Fifty years ago next week, 600 million people around the world watched on live television as Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took those historic first footsteps on the moon. Since then, that achievement has been spotlighted in countless books, TV shows, documentaries and feature films.
Yet, some of the most intriguing details from the Apollo 11 saga remain largely unknown or poorly understood.
In the 2018 Neil Armstrong biopic "First Man," for example, Armstrong is shown memorializing his daughter, who had died seven years before the moonshot at the age of two, by placing her bracelet on the lunar surface. It seems a moment of pure Hollywood fiction — but maybe not. There was an odd moment toward the end of Armstrong’s 2.5-hour moonwalk when he detoured and dropped out of contact with mission control for three minutes. Could he have deposited Karen’s bracelet then? “Oh, I dearly hope so,” June Armstrong Hoffman, his sister, said in a 2005 interview.
That’s just one of the many lost stories surrounding Apollo 11. Here are 10 more.
In public, President John F. Kennedy made soaring speeches, proclaiming that going to the moon would “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” But in private, he was a pragmatic politician more focused on earthly concerns. “Everything we do ought to be tied into getting to the moon ahead of the Russians,” he told NASA Administrator James Webb in a 1962 White House meeting. “I’m not that interested in space.”
Buying insurance isn’t easy when you’re about to shoot into space atop a flaming rocket. With no better option, Armstrong, Aldrin and their Apollo 11 crewmate, Michael Collins, resorted to cashing in on their fame. They signed hundreds of envelopes and postcards, then had friends postmark them July 16 or July 20 (the launch or moon-landing date), figuring that the autographs would be valuable enough to provide for their families if the men didn’t return.
Playtex, a company better known for inventing the Cross Your Heart bra, was hired to create the suits that would protect astronauts from the moon’s airless environment and temperature extremes. That decision led to a secret fashion battle.
As Nicholas de Monchaux recounts in his 2011 book "Spacesuit," NASA managers forced Playtex to work under the supervision of an aerospace company, Hamilton Standard, which submitted a suit that was rejected. Playtex employees then snuck into Hamilton Standard, snatched back their design, resubmitted it and won the contract.
Playtex’s industrial division, ILC Dover, has designed every NASA spacesuit since then.
In 1965, two engineers at the agency’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston (now Johnson Space Center) calculated that the explosion of a fuel-laden Saturn V could create a fireball 1,400 feet wide, with temperatures up to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Bits of shrapnel from the explosion might travel as far as three miles. Just in case, NASA seated Vice President Spiro Agnew, former President Lyndon Johnson and other VIP guests three and a half miles away from the pad during the Apollo 11 liftoff.
Minutes after the lunar module touched down on the Sea of Tranquility, Aldrin radioed back to Earth, “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.” Then Aldrin — an elder at the Webster Presbyterian Church in Webster, Texas — switched off the radio, opened small plastic containers of bread and wine and read privately from the Gospel of John.
“The very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the communion elements,” the astronaut later wrote in Guideposts magazine.
In the cramped confines of the lunar module, Armstrong’s backpack smashed against the ascent engine arming switch — the critical one needed to light the engine and begin the flight back to Earth — and broke it off.
Mission control had no obvious fix, but the astronauts were old hands at improvising solutions to tricky problems. Aldrin pulled a felt-tip pen from the pocket of his spacesuit. “I inserted the pen into the small opening where the circuit breaker switch should have been, and pushed it in; sure enough, the circuit breaker held,” he recounted in his 2009 book Magnificent Desolation. “We were going to get off the moon, after all."
When you have barely enough fuel to get you off the moon, you don’t want to take any dead weight with you. According to NASA’s Catalogue of Manmade Material on the Moon, the Apollo 11 moon walkers left behind a vomit bag, two urine collectors, and a “defecation collection device,” along with more dignified items such as a seismic experiment and a silicon “Memorial Disc” inscribed with goodwill messages from 73 nations around the world.
In total, NASA says, the six Apollo missions that put men on the moon left behind 96 bags of human waste.
The idea was to protect Earth from possible lunar germs, even though NASA scientists seriously doubted there could be life on the moon. For three weeks following their return, the Apollo 11 crew lived in a “mobile quarantine unit,” first aboard the USS Hornet aircraft carrier and then at Pearl Harbor. President Richard Nixon even did a photo-op with the men, their faces pressed against the glass of their sealed room.
But the procedures were a bit of a sham, Collins noted in a recent interview, because any dangerous microbes would have escaped the moment the returning astronauts emerged from their capsule: “The command module lands in the Pacific Ocean, and what do they do? Open the hatch. You got to open the hatch! All the damn germs come out!"
Two days before the moon landing, Nixon speechwriter William Safire penned remarks for the president to deliver in case Armstrong and Aldrin died. Oddly, the speech imagines them marooned on the surface, not killed during landing or takeoff. “These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice,” Nixon would have said. The letter sits in the National Archives.
From its orbit around the moon, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter can clearly see the shadows of the flags (along with many other artifacts of the Apollo sites), proving that they’re upright. The lone exception is the flag placed by Armstrong and Aldrin, who had struggled to plant the flagpole in the unexpectedly hard lunar soil. Aldrin later said he had seen the wobbly flag topple when hit by rocket exhaust from the lunar module as it ascended from the surface.
The entire set of Apollo flags, incidentally, was purchased at Sears by a trio of NASA secretaries who had been sent out on their lunch hour.