Nation celebrates 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 moon landing

Author: Reporter Package By Rich Kolko/ CBS News Article By Victoria Albert
Published: Updated:
In this July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, walks on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity. (Neil Armstrong/NASA via AP)

“48 Hours” will mark the moment Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Tune into CBS at 10:56 p.m. to watch Walter Cronkite’s coverage.

At 4:17 p.m. EDT on July 20, 1969, NASA’s “Eagle” lunar lander touched down on the surface of the moon. Six hours and 39 minutes later, Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong made history when he stepped on lunar soil and uttered his now-famous phrase: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

In the two hours and 31 minutes that followed, Armstrong and fellow Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin collected nearly 50 pounds of moon rocks and soil, took a call from then-President Richard Nixon, and planted the American flag on the moon. An estimated 650 million people watched from Earth — many of whom were tuned in to CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite’s special report, featuring commentary by one of NASA’s original Mercury Seven astronauts, Walter “Wally” Schirra.

Lunar module touches down on the moon; Cronkite says, “I’m speechless”

After a series of nail-biting moments leading up to the landing, the lunar module touched down on the Sea of Tranquility. “Man on the moon!” Cronkite exclaimed. A moment later, Armstrong reported: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” “You’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue,” astronaut Charlie Duke responded from Mission Control. “We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.” Unfortunately, because there weren’t any video cameras on the moon, viewers on Earth didn’t actually get to see the landing — instead, they watched a simulation while listening to the real-time audio feed from NASA.

Cronkite, a long-time space enthusiast, was visibly shaken by this historic moment. “Wally, say something, I’m speechless,” he told Schirra. “I’m just trying to hold on to my breath,” Schirra responded. “That is really something.”

Front-page newspaper headlines commemorate moon landing

Soon after the module touched down, Cronkite displayed the front pages of two of New York’s major morning newspapers. The first was The New York Times, which chose the headline “Men Land on Moon: 2 Astronauts Avoid Crater, Set Craft on a Rocky Plain,” and featured an article from John Noble Wilford and a poem by Archibald MacLeish. The New York Daily News chose a simpler layout: a full-page image of the moon and the headline “Man Lands on the Moon.”

Neil Armstrong takes man’s first step on the moon

At 10:56 p.m. on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong descended from the lunar excursion module, carefully stepped down a ladder, and became the first man to set foot on the moon. “Armstrong is on the moon,” Cronkite announced, “Neil Armstrong, 38-year-old American, standing on the surface of the moon.” Moments later, Armstrong said his famous line: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” But in the excitement of the moment, there was a bit of confusion — CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite didn’t quite catch the phrase the first time.

Armstrong, Aldrin plant American flag on the moon

About 45 minutes after Armstrong set foot on the moon, the two astronauts planted an American flag on lunar soil. Since there was no wind to keep the stars and stripes flying, the flag was mounted on a frame. “Nothing more is really needed here, but it does seem that there ought to be some music,” Cronkite said with a laugh. Once the flag was stable, the astronauts took photos of each other beside it — prompting Cronkite to call them “the first tourists on the moon.”

President Richard Nixon speaks to the astronauts on the moon, congratulates them on their “immense feat”

While standing on the surface of the moon, Aldrin and Armstrong took a call from then-President Richard Nixon. “This certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made from the White House,” Nixon told the astronauts. “I just can’t tell you how proud we all are of what you have done…”

“For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one,” Nixon said. “One in their pride in what you have done, and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth.”

“Thank you, Mr. President,” the duo responded. “It’s a great honor and privilege for us to be here.”

–Jon Miller contributed to this story.

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