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Apollo facts: 11 things you probably don’t know about the moon mission

As the Apollo 11 moon landing’s 52th anniversary nears on July 20, even the most avid space fans might think they know all there is to know about the historic first moon landing. Think again.

Here are 11 little-known facts about the Apollo 11 mission.

1. Why is there a U.S. flag on the moon?

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted the American flag on the moon, but who made that decision?

Would you believe Congress?

About a month before the mission, there was a growing call to place a United Nations flag on the moon, symbolizing the historic moment for the world and humans.

“You might have some nice international implications by using somebody else’s flag, but I think you would have some very bad internal reactions and a great reduction in funds for NASA if anything like that happened,” Rep. Burt L. Talcott, R-Calif., warned NASA Administrator Thomas Paine during a meeting of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on June 6, 1969.

Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin plant the U.S. flag on the lunar surface.
Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin plant the U.S. flag on the lunar surface. (NASA via Associated Press / AP)

Just to make sure that Paine and NASA got the message, days later Congress added an amendment to a NASA budget bill prohibiting any flag except an American one from being placed on the moon.

The amendment’s author, Rep. Richard Roudebush, R-Ind., noted that Americans had paid $23 billion for the space program to that point. “And it doesn’t seem far-fetched that the U.S. flag should be placed there on the moon as a symbolic gesture of national pride and unity. U.S. taxpayers paid for the trip.”

2. There are other flags on the moon?

Old Glory had company on the moon. Did you know around 200 flags flew to the moon aboard Apollo 11?

NASA documents note, “It was decided that, in addition to the large [American] flag, 4-by-6-inch flags of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. territories, and flags for all member countries of the United Nations and several other nations, would be carried in the lunar module and returned for presentation to governors and heads of state after the flight.”

At the Rice University Stadium on September 12, 1962, President Kennedy vowed that the U.S. would reach the Moon “first before this decade is out.” (Cecil Stoughton / John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

3. Who designed Apollo 11′s mission patch?

Guess the Apollo 11 crew member who was an amateur graphic designer. Michael Collins, the command module pilot, actually designed the mission emblem, with input from Armstrong and others.

The Apollo 11 mission patch was created by astronaut Michael Collins, who piloted the Apollo 11 command module that orbited the moon.
The Apollo 11 mission patch was created by astronaut Michael Collins, who piloted the Apollo 11 command module that orbited the moon. (Associated Press)

According to NASA, after the crew decided to name the lunar module Eagle, Collins found a picture of an eagle in a National Geographic book – tracing it on a piece of tissue paper.

“He then sketched in a field of craters beneath the eagle’s claws and the Earth behind its wings,” a NASA story noted. “The olive branch was suggested by Tom Wilson, a computer expert and the Apollo 11 simulator instructor, as a symbol of the peaceful expedition. … Collins quickly modified the sketch to have the eagle carrying the olive branch in its beak.”

But the design was rejected.

“Bob Gilruth, the director of the then-named Manned Spacecraft Center, saw the eagle landing with its talons extended as too hostile and warlike,” NASA said. “So, the olive branch was transferred from the eagle’s mouth to his talons, a less menacing position.

“Although happy with the design, Collins maintained that the eagle looked ‘uncomfortable’ in the new version and that he ‘hoped he dropped the olive branch before landing.’”

Apollo Commander Thomas P. Stafford (in foreground) and Soyuz Commander Alexei A. Leonov make their historic handshake in space during the joint Russian / American docking mission known as the Apollo Soyuz Test Project. The first joint U.S.-Russian space mission came in 1975.
Apollo Commander Thomas P. Stafford (in foreground) and Soyuz Commander Alexei A. Leonov make their historic handshake in space during the joint Russian / American docking mission known as the Apollo Soyuz Test Project. The first joint U.S.-Russian space mission came in 1975. (NASA)

4. One small step for a Ruskie?

Did you know there might have been a Russian standing next to Armstrong on the moon if President Kennedy had his way?

On Sept. 21, 1963, Kennedy spoke at the United Nations and offered to make the lunar landing a joint venture between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. 

“Why … should man’s first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition?” Kennedy asked.

Why make such an offer? The projected cost of the moon-landing program had ballooned to $20 billion in 1963 and Congress threatened to cut NASA’s budget.

Kennedy’s idea fizzled, and when he was killed just weeks later, there was a renewed sense of purpose to fulfill his moon-landing goal.

A computer-generated illustration shows the trajectory of the Apollo 11 mission and the stages of the spacecraft from launch to orbit and return. (Claus Lunau / Science Source)

5. Running a little late?

With no issues – technical or otherwise – to stop the countdown, Apollo 11 blasted off from Kennedy Space Center at 9:32 a.m. on July 16, 1969.

But did you know that it was actually late? Launch director Rocco Petrone broke the news to the assembled media after the launch.

“We were 724 milliseconds later for the start of this mission that really started eight years ago,” he said.

6. What historic date?

What if there had been a major delay in the Apollo 11 countdown?

NASA had eight other dates picked for the launch: July 18 and 21; Aug. 14, 16, and 20, and Sept. 13, 15, and 18.

Those dates provided the correct azimuths for astronauts to get into Earth parking orbit and also, later, the right days for acceptable sun angles on the lunar landing sites.

So, instead of celebrating humans’ first moon landing on July 20, our Moon Day might have been Aug. 18 or even Sept. 22.

Buzz Aldrin exits the Eagle and descends the ladder to begin his moonwalk in this photo series captured by Neil Armstrong. (NASA)

7. What was the mission goal?

NASA had a way of making things complicated. It called spacewalks “extravehicular activities,” for example.

For all of its jargon and super technical talk, NASA’s official mission objective for Apollo 11 was simple.

It was just seven words: “Perform a manned lunar landing and return.”

Armstrong collected the fragment of fine-grained basalt pictured on the left. Lunar rocks were stored onboard in stainless steel vacuum containers (NASA). On the right, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong participate in a simulation of deploying and using lunar tools on the surface of the Moon during an April 1969 training exercise. Aldrin (left) uses scoop and tongs to pick up a sample while Armstrong holds a bag to receive the sample in front of a Lunar Module mockup. Both are wearing Extravehicular Mobility Units. (NASA)

8. Houston, is there a problem?

Every crewed space mission has a backup crew. For Apollo 11, the backup crew was James Lovell, William Anders and Fred Haise.

Do you know why those names sound familiar?

Lovell and Haise were two-thirds of the crew of the ill-fated Apollo 13, the only moon mission that had to be aborted. Jack Swigert was the other Apollo 13 crew member.

If you’ve read history or seen the 1995 Ron Howard film about the mission, you know they all survived.

Apollo 11 Astronauts (L-R) Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin Aldrin chat with President Nixon as he stands outside their mobile quarantine facility. Nixon flew to the Pacific recovery point to be on hand to greet the astronauts upon their return to Earth from the Moon, July 24, 1969.
President Richard M. Nixon was in the Central Pacific recovery area to welcome the astronauts aboard the USS Hornet, the prime recovery ship for the historic mission. Already confined to the Mobile Quarantine Facility are (from left) Neil A. Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, command module pilot; and Buzz Aldrin. (NASA)

9. Guess who’s not coming to dinner?

Newly elected President Nixon was heavily involved with the Apollo 11 mission. He phoned the astronauts on the moon after their landing, and he was there to greet them when they splashed down. But he wanted to be even more involved.

“Officials here said the President will fly to Cape Kennedy the night before the July 16 launch to have dinner with the astronauts in their crew quarters,” the Sentinel reported on its front page on June 29. 

The White House plan sent NASA’s chief astronaut doctor into proverbial orbit.

Dr. Charles A. Berry strongly discouraged Nixon from dining with the Apollo 11 astronauts the night before their planned liftoff. He worried the president might pass germs to them that could complicate the lunar mission. So, the dinner was scrapped

Presidential press secretary Ron Ziegler said on July 7 that Nixon would skip the dinner “based on the NASA thinking on this matter.”

Almost everyone knows Armstrong’s first words when he set foot on the moon.

But when Aldrin became the second human to touch the lunar surface, what did he say?

NASA transcripts record his first words as, “Beautiful. Beautiful.” Others, when hearing the audio, say it’s “Beautiful view.”

But at least we can agree his first word was “beautiful.”

An aerial view of Cape Kennedy, May 20, 1969, shows the Saturn V rocket as it was transported down the 3.5-mile approach to Launch Complex 39A. (NASA)

11. What’s that smell?

The Apollo 11 astronauts found a lot of craters and boulders on the moon. Did you also know they found the moon had a smell?

According to Smithsonian Magazine, when Armstrong and Aldrin ended their moonwalk, climbed in the lunar module and removed their helmets, they noticed a distinct smell.

Buzz Aldrin, who photographed his footprint in the lunar soil, later poked fun at his walkabout: “Location, location, location!” (NASA)

“We were aware of a new scent in the air of the cabin that clearly came from all the lunar material that had accumulated on and in our clothes,” the magazine quoted Armstrong as saying.

Armstrong said the smell was similar to “the scent of wet ashes” while Aldrin described it as “the smell in the air after a firecracker has gone off.”

The strange thing is, the magazine reported, that once the moon dust got back to Earth, it lost its smell.

By ROGER SIMMONS

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