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Moon Shots

By Charles Apple The Spokesman-Review

On this date a half-century ago, NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first Earthlings to set foot on the moon while an estimated 530 million people back home watched on live TV.

There was no one-hour photo-developing service on the moon in July 1969 and Instagram wasn’t quite up and running just yet. So Neil and Buzz would be forced to bring their film back to Earth before they could see their pictures.

Smile, Buzz!

This picture — NASA calls it AS11-40-5903 — is arguably one of the most famous photographs ever made.

Life Magazine special edition, 'To the Moon and Back', 1969

However, Neil made the same mistake many of us do with our vacation pictures: He aimed too low and cut off the top of Buzz’s spacesuit.

NASA’s media services department added a bit of black space to the top of the photo before they released it in 1969. The picture at right shows the entire frame as shot by Armstrong.

Note Armstrong and the lunar module reflected in Aldrin’s visor. The visor was gold-plated to help make it reflect light and heat more readily.

Ever wonder why Aldrin’s arm is cocked like that? He’s reading the checklist printed on the left arm of his suit.

This little red knob near his navel was called “the apple.” Aldrin would have pulled this to open a purge valve in case his suit sprang a leak or if the flow of oxygen from his backpack stopped.

In the bottom right of the photo is a landing pad from the lunar module, Eagle. The gold foil-covered pole is a landing probe. When this 5-foot-long extension made contact with the surface, a light came on in the cockpit signaling the astronauts to cut the engine.

Here's lookin' at you

Thanks to MTV, this is perhaps the second-most famous photo taken during Apollo 11’s mission. It shows Aldrin near the U.S. flag he and Armstrong planted on the lunar surface.

The flag appears to be waving in the wind, despite there being no air on the moon. That’s because there’s a horizontal bar that extends from the top of the pole. A loop was sewn into the flag so it could hang from that bar. Armstrong and Aldrin reported they had difficulty extending the bar all the way out.

The flag itself is made of nylon and was reportedly bought at a Sears near Houston.

Armstrong shot two pictures of Aldrin facing the flag. In the first — AS11-40-5874 — he’s saluting.

In the second — AS11-40-5875, which is the one shown at left — Aldrin has dropped his salute and is peering out of the side of his helmet at Armstrong. We’ve lightened this close-up a bit so you can see his face.

Where's Neil?

It wasn’t until technicans began developing film back in Houston that NASA realized there were hardly any pictures of Neil Armstrong on the moon.

The reason for that? Armstrong took many of the pictures. And when Aldrin had the camera, Buzz tended to shoot only what he had been told to shoot.

You gotta love engineers.

There are screen captures of TV footage of Neil Amstrong on the moon, of course...

... and prints have been made of frames from an automatic 16mm film movie camera that shot that night.

But the few still photographs of Armstrong are ones in which he was captured in the background of something else Aldrin was photographing. None of them is worth putting into a photo album.

Once the astronauts climbed back into the lunar module and repressurized the cabin, Aldrin took this candid shot of Armstrong — his eyes puffy from the low gravity and air pressure — smiling after their historic moonwalk.

'Tranquility Base here'

Armstrong spotted large boulders in the area as the Eagle neared its landing target. He took manual control of the craft, hovered a while and, with fuel running frightfully low and computer warnings sounding repeatedly, selected a slightly flatter area farther beyond. What the astronauts would call “Tranquility Base” was about the size of a city block.

Science on the moon

Armstrong and Aldrin had limited time on the lunar surface. They’d collect about 48.5 pounds of rocks and soil samples and they would deploy two scientific instruments.

PSEP: Passive Seismic Experiment PackageWould detect “moonquakes” — seismic activity on the surface of the moon. It was sensitive enough to detect Armstrong moving around in the lunar module during a rest period after the moonwalk. Apollo 11’s PSEP would stop operating after three weeks.

LRRR: Laser Ranging Retro ReflectorScientists can bounce a laser beam off this instrument and back to Earth, allowing them to determine the precise distance between Earth and moon. This has led to the discovery that the moon is slowing moving away from the Earth at about 3.8 centimeters a year. This device still operates.

Sources: NASA, Goddard Space Flight Center/Arizona State University, Kipp Teague’s Project Apollo Archive, the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal

All images from NASA