By Joshua L. Wick, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
I wish I had either been born earlier or been a better student of history when I was younger. It wasn’t until later in life that I fully grasped the masterful accomplishment of and the national pride in the early space program that, in less than a decade, went from an idea to a man standing on the surface of the moon.
Looking back, I remember hearing about NASA’s Project Gemini mission because my grandfather worked on the Titan rocket program that launched the Gemini capsules into space. I somehow missed in the history lessons of my youth that Gemini pushed the U.S. ahead of the Soviets in the Cold War’s space race. Perhaps more importantly Gemini provided NASA the training and experience needed for the next big mission: Apollo and the journey to the moon.
It’s amazing to think about it now: just three years after the last Gemini mission in November 1966, former Navy pilot Neil Armstrong would become the first human to set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969. In doing so he fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” From those early, heady days, the space program, to most Americans, grew to become almost routine. So it might come as a surprise to some people how important space has become to the warfighting capability of today’s Navy. Space plays a vital role in how the Navy operates its communications networks, monitors ships, and responds to disasters and conflict. Simply put, it’s important to just about everything the Navy does every day.
This explains why, at the outset, the U.S. Navy has played a key role in our nation’s space exploration efforts, contributing research, technology and most importantly people. From Alan Shepard, the first U.S. astronaut in space, to Neil Armstrong, to William McCool who died on Space Shuttle Columbia, to today’s Capt. Christopher Cassidy, Navy astronauts have slipped the surly bonds of earth as explorers in service to their nation.
But Armstrong obviously occupies a special place in the history of the space program, the nation and the world.
Long before NASA, space travel and his moon walk, he had an interest in flying. In fact, he learned to fly before he could drive, receiving his pilot’s license at age 15.
One of the few Navy astronauts to not graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy, Armstrong joined the Navy through a scholarship at Purdue University where he studied aeronautical engineering.
He was just two years into his education at Purdue when, due to the rising conflict in Korea, he reported to Naval Air Station Pensacola for active duty in 1949 as an aviation midshipmen. He was commissioned as an Ensign in 1951.
He went on to fly nearly 80 combat missions during the Korean War. He returned to the Reserves and served from 1952 through October 1960.
After leaving the Navy, he worked as an engineer, test pilot, astronaut and administrator for NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).
On July 20, 1969 the former naval aviator commanded Apollo 11. He was joined on the journey by Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” E. Aldrin Jr., and Command Module Pilot Michael Collins. Armstrong and Aldrin took the lunar module “Eagle” the final steps of the journey and descended to the moon’s surface landing on the Sea of Tranquility.
There, Armstrong and Aldrin earned the distinction of being the first humans to land a craft on the moon. About 109 hours, 42 minutes after launching from Earth, Armstrong left the Eagle and became the first human to step on the lunar surface. Twenty minutes later, Aldrin followed.
“That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The two spent more than two hours outside the lunar module walking around, studying and collecting rocks. They spent a total of 21 hours, 36 minutes on the moon’s surface, before blasting off and docking with Collins in orbit around the moon. By the time they returned to Earth on July 24, the Apollo 11 astronauts had traveled 953,054 miles on a mission that lasted eight days, three hours, 18 minutes, 35 seconds.
When their command module Columbia splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, the crew of Apollo 11, led by a Sailor, was met and recovered by Sailors from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CVS 12).
During those eight days, Americans were glued to their TV sets, breathlessly waiting for news updates with details about the mission and the safe return of the astronauts. There aren’t many examples in history of experiences that are shared simultaneously by an entire country with an accompanying swelling of national pride. Reading back on it I can understand it, but I believe I would have enjoyed it more as a kid… if only I had paid more attention in history class.