Why Neil Armstrong Got to Be the First to Step on the Moon

Matt Blitz 16
moon-landing

On July 20th, 1969, with “one small step,” Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon. Since that date forty five years ago, the moon landing has been the subject of intense study and historical analysis. From what Armstrong actually said with his first step to if the American flags the astronauts planted are still there, mankind’s first rendezvous with the moon has captured the world’s attention in a way few other things have. Despite this, there are still several noteworthy facts that have remained obscure after all these years. Allow us to bring just a few to (moon) light:

Neil Armstrong was chosen to be the first person on the moon due to the basic structural design of a part of the Eagle.

Out of a group of 29 astronauts that trained for the Apollo mission to the moon, only three were chosen when the final announcement was made in January of 1969. Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and the oft forgotten Michael Collins became the official crew of Apollo 11. Immediately, attention turned to which crew member – Armstrong or Aldrin — would be the first to walk on the moon (Collins was the command module pilot and, therefore, was ineligible).

Even though both men were going to walk on the moon, it was a great honor to be the first. In fact, the question was asked at the press conference and the response was that it had yet to be decided.

Over the next four months, as the astronauts continued their training, debate and rumors circulated among the media. At first, it seemed that Aldrin would have the honor. This speculation came from the precedent set by the Gemini program, which made ten crewed flights for the purpose of testing ships and astronauts to spacewalk. During the flights, the commander (which Armstrong was to be for Apollo 11) stayed inside the ship while the pilot (which Aldrin was to be for Apollo 11) did the space walking. Further fueling this thinking was that it was rumored that Aldrin was actively campaigning to be the guy. According to the memoir written by Chris Kraft, head of Mission Control, “Buzz Aldrin desperately wanted that honor and wasn’t quiet in letting it be known.”

In April, only three months before liftoff, it was announced that Neil Armstrong would be the first man to walk on the moon. The main reason NASA gave for the decision was that the Eagle’s hatch opened to one side – rather than up or down – and that side was towards the pilot, Aldrin. The bottom line was that when the hatch was opened, the commander, Armstrong, had a clear path to exit, while the pilot was pinned in the rather cramped space of the module. By a sheer happenstance, it made more sense for Armstrong to exit first. Plus, as NASA’s heads pointed out, Armstrong was actually the more senior member of the team anyway, having entered the program in 1962, while Aldrin came in 1963.

In later years, despite the official hatch story, some, including Kraft and fellow astronaut Al Bean of have come out and said that NASA wanted Armstrong to have this honor rather than Aldrin because they thought Neil’s ego could handle it better than Aldrin’s. So perhaps the hatch design simply gave them the excuse they needed.

Armstrong’s famed “one small step” line was pre-planned, at least according to his brother.

Even until his last breath in 2012, Armstrong adamantly insisted that his first line was spontaneous and was only settled on in the moments prior to the walk. A BBC documentary released after the astronaut’s death disputes that. In the film, Dean Armstrong – Neil’s brother – tells the story of a note passed during a late-night game of Risk (yes, the board game).

In the months leading up to the mission, Dean, Neil, and their families spent time together on Cape Cod. After both men put their boys to bed, Neil challenged his younger brother to a hearty game of Risk. During that game, Neil handed Dean a piece of paper:

“On that piece of paper there was ‘That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.’ ‘He says, ‘What do you think about that?’ I said ‘fabulous.’ He said, ‘I thought you might like that, but I wanted you to read it.”

That said, both Aldrin and Collins made it clear that at no point did Armstrong share his thoughts about what he would say. Of course, perhaps his brother was an exception.

The second thing said on the moon was a tad less poetic than the first.

While everyone remembers that first line, few can recall the second. That’s because it didn’t hold the same “oomph” factor. According to the official Apollo 11 Air to Ground Voice Transcription, that line was “And the – the surface is fine and powdery.”

Armstrong continued on this line of thinking,

“I can – 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.”

After further discussion about the ease of movement on the moon, they began to go back and forth about Buzz’s placement of the camera and backlighting. Exciting conversation, indeed!

President Nixon had an “In Event of Moon Disaster” speech ready

After the Apollo 1′s tragic fire in 1967 and the unproven nature of space travel at the time, the safe return of Apollo 11’s crew was far from an assured thing. To that point, President Nixon had to prepare for every scenario when he addressed the nation, including the tragedy of a “moon disaster.” So, he had his speechwriter, William Safire, prepare remarks that are both chilling and inspiring. The speech begins with these two lines,

“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.”

Additionally, below the “death” speech were instructions to what needed to be done both before and after the address to the nation. Before, the President should “telephone each of the widows-to-be.” Afterwards, NASA will end “communications with the men” and “a clergyman should adopt the same procedure as burial at sea, commending their souls to the ‘deepest of the deep,’ concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.”

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy:

Bonus Fact:

  • Buzz Aldrin’s mother’s name, before getting married, was Marion Moon.

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16 Comments »

  1. Col July 16, 2014 at 6:50 am - Reply

    In Deke Slayton’s autobiography “Deke!: An Autobiography”, the Apollo selection chief (and one of the original Mercury 7) discussed how Gus Grissom was a likely candidate for Apollo 11 commander, and therefore first on the moon, but that was tragically cut short by the fatal Apollo 1 fire.

    There was a defined rota for the crew selection which Armstrong slotted into after Grissom’s passing, which put Armstrong in the commander seat for Apollo 11. (And of course a lot of hard work on Armstrong’s part – he earned it).

  2. Raymond July 16, 2014 at 11:28 am - Reply

    The article doesn’t mention the most widely reported reason at the time, for Armstrong being chosen to be first on the moon, among all the astronauts, was the fact that he was a “civilian.”

    Most, or all, of the other astronauts were still military pilots too, but Armstrong, a former Korean War fighter pilot, had resigned his US Navy officer’s commission to return to college and grad school. He later became a civilian test pilot before becoming an astronaut.

    From a PR standpoint, it was felt that his civilian status would send more of a “peaceful exploration” message to both an interested world, and forever to history.

  3. Kendall July 16, 2014 at 12:03 pm - Reply

    The stuff about the moon begin powdery may not sound exciting but don’t forget until that point they really were not sure what the surface would be like and it was vital information to get back to the people making mission choices. Some people had been thinking the dust was a few feet thick!

  4. Arnold D'Souza July 16, 2014 at 10:51 pm - Reply

    I understand that they had to prepare for the worst case scenario – i.e. Neil and Buzz not being able to get off the moon – but I can’t believe the plan was to “break all communication and let them die slowly”. It would have made much more sense in such a situation to have provided them with some sort of lethal injection/capsule to commit suicide with rather than die a slow, terrifying and obviously painful death.

  5. roger July 18, 2014 at 10:32 am - Reply

    Collins in his book said that while the procedures showing the pilot out first Armstrong simply executed his prerogative as commander and changed the order.

  6. Gary July 19, 2014 at 11:09 am - Reply

    I happened to catch an interview with Buzz Aldrin recently in honor of the 45th anniversary of the Lunar landing. While the video played in the background, the interviewer asked what Buzz was thinking as he paused at the bottom of the ladder. He replied that he had an urgent need to urinate and so, while Armstrong got to take the first steps on the moon, he had a “first” of his own.

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