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Apollo 11’s ‘Giant Leap’ on the Moon Held Deep Meaning for Neil Armstrong

Image: Apollo 11 portrait

Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin stands on the moon in an iconic portrait captured by Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969. In the full-resolution version, Armstrong can be seen reflected in Aldrin's helmet visor. Neil Armstrong / NASA

Forty-five years ago tonight, at 10:56 p.m. Eastern time, 99 percent of the television sets on the planet Earth were tuned in to NASA's TV signal. Viewers saw a strange, black-and-white image showing the front leg of Apollo 11’s lunar module, with its ladder slanted across a totally dark sky. Below and in the background was a very bright lunar surface. On the ladder was a ghost. The ghost was Neil Armstrong.

He moved slowly and steadily, as if he had no place to go. The moon had been waiting for 4.6 billion years, and Neil was in no hurry. Every move had to be precise, correct, no problems.

He reached up with his gloved hand to grasp the ladder, and then turned left, leaning outward. "I’m going to step off the LM now," he told Mission Control, lifting his left boot over the footpad and setting it down in moon dust that shot up and outward in a fine spray — a spray that lasted only a quick instant in the absence of an atmosphere.

"That’s one small step for man," Neil said with a momentary pause. "One giant leap for mankind."

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

His mother had told him her only real concern for his safety was that the moon's crust might not support him. Neil tested his weight. Then he said, "The surface is fine and powdery. I can pick it up loosely with my toe. It does adhere in fine layers like powdered charcoal to the sole and sides of my boots. I only go in a small fraction of an inch, maybe an eighth of an inch, but I can see the footprints of my boots and the treads in the fine sandy particles."

"Neil, this is Houston. We’re copying."

He stood there rock solid, boots braced for balance, enclosed in the elaborate pressurized exoskeleton that sustained his life in this inhospitable place. It was filled with energy, with supplies of heat and cooling, water, oxygen pressure — a capsule of life created by his Apollo colleagues.

Neil Armstrong stood looking long and hard at this small, untouched world. He was overwhelmed, his sense and his thoughts set afire with the miracle of being on the lunar surface. He believed that he and Buzz and those who would follow were there for far more than just walking through lunar dust and measuring solar winds, magnetic fields, and radiation levels. All that was window dressing for their real purpose for coming.

It all condensed into every view they had of their fragile, beautiful Earth.

Flashback: Apollo 11 Lunar Landing 7:25

It was suddenly clear to this son of the land once walked by Orville and Wilbur Wright that he was on the moon to look back — to give every single human a clear look at spaceship Earth carrying the miracle. In this neighborhood of the universe, it was life's only world. It was encased in diamond-hard blackness, and Neil recognized that it mattered little if we were Republican, Democrat, independent, apolitical, Christian, Jew, Muslin, Hindu, Buddhist, or whomever the hell we liked or disliked.

We lived on a vulnerable world, and we needed to take care of its very definite resources. We all would suffer terrifying consequences if we destroyed this world's ability to sustain us, its ability to foster and nurture the very life we threatened to contaminate. Neil knew that no matter how diligent, how great our effort to protect Earth, it was finite. If humans were to survive, one day they would have to move on to new worlds.

In the greatest of reasons, that was what he and Buzz and all those who would follow were doing walking on the moon.

Neil stopped his thoughts, forced himself out of his introspection.

He and Buzz had much to do before they could catch a few hours' rest. After he inspected Eagle's condition and surveyed their landing site, Neil guided Buzz down the ladder to join him where the land curved gently but noticeably away — all the way out to a horizon that was only half the distance they were used to seeing on Earth.

Image: Aldrin on the moon
Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin makes his way down the ladder to the moon's surface on July 20, 1969. NASA

On the moon, they could actually see they were standing on a sphere, and when they walked and looked down, their motion fascinated them. Each time they took one of their half-walking and half-floating steps, their boots set lunar soil spraying outward and upward, sharply and quickly, without the hindrance of an atmosphere. They took running and leaping strides that were impossible to execute on Earth. But when they tried to sustain a jog, the mass and velocity created kinetic energy, and stopping quickly was impossible.

If was as if they had found a new playground after school. They even tried bunny hopping, an assortment of moves, and they wished they could stay on their new playground until they had explored every nook, every cranny. There was so much to see and do, and so little time.

But despite their wish to drink in this new and strange and beautiful and wonderful place, Neil and Buzz had to move on to their chores.

They planted the American flag. Then, in the lunar dust, they placed mementos for the five deceased American and Russian spacefliers, plus one small cargo — private and honorable — that was carried by Neil. It was not to be divulged. It was very special and dear to him, a part of an unfinished life he so wanted to leave on the moon, and he did.

Image: Duo
A rare picture, captured by a camera mounted on the Eagle lunar module, shows Apollo 11's Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin working together on the moon in 1969. NASA

They took time out of their hurried-up schedule to talk to President Richard Nixon by phone, and Buzz set up the mission's scientific experiments. He found the Sea of Tranquility to be more rugged than he'd expected. There were high and low areas — not the best place for the experiments. Nevertheless, Buzz 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.

Neil left the experiments to Buzz and explored 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 away. He only thought about this one for a second, and then he moved with quick strides to reach it. He found the smaller pit to be about 80 feet across and 15 to 20 feet deep. No larger than a good-sized house.

He had an overwhelming urge to slide down into the crater. He’d love to have a sample of lunar bedrock for the geologists. But better judgment grabbed him. What if he couldn’t get back up without Buzz's help?

He settled for taking pictures and describing what he saw, and then headed back to where Mission Control had put Buzz to work, hammering a metal core tube sample into the hard subsurface. The NASA team in Houston told Neil to gather rocks that would best represent their location.

Image: Experiments on the moon
Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin sets up experiments on the moon. NASA

Now time was truly running out. They moved back to the Eagle’s ladder, and Buzz was told to head back in.

Neil sensed that if he came back to this same location on the moon a hundred, a thousand, 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, and welcomed the loud noise of oxygen filling their lander's cabin — filling it with the livable atmosphere they would need to take their helmets off. When they did, they were hit with a pungent odor — wet ashes and gunpowder. They were bringing the smell of the moon with them.

Mission Control reminded Neil and Buzz that they needed to sleep for five hours before starting their countdown to rejoin Mike Collins in lunar orbit.

The sleeping business was easier said than done. They were cold in Eagle. Whatever had been set up to keep them warm on this airless world wasn't doing the job. On top of that, they were wound up tighter than an alarm clock with accomplishment and excitement.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon Sunday, July 20, 1969, at 4:17:42 p.m. Eastern time.

Six hours and 38 minutes later, Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the lunar surface. Aldrin followed, 18 minutes later, to become the second. In the three and a half years that followed, 10 more Americans walked and rode in lunar cars across the moon’s landscape. The last Apollo lunar mission returned to Earth on Dec. 17, 1972.

No human has visited the moon since.

IN-DEPTH

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This is Part 7 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 New York Times best seller, "Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight." Check back with NBCNews.com on Monday for the series finale.

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 Monday at 8 p.m. ET.