Neil Armstrong Dead; Apollo 11 Astronaut Was First on Moon

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Neil Armstrong, First Man on the Moon

Armstrong, along with Buzz Aldrin and Fred Haise Jr., was named to the backup crew for Apollo 9, the third manned test of the new moonship. Soon Apollo 9 was swapped with Apollo 8 -- and Apollo 8 was then sent to take astronauts around the moon. The mission was a success. While it was still in progress, chief astronaut Deke Slayton took Armstrong aside and told him that he, Aldrin and Mike Collins would fly Apollo 11.

So it was happenstance that made Neil Armstrong one of the most famous names of the 20th century. If the order of flights had been different, or if Apollo 9 or 10 had run into trouble, Apollo 11 might very well have been a practice run for the first lunar landing.

But by May 1969 the rehearsals had gone well and Apollo 11 was next up. Reporters swirled around Armstrong. More than a million people crowded the Florida coast to see the liftoff.

"I think we're going to the moon because it's in the nature of the human being to face challenges. It's by the nature of his deep inner soul," Armstrong said at a preflight news conference, "We're required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream."

Apollo 11 Leaves for the Moon

On the morning of July 16, 1969, Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin were woken before dawn. They suited up and climbed into the Apollo 11 command ship, high atop its 363-foot-tall Saturn V rocket.

Liftoff was flawless. Three days later the astronauts arrived in lunar orbit, and on the morning of July 20, Armstrong and Aldrin took their places in the landing ship Eagle, leaving Collins to run the command ship Columbia. They fired Eagle's main engine to slow themselves toward the moon's surface, aiming for a landing site on the Sea of Tranquility, a relatively flat plain near the moon's equator.

As they came in on final approach, Armstrong later reported, he saw they were in trouble. Eagle's computer was steering them right toward a crater, with boulders the size of cars. Armstrong took over manual control. Fuel was in short supply, but he hosed out more, skittering a few hundred feet above the lunar surface in search of a clear spot to land.

"1201 alarm," called Aldrin, watching Eagle's computer readout while Armstrong looked out the window. The computer was overloading.

"Hang tight, we're go," said astronaut Charles Duke, the one person at Mission Control assigned to talk with Armstrong and Aldrin by radio.

Armstrong was silent as he lowered the ship on a pillar of flame. He was too busy flying. Aldrin called out numbers to mark their progress in feet per second. "Four forward, drifting to the right a little."

"Thirty seconds," said Duke. In half a minute he would have to tell the astronauts to abort the landing -- even though they were less than a hundred feet up.

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