The historical launch of Apollo 11, a NASA project to land the first humans on the moon and return them safely to Earth, occurred on July 16, 1969, at the Kennedy Space Center at 8:32 AM EST. On the eve of the launch, President Nixon expressed to the Apollo 11 astronauts his immense pride and confidence in them, stating, “… my hopes and my prayers – and those of all Americans – go with you… and from the depths of your minds and hearts and spirits will come the triumph that all men will share.” That evening, Nixon also personally telephoned the crew members to praise their supreme serenity, fortitude, and moral character, testaments of their qualifications for their epic adventure.
The spacecraft carried a crew of three: Mission Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins, and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. As the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong’s footprints are forever immortalized on the lunar surface, but it is Buzz Aldrin’s footprints that have left a lasting mark at the Richard Nixon Library and Museum, alongside the reflecting pool.
To honor the immense risk and responsibility these three astronauts had undertaken, President Nixon issued a proclamation on July 16 declaring that Monday, July 21 of the following week be a National Day of Participation. This action closed all executive departments, independent establishments, and other governmental agencies, excluding those critical to national security, on that day so that as many as possible could have the opportunity to fully share and witness the unprecedented historical event.
On July 17, the day following his proclamation, Nixon gave a statement honoring the American and Russian space heroes whose sacrifices as space pioneers helped “blaze [Apollo 11’s] trail.” Those honored included Yuri Gagarin, Vladimir Komarov, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. Meanwhile, the Apollo 11 spacecraft suffered an uneventful day on the first leg of its three-day trip to the moon.
- July 18 – the Apollo 11 crew initiate a 96-minute television transmission of the spacecraft, the lunar module, their living quarters, the earth, and the craft’s tunnel hatch – their second scheduled, and fourth unscheduled, television broadcast.
- July 19 – the crew enter lunar orbit.
- July 20 – Aldrin lands the lunar module, or the Eagle, in the Sea of Tranquility on the surface of the moon. Armstrong makes history as he takes his first steps on the moon.
The Apollo 11 astronauts returned to Earth aboard the command module Columbia just before dawn, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean 200 nautical miles south of Johnston Island. Following rescue by a recovery crew, Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins entered a quarantine facility aboard the USS Hornet, upon which President Nixon awaited their arrival to bestow on them the nation’s congratulations.
President Nixon expressed his extreme joy and pride for having the privilege of speaking for millions in welcoming them back to earth. He brought the love and congratulations of their wives as well, with whom he had spoken with the day prior, and invited them to a state dinner held in Los Angeles, where they would be properly honored after their quarantine.
Photo: The Apollo XI crew – in quarantine – are visited by President Nixon after their return to Earth on July 24, 1969.