100 feet to go until Eagle met with the Moon.
All the while, experts at NASA’s Mission Control Center in Houston waited with bated breath to hear if Aldrin and Armstrong had successfully come to rest on the Moon. Then the team received a radio message from Armstrong. “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,” he said – likely much to the relief of all at NASA.
With that, Armstrong and Aldrin prepared to exit Eagle and make their way toward the moon’s surface. Armstrong would go first, exiting through the vessel’s hatch before making his way down the ladder. Then, less than seven hours after landing, he launched himself onto the face of the satellite and proclaimed, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
But the men couldn’t bask in making history forever, and so they ultimately got to work collecting samples of the Moon to bring back to Earth. Then there was the small matter of raising a U.S. flag in front of a camera. Aldrin actually feared that the flag would collapse as the nation watched – but, thankfully, there was no such hitch. Instead, the astronauts successfully assembled a pole and hung their country’s colors.
In total, Armstrong and Aldrin spent almost 22 hours on the Moon before they had to return to the command module. That happened on July 21, and just three days later the astronauts splashed back onto their home planet. Their vessel hit the Pacific Ocean in the early hours of July 24, 1969.
But NASA’s manned lunar explorations didn’t by any means end with the successful trip completed by Apollo 11. And in the three years that followed, the agency sent six more crews to the Moon, including the ill-fated Apollo 13. Apollo 17 – which launched in 1972 – ultimately marked the end of the space exploration program.
Yet NASA did continue to send astronauts beyond Earth’s atmosphere. From 1972 until 2011, the agency ran the Space Shuttle program, which launched more than 300 astronauts in total into orbit. And from 1993 NASA has contributed to the International Space Station – a joint endeavor with Europe, Russia, Canada and Japan.
So, why has human exploration of the Moon come to a halt since Apollo 17 traveled there and back? After all, a journey to the Moon today could be useful in helping establish a permanent base there. In effect, the natural satellite could then be able to serve as a fueling station for vessels on longer missions.
In fact, according to some, having a lunar base would make it possible to build groundbreaking telescopes that are capable of peering further into space than ever before. The Moon could even draw tourists and have a booming economy of its own. And to top it all off, a Moon station may very well make it simpler for humankind to settle on Mars.
Former astronaut Chris Hadfield certainly believes that such a fixture would be useful. In 2018 he told Business Insider, “A permanent human research station on the Moon is the next logical step. It’s only three days away. We can afford to get it wrong and not kill everybody. And we have a whole bunch of stuff we have to invent and then test in order to learn before we can go deeper out.”
Yet despite arguments of this nature, there are plenty of reasons why man has not returned to the Moon. First and foremost, it costs a lot of money to fund space exploration. And although in 2019 NASA was allocated $21.5 billion by the U.S. government, even this hefty sum is not enough to finance many outer space endeavors.
To begin with, NASA has to split all of that cash amongst its many projects – such as its Space Launch System (SLS), the James Webb Space Telescope and its many missions to other planets and celestial bodies. It’s a tough budget to work with – especially when NASA used to get much more money from the government.
Indeed, back in 1965, NASA received 4 percent of the annual federal budget. In 1975, however, that number had shrunk to less than 1 percent of the government’s overall spending – and it has slipped even further in recent times. Nevertheless, President Trump has since earmarked cash for another trip to the Moon as well as one to Mars.
Yet according to some, NASA will probably not be able to get astronauts to the Moon again with only $20 billion per year in funds. Around 14 years ago, you see, the agency estimated that it would cost $104 billion to make that journey, and adjusted for today’s inflation, that price balloons to roughly $133 billion. It’s up to Congress, then, to designate enough cash to make manned exploration a possibility again.
And as it happens, much of NASA’s setbacks end up being political ones, as the agency tends to end up in the crosshairs of partisan spending debates. Plus, while President Trump may have previously promised to get astronauts back towards the moon by 2023, he would have to be elected for a second term in order to oversee such a trek.
So, without the guarantee of a second term, Trump’s pledge can be thought of as questionable – and some astronauts have responded accordingly. Hadfield, for one, said to Business Insider, “Why would you believe what any president said about a prediction of something that was going to happen two administrations in the future? That’s just talk.” And NASA staffers know all too well how quickly a project envisioned by one president can be scrapped by the next.
For instance, in 2004 President George W. Bush wanted NASA to succeed the Space Shuttle program in some way after it ended in 2011. He also hoped for a return to the Moon. The agency therefore established the Constellation program in order to bring astronauts to the natural satellite via a rocket-and-spaceship combination.
After NASA invested $9 billion in that project, however, President Barack Obama was elected. And during the leader’s tenure, the Government Accountability Office revealed that NASA couldn’t estimate the cost of a Constellation journey. So, Obama ended that program in favor of developing the SLS rocket. The 44th President also hoped to send astronauts to an asteroid instead of the Moon.
So far, Trump has allowed NASA to continue working on the SLS rocket, but once again the agency has been given a new focus. Yes, as previously mentioned, the president wants to go to the Moon and Mars rather than embark on an asteroid-centric trek. And between this and previous changes made by other commanders-in-chief, NASA has reportedly lost both time and roughly $20 billion.
Furthermore, former astronauts who have traveled to the Moon know that it’s up to the government to make another mission happen. Jim Lovell, who helmed both Apollo 8 and 13, admitted to Business Insider in 2017, “I’m disappointed that they’re so slow and trying to do something else. I’m not excited about anything in the near future. I’ll just see things as they come.”
And Apollo 11’s Aldrin reminded Congress in 2015 that the next journey was in its hands. “American leadership is inspiring the world by consistently doing what no other nation is capable of doing,” he testified. “We demonstrated that for a brief time 45 years ago. I do not believe we have done it since. I believe it begins with a bipartisan congressional and administration commitment to sustained leadership.”
But even if both chambers of Congress agree on further funding for NASA, the agency has yet another problem to deal with: the Moon itself. Most worryingly, the satellite is dotted with huge crevices and jutting rocks that make trying to land a vessel potentially perilous – as the the Apollo 11 astronauts found out firsthand.
Then, even if they make it onto the Moon, the astronauts of the future will also have to contend with regolith. Also known as moon dust, regolith blankets the surface of the celestial body. And while it has drawn comparisons to talc for its fineness, the material’s other properties can prove troublesome.
Indeed, in a 2014 article for Architectural Design, aeronautical engineer Madhu Thangavelu explained, “[Regolith] is very abrasive and clingy – fouling up spacesuits, vehicles and systems very quickly.” The Apollo astronauts who spent short periods on the Moon’s surface also had to contend with the dust throughout. All in all, then, a return to the Moon would require some measure to deal with the regolith.
Longer-term stays on the Moon would also call for NASA to come up with a solution to its challenging climate. For two weeks at a time, you see, the Moon sits in complete darkness, and this naturally brings down its surface temperature. The following two weeks, by contrast, are spent in direct view of the Sun’s rays, meaning the astronomical body becomes extremely hot. After all, the Moon doesn’t have an atmosphere by which to soak up these rays.
That said, NASA has already come up with a potential solution for the times when the Moon is hidden from the Sun. Specifically, a device known as the Kilopower could give astronauts the necessary electricity to get through the darkness. And such an innovation may suggest that the agency still believes in the value of lunar exploration – even if political leaders and their budgets don’t always agree.
Indeed, the importance of the Moon in future space exploration cannot be understated. Thangavelu explained as much, too, in his article, writing, “There is not a more environmentally unforgiving or harsher place to live than the Moon. And yet, since it is so close to [us], there is not a better place to learn how to live away from planet Earth.”
But how do those who’ve actually been to the Moon feel? Neil Armstrong, for instance, found international fame and adulation for being the first human to step foot on the satellite. And yet the experience of traveling there may not have been all that it was cracked up to be. In fact, embarking on such a history-making endeavor seems to have cast its pall over the astronaut’s life.
Before we find out more about some of the demons that haunted the man, let’s first learn about Neil Alden Armstrong’s background. He was born close to the Ohio city of Wapakoneta in 1930. His parents, Stephen and Viola, were of mixed Scots-Irish, Scottish and German descent. Armstrong was their first child, and he was later joined by sister June and brother Dean.
Stephen Armstrong was a local government auditor, and his work meant that in the first 14 years of Neil’s life the family moved home no fewer than 16 times. Amid all this to-ing and fro-ing, it’s said that the young Armstrong developed a fondness for flying from the tender age of two.
A visit to the Cleveland Air Races sparked this passion in the infant Armstrong. And his interest was reinforced when his father took him on his first flight at the age of six. This momentous event happened in Warren, Ohio, aboard a “Tin Goose,” as the Ford Trimotor was nicknamed.
Armstrong’s family finally settled down in 1944 back where they’d started in Wapakoneta. There, Armstrong went to Blume High School. He also started flying lessons and was flying solo by the time he was 16, at which point he hadn’t even earned his driver’s license. He also found time to become an Eagle Scout.
Armstrong went off to Purdue University in 1947 when he was 17, and unsurprisingly his chosen field was aeronautical engineering. In fact, he was offered a place at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as well. Advice from an uncle seems to have influenced his decision to opt for Purdue.
This uncle pointed out to Armstrong that he’d receive a sound education 150 miles away at Purdue in West Lafayette, Indiana, without the trouble of travelling more than 800 miles to Cambridge, Massachusetts to go to MIT. So Armstrong went to Purdue, with a special U.S. Navy scheme picking up the tab for his degree.
The scheme that Armstrong enrolled on meant that after two years of college, he was committed to a couple of years of flight practice and then 12 months flying in the U.S. Navy. Following this, Armstrong would return to college and finish his studies. His time in the Navy started early in 1949 when he arrived at Florida’s Pensacola Naval Air Station.
Armstrong made his first solo flight in September 1949 and his inaugural touchdown on a carrier, USS Cabot, in March 1950. By August of that year, he had officially qualified as a U.S. Navy pilot. And his progress continued with his maiden jet flight in a Grumman F9F Panther at the start of 1951. Then in June his squadron, VF-51, headed for Korean War duty aboard USS Essex.
The Korean War was essentially a Cold War conflict which that communist North Korea, backed by China and the Soviets, against South Korea and America and her allies. It had broken out in June 1950. And just over a year later, the 21-year-old Armstrong was about to go to war far from his homeland.
Armstrong started off with escort missions guarding spy planes, but he was soon flying on bombing sorties. In August 1951, as he flew his F9F Panther at low altitude to bomb a target, about 6 feet of one wing was ripped off by a booby-trap wire set up across a valley. Armstrong was able to stay in the air but had lost some control of his machine.
Armstrong now realized that he’d be unable to land his damaged plane safely on USS Essex and decided instead to eject. His plan was to do this above the sea where, hopefully, he’d be rescued by helicopter. But the wind took him inland away from the water. With impeccable timing, though, an old flight-school buddy showed up in a jeep and drove him to safety.
From January to March 1952, Armstrong completed close to 80 missions and surely proved that he was a resourceful and courageous young man. Following Korea, Armstrong became a reservist and he continued to fly. He also returned to Purdue to complete his studies. Back at college, he was involved in amateur theatrics and played in the Purdue All-American Marching Band.
Armstrong completed his degree in 1955. And the following year, another momentous life event came when he married his college sweetheart, Janet Shearon, in January 1956. They subsequently had three children together: Karen, Eric and Mark. Tragedy struck in the summer of 1961, however. Karen, the middle child, was contracted brain cancer. She died at the beginning of 1962, a couple of months short of her third birthday.
After graduating, Armstrong started life as a test pilot at Cleveland, Ohio’s Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory, with his inaugural flight taking place in March 1955. In July he transferred to Southern California’s Edwards Air Force Base High-Speed Flight Station. And when 1956 rolled round, he had an opportunity to show the cool head that would later serve him well as an astronaut.
In March 1956 Armstrong piloted a modified four-engine Boeing B-29 Superfortress. However, during the plane’s ascent, one of the engines failed. The crew then fired off an experimental Skyrocket, which they needed to do in order for the plane to be able to land. As the rocket was released, though, one of the propellers came apart. Fragments flew into two of the other engines, compelling Armstrong to turn them off.
Armstrong was now left with just one functioning engine. Nevertheless, after a long, cautious descent he successfully landed the massive Superfortress. Armstrong flew in excess of 200 different planes as a test pilot, with similarly hair-raising incidents cropping up from time to time. His colleagues recognized him as an excellent engineer.
In 1962 NASA announced that opportunities were available for would-be astronauts. Armstrong applied and, despite getting his paperwork in well after the official deadline, was accepted. In fact, a friend named Dick Day had spotted his application and spirited it into the right in-tray. And in 1965 NASA named Armstrong as one of the back-up astronauts chosen for the Gemini 5 mission. This flight was designed as practice for a Moon landing.
Although Armstrong didn’t make it into space with Gemini 5, he was now selected as a first-choice astronaut for the Gemini 8 launch. He’d be the command astronaut and David R. Scott, another space-flight newbie, was named as pilot. The mission included a docking exercise in orbit with a crewless vessel, the first time this had been attempted. Powered by a Titan II rocket, Armstrong and Scott took off on March 16, 1966.
While the docking process went to plan, Armstrong and Scott’s ship then started to spin around. They detached from the other ship, but the problem only worsened. Armstrong now turned off the Orbit Attitude and Maneuvering System, which meant the astronauts were committed to re-entry and landing as soon as possible.
Once the decision to abandon the mission had been made, Gemini 8 returned to Earth successfully, splashing down off the coast of Japan on September 15. Some claimed that Armstrong might have taken the wrong course when the emergency occurred, but the general consensus was that the two astronauts were not at fault.
And it seems that Armstrong soon bounced back after his Saturn 8 disappointment. Good news came in 1967 when, along with 17 colleagues, he was chosen as one of the possible astronauts to fly to the Moon with the Apollo program. Armstrong now started training to pilot the lunar module down on to the surface of the Moon.
NASA built three vessels – Lunar Landing Training Vehicles (LLTV) – with which to practice the Moon landing. The astronauts subsequently dubbed these craft “flying bedsteads.” Armstrong was piloting one in May 1968 when the controls malfunctioned while he was at an altitude of around 100 feet. The vehicle now started to lurch alarmingly.
Armstrong decided it was time to eject, which he did without mishap apart from hurting his tongue. The LLTV plunged to the ground and the impact set it on fire. Later, technicians determined that if Armstrong had left it even a fraction of a second longer before ejecting, the parachute would have malfunctioned.
Armstrong seemed unfazed by this close shave, however, and was later to assert that the LLTV training had been essential to the success of the Moon missions. Armstrong was then chosen as a back-up commander for Apollo 8, which flew in December 1968. And while Apollo 8 circled the Moon, NASA offered Armstrong command of Apollo 11, the mission that would make the first Moon landing.
Naturally, Armstrong accepted. His crew would be Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Armstrong and Aldrin would land on the Moon and Collins would remain in orbit aboard the ship they would all return to Earth in. NASA also decided that the first man to set foot on the Moon would be Armstrong.
On July 16, 1969, a Saturn V rocket blasted the three astronauts skywards. Armstrong’s wife Janet and his sons Eric and Mark were on a boat on the Banana River just by the Kennedy Space Station to witness the launch. It must have been an anxious moment for Janet, but fortunately things went off without a hitch. Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were on their way to the Moon.
The space ship was blasted into orbit around the Earth and shortly afterwards, the engines fired again, propelling the three astronauts on course for the Moon. After three days of space travel, the mission had reached their destination by July 19 and went into orbit. They would now circle the Moon 30 times.
On July 20, Aldrin and Armstrong clambered into Eagle, the ship that would take them down to the surface of the Moon. They subsequently parted company with the orbiting vessel and headed downwards to the Sea of Tranquility. Armstrong, piloting the lunar module, spotted a smooth patch of surface and steered the craft towards it, dodging a crater and bringing the landing module down safely.
The landing was a close-run thing, in fact. Indeed, when they touched down they had less than half-a-minute’s worth of fuel to spare. The tension of the touchdown was reflected in Armstrong’s heart rate, which had gone as high as 150 beats per minute. Nonetheless, they’d made it on to the surface of the Moon.
Nearly seven hours after the landing, Armstrong climbed out of the lunar module and planted his left boot on the Moon dust. He uttered the immortal words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong actually meant to say “a man,” but he can surely be forgiven for that minor slip-up.
As history records, Aldrin and Armstrong stayed on the Moon for more than 21 hours and then reunited with Collins, before returning safely to Earth eight days after they’d left the planet. Eighteen days of quarantine followed, after which Armstrong and the others could face jubilant hordes of well-wishers. There were tickertape parades in Chicago and New York as well as endless media and public appearances.
So you might think that everything would be rosy in Armstrong’s life after that pinnacle of achievement and the public adulation it elicited. But life wasn’t so easy for the first man on the Moon. Many of the difficulties Armstrong was to face in later years were only revealed in a biography written by James Hansen, however. First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong was published in 2005.
In a 2019 interview with the British newspaper the Daily Mirror, Hansen said, “I’ve never met anybody quite like Neil. He had no ego and turned down so many opportunities to make money. Many of the astronauts who went to the Moon also had some religious or spiritual epiphany, but nothing changed in his approach to life.”
According to Hansen, Armstrong said, “I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, nerdy engineer, born under the second law of thermodynamics.” Nonetheless, there was something gnawing away at his psyche. In fact, Armstrong developed an overwhelming fear that his two sons, Mark and Eric, would be kidnapped. He also became obsessed by the 1932 tragedy of Charles Lindberg, the flying ace.
Lindbergh’s son had been kidnapped and murdered. Mark Armstrong told Hansen, “I know there were threats made against us. Dad moved away from fame because he didn’t want what happened to the Lindbergh baby to happen to us.” In addition, problems also emerged in Armstrong’s relationship with his wife Janet.
And it seems that the death of their infant daughter Karen had cast a long shadow. After that gut-wrenching tragedy, Armstrong would never discuss the traumatic incident, meaning that Janet had to grieve alone. “I don’t remember her death ever being discussed at home,” Mark explained to Hansen. “My sister died on January 28, my parents’ wedding anniversary. They never celebrated it for that reason. It was a wound that never healed.”
In 1990 Armstrong and Janet separated, divorcing four years later after being married for almost four decades. The same year, Armstrong wed again, to Carol Knight. Armstrong now became anxious that his new marriage could drive a wedge between him and his sons, even though they were now in their 30s. He compensated by taking them to Scotland and Ireland to play golf.
Armstrong also avoided speaking about his Moon experience with his family and friends, just as he’d refused to speak about the death of his daughter. “I think he was concerned about being misrepresented,” Hansen said. “He had been a naval fighter pilot in the Korean War and a test pilot for years but felt the only thing people wanted to talk to him about was the Moon landing, which only took a year out of his life.”
“People expected Neil to be sort of demi-God or hero, but he was different from other astronauts,” Hansen told the Daily Mirror. “He wasn’t at all the gung-ho, macho fighter pilot type, those often depicted as the guys with the ‘right stuff’.” Armstrong seems to have been a complex and not always happy man. But his achievements were extraordinary. Neil Armstrong died in 2012 aged 82.