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5. The First Food and Drink on the Moon
The Apollo 11 crew had a variety of foods that were nutritious if not delicious. Much of it was freeze-dried in pouches, so astronauts had to squirt water into the bags and squish the contents around to prepare the food. There was no hot water aboard the Lunar Module, so the moonwalkers were stuck with cold meals and snacks for a day.
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Amazing Space Images
New telescope photos of the Omega Nebula were released July 8 by the European Southern Observatory, showing a colorful display. The nebula is one of the newest and most massive star-production regions in the Milky Way. The intense light of the young stars causes gases, like hydrogen and sulfur, in the cloud to glow.
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But the first things a man ate and drank on the moon were a Communion wafer and a thimbleful of wine.
Buzz Aldrin was a Presbyterian church elder at the time. The pastor of Webster Presbyterian in suburban Houston near the Johnson Space Center gave him a home Communion kit to take to the moon. It contained the wafer, a tiny vial of wine and a thumb-sized silver chalice.
NASA had urged Aldrin not to celebrate the sacrament publicly. Atheist activist Madelyn Murray O'Hare had already filed suit because the Apollo 8 crew read from the Book of Genesis for all the world to hear as they orbited the moon on Christmas Eve the year before.
So instead, Aldrin got on the radio shortly after the moon landing and asked everyone listening to observe "a few moments of silence" to think about what had just happened and to give thanks in their own way.
Aldrin's way was to turn off the microphone and administer Communion to himself. Armstrong watched silently as Aldrin poured the wine, read a few lines of scripture from a card, then ate the wafer and drank from the tiny cup.
It was years before Aldrin told anyone about his Communion on the moon. He doesn't attend church anymore. Wine is no longer on his menu. Aldrin has been outspoken recently about his battle with alcoholism and his 30 years of sobriety.
"My Sunday mornings are spent in a recovery meeting in Pacific Palisades," he told the New York Times.
Aldrin brought the little chalice back from the moon and returned it to Webster Presbyterian Church, which has it locked in a safe-deposit box. The church uses a replica of the chalice every year in a service marking the anniversary of the first moon landing.
6. What the Mission Patch Means
The Apollo 11 mission patch is simpler and richer in symbolism than most.
Michael Collins designed it with suggestions from fellow astronaut Jim Lovell, who was Neil Armstrong's backup for the moon shot.
Lovell contributed the idea of the eagle -- the symbol of the United States and the name of the lunar lander. Collins traced an image from a National Geographic book, then added the moonscape below the bird with Earth rising in the background. He liked it, but felt something was missing.
Flight simulator instructor Tom Wilson offered an olive branch. It would symbolize the peaceful nature of man's arrival in a new world. The rocket scientists-turned-graphic designers all agreed it was perfect. Collins inserted an olive branch in the eagle's beak and sent his drawing up the line.
It came back with suggestions from above.
NASA officials were concerned that the bird's powerful, extended talons looked "too hostile, too warlike," Collins said in his memoir 'Carrying the Fire.' They thought it appeared the eagle was swooping down to conquer the moon.
The olive branch was moved from the beak to the talons – despite the misgivings of pilots like Collins who wondered how the eagle could land with a stick in its claws -- and the design flew through the rest of the approval process.
Unlike most mission patches, Apollo 11's does not include the names of the astronauts.
"We wanted the design to be representative of everyone who had worked toward a lunar landing," Collins explained. The subtext of the missing names was the universality of the achievement.
After all, as Armstrong would later tell the world from the moon, his "small step" was to be "a giant leap for mankind."
7. The Story Behind the Plaque
The stainless steel plaque attached to the ladder on the section of Eagle that stayed on the moon echoes the themes of the mission patch.
This is the message to any being that might run across it one day it in the Sea of Tranquility:
HERE MEN FROM THE PLANET EARTH
FIRST SET FOOT UPON THE MOON
JULY 1969 A.D.
WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND
Instead of an American flag, the plaque shows the entire planet. It is signed by President Nixon and the three astronauts. (Aldrin used his given name, Edwin, because he thought Buzz was too informal in this case.)
Pat Buchanan, a White House speechwriter at the time, and William Safire, who had prepared remarks for the president to make in case the mission ended in disaster, helped tweak the plaque's wording. They changed "landed" to "set foot" because of the suspicion that the Russians had already landed an unmanned craft on the moon. "We come in peace" became "We came in peace," so it wouldn't sound like a bad movie line.
Julian Scheer, a key NASA public relations official during the moon missions, said Nixon also pushed to have the words "Under God" inserted after "Peace."
The space agency was wary of any overt religious reference in the wake of the Madelyn Murray O'Hare lawsuit. But it was too late to change the plaque by then anyway, according to Scheer. It had already been engraved and was on the Lunar Module undergoing tests in Houston.
Still, Safire noted, the plaque does say ''1969 A.D.'' -- Anno Domini, which means ''in the year of the Lord.''
It was "a shrewd way of sneaking God in," Safire wrote.
8. What They Took, What They Left
It's a tradition for astronauts to carry mementos into space for themselves or others. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first who would make a stop in another world before returning to Earth. So they took some things to bring back home and some to leave behind.
In the first category was the tiny, silver Communion chalice Aldrin carried. The crew also took bits of wood and fabric from the Wright Brothers' first airplane. Congress insisted that they take two American flags. There were three gold olive-branch pins for the astronauts’ wives. And, as a favor to veteran launch pad boss Guenter Wendt, they took an opal he had picked out to give to his wife when it came back from the moon.
The things left behind include the descent stage of lunar lander with the commemorative plaque on its strut, the U.S. flag the astronauts planted in the lunar soil, their backpacks, outer boots, a nice Hasselblad 500EL camera (they took the film magazine home, of course) and used food trays – as well as lots of footprints.
In his haste to complete all the mission tasks, Aldrin nearly forgot about a few items he had stashed in a pocket of his spacesuit. He was already back inside Eagle when Armstrong reminded him. So instead of conducting the small ceremony they'd planned, Aldrin simply tossed the packet out the door and into the dust of the moon.
It contained a gold medallion with the image of an olive branch and a small silicon disc engraved with microscopic goodwill messages in native languages from more than 70 world leaders.
There were small tokens to honor those who had given everything in pursuit of space exploration. A mission patch from Apollo 1 memorialized Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, who died in a capsule fire on the launch pad in 1967.
For the Russians -- the rivals whose early successes pulled America into the space race -- there were two cosmonaut medals. One was for Vladimir Komarov, who died in 1967 when the parachute of his Soyuz 1 spacecraft failed to open. The other was for the first human to orbit our planet, Yuri Gagarin -- who died when his plane crashed during a training flight the year before man landed on the moon.
9. The American Flag Was a Lot of Trouble
Apollo 11 mission planners took pains to avoid giving the impression that America was claiming the moon as its own when Eagle landed. But there was no disguising the nation's pride when TV images showed the Stars and Stripes flying at Tranquility Base.
The moonwalkers struggled to make the moment happen.
Despite the dust-covered surface, the lunar soil beneath was unexpectedly difficult to penetrate. The flag was affixed to a pole that had a telescoping crossbeam to keep it unfurled. First, Neil Armstrong was unable to extend the arm completely. Then he couldn't get the pole to stick in the ground. It kept tipping over -- an image NASA did not want broadcast to the world.
After considerable effort, the astronauts managed to get the rig to stay put. The result was the historic image, photographed by Armstrong, of Aldrin saluting the flag.
Video clips show the flag flapping -- something seized on by conspiracy theorists who believe the moon landing was faked as a Cold War propaganda stunt. The flag appears to be waving in the breeze. But there is no wind on the moon.
The Discovery Channel's 'Mythbusters' ran an experiment last year to try to explain the flapping flag phenomenon. Working in a vacuum chamber to simulate conditions on the moon, they found that with the lack of air resistance, momentum from the unsteady pole and arm arrangement was enough to make the flag flutter.
Another moon myth busted. (Watch the video.)
As the Lunar Module's ascent stage lifted the astronauts toward a rendezvous with Columbia, Aldrin glanced out the window and watched the blast from the engine knock over the flag they had worked so hard to plant on the moon.
10. Why Neil Armstrong Went First
Once the decision was made to go to the moon, the question on everyone's mind was which crew would be first. And once NASA decided it would be Apollo 11, much was made of the rivalry between Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to be the first to step onto the lunar surface.
Aldrin lobbied NASA officials hard, but Armstrong got the call. He was the mission commander and senior astronaut on the crew. Beyond office politics, the design of the Lunar Module dictated the decision that Armstrong, standing in the commander’s position, had to exit first. Both men would be wearing bulky spacesuits and backpacks – and the lone hatch opened inward on Aldrin’s side of the cramped spacecraft. It was impractical for him to move until Armstrong got out of the way.
"We felt like two fullbacks trying to change positions inside a Cub Scout pup tent," Aldrin later said.
So Aldrin helped guide Armstrong out the hatch and watched him make history. But the second man on the moon had a critical task to remember as he descended the ladder: Don't shut the door. NASA had not put an outside handle on the Lunar Module's hatch. If it had closed, the first men on the moon might well have been the last -- stuck a quarter of a million miles from Earth and locked out of their only ride home.
11. A Pen Helped Get Them Home
The Lunar Module Eagle was a surprisingly fragile machine.
Its skin was "so thin one of us could have taken a pencil and jammed it through the side of the ship," Buzz Aldrin said.
The tight quarters added to the risk of something getting damaged, as Aldrin discovered after the triumphant moon walk.
He noticed the plastic knob around an essential switch on a control panel had broken off. Aldrin surmised he'd knocked into it with his backpack and snapped off the head of the circuit breaker. The device was needed to arm the engine that was supposed to get them off the moon and back to the Command Module where Michael Collins was waiting.
The man who earned a doctorate in astronautics at MIT devised a less-than-space-age solution to the potentially life-threatening problem.
"It looked as though there was enough left to push [the breaker] in" manually, Aldrin told Popular Mechanics.
At the critical moment in the countdown, Aldrin took a felt-tip pen and stuck it into the switch. It worked.
The engine fired and the astronauts were on their way to accomplishing the second half of President Kennedy's challenge to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade -- the part about "returning him safely to the Earth."