PARIS — It was 10:56 pm at mission control in Houston on July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong became the first person to step onto the Moon.
AFP dispatched several journalists to cover the exploit, which was broadcast live from the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility to NASA’s Johnson Space Center and on to televisions around the world.
This is their summary from that day 50 years ago, translated from the original French. The quotes have been crosschecked against the NASA transcript.
The conquest of the Moon
SEA OF TRANQUILITY, July 20, 1969 (AFP) - On Sunday at 10:56 pm US time (0256 GMT), Armstrong — after seemingly never-ending suspense — steps on the Moon.
A few hours earlier the mission commander had suddenly announced to the world that he would exit the lunar module five hours earlier than planned.
The descent for man’s first steps on the Moon gets under way.
- 7:42 pm: The astronauts start preparations for the excursion. They put on double-visor helmets, boots, reinforced gloves and backpack-like life support gear, also checking that the pressure, radio communication and oxygen systems are working.
- 7:50 pm: NASA announces the preparations will take two hours. Armstrong will not exit before 10:00 pm.
- 9:55 pm: They depressurize the spacecraft, at the same time pressurizing their spacesuits.
- 10:00 pm: The lunar module empties.
- 10:15 pm: Their spacesuits are fully pressurized.
- 10:20 pm: Everything is going smoothly. The lunar module remains depressurized. The astronauts now rely entirely on their life support systems.
- 10:56 pm. Armstrong puts his left foot on the surface of the Moon and declares: “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”
Before fully putting his foot down, the commander had carefully felt out the surface with his boot to check its solidity.
“I only go in a small fraction of an inch, maybe an eighth of an inch, but I can see the footprints of my boots and the treads in the fine, sandy particles,” he says, surprised, taking his first steps.
“There seems to be no difficulty in moving around — as we suspected. It’s even perhaps easier than the simulations...”
He moves with seeming ease, millions of people back on Earth watching and listening as the images are beamed back live onto televisions in homes around the world.
They have seen the conqueror of the Moon come down the nine struts of the ladder leaving the module, test out the surface, let go of the handrail, take his first steps and collect the first samples of lunar soil.
Armstrong uses a bag on a telescopic stick that he takes from a pocket to scoop up the soil. He then seals the bag and tosses the stick — the first of several items of Earth litter to be left behind when the astronauts leave.
He pushes the bag into his thigh pocket, feeling blindly and guided by his teammate Edwin Aldrin who is watching over him from the height of the module’s hatch.
It is now 11:15 pm. Armstrong has already spent 19 minutes alone on the Moon, 19 minutes during which, in the indefinable solitude of the dead planet, he has demonstrated perfect composure.
At that moment Aldrin makes a bounding appearance. Reassured by Armstrong’s experience, he boldly jumps off the ladder, also putting down his left foot first.
The two men, in an act of patriotism, plant the US flag into the Moon. They then read aloud from a plaque, fixed to the spacecraft’s front landing gear, that is inscribed: “Here Men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
Having accomplished this symbolic gesture, they go on to move a camera that is fixed to the module and streaming images of the white surface of the Moon, its horizon slanted on a very black background.
Armstrong first hangs it around his neck: on the small screens back on Earth, the image dances around.
The mission commander then takes a few steps and fixes the camera on a tripod.
It sends back a panoramic view: the lunar module against a background of countless miniscule craters with oversized shadows and, far off, the horizon, a clearly curved line demarcating the Moon’s surface, glittering under the Sun’s light, and the black abyss of the universe.
The image becomes clearer. One can make out the footprints of the astronauts on the grey-white surface, the firmly planted star-spangled banner.
The two men advance with surprising lightness, as if dancing. A strange ballet is taking place on the Moon. Their heavy spacesuits — fireproofed armor with reinforced joints and weighed down by the survival backpacks — seem no bother.
Nixon on the line
11:49 pm: Ground control announces that Richard Nixon is on the line. He is going to talk to the astronauts, as planned.
Immediately the screen divides. On the left is the US president reading, from the White House, a message over the telephone. On the right are Armstrong and Aldrin, motionless, listening to the voice coming from Earth, 380,000 kilometres (236,000 miles) away.
“For every American, this has to be the proudest day of our lives,” he says. “Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world.”
“Thank you, Mr President,” replies Armstrong. “It’s a great honor and privilege for us to be here.”
They resume their tasks, Aldrin unfolding a “solar wind collector” that consists of a thin aluminum foil sheet that opens up like a blind. It will gather particles of the various gases that make up the wind — helium, argon, neon, krypton, xenon — for analysis back on Earth.
Bouncing around in all directions in “kangaroo hops”, the astronauts have already spent more than an hour on the Moon. Their doctor Charles Berry, who has been watching their every movement from Houston, says they are in “perfect shape”.
They collect samples at random, putting them into plastic bags to be stored later in sealed metallic containers.
As they work, the astronauts make use of a range of tools that they pull out from the module’s trunk-like Modularized Equipment Stowage Assembly: pliers, pincers, shovels, picks, a hammer, sample tubes and scales.
These instruments are larger than those that would be used on Earth since the astronauts’ chunky reinforced gloves prevent them from handling small objects.
And as their spacesuits mean they cannot bend down, the instruments all come with long, telesco-pic handles.