Apollo 11 moon landing: Neil Armstrong's defining moment

During NASA's most famous mission, three men went to the moon, and two men landed on it. But only one stepped out first.

Jon Skillings
A born browser of dictionaries and a lifelong New Englander, Jon Skillings is an editorial director at CNET. He honed his language skills as a US Army linguist (Polish and German) before diving into editing for tech publications -- including at PC Week and the IDG News Service -- back when the web was just getting under way, and even a little before. For CNET, he's written on topics from GPS to 5G, James Bond, lasers, brass instruments and music streaming services.
Jon Skillings
The Apollo 11 crew
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The Apollo 11 crew

NASA's Apollo 11 mission was a feat unlike any other in human history: After a rocket carried them 250,000 miles through space, two of these astronauts -- Neil Armstrong (left) and  Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin (right) -- landed on the moon and spent two and a half hours out on the lunar surface. That first-ever moon landing took place July 20, 1969, making this year the 50th anniversary.

The astronaut in the center is Michael Collins, who stayed in orbit around the moon while Armstrong and Aldrin were on the surface. The photo is from May 1969 as preparations for Apollo 11 moved into the final stages. Click on through for photos from the moon, the spaceflight and the return to Earth, and from other moments in Armstrong's career.

Originally published Sept. 29, 2018.
Updated Oct. 11: Added two photos of the Apollo 11 mission and one of the X-15 rocket plane.
Updated July 15, 2019: Added four more photos of the Apollo 11 mission.

Buzz Aldrin on the moon
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Buzz Aldrin on the moon

The person in the spacesuit is Aldrin. Look closer at the visor of the helmet, though, and you'll see Armstrong's reflection as he takes the photo. Many of the photos from the moon during Apollo 11 are of Aldrin because Armstrong had the camera.

Neil Armstrong works on the surface of the moon near the lunar module
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On the moon

Armstrong stands next to the lunar module on the moon's surface.

Buzz Aldrin descends the lunar module ladder
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Buzz Aldrin descends LM ladder

Aldrin clambers out of the lunar module and down the ladder to join Armstrong on the dusty lunar surface.

Televised image of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon
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How TV saw the moon landing

This is what the activity on the moon looked like to television viewers, as captured by the Deep Space Network tracking station in Goldstone, California. Armstrong is in front of the lunar module, and Aldrin is at the right edge of the frame.

Neil Armstrong in the lunar module on the moon
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In the lunar module

Seen here inside the lunar module, a weary Armstrong musters a smile after completing humanity's first moonwalk.

Apollo 11 lunar module in flight
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Lunar module in flight

This is the Apollo 11 lunar module, the Eagle, seen after separating from the command module before descending to the moon's surface. The stringy items hanging from the LM's legs are sensing probes that would signal the imminent landing and let the astronauts know to shut off the descent engine. For the return trip, only the top portion ascended back to orbit. The bottom half -- the part in gold foil -- remained on the moon.

Apollo 11 lunar module in flight above the moon, with Earth in the background.
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Lunar module returns

The lunar module returns to meet the command module in the moon's orbit after Armstrong and Aldrin's 22-hour stay on the surface.

Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins in the command module simulator
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Michael Collins in the CM simulator

Command module pilot Michael Collins gets his bearings in the CM simulator on Earth, a month before the mission to the moon.

Mission Control celebrates
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Mission Control celebration

On July 24, 1969, staff in the control room at NASA's Mission Control celebrate when the Apollo 11 capsule splashes down in the Pacific Ocean.

Richard Nixon and the Apollo 11 crew aboard the USS Hornet
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Richard Nixon and Apollo 11 crew

After they were picked up from their capsule, the Apollo 11 astronauts went into quarantine on the USS Hornet. They were hardly isolated, however. They even had a visit from US President Richard Nixon. (Left to right, Armstrong, Collins, Aldrin and Nixon.)

Quarantine quarters for the Apollo 11 crew.
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Apollo 11 quarantine

The astronauts spent two and a half days in the mobile quarantine facility, traveling via aircraft to NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston.

Ticker tape parade for the Apollo 11 astronauts in New York City
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Ticker tape parade

New York City gave the Apollo 11 astronauts a hero's welcome, including a ticker tape parade. The three men are standing in the lead car, waving to the crowd (from left, Collins, Aldrin and, with his face obscured by his arm, Armstrong).

Neil Armstrong climbs out of the cockpit of an X-14
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Neil Armstrong, pilot

He made history as the first human to step onto the surface of the moon, but Neil Armstrong was, above all else, a pilot. It's what he'd wanted to be since he was a kid. Born in 1930, he grew up making model airplanes and reading aviation magazines; he got his pilot's license at 16, before he got his driver's license.

In 1955, after college and combat service in the US Navy during the Korean War, he joined NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, as a test pilot. It was a decision that set him on the path to becoming an astronaut.

Neil Armstrong on the Iron Cross Attitude Simulator in 1956
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Iron Cross Attitude Simulator

This photo from October 1956 shows Armstrong aboard the iron cross attitude simulator, used by the NACA to test early reaction controls -- that is, thrusters -- for aircraft making high-altitude supersonic flights. It let a test pilot like Armstrong get a feel for pitch, roll and yaw, and recorded data on how the control stick handled.

Neil Armstrong with X-15 aircraft
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X-15 Number 1

Following a flight in 1960, Armstrong stands next to a North American Aviation X-15, one of three such rocket-powered hypersonic aircraft. He made seven X-15 flights between December 1960 and July 1962, reaching a peak altitude of 207,500 feet (39.3 miles) and a top speed of 3,989 mph (Mach 5.74).

Armstrong's experiences as a test pilot flying the X-15 are a central element in First Man, the movie about him starring Ryan Gosling. Directed by Damien Chazelle, it opened in October 2018.

NASA's X-15 rocket plane in flight
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X-15 in flight

An X-15 ignites its rocket engines at an altitude of about 45,000 feet after being released from the B-52 mothership that carried it aloft.

Neil Armstrong in flight suit
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Neil Armstrong in flight suit

Armstrong poses for a moment in his flight suit after an X-15 flight.

Neil Armstrong in the cockpit of an X-15
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In the X-15 cockpit

The X-15 cockpit was a tight fit. "When you're dressed up in that pressure suit, and you get the hatch closed down on you, you find that it is a very, very confined world in there," Armstrong told biographer James Hansen. "The windshield fits over you so snugly that it's very difficult to see inside the cockpit."

Neil Armstrong in the cockpit of a Douglas F5D-1 Skylancer
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Douglas F5D-1 Skylancer

In June 1962, Armstrong prepares to fly a Douglas F5D-1 Skylancer to simulate aspects of a proposed space plane called the Dyna-Soar (a program that was cancelled late in 1963).

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Survival training

Military pilots never know where they might crash-land or end up after bailing out, so survival training is a must. That thinking carried over to astronauts as well. In June 1963, that meant several days in the jungles of Panama for this group, which included Armstrong (second from left), John Glenn, Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad.

Neil Armstrong with X-14A
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With X-14A

As NASA geared up for a moon landing before the end of the 1960s, Armstrong drew on his test pilot skills to evaluate the Bell X-14A (in the background), a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft, to see if it could be of use in simulating a lunar landing. After 10 flights in February 1964, Armstrong said no, it wasn't right. Little did he know at the time that he would be the first person to pilot a machine to the surface of the moon.

Neil Armstrong in the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle
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Lunar Landing Research Vehicle

This contraption, the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, got a lot closer to the feel of flying in the moon's gravity. Here, Armstrong takes the LLRV, nicknamed the "Flying Bedstead," for a ride in 1964.

Neil Armstrong and David Scott
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Gemini VIII crew

Armstrong's first flight into orbit came in March 1966 in the Gemini VIII mission, teamed with astronaut David Scott. This was a big occasion: It would be the first docking of two spacecraft in Earth orbit. To make that happen, NASA had to launch two rockets into space less than two hours apart, one carrying Armstrong and Scott, the other with the Agena target vehicle.

Gemini VIII's Agena target vehicle
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Agena target vehicle

The docking with Agena went as planned. But then the attached spacecraft began tumbling because of a stuck thruster, and the spinning continued even after the astronauts undocked. After some tense moments, Armstong, the command pilot, was able to guide the Gemini capsule to a safe re-entry.

Astronauts Neil Armstrong and David Scott in the Gemini VIII capsule in the Pacific Ocean after splashdown.
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Splashdown and recover

US Air Force pararescue divers assist Armstrong and Scott after the Gemini VIII splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, 10 hours and 41 minutes after liftoff from Cape Kennedy in Florida. Because of the problems with the flight, Scott wasn't able to perform a planned spacewalk.

Astronauts at the Gemini Mission Simulator
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Gemini Mission Simulator

After his own Gemini flight, Armstrong (at right) served as a backup pilot for the Gemini XI mission, which flew in September 1966. Also pictured here, at the Gemini Mission Simulator facility at Cape Kennedy, Florida, are (from left) William Anders, also a backup astronaut, and the two men who did fly that mission, Richard Gordon and, with his foot up, Pete Conrad.

The Apollo 11 crew in business suits
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Astronauts in suits

Here we see Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins on Jan. 10, 1969, standing in front of a mockup of the lunar module, after the NASA press conference that introduced them as the primary crew for the Apollo 11 mission.

Neil Armstrong at Langley Research Center's Lunar Landing Research Facility
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Lunar Landing Research Facility

In February 1969, Armstrong poses at the Lunar Landing Research Facility at Langley Research Center in Virginia. While this contraption looks like the LLRV, it's not free-flying even though it has a rocket engine to provide thrust. Instead, it's suspended by cables that held five-sixths of its weight, to approximate the gravity of the moon.

Dressed in his EVA spacesuit, Neil Armstrong practices climbing up onto the ladder of the LEM.
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EVA spacesuit and LEM ladder

It's not so easy moving in a spacesuit. Here, Armstrong practices getting onto the ladder of the Lunar Module.

Neil Armstrong in the Apollo Lunar Module Mission Simulator
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Neil Armstrong in training

Before any mission, and certainly before one as momentous as a moon landing, astronauts spend months in training. Here, a month before liftoff, Armstrong gets the lay of the land in the Apollo Lunar Module Mission Simulator.

Neil Armstrong suits up on the morning of July 16, 1969.
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Ready for liftoff

On the morning of July 16, 1969, Armstrong gets ready to put on his spacesuit helmet ahead of the Apollo 11 launch.

Apollo 11 rocket rises in the sky, with the American flag in the foreground
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Apollo 11 liftoff

The Saturn V rocket carrying the Apollo 11 crew lifts off from Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969.

Neil Armstrong receives the Congressional Space Medal of Honor from President Jimmy Carter.
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Congressional Space Medal of Honor

In October 1978, nearly a decade after the Apollo 11 mission, Armstrong was one of the first six recipients of the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, presented here by President Carter. Other recipients that day included John Glenn and Alan Shepard.

Apollo 11 patch
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Apollo 11 patch

This mission patch went into space with Apollo 11. In 1987, the three crew members signed the fabric around it with the intent that it will eventually be presented to the first crew to land on Mars.

Armstrong died in 2012.

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