Apollo mission to the moon: 50th anniversary
What are the lessons for today?
20 July 2019; last updated 28 Apr 2021
Half a century ago today, it almost seemed like the whole world was waiting with eager anticipation. The Apollo lunar module, “the Eagle”, was about to be the first manned craft to land on a body outside our earth. The journey had already taken over four days, although they travelled on the fastest and most powerful machine that had ever been built.
The beginning was the launch of the enormous Saturn V rocket on 16 July 1969 at 13:32:00 UTC, watched by a million spectators and 25 million TV viewers in the USA alone. To give some idea of the rocket’s power, if it had failed during takeoff, then all its fuel would have exploded with the energy of 2 kilotons of TNT (cf. the Hiroshima bomb of 15 kt).
Even this last part of the mission to the moon had some hitches. The pilot Neil Armstrong (1930–2012) realized that the onboard computer’s intended landing position was strewn with boulders. So he took manual control, with the navigator Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin (b. 1930) providing data. Armstrong spotted a clear area, but then saw that this had a crater. He cleared that, and found another clear patch. But now they were getting so close that the rocket exhaust was kicking up lunar dust. Fortunately, some large rocks could be seen through them, so Armstrong had a way to judge descent speed.
Then one of the 170-cm (67-inch) probes hanging from the footpads gave a light signal that it had touched the surface. Aldrin said “Contact light” to tell Armstrong that he should cut the engine, because the engineers were concerned that the engine exhaust could bounce off the moon’s surface and cause an explosion. Fortunately, this didn’t happen, and they landed three seconds later, then Armstrong turned off the engine.
The time was 20:17:40 UTC1 on Sunday 20 July 1969. And Armstrong said the immortal words to the capsule communicator (CAPCOM) back on earth, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” CAPCOM replied, “Roger, Tranquility, we copy you on the ground, you got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.” (The CAPCOM was Charles Duke, who would later become the 10th and youngest man to walk on the moon.)
First meal on the moon: the Lord’s Supper
Two hours after landing, Aldrin radioed the following message to earth:
This is the LM pilot. I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.
But what came next was censored by NASA. Aldrin, an elder at the Webster Presbyterian Church, read from John 15:5, and then prepared communion from pre-prepared bread and wine from his church.2 This was the most unusual communion in history, as Aldrin recalled:
In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup.3
Genesis 1:1–10 reading while orbiting the moon
Just before the Christmas of the previous year, the Apollo 8 crew of Frank Borman (the mission commander), James Lovell, and William Anders became the first people to leave the earth’s gravity, then the first to orbit the moon. On the fourth orbit, they saw an amazing sight never before seen: earthrise. Anders was determined to take a colour photo, which has been called the most influential photo in history, as they saw the beautiful blue and vibrant colours of the earth hanging in the blackness of space. Anders later commented that although their mission was to explore the moon, they actually discovered the earth—their home planet.
Then as they began the 9th orbit, Anders announced to earth, “We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.” Then he read from Genesis 1:1–4, Lovell 5–8, and Borman 9–10 (all KJV); then Borman concluded:
And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas—and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.
A half century later, the three had no regrets about their Christmas message, affirming that Genesis 1–10 was just the right choice. They received many telegrams of appreciation from around the world, as just the way to end a turbulent year on a high note. Time magazine named the three the “Men of the Year” for 1968.
Unfortunately, the infamous embittered atheopath Madalyn Murray O’Hair (whose son William later became a Christian) launched a lawsuit. Apparently, she was terribly offended—but if Christians are offended by offensive images or atheistic propaganda, then one is free to “change the channel”. But the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas dismissed the case, and this dismissal was affirmed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court declined to review the case, so the dismissal stood. According to one article:
The ruling declared that O’Hair sought “freedom from religion” whereas astronauts had personal “freedom of religion” under the Bill of Rights, which N.A.S.A. would have violated if it barred either the Genesis reading or the Communion on the moon. Both were astronauts’ personal initiatives without government mandates. Thus American religious freedom was extended into outer space.2
But the dismissal came too late; NASA was still fighting at the time of the Apollo 11 mission, and kowtowed to the vociferous minority, a good example of the infamous atheist’s veto. (See also last year’s Christmas Day article Christmas and Genesis connected by Apollo 8 Astronauts: NASA tells them to “say something appropriate”—and they do!)
First steps on the moon
About six hours after landing, Armstrong descended the ladder. He unveiled the plaque which said:
Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.
This was the only mention of God or Christ that NASA dared to include, but it’s subtle. A.D. stands for Anno Domini = “In the year of our Lord”, referring to the supposed year of Christ’s birth.
Armstrong for the first time viewed a literally alien landscape, with dust that he described as “very fine-grained” and “almost like a powder”.
And all this was building up to the real climax of the mission. This came 6 hr 39 min after touchdown, on 02:56 UTC, Monday 21 July 1969, Armstrong became the first human ever to set foot on a body outside the earth. As an estimated 650 million people around the world were watching on TV, he said the immortal words:
That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.
However, people on earth didn’t hear “a man”, but just “man”. But that phrasing wouldn’t make sense as it stands—“for man” and “for mankind” both mean “for humanity”. “That’s one small step for humanity, one giant leap for humanity” doesn’t sound quite right!
Armstrong for decades insisted that he said “a man”. The rising pitch on “man” and falling pitch on “mankind” shows that he meant to say “a man”. But in the almost unimaginable excitement, in his spontaneous exclamation, he forgot. Some have claimed that it was said too fast to hear, or his normal Ohio accent might have slurred it.4 There is just no space for the “a” in the recording. Other recordings show that “a” was discernible in other transmissions from the moon.5
No matter, people on the earth knew what he meant, and there was a certain poetic rhythm to Armstrong’s (mis)spoken words.
Aldrin joined Armstrong on the moon’s surface 19 minutes later. There was a limited time they could spend on walking the moon (about 2.5 hr), and they wanted to make the most of it. Fortunately, because the moon’s gravity is ¹⁄₆ earth’s, Armstrong reported that moving was “even perhaps easier than the simulations … It’s absolutely no trouble to walk around.”6 They were also fascinated by how much closer the horizon was, on a body only about a quarter of the earth’s radius.
They gathered 21.5 kg (47.5 lb) of material. This contained two main types of rock, basalt and breccia, and the moon samples contained three minerals that were previously unknown to science: armalcolite, tranquillityite, and pyroxferroite (the first was named after Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins (1930–2021), who was still piloting the command module Columbia, awaiting the return of the two from the moon).
They planted the USA flag, and these words were exchanged from the then US president Richard Milhous Nixon and Armstrong on the longest-distance phone call in history:
Nixon: Hello, Neil and Buzz. I’m talking to you by telephone from the Oval Room at the White House. And this certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made. I just can’t tell you how proud we all are of what you’ve done. For every American, this has to be the proudest day of our lives. And for people all over the world, I am sure they too join with Americans in recognizing what an immense feat this is. Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world. And as you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth. For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one: one in their pride in what you have done, and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth.
Armstrong: Thank you, Mr President. It’s a great honor and privilege for us to be here, representing not only the United States, but men of peace of all nations, and with interest and curiosity, and men with a vision for the future. It’s an honor for us to be able to participate here today.
Return to Earth
After 21 hr 36 min on the moon’s surface, it was time to head back. They left behind a few things as a permanent record of man’s first landing on the moon. One of the most poignant was a patch commemorating the Apollo 1 astronauts Virgil I. ‘Gus’ Grissom, Ed White, and Roger B. Chaffee, who tragically died in a cabin fire during a launch rehearsal on 27 Jan 1967.
Thus the lunar module ascent engine (LMAE) was fired. This was a hypergolic rocket engine, i.e. one where the fuel and oxidizer ignite on contact, so no need for a separate ignition system. During the launch, the exhaust was violent enough to topple the flag, although this was 8 m (25 ft) away from the site. The engine fired for only 435 seconds, but this was enough to get the Eagle into lunar orbit. Then the reaction control system kicked in, with short rocket motors firing to fine-tune its orbit, so Eagle could rendezvous with Columbia. Eagle finally docked when Columbia was on its 27th trip around the moon.7
Then they had to begin their return journey. This took about three days. When they re-entered Earth’s atmosphere they were travelling at over 25,000 mph (over 40,000 kph), and the capsule looked like it was burning up from the intense heat. But this was only the protective ablative covering doing what it was intended to do: its vaporizing carried the heat away from the interior.8
Eventually, it was close enough to the surface to deploy parachutes. Then they finally touched down at 13°19'N 169°9'W, 16:50:35 (about 1500 km or 930 miles southwest of Hawaii), Thursday 24 Jul 1969. The total journey from the earth to the moon and back was over eight days—195 hours, 18 minutes, 35 seconds.
This was the fulfilment of President J.F. Kennedy’s proposal to Congress on 25 May 1961, that the USA “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Many of us believe this was one of the greatest achievements and adventures in the history of mankind.
But while the astronauts had fulfilled this part, their journey was not over. They had landed 13 miles from the US Navy recovery ship USS Hornet. But NASA at the time was worried about contamination from extraterrestrial organisms, so the astronauts were rubbed down with sodium hypochlorite (bleach), and Columbia was wiped off with Betadine. Then they needed to wear biological isolation garments (BIGs). This was the beginning of their 21-day quarantine. NASA stopped this after the Apollo 14 mission when they realized there was no danger.
Only after their quarantine was over could they participate in the well-deserved ticker-tape parades and dinners in their honour, and travelling to 20+ countries in 40 or so days. Everywhere they went they were feted as heroes, but in reality it was recognition of America’s incredible achievement in such a short space of time.
Crowning achievement of science
The moon landing was an exercise of the best science of its day. This means that evolution hadn’t the slightest thing to do with it. The scientists and engineers responsible for the Apollo program had their training before evolution was such a huge part of the school science curriculum.
Rather, they used science first pioneered by creationists. In particular, they relied on the law of gravitation and three laws of motion developed by creationist physicist Sir Isaac Newton, as well as calculus jointly discovered by him. Newton in turn developed his laws by showing that they explained the three laws of planetary motion formulated by the creationist astronomer Johannes Kepler. Kepler’s laws won over the old Greek Ptolemaic model, of absolute geocentrism, only because they made far better predictions. Without Kepler’s Laws, there would have been no Newton’s Laws, and thus no Apollo mission.
So it should not be surprising that the leader of the Apollo mission, Wernher von Braun, was a creationist. Although he came from Nazi Germany, he had become a Christian while working at NASA. Another pioneer of the space program was Henry Richter, who worked with Braun and oversaw the development of America’s first satellite, Explorer 1, and who also became a Christian at NASA. He is featured in CMI’s award-winning documentary Alien Intrusion: Unmasking a Deception, where he discusses the incredible difficulty involved in space travel. CMI also published his book Spacecraft Earth which is a wonderful treatise on the God-ordered design of everything from the universe to mankind and atoms.
Computers, both electronic and human
But still, it was very complicated to apply these laws without the powerful computers we have today. Even pocket calculators were in the future. Instead, scientists and engineers relied on slide rules and log tables. So some gifted mathematicians were hired as “human computers”, among them some black women such as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson.
They were victims of racist segregation laws first imposed by President Woodrow Wilson, and a relic of the time when the evolutionary textbooks promoted white supremacy and eugenics. However, their work was so good that John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, would not trust the electronic computer calculations until they were checked by Mrs Johnson. Their achievements were later dramatized by the 2016 movie Hidden Figures.
Johnson also calculated the trajectory for the Apollo 11 flight to the moon. She also sang in the choir of Carver Presbyterian Church for 50 years. When I first wrote this article, she was still alive at 100, and she lived to 101 (26 Aug 1918 – 24 Feb 2020).
However, there was also the all-important Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC), a digital computer that was the first to use integrated circuits (ICs). This was a huge advance on the vacuum tubes, which meant computers took up a whole room. The computer was way ahead of its time—it would be another 10 years before home computers were as powerful.9 And most computers still needed punch cards, but not the AGC.
Looking back, we can talk about how a modern iPhone is 120 million times more powerful, with far more memory—say 4 GB is about a million times more than the AGC’s 32,768 bits of RAM. But to balance that, the AGC was virtually crash-proof, and could focus on the most important problems.10 And not only was it reliable, it was also tremendously capable of the tasks it needed to do, including communicating with 150 devices.11 Software engineers led by Margaret Hamilton programmed the computer to send an alarm when it was overloaded, to signal to the astronauts that it would prioritize the most important tasks, and there were recovery programs so it could drop lower priority tasks and restart the important ones. It could streamline its calculations because it calculated position and velocity using metric units, although it converted them to feet or feet per second for displaying to the astronauts. So many things for the space program had to be invented from the ground up—there were no precursors. Even the term ‘software engineering’ was a new one, coined by Hamilton.
The successful Apollo 11 mission finally won the space race for America, over the atheistic Soviet Gulag State, the USSR, just as President JFK had intended. And to cement the victory, the USA had five more manned missioned to the moon up till 1972, each of which included two men to walk on the moon. That is, 12 people have walked on the moon.
But it took real guts back in 1961 for JFK to promise to send a man to the moon and return him safely. At the time, the Soviet Union had a good lead in their own program, led by rocket engineer Sergei Korolyóv. They launched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik 1, on 4 Oct 1957. This caused a lot of panic in the West. They could hear its beeping on the radio, as it orbited once every 96.2 minutes, and the slanted orbit meant that it passed close to almost every inhabited part of the earth.
On 3 November 1957, Sputnik 2 was launched, this time with the first animal in space, the dog Laika. Unfortunately, the Soviets had no plans to bring her back alive, which appalled many in the West. On 13 September 1959, the Soviet Luna 2 module became the first man-made object to reach the moon’s surface.
On 12 April 1961, the Soviets launched Vostok 1 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in what’s now Kazakhstan, but for the first time, there was a human passenger: Yuri Gagárin. At the launch, Korolyóv radioed to him, “Preliminary stage … intermediate … main … lift off! We wish you a good flight. Everything is all right.” To which Gagárin replied with the now famous “Poyékhali!” (“Let’s go!”). On 16 June 1963, Vostok 6 had the first and youngest woman in space, Valentina Tereshkóva.
The Soviets succeeded in these first steps because it was a totalitarian state with a centrally planned command economy that could devote a huge fraction of its resources to taking a lead in the space race. But the freer economy of the USA would catch up, and overtake it in the above-mentioned Apollo 8 mission to orbit the moon for the first time. This mission was perhaps the most daring of all because they decided that the very first manned flight of the Saturn V was a trip to the moon!
The whole space race was part of the Cold War, and both sides wanted to prove that their way was better. The Soviets needed something as a showcase for the Communist system despite the overall poverty that inevitably results (think Venezuela today). The USA didn’t want other countries sucked into this system—they were fighting a war against Vietnamese communism at the time. And the USA had every reason to be concerned: after the Vietnam War was over, “more Indochinese people were killed in the first two years of the Communist peace, than had been killed on all sides in a decade of the anti-Communist War.”12
People born after the collapse of the Soviet Union (26 December 1991) tend not to realize how intense the rivalry was. But keen chessplayers might: Bobby Fischer’s rise to the World Championship, culminating in his victory over the reigning world champion Boris Spassky (whom I played many years later), demolishing his predecessor Tigran Petrosian on the way. At the time, the Soviet Union was the undisputed leader of world chess, and they loved to flaunt their superiority on the political level.13 So Fischer was regarded as a real threat to them, as we know even more from documents released after the Soviet Union collapsed.14
Was the moon landing a hoax?
It’s a shame that such a section should even be necessary, because moon hoax theories are akin to flat earth nonsense. But the latter is on the rise, and while not all moon-hoaxers are flat-earthers, all flat-earthers are moon-hoaxers.
We have already answered many of the moon-hoax claims in Arguments we think creationists should NOT use. But considering the points in this article should make it even clearer how absurd the hoax claims are.
- It impugns many of the devout Christians involved. Two of the men who landed on the moon, Charles Duke and James Irwin, became biblical creationists, and always maintained that they landed. Where do they think Aldrin had his communion on 20 July 1969? What exactly was Katherine Johnson calculating when she wasn’t singing in her church choir? There are records of the calculation, and they clearly assumed the conventional Kepler–Newton model of the solar system.
- We don’t want to imply that non-Christians at NASA would have lied either. There is a biblical principle, which is in many legal systems, of presumption of innocence. Also, it would have been impossible to maintain such a stupendous lie in front of millions of viewers around the world, even if they wanted to. Over 400,000 people worked in the space program, and many other countries helped as well including tracking stations in my birthplace Australia. As we have pointed out before:
Yes, the ‘government’ lies about all sorts of stuff, but the government is also a porous sieve of poorly held secrets. One cannot maintain a conspiracy if it includes more than a few people. Anything more than that and someone is going to sell out and the conspiracy comes crashing down.
Indeed, the weakness of any conspiracy is one of the main things to have convinced former corrupt Nixon staffer Chuck Colson of the fact of the Resurrection:I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world—and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.
So belief in conspiracy theories inadvertently undermines a powerful apologetic for the Resurrection.
- While we know that rocket technology was growing by leaps and bounds, video and computer technology was relatively primitive in those days. What could they do with something like the AGC, with a millionth of the memory capacity of modern phones? Maybe there were more powerful computers? Incredible—remember the AGC was a one-off, and 10 years ahead of its time compared to readily available machines. So there is no way CGI could have faked it.
The same goes for faking it on film. Remember how much easier Armstrong found it to walk on the moon than during any simulation? Thus it was impossible to simulate what he did with the technology available. OK, some have claimed that slow-motion special effects can mimic low-gravity movement. But how do you get that? The main method is called overcranking: use a high-speed camera to take more frames per second than a normal one, but then play it back at normal speed. However, the critics forget that the full footage of the moon was not just movie-length but 143 minutes long. This would take seven reels of 35-mm film. Then they would need to be spliced together. This would reveal the splicing joins and other imperfections.15 Also, if it were slow-motion, then everything would look slower, whereas the astronauts’ arms were moving at normal speed.
Even the Hollywood film industry did not have the ability at the time to produce such seeming special effects. So, one can easily compare the relative primitivity of even the award-winning special effects of the day with the moon landing footage. Just see some old films even from the 1970s, and make sure they are not remastered versions, e.g. Star Wars (1977) and Moonraker (1979).
- One of the strongest evidences was often given by Neil Armstrong himself. If it were a hoax, the Soviet Union would have been only too glad to expose it. It would have been a huge embarrassment to American prestige, so they wouldn’t have dared. But in reality, the Apollo mission was watched all around the world, and tracked in various countries around the world (including Australia when the craft was on the opposite side of earth to the USA). The Soviets had nothing to do but resign themselves to defeat in the space race.
- And as mentioned, over one million members of the public viewed the launch from the beaches of Florida. The ground shook as the massive Saturn V explosively lifted off. Independent enthusiasts could even track its speed reaching some 7.791 km/s (28,048 km/h or 17,432 mph)16 as it hurtled into the atmosphere. Did NASA really reach the pinnacle of technological achievement by building the most powerful man-made vehicle ever seen, and the fastest thus far, just to fool everyone?
The Apollo 11 was a magnificent triumph of good science and mathematics. It took almost a decade of hard work by about 400,000 dedicated and gifted men and women—and many of them Christians including CMI’s own friend Dr Henry Richter. At CMI, we admire real operational science. We are also foundationally pro-Bible, not anti-establishment for the sake of it. Hence, we reject conspiratorial theorizing, including moon landing hoax theories.
References and notes
- UTC = Coordinated Universal Time, also called Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Return to text.
- Ostling, R., Was Christian Communion celebrated during the moon landing 50 years ago? patheos.com, 4 July 2019. Return to text.
- Knowles, M.J., The religious moment on the moon NASA never wanted you to see: Religious faith always animated the American quest to explore the heavens, dailywire.com, 16 July 2019. Return to text.
- Wolchover, N., ‘One small step for man’: Was Neil Armstrong misquoted? space.com, 27 August 2012. This cites computer analysis by Australian programmer Peter Shann Ford from 2006. However, as Ref. 5 shows, this had been disputed before the article was written. Return to text.
- Ghosh, P., Armstrong’s ‘poetic’ slip on Moon, bbc.co.uk, 3 June 2009. Return to text.
- One Small Step, Corrected transcript and commentary, Copyright © 1995 by Eric M. Jones, hq.nasa.gov. Return to text.
- Apollo 11 Mission Overview, nasa.gov, accessed 18 Jul 2019. Return to text.
- The journey home, airandspace.si.edu, accessed 18 Jul 2019. Return to text.
- Pierini, D., Your iPhone could handle 120 million moon missions at once, cultofmac.com, 16 July 2019. Return to text.
- NASA Computer iphone comparison, popularmechanics.com. Return to text.
- Madrigal, A.C., Your smart toaster can’t hold a candle to the Apollo computer: Despite what everyone says about the power of modern devices, they’re nowhere near as capable as the landmark early NASA system, theatlantic.com, 16 Jul 2019. Return to text.
- Collier, P. and Horowitz, D., Deconstructing the Left: From Vietnam to the Clinton Era, p. 12, Second Thoughts Books, 1995. Return to text.
- On the personal level though, most of the Soviet players were gentlemanly, and Spassky was famously gracious in defeat, so much that later Fischer considered Spassky to be his only friend. The Soviet grandmasters were happy to pass on some of their expertise to other players. In August 1988, as reigning New Zealand Chess Champion, I attended one of their international schools in Sukhumi, then part of the Soviet republic of Georgia, and still regard it as one of the highlights of my life. Return to text.
- Plisetsky, D., Ed., Russians versus Fischer, Everyman Chess, 2005. Return to text.
- Berry, H., Moon landing footage would have been impossible to fake. Here’s why. livescience.com, 11 Jul 2019. Return to text.
- This was after the third of its three stages had burned. This was enough to put it into a parking orbit around earth, until it was ready to reignite the engines for the translunar injections. The moon’s gravity helped the rocket to get to the moon. The rocket never needed to reach ‘escape velocity’ as it is commonly understood at 11.2 km/s (40,000 km/hr / 25,000 mph). This is actually the surface escape velocity, and this is the minimum speed that an unpowered object needs to escape the earth’s gravity. See Kurtus, R., Gravitational escape velocity with Saturn V rocket, school-for-champions.com, 15 Feb 2016. After the Apollo missions, the two Pioneer and Voyager missions reached greater speeds, because they needed to exceed the escape velocity of the sun to leave the solar system (Voyager 1 is the highest at 17 km/s). Return to text.