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How one small step became a giant leap

A billion people watched astronaut Neil Armstrong step onto the lunar surface in 1969. But space reporter Jay Barbree was there for all the steps before that.
ASYJB0814_MuffieCrater
Neil Armstrong lost his 2-year-old daughter, Muffie, to a brain tumor. Imagining how she would have liked to slide down this crater, he named it after her.
NASA
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There was so much more they wanted to do, but Buzz found the Sea of Tranquillity more rugged than he’d expected. There were high and low areas — not the best place to set up the experiments — but he managed to deploy a solar-powered seismometer to detect moonquakes and a laser reflector to help scientists measure the distance at any given time between Earth and the Moon. Buzz and Neil were most pleased when Mission Control told them they were giving them an extra 15 minutes.

When they had the solar-powered seismometer running, Tranquillity Base appeared to be a fully operating scientific outpost. Neil left the experiments to Buzz and began moving about their landing site, exploring on his own.

He quickly abandoned any thoughts of trying to reach and inspect the football-field-sized crater he had to avoid during landing. But there was a smaller crater he’d flown over only about 200 feet (60m) away.

A baby crater, Neil thought, Muffie’s Crater. He smiled, quietly remembering the 2-year-old he and Janet had lost to a brain tumor, and he permitted himself a moment. He stood there, remembering how Muffie would have loved sliding down into the pit. He had an overwhelming urge to do it for her. He’d love to have a sample of lunar bedrock anyway for the geologists. But then better judgment grabbed him. What if he couldn’t get back up without the help of Buzz?

He settled for taking pictures and describing what he saw before heading back where Mission Control had put Buzz to work hammering a metal core tube sample into the hard subsurface. They then told Neil to gather rocks that would best represent the Sea of Tranquillity.

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As Neil Armstrong left the lunar surface, he imagined that the American flag he and Buzz Aldrin has planted on the Moon would give the same frozen wave for years to come. (The flag actually tipped over due to the the exhaust from the ascent module's engine as the astronauts departed.)
NASA

With time running out, they moved back to Eagle’s ladder, and Buzz was told to head back in. But before he did, he took the camera from Neil and photographed the Apollo 11 commander loading lunar material boxes on Eagle.

Neil sensed that if he came back to this same location on the Moon a million years from now, he would find the scene as he had left it. In his visit, he had little time to get to know this small corner of the solar system. Yet the knowledge and the samples from the Moon he and Buzz were bringing back were priceless.

He joined his moonwalking partner inside Eagle to welcome the loud noise of oxygen filling their lander’s cabin — the livable atmosphere they would need to take their helmets off. When they did, they were met with a pungent odor — wet ashes and gunpowder. They were bringing the smell of the Moon with them.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had landed on the Moon on Sunday, July 20, 1969, at 4:17:42 p.m. EDT.

Six hours and 38 minutes later, Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the lunar surface. Aldrin followed him 18 minutes later to become the second. Apollo’s lunar landings would end after 12 Americans walked and rode in lunar cars across the Moon’s landscape. The last Apollo returned from the lunar surface December 17, 1972.

No human has visited the Moon since.


Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight is on sale now! Find it at all major bookstores, Amazon.com, and Barnes & Noble.

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