Forty Years ago on July 20 the world stopped for a brief instant to witness a remarkable accomplishment, the first instance in which humanity set foot on another body in our solar system. It was a remarkable time.
When the Apollo 11 spacecraft lifted off on July 16, 1969, for the Moon, it signaled a climactic instance in human history. Reaching the Moon on July 20, its Lunar Module—with astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin aboard—landed on the lunar surface while Michael Collins orbited overhead in the Apollo 11 command module. Armstrong soon set foot on the surface, telling millions on Earth that it was “one small step for [a] man—one giant leap for mankind.” Aldrin soon followed him out and the two planted an American flag but omitted claiming the land for the U.S. as had been routinely done during European exploration of the Americas, collected soil and rock samples, and set up scientific experiments. The next day they returned to the Apollo capsule overhead and returned to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24.
This flight to the Moon received great scrutiny. “This is the greatest week in the history of the world since Creation,” President Richard M. Nixon enthused upon greeting the Apollo 11 crew when they returned from the Moon. Christopher Flournoy recalled that as a five-year-old when the mission occurred he may not have understood much of what took place but nonetheless was excited by the experience. He remembered his father saying that “he was never more proud of being an American than on the day our flag flew on the Moon.”
One seven-year-old boy from San Juan, Puerto Rico, said of the first Moon landing: “I kept racing between the TV and the balcony and looking at the Moon to see if I could see them on the Moon.” As a fifteen-year-old I sat with friends on the hood of a car looking at the Moon and listening to the astronauts on it. These experiences were typical. “One small step,” hardly; Neil Armstrong nailed it with the second phrase of his famous statement, “one giant leap for mankind.”
The flight of Apollo 11 met with an ecstatic reaction around the globe, as everyone shared in the success of the astronauts. The front pages of newspapers everywhere suggested how strong the enthusiasm was. NASA estimated that because of nearly worldwide radio and television coverage, more than half the population of the planet was aware of the events of Apollo 11. Although the Soviet Union tried to jam Voice of America radio broadcasts most living there and in other countries learned about the adventure and followed it carefully. Police reports noted that streets in many cities were eerily quiet during the Moon walk as residents watched television coverage in homes, bars, and other public places.
Official congratulations poured in to the U.S. president from other heads of state, even as informal ones went to NASA and the astronauts. All nations having regular diplomatic relations with the United States sent their best wishes in recognition of the success of the mission.
Those without diplomatic relations with the U.S., such as the People’s Republic of China, made no formal statement on the Apollo 11 flight to the U.S., and the mission was reported only sporadically by its news media because Mao Zedong refused to publicize successes by Cold War rivals. It was not until February 1972 when Nixon flew to China and met with Mao Zedong that the United States established formal diplomatic relations with the nation. China and other nations may soon return to the Moon, fully recognizing the success of the Apollo program. What might that portend for the future?
Roger D. Launius is senior curator in the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum.