Astronauts' first steps onto the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969, created a singular cultural moment for humanity
Fifty years ago, the Eagle landed.
“Man on the moon!” said CBS television news anchor Walter Cronkite, whose exclamation would make for worldwide headlines the next day.
Cronkite was so caught up in the moment, he cast aside his usual objective reporter demeanor and let out an “Oh, boy … Whew, boy!” as he took off his glasses and rubbed his hands together in glee.
“Crowds around this country and all over the world are watching this, joined together in a singular celebratory moment for humanity,” he added.
During his annual visits to the ASU journalism school that bears his name, Cronkite once said it was his proudest broadcast moment.
On July 20, 1969, 600 million people across the globe watched that moment — the largest TV audience in history.
The world watched in awe and wonder during the mission's gripping 102-hour, 45-minute and 42-second-long duration that began with the mighty takeoff of the Saturn V rocket on July 16 and ended with the dramatic touchdown of the Eagle lunar lander in the Sea of Tranquility.
“A time that will be in the history books forever,” Cronkite said as the first grainy lunar surface images were beamed back to Earth.
One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind later, Neil Armstrong began NASA protocol: Pick up the precious moon rocks first, should they have to quickly abort the mission. He then scooped up a contingency sample of some moon soil.
It looked and felt like powdered charcoal, commented the then 38-year-old astronaut. "Fine, sandy particles ..." he said, as he took his first off-camera walkabout (the camera was attached to the leg of the lunar lander).
Then, the normally circumspect Armstrong paused to take in the view.
“It has a stark beauty all its own,” he said. “It’s like much of the high deserts of the United States. It’s different, but it’s very pretty out here.”
For the next 20 minutes, he had a new world all his own to explore.
Next, Buzz Aldrin descended onto the surface. “Making sure not to lock it (the lunar lander hatch) on my way out,” he joked. He echoed Armstrong's sense of awe with his first, succinct words from the surface: “Beautiful view. Magnificent desolation."
As Armstrong and Aldrin began to get acclimated and more confident with the moon's low gravity, their tentative small steps turned to giant leaps.
“A 3-foot first step in one-sixth gravity," Cronkite said. "Like walking on a trampoline. Isn’t that something? Boy, it looks like fun, doesn’t it?”
Almost every American who owned a TV — 94% of them — tuned in to watch the wonder of the first humans on another world.
And among them were several future Arizona State University space explorers, including Mark Robinson. He was 10 years old at the time and remembers gathering around the television, like the rest of the world, in his parents' bedroom to watch the fuzzy broadcast.
“I was in my mom and dad’s bedroom, and it was a little black-and-white TV, about (2 feet), on a stand. I’ve got four brothers and sisters, and so we were all in there. And it was late at night. It was 9 p.m., I think."
The original NASA flight plan after the astronauts’ arduous journey was to let them nap.
“I do remember a lot of impatience. They landed; that’s really cool. But a 10-year-old can’t imagine, why don’t you just get out and play?”
Then, at 10:39 p.m. EDT, after what seemed like an eternity for a little boy, Armstrong emerged from the lander and came down the ladder.
“It was spellbinding. It was the first time human beings set foot on another world," Robinson said. "Just sitting there watching humans climb down the ladder to step on the moon. And when you are 10 years old, you really don’t understand the historical significance of it at all, it’s just the excitement of the moment. It was quite amazing. And obviously, it kind of shaped my whole career and made a lasting impression on me.”
Unknown at the time except for a select nervous few back at Mission Control in Houston, Armstrong harrowingly landed the Eagle with only precious seconds of fuel to spare.
Recently, for the first time in history, Robinson's research team recreated what Armstrong saw from his lander window that caused him to take some heroic, last-second evasive maneuvers and manually override the original computer-guided landing spot to avoid a lunar landing catastrophe. Instead of tranquil seas of smooth lunar surface, he saw large boulders and a football field-size crater that could have doomed the mission. It caused him to burn much of the remaining fuel necessary to stick the landing safely.
The Armstrong landing simulation was the latest in Robinson’s career fascination with Apollo. Working with the Johnson Space Center, his team also recently released to the public "March to the Moon," a complete digital repository for all of the hand-held camera photography captured during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, which flew between 1958 and 1972.
Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now
Mapping the moon
On the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, in the summer of 2009, Robinson's ASU team had the world's first opportunity to be able to retrace Armstrong and Aldrin's steps.
As the lead scientist operating a special camera onboard NASA's minivan-size Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera is called LROC), Robinson and his team just celebrated a decade exploring every crevice and feature, mapping almost the entire surface of the moon. (Sadly, he hasn't been able to photograph the U.S. flag from Apollo 11 yet, as it likely blew over during their takeoff.)
"Our mission was originally conceived to support a human return to the moon," Robinson said. “We've mapped the moon at two scales. Very high black-and-white resolution — you can actually see the tracks left behind by the astronauts. And also, at a moderate resolution with color. The LROC was also the first camera to map the moon at pretty good spatial resolution at ultraviolet wavelengths as well as visible. It's useful for mapping out the abundance of titanium — mining in the future — and also tells us about the age of the surface."
His team has taken more than 1 million individual snapshots, which are carefully stitched together to provide new data about the lunar surface. "Over the last 10 years, we’ve mapped the whole moon with the wide-angle camera, the color camera, and we are approaching mapping it over 100 times — but every time the lighting is different, so it’s new information. It’s not redundant."
On July 19, a gallery show will open with the best of these LROC images on display at his "Barnstorming the Moon" exhibit, open to the public for the next month at the monOrchid Gallery in downtown Phoenix.
While the site of the Apollo 11 landing, the Sea of Tranquility, was chosen for its smooth, flat surface to lessen the landing risk, LROC images have revealed the history of the moon to be anything but calm.
“One of our most amazing discoveries so far with the camera are these very small features about the size of a couple miles across at the biggest, and maybe a couple hundred yards at the smallest," Robinson said. "These are (geologically) very young volcanic flows, between 10 and 15 million years old. Before the LRO, the conventional wisdom was that vulcanism shut off a billion years ago. What it’s telling us is that that heat engine inside the moon has continued on almost to the present. So, maybe there are going to be eruptions on the moon in the future.
"On top of that, another discovery we’ve made are thousands of small fault lines that occur.”
These faults create moonquakes, where the ground buckles and goes up at sharp angles. Just as the moon’s gravitational pull influences the Earth’s ocean tides, the forces of our planet have been at work reshaping the crust of the moon’s pockmarked surface.
“They were predicted and seen in the Apollo images, but now we know they are distributed all around the moon," Robinson said. "So, there are large moonquakes taking place today. That’s also telling us something about the interior of the moon. And what’s even more interesting about them is the way they are oriented, that the stress fields of the moon are being affected by the Earth.”
Robinson's latest projects include peering 200 times deeper than LROC into lunar craters with his ShadowCam project or building a next-generation moon rover called Tycho. Recently, Robinson and his crew took Tycho on its maiden voyage in the Cinder Lake region of Flagstaff, the hallowed ground where Apollo astronauts trained in Arizona and rode Grover the rover before their lunar missions.
Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now
ASU first joins the space race
Long before Apollo’s historic moment, ASU’s space race began in earnest with the recruitment of Carleton Moore, who came to ASU in 1961 and founded the ASU Center for Meteorite Studies.
“ASU has been involved in NASA space explorations since as long as NASA’s been around,” said Jim Bell, a School of Earth and Space Exploration professor, planetary explorer, science historian and popular book author who also leads the NewSpace Initiative at ASU.
At the time, the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite shocked the world and had the U.S. scrambling to catch up. The Cold War-fueled space race was on. President John F. Kennedy had promised to land men safely on the moon before the decade was over.
Moore’s vision and foresight saw to it that ASU would be first in line to get lunar samples — long before Apollo made its voyage.
“I had primarily been working on carbon in meteorites,” Moore said during an ASU library archive interview upon his retirement in 2003. “Essentially, we practiced on the meteorites. Most of the analyses at the time were to see how the solar system was formed and understand meteorites. But it was also practicing for the moon rock samples. So, when I applied to NASA, and because I had done the carbon analysis on meteorites, they said I would be the one to do it on the moon rocks.”
For Moore, the most harrowing part of the Apollo 11 mission was the return home, which could make or break several scientific careers.
“I remember when they went to the moon, and the place where I held my breath was the time for them to take off and come back. And they did,” Moore said.
As it turns out, Armstrong's first scoop would be among the most significant lunar rock samples. And eventually, Armstrong’s contingency dirt sample made its way into the hands of scientists, including Moore.
“The first sample that we got here at ASU was lunar soil, or properly called regolith, where they just took a scoop and scooped up some of the surface, and brought it back to the lunar receiving lab," Moore said. "I went to Houston to pick it up.
“I was on the lunar sample preliminary examination team in the quarantine labs in Houston. And I was one of the five or six scientists that got to the moon rocks first. And we were in the same place where the astronauts were kept to make sure diseases or things weren't brought back from the moon. We had to sign a form; if there was a break and it’s bad, we may have been in there for the rest of our lives — but it’s worth doing.”
Moore remembered the time like yesterday. On the evening of Oct. 9, 1969, his team placed the first lunar sample in their gas chromatograph instrument, looking for the presence of carbon.
“The wonderful thing is it was a dial like a dial on a clock. We pushed the buttons and we waited and all of a sudden, that clock started moving and we had carbon in the sample," he said. "It had about 120 parts per million of carbon in the sample in the moon rock.”
Because of the groundbreaking work he performed on the Apollo 11 samples, Moore’s expertise was tapped by NASA again and again during the rest of the Apollo missions.
All told, ASU got more than 200 lunar samples to analyze, and Moore’s team published their findings to world acclaim from the scientific community. His team’s data told a different story than what he had previously thought.
“In the beginning I thought that the rocks had very low carbon and the soil was very high in carbon. I thought the carbon might have arrived from the carbon-rich meteorites which bombarded the moon," he said. “Later on, I discovered that that isn’t so. We discovered that what happens is, any carbon that comes from the meteorites, the solar wind (high energy radiation) wipes the carbon off of the surface of the moon. But the radiation from the sun is so strong, the solar wind is driving carbon into the surface of the rocks. So, the carbon on the moon came from the sun.”