What you didn't see during the first moon landing

Fifty years ago, the Apollo 11 crew spent four days in space. Then, when they finally reached the moon and sent the signals back to Earth, 600 million people couldn't believe what they were seeing – live – on their television sets.

And they could not even see some of the most interesting parts, until now.

Neil Armstrong, being the ace pilot that he was, landed so gently that the touchdown didn't compress the legs of the lunar module. He had to jump down the end of the ladder, making it more of a "giant leap" than planned. 

Buzz Aldrin followed. But he broke his suit's urine collector as he jumped, and he had just decided to take what he calls the first "giant leak."

"I felt the urge to urinate and I did," he recalled. "So you know, Neil's got the first step on the moon, but I've got my first, too."

Later, when you see Armstrong on-camera collecting moon dust, Aldrin -- a Presbyterian elder -- took the first Communion on the moon.  It was off-camera because NASA was already facing a complaint for mixing church and state when the Apollo 8 crew read from Genesis during their Christmas-time mission the year before.  

Back on the surface, Armstrong noted that the moon's surface "appears to be very, very fine grain...almost like a powder."

That made it easy for Aldrin to make that iconic bootprint, but tricky to plant the first American flag. Armstrong later confirmed he saw it topple as they blasted off from the moon.

The astronauts also planted laser reflectors that we still use to measure the distance between the earth and moon – which confirms the moon is slowly drifting away from us. 

But this was the night that pulled the people of Earth closer together.

President Nixon touched on that in his call to the astronauts from the Oval Office. "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."


Of course, we also beat the Soviet Union, and this feat may have hastened its demise. It also paved the way for global cooperation in space, as Armstrong stressed in 2011, in one his final speeches before he died. 

"Ideological differences fade in the presence of the overpowering force of pride in what we do and what Americans have achieved," he said.

This first night on the moon fueled America's imagination and determination to do so much more.  

"I'd go out at night, look at the moon, and say, ‘I can't believe we're there,'" offered Ken Poimbeuf, an Apollo-era engineer.

Kids who watched that first night on the moon became the next generation of dreamers and leaders in space.

"What the adults were saying, it sounded like this was important. They told me, they said, ‘Don't ever forget this,'" recalled Dr. Phil Metzger, who grew up to be an engineer for the shuttle and International Space Station. "I knew that something big was happening, something that would be remembered for ages."

Charlie Blackwell-Thompson was also captivated by Apollo 11. 

"I remember, as a first grader, them bringing in the black-and-white TV in my classroom and us all gathering around," she recalled. "And I remember being struck with just fascination." 

She became a successor to Gene Kranz.  Now she's the launch director in the same firing room, picking up where the age of Apollo left off. 


"It doesn't matter how many people are in this room; it is incredibly quiet," she said in the firing room. "It's louder in here right now than it is on launch day." 

Before they left, Neil and Buzz placed the first memorial on another world. They left a gold replica of an olive branch and a mission patch from Apollo 1 to honor fallen astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, along with medals to fallen cosmonauts Vladimir Komarov and Yuri Gagarin, who died in Soviet disasters before Apollo 11 reached the moon.

Then, Buzz Aldrin got the call to come back -- a bit sooner than he (or anyone in his shoes) may have liked.  

"It's disappointing to go someplace so far away when you've been thinking about it and then someone tells you it's time to come home."

But there was one last problem that could have stranded them on the moon: The switch to launch the lunar module back to the command ship had broken off the panel.

Aldrin found a writing pen in the pocket of his space suit and, in a real-life MacGyver moment, plugged it into the circuit breaker and turned it into a switch. 

Ten other Americans would follow in Neil and Buzz's footsteps, with greater breakthroughs down the road.