The Christian Science Monitor

Apollo 11 at 50: How the moon landing changed the world

Neil Armstrong almost didn’t land on the moon because he was running out of gas. It was July 20, 1969. Mr. Armstrong and fellow astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin were descending toward the moon, about to change the course of human history, when things started to go wrong.

First came an alarm indicating something awry with the spacecraft. Then another. After a few tense seconds, engineers at Mission Control in Houston decided it wasn’t catastrophic: It was the landing computer on the spacecraft signaling an overload. Charles Duke Jr., the official communicator with the space capsule, or CAPCOM, relayed a message to the astronauts: Proceed.

Then came the fuel problem. As the lunar module drew closer to its landing site, the Sea of Tranquillity, Mr. Armstrong could see that he would have to make an adjustment. Where existing maps had shown a smooth region, car-sized boulders cluttered a field of craters. Mr. Armstrong had to search for a safe landing spot manually. The catch: It would take precious fuel. 

Tensions were high in Houston. Nobody spoke. “You could’ve heard a pin drop” in the room of about 100 people, recalls flight director Gerry Griffin in an interview. Mission controllers listened intently as Mr. Aldrin called out the speed and range of the spacecraft. 

“60 seconds,” came the warning from Houston, indicating how much time the astronauts had until a mandatory abort for low fuel. The spacecraft was still about 100 feet above the surface. “30 seconds,” came a second warning.

“Those seconds seemed to be going [by] awfully fast,” says Mr. Griffin.

Finally, Mr. Aldrin’s voice crackled across the radio: “Contact light.” One of the module’s footpads had touched the surface. A few people in Mission Control pumped their fists. Chief flight director Gene Kranz cautioned everyone to calm down. There was still work to do, and they didn’t have official confirmation from the astronauts. Then, it came:

“Houston, the

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