The first-ever moon landing brought a pair of astronauts onto a terrain of "magnificent desolation" rife with craters, rocks, and dust.
When the Apollo 11 astronauts went to the moon in July 1969, they were in a sense much like any other tourists visiting an exotic locale--they oohed and ahhed over the scenery, took lots of pictures, and brought home some souvenirs.
This photo shows a full moon from up close as the astronauts--Neil Armstrong (commander), Buzz Aldrin (lunar module pilot), and Michael Collins (command module pilot)--began their homeward journey on that July 21.
Describing his view of the moon upon arrival in the neighborhood a day or so earlier, Collins (in a NASA account) offered this description: "Our first shock comes as we stop our spinning motion and spin ourselves around so as to bring the moon into view. We have not been able to see the moon for nearly a day now, and the change is electrifying....
"To begin with, it is huge, completely filling our window. Second, it is three-dimensional. The belly of it bulges out toward us in such a pronounced manner that I almost feel I can reach out and touch it."
Here, the lunar module (aka the Eagle), carrying Armstrong and Aldrin, is en route back to the command module (aka Columbia) after about 21 hours on the moon. The transit from lunar surface to Columbia is a little over three hours.
This is how all the rest of humanity got to see the moon during the historic Apollo 11 mission--on television (and maybe even a color TV). Shown here is the moon's Sea of Fertility on July 19 during the spacecraft's second revolution of the orb. The Apollo 11 crew had lifted off from Earth three days earlier, on July 16.
For the sake of geographical comparison, this image of the lunar surface is overlaid with a map of the metro New York City area. There were three possible landing sites for Apollo 11. Because the mission was able to lift off on July 16 as scheduled, the landing site was in the southwestern portion of the Sea of Tranquility.
During the lunar module's final 12-minute powered descent to the surface, the astronauts and Mission Control back on Earth had to contend with some unsettling program alarms from the flight computers. Said Collins: "My checklist says [program alarm] 1202 is an 'executive overflow,' meaning simply that the computer has been called upon to do too many things at once and is forced to postpone some of them."
This look at the southwestern Sea of Tranquility on July 20 shows the shadow of the command and service modules, with the lunar module docked to it just out of sight at the bottom. At upper left-center is the linear, trench-like geographic feature known as Hypatia Rille, and just to the right of that is the crater Moltke, code-named "Chuck Hole" (also pictured in the previous slide, with the New York overlay).
Aldrin: "In the final phases of the descent after a number of program alarms, we looked at the landing area and found a very large crater. This is the area we decided we would not go into; we extended the range downrange. The exhaust dust was kicked up by the engine, and this caused some concern I that it degraded our ability to determine not only our altitude in the final phases but also our translational velocities over the ground. It's quite important not to stub your toe during the final phases of touchdown."
Although no country has a territorial claim to the moon, the Apollo missions were deeply wrapped in a U.S. desire to demonstrate its technical prowess--the Cold War and the Space Race with the Soviet Union were in full swing.
Aldrin gets some scientific gear out of the lunar module for deployment on the moon's surface. The small object in the right foreground is a 35mm stereo close-up camera. (A 70mm camera was used to take this picture. Most photos of an Apollo 11 astronaut on the moon were of Aldrin, since for the 2.5 hours of extravehicular activity on the surface, Armstrong typically was the one wielding that camera.)
This unnamed crater lies near the lunar module. Again, the object in the foreground is the 35mm stereo close-up camera. Said Aldrin: "Once [we] settled on the surface, the dust settled immediately and we had an excellent view of the area surrounding the LM. We saw a crater surface, pockmarked with craters up to 15, 20, 30 feet, and many smaller craters down to a diameter of 1 foot and, of course, the surface was very fine-grained. There were a surprising number of rocks of all sizes."
"Magnificent desolation" is the phrase Aldrin used to sum up the lunar landscape. "I was struck by the contrast between the starkness of the shadows and the desertlike barrenness of the rest of the surface. It ranged from dusty gray to light tan and was unchanging except for one startling sight: our LM sitting there with its black, silver, and bright yellow-orange thermal coating shining brightly."
At Mission Control in Houston, a geologist pores over seismometer tracings sent from Apollo 11's passive seismic experiments package. Designed to measure meteoroid impacts and moonquakes, the gear was exquisitely sensitive, even registering Aldrin's and Armstrong's footsteps and objects that they tossed onto the surface.
The astronauts often had their heads down getting work done, but there was much to recommend looking up every once in awhile. The Apollo 11 crew got this view of the solar corona around the moon as their spacecraft closed in on its insertion into lunar orbit.
On the ladder of the lunar module--the lower portion of which remained on the moon--is this plaque commemorating the Apollo 11 landing. It reads "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind." It was signed by the three members of the Apollo 11 crew and by U.S. President Richard Nixon.
There may not have been a lot to see on the moon, but what was there got intense scrutiny. This stereoscopic view (it's in color, by the way) is of a stone, embedded in the lunar surface, that's about 2.5 inches long. The 35mm stereo close-up camera used by the Apollo 11 crew was designed to yield a high resolution in a small area, and was mounted on a walking stick.
The astronauts brought some moon rocks and lunar soil with them back to Earth. This container is being delivered to the Lunar Receiving Laboratory at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston on July 25, 1969.
Behold a moon rock. These ordinary-looking rocks were objects of intense fascination for the public as well as for the scientists who actually got to scrutinize them. NASA described this one at the time as "a granular, fine-grained, mafic (iron magnesium rich) rock...[that] appears similar to several igneous rock types found on Earth."
This is a micrograph of a lunar sample. NASA breaks down the colors this way: "The light blue and white mineral is plagioclase. The black is ilmenite, and the blue and/or green and/or orange and/or yellow and/or red mineral is pyroxene. The large pyroxene is a phenocryst that had been partially resorbed."
Plant life grows in aseptic cultures to which finely ground lunar material was added, in the upper row of containers. The cultures in the lower row were untreated. The plant material in the cultures was liverwort, in this photo from September 1969.