Apollo 11 turns 50: Moon exploration, interesting facts & Nasa's to-do list

Astronaut on lunar (moon) landing mission. Photo: Shutterstock
July 20, 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of mankind's first steps on the moon. In 1969, Nasa's Apollo 11 blasted off, sending astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins on a journey to the moon and back. It took Apollo 11 three days to get there, and astronauts Neil and Buzz spent over 21 hours on the lunar surface, thereby becoming the first humans to set foot on it. The US beat the Soviet Union to the moon after having been humiliated, repeatedly, during the early years of the space race. The legacy of that mission is immense. 

Take a look at how Nasa achieved this feat, its struggle and what it plans to do next:

NASA's strategy during the 1960s was built around incremental achievements, with each mission wringing out some of the risk. Potential disaster lurked everywhere. Just two years before Apollo 11, three astronauts died in a freakish fire during a capsule test at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

In the beginning of the month, on June 3, Neil A. Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins met with the astronauts who had flown on Apollo 10: Thomas P. Stafford, Eugene A. Cernan and John W. Young. A couple of days later, they got some extra practice when they completed a simulation of the Extravehicular Activity (EVA) they would conduct on the moon. 

On June 11, Lt Gen Sam C Phillips, the Apollo programme director at NASA, officially announced NASA's intent to land on the moon a month later. In the meantime, Neil and Buzz went through rigorous training. On June 16, they simulated the arrival of the Mobile Quarantine Facility that would house the returning crew members in isolation to ensure they didn't bring back any infections from the moon. The next day leaders across Nasa gathered at Kennedy Space Center for the Flight Readiness Review.

On July 20, 1969, the effort paid off as the US took its first steps on the moon.

Interesting facts

Moon mission planners did not know the nature of the moon's surface - Hard? Soft? Powdery? Gooey?

— 600 million people across the globe watched the crew's historic first steps on the moon.

— Over 400,000 worked behind the scenes on the Apollo 11 mission.

What happened when they landed on the moon

Armstrong put his left foot on the rocky moon on July 20. It was the first human footprint on the moon. Right after touching the surface, he said, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Neil and Buzz picked up rocks and dirt to bring back to Earth. Then, the Eagle went back to meet astronaut Collins, who was in the Command Module working. On Three days later, Apollo splashed into the Pacific ocean with the astronauts safe and sound.

Nasa moon missions after Apollo 11: How many astronauts have landed on the moon after Neil and Buzz?

Until now, 12 astronauts have walked on the moon's surface, and six of them drove lunar roving vehicles on it.

Apollo 12

NASA launched its second such mission on 14 November 1969, with astronauts Charles Pete Conrad, Richard F Gordon and Alan L Bean.

This module safely landed on the lunar surface on 19 November 1969.

Apollo 14

Nasa's third mission to the moon failed. However, on 31 January 1971, Apollo 14 took off from the Kennedy Space Center with astronauts Alan Shepard Jr and Edgar D Mitchell on board.

Apollo 15

The fifth mission was launched on 26 July, 1971 with three astronauts — David R Scott, James B Irwin and Alfred M Worden.

Apollo 16

The mission took off on 16 April, 1972 and landed on the moon's surface five days later on 21 April. While astronauts John Young and Charles Duke spent close to three days on moon, Thomas K Mattingly performed experiments from the lunar orbit.

Apollo 17

The Apollo 17 mission - the final Apollo mission from NASA - marked the last time humans set foot on the moon. Launched on 7 December 1972, astronauts Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Harrison Schmitt were on board.

Nasa's future plans

Instead of spending a couple of days on the moon, astronauts are now aiming to embark on missions that could last months. However, NASA's current space shuttles and equipment are not yet capable of crossing low-Earth orbit to reach the moon with the amount of gear required for such a manned expedition. NASA's Project Artemis aims to take more humans, including the first woman ever to the moon. In addition to the groundbreaking research, NASA hopes that its new exploration will inspire the next generation of scientists.