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How one small step became a giant leap

A billion people watched astronaut Neil Armstrong step onto the lunar surface in 1969. But space reporter Jay Barbree was there for all the steps before that.
ASYJB0814_Armstrong
Neil Armstrong gets the contingency sample and makes sure all is well for Buzz Aldrin to join him on the lunar surface.
NASA
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His mother had told him her only real concern for his safety on the Moon was the lunar crust might not support him. Again, Neil tested his weight. Then he told Mission Control, “The surface is fine and powdery. 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.”

He stood there rock-solid, boots braced for balance, enclosed in the elaborate pressurized exoskeleton that sustained his life on this inhospitable place. It was filled with energy, with supplies of heat and cooling, water, oxygen pressure — a capsule of life created by his Apollo colleagues, and Neil Armstrong stood looking long and hard at this small, untouched world.

He was overwhelmed. His sense and his thoughts set afire with the miracle of being on the lunar surface. He believed that he and Buzz and those who would follow were there for far more than walking through lunar dust and measuring solar winds, magnetic fields, radiation levels — all that was window dressing for their real purpose for coming.

It all condensed into every view they had of their fragile, beautiful Earth.

It was suddenly clear to this son of the land once walked by Orville and Wilbur Wright that he was on the Moon to look back — to give every single human a clear look at spaceship Earth carrying the miracle. In this neighborhood of the universe, it was life’s only world. It was encased in diamond-hard blackness, and Neil recognized it mattered little if we were Republican, Democrat, Independent, apolitical, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist, or who the hell we liked or disliked. We live on a vulnerable world where we must take care of its very finite resources — on a world where we all would suffer terrifying consequences if we drained it of its ability to sustain us — its ability to foster and nurture the very life we now threaten to contaminate. Neil knew no matter how diligent, how great our effort to protect Earth, it was finite, and one day if humans were to survive, they would have to move on to new worlds. In the greatest of reasons, that was what he and Buzz and all those who would follow were here doing walking on the Moon.

ASYJB0814_LunarModule
Neil Armstrong snaps a picture of the Apollo lunar module from afar.
NASA

Neil stopped his thoughts, forced himself out of his introspection.

He and Buzz had much to do before they could catch a few hours’ rest, and he turned and began walking farther away from the security of Eagle.

In one sense, it was like learning to walk again — shuffling, stiff-legged, yet buoyant — something like wading through chin-deep water with his feet striking bottom — floating in low gravity within his spacesuit.

On Earth, his exoskeleton weighed 348 pounds (158 kilograms). Now, on the Moon, it only weighed 58 pounds (26kg), and he told Mission Control, “There seems to be no difficulty in moving around as we suspected. It’s even perhaps easier than the simulations at 1/6-g that we performed. It’s actually no trouble to walk.”

Neil’s first task was to collect a contingency sample. If they had to abort the moonwalk early, a small bag of lunar soil would make scientists happy. But he told himself he should do that in sunlight, and for now he needed the camera. He needed to take pictures while his eyes were still adapted to the shadows.

“OK, Buzz,” he asked his partner, “we ready to bring down the camera?”

“I’m all ready,” Buzz told him. “I think it’s been all squared away and in good shape, but you’ll have to play out all the LEC [Lunar Equipment Conveyor]. It looks like it’s coming out nice and evenly.”

Neil mounted the camera on a bracket on his chest and stepped forward to take the number one photograph. It was to have been his first footprint on the Moon, but no sooner than he looked for it by the footpad, he was ready to kick himself. In his movements to check out Eagle’s stance and operate the conveyor line to bring the camera down, he had walked over it. It was obvious his later steps had blotted out his first.

Then Bruce McCandless called, “We see you getting some pictures and the contingency sample, Neil.”

Neil didn’t move. He stood there disappointed with the loss of the first footprint, and McCandless asked again, “Neil, this is Houston. Did you copy about the contingency sample, over?”

No one was more aware than Neil how important the contingency sample was, and he told Bruce, “Roger, I’m going to get to that just as soon as I finish these picture series.”

Buzz watched as Neil completed the photographs and walked away to a sunlit area. He asked, “Going to get the contingency sample there, Neil?”

“Right,” Neil answered.

“OK. That’s good,” Buzz agreed.

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