Feedback
Science

Apollo 11 Had Its Lighter Moments Between Earth and the Moon

Apollo 11's astronauts snapped a glorious picture of the sun and its rays glinting off Earth's surface while they prepared to leave orbit and head for the moon. NASA

Forty-five years ago today, Apollo 11 was 114,000 miles from Earth at 9 a.m. ET, approaching the halfway point in distance between the planet and its natural satellite. The ship’s astronauts — Neil Armstrong, Mike Collins and Buzz Aldrin — were outbound with orders to land on the moon.

They started their trek from Earth orbit to the moon 20 hours earlier, when their Saturn V rocket's third stage gave them the needed boost to reach the lunar surface. When the engine fired, they were moving over the Pacific at 17,300 miles per hour. The rocket had to burn without stop, without even a hiccup, for almost six minutes to reach 24,500 mph — escape velocity.

It did.

The Saturn V worked as NASA's engineers intended, and Neil told them so. "Hey, Houston, the Saturn V gave us a magnificent ride."

"Roger, Eleven. We’ll pass that on. And it certainly looks like you are well on your way."

"We have no complaints with any of the three stages on that ride," Neil assured them. “It was beautiful."

NBC News' Jay Barbree, author of 'Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight,' provides a day-by-day account of Apollo 11.

Twenty hours later, with all their major chores behind them, the Apollo 11 astronauts relaxed, listened to music and marveled at the glow of a full round Earth as they moved deeper and deeper into space.

Neil found his music soothing and a perfect fit for the occasion. In his teens he’d played the baritone, a large, valved brass instrument shaped like a trumpet, in a quartet called the Mississippi Moonshiners.

That was a time when Neil discovered that chasing girls was fun. Playing the instrument as he did, he soon earned a reputation as the best kisser around. He carried this reputation to Purdue University, where he was a member of the university’s concert band. At the moment he was listening to a recording of "Music Out of the Moon."

Appropriate, don’t you think?

NASA audio: Hear Neil discuss 'Music Out of the Moon'

Author: Neil Armstrong ‘never thought he was special’ 3:47

Since leaving the planet, Apollo 11 had been in constant light with nothing to block the sun. It would be this way for the astronauts until they were on their final approach to the lunar surface.

Neil was really looking forward to their dark passage when he would have a clear, distinct view of the universe. That’s when his backup as commander of Apollo 11, Jim Lovell, called with a question. "Is the commander on board?"

When Lovell flew aboard Apollo 8 in 1968, he was one of the first to open the very road to the moon that Apollo 11 was now traveling. During training, he was there every step of the way as Neil's backup. He was ready to step in at any moment if for some reason Neil couldn't make the flight.

Armstrong rolled upright from his music-listening position and quickly answered the call. "This is Neil, Jim, what’s up?"

"I’m a little worried."

"Worried?" a puzzled Armstrong asked. "Worried about what?"

"You haven't given me the word yet," Lovell said. "You haven’t told me to stand down. Are you 'go'?"

"Good Lord, Jim," Neil laughed. "We’re halfway between Earth and the moon. You've lost your chance to take this one, buddy."

"OK." Lovell returned the laugh. "I concede."

Sign up for Science news delivered to your inbox

With one of Jim Lovell’s classic "gotchas" behind them, Apollo 11's astronauts sailed without the slightest bump across the halfway line in distance between Earth and the moon. But they were yet to cross the gravitational equalization point between the two bodies.

What Neil couldn't know at the time was that, 23 years later, the Galileo planetary craft would snap the first-ever picture of Earth and the moon showing the route Apollo 11 was now taking. The aerospace editor of The Associated Press, Howard Benedict — one of the best damn friends Neil and I ever had — secured three copies of the photograph, and I sent them to Neil.

Neil was so impressed he signed a copy for me, and one for Benedict, to be treasured for a lifetime.

IN-DEPTH

This is Part 3 of an eight-part series retracing the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, day by day. The account is based on material from Jay Barbree's newly published book, "Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight." Check back with NBCNews.com on Friday to relive Apollo 11's approach to the moon.

Barbree will discuss the Apollo legacy on "Virtually Speaking Science," an hourlong talk show that airs on Blog Talk Radio and in the Exploratorium's Second Life virtual auditorium. The show airs July 21 at 8 p.m. ET.