Fifty-two years ago today, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, crossing the finish line first as the United States beat the Soviet Union in that particular heat of the space race.

With over a billion people listening back on Planet Earth, Armstrong uttered the now-famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Indeed, Armstrong’s first moon walk during the Apollo 11 mission wowed the world. Crewmate Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin joined him shortly thereafter, with Michael Collins orbiting above in the mother ship.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planting Old Glory on the moon 52 years ago.

They’d touched down on the Sea of Tranquility, a flat spot on the moon’s surface selected using a computer program developed by Jeanette Scissum, a Black mathematician at the Marshall Space Flight Center Alabama. (CalVet Connect featured Scissum and others in a February 2020 story about the “Hidden Figures” women of book and movie fame.)

Armstrong and Aldrin placed a U.S. flag along with a plaque that read, “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot on the moon – July 1969 A.D. – We came in peace for all mankind.” They spent the night on the moon before rejoining Collins in the command module and the rest is history.

Except that Armstrong and Aldrin nearly became the moon’s first residents instead of merely using it as a bed-and-breakfast. As they prepared to blast back off to rejoin Collins in the main spacecraft, Aldrin noticed something on the floor of the lunar module.

“I looked closer and jolted a bit,” Aldrin wrote in his book, “Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon.” “There on the dust on the floor on the right side of the cabin, lay a circuit breaker switch that had broken off.”

“The broken switch had snapped off from the engine-arm circuit breaker, the one vital breaker needed to send electrical power to the ascent engine that would lift Neil and me off the moon.”

A felt-tipped pen – you know, standard moon issue – came to the rescue.

Astronauts photographed with U.S. flag and lunar command module on moon's surface.
Astronauts posing with the lunar command module and Old Glory.

“After moving the countdown procedure up by a couple of hours in case it didn’t work, I inserted the pen into the small opening where the circuit breaker switch should have been, and pushed it in; sure enough, the circuit breaker held. We were going to get off the moon, after all. To this day I still have the broken circuit breaker switch and the felt-tipped pen I used to ignite our engines.”

His improvisation enabled them to complete their mission and return to earth safely, one-upping the Soviets in the space-race ante. The Soviets had launched the first animal (Laika the dog in 1957) and human (cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in April 1961) into space. The U.S. sent Alan Sheppard up in the first pilot-controlled spacecraft a month later and in a series of back-and-forth achievements, beat them by putting humans on the moon with the Apollo 11 mission.

Alan Shepard returned to space in the Apollo 14 mission and became the first astronaut to hit a couple of golf shots on the moon.

The United States launched Sky Lab (1973-1979) and the Soviets countered with Mir (1986-2001) as life in space began to imitate art. (“The Jetsons” cartoon debuted on American TV in 1962).”

Today, American and Russian scientists work together on the International Space Station, which 243 astronauts and cosmonauts from 19 countries have visited since it was launched in November 20, 1998.

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