Landing men on the moon had often been a topic expounded upon by the writers of science fiction. Imaginations long captivated by the idea of sailing through the heavens, humans have contemplated the moon from the very beginning. In 1969, it was no longer imagined, but realized.
With the Cold War in full swing, there was some concern that the first country to land on the Moon would have a distinct advantage over the remaining nations on Earth. Determined to be the first country to put a man on the moon, and demonstrate military and scientific superiority, the White House announced that the United States planned to send satellites into space by the spring of 1958. What ended up happening was the successful launching of satellite Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957. This caused an uproar in the United States and the creation of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) in 1958. NASA consolidated a number of government agencies in an effort to increase efficiency in space-age research and development.
In 1961, United States President John F. Kennedy declared the goal of sending a man to the moon within the next decade. This goal was addressed by NASA under the Apollo human spaceflight program. Many missions were launched by both the USSR and the United States over the next 10 years in what was called the "Space Race." With both participants working toward landing man on the moon, and overall superiority in space, each achievement was well-publicized. This intense competition was a source of propaganda on both sides, as well as much new information. Questions such as the composition of the moon's surface and whether it would hold a moon-walking man were answered.
On July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 mission was launched, falling within the decade with time to spare. The astronauts on board the ship Columbia were Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, Jr., and Michael Collins. During the three and a half day journey, the astronauts watched the Earth fall away as they headed into space.
On July 20, 1969, the Columbia's landing craft, Eagle, landed on the surface of the moon in a corner of the lunar plain called the Sea of Tranquility while the Columbia orbited above. The landing location of the Eagle was named Tranquility Base.
Armstrong was the first to step onto the moon and uttered the familiar line: "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind." Aldrin followed and admired the "magnificent desolation" of the lunar landscape. During the two and a half hours the astronauts spent outside of the Eagle, they collected samples, took photos, and performed other information-gathering activities. They also spoke with President Nixon in "the most historic phone call ever made from the White House" where President Nixon declared, "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."
Aside from the information gathered at that time, the astronauts left scientific instruments to continue to gather information. Additional items left on the moon were an American flag, an Apollo 1 mission patch in memory of the first Apollo mission, and a plaque with the inscription "Here Men From the Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We Came in Peace For All Mankind." Also deposited on the moon's surface was a memorial bag containing various items, including a message disk that included statements from leaders of over 73 countries. The Eagle returned to the Columbia on July 21, 1969 after spending 21 hours on the moon.
During the uneventful return trip of the Columbia, a television broadcast was sent from the ship. Collins stated, "All this is possible only through the blood, sweat, and tears of a number of a people ...All you see is the three of us, but beneath the surface are thousands and thousands of others, and to all of those, I would like to say, 'Thank you very much." Aldrin continued,"This has been far more than three men on a mission to the Moon; more, still, than the efforts of a government and industry team; more, even, than the efforts of one nation. We feel that this stands as a symbol of the insatiable curiosity of all mankind to explore the unknown." The Columbia splashed down, as expected, in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969, where the astronauts were picked up safely.
Since that first moon walk, all three astronauts were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of this achievement, joint flights of the U.S. and Soviet space programs were launched, and the International Space Station research facility provides an impressive example of international cooperation. The walk on the moon was and remains a fantastic reminder that more is always possible; what once was science fiction has become science fact.