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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_Ladder
After Neil Armstrong stepped from the Apollo 11 lunar module onto the Moon’s surface, he watched Buzz Aldrin descend Eagle’s ladder and land for the first time on nonterrestrial territory.
NASA

Neil quickly reached into a thigh pocket and withdrew a collapsible handle with a bag on its end. He was in sunlight for the first time, and he turned his back on the penetrating glare. He began digging into the surface. What he found surprised him. There was the same soft powder, but then there wasn’t. He met resistance. “This is very interesting,” he told Mission Control. “It’s a very soft surface, but here and there where I plug with the contingency sample collector, I run into a very hard surface. It appears to be very cohesive material of the same sort.” He scooped up enough lunar soil to fill the bag and told them, “I’ll try to get a rock in here, just a couple.”

“That looks beautiful from here, Neil,” Buzz told him, talking about the sample, but Neil took Buzz’s comment to mean the Moon. “It has a beauty of its own. It’s like much of the high desert of the United States. It’s different, but it’s very pretty out here.”

Pointing down from Eagle was a 16mm movie camera loaded with color film. It was there to film the actions of the two astronauts on the Moon, and Buzz told Neil, “OK. I have got the camera on at one frame a second.”

“OK.”

“Are you ready for me to come out?” asked Buzz.

“Yes,” Neil said, and Buzz followed his instructions, asking, “How far are my feet from the edge?”

“You’re right at the edge of the porch.”

“OK. Now I want to back up and partially close the hatch,” Buzz reported, quickly adding, “making sure not to lock it on my way out.”

“A very good thought,” Neil agreed, as a wave of laughter rolled through Mission Control.

ASYJB0814_Aldrin
In this iconic picture that includes Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin’s helmet reflects Armstrong’s shadow and image, as well as that of the lunar lander that they set on the surface.
NASA
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Buzz moved slowly down and then said, “OK, I’m on the top step, and I can look down over the landing gear pads. It’s a very simple matter to hop down from one step to the next.”

“Yes, I found I could be very comfortable, and walking is also very comfortable,” Neil agreed, pausing long enough to recheck Buzz’s progress. “You’ve got three more steps and then a long one.”

“OK. I’m going to leave that one foot up there and both hands down to about the fourth rung up.”

“There you go.”

“OK. Now I think I’ll do the same.”

“A little more,” Neil suggested, “about another inch.” There was a pause, and then Neil shouted, “There, you got it!”

A second human was on the Moon, and Neil greeted Buzz at the bottom of the stairs as they again heard cheering in Mission Control.

“Beautiful view,” Buzz grinned.

“Isn’t that something?” Neil agreed

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“Magnificent desolation,” Buzz spoke with feeling as he stared at a sky that was the darkest of black. No blue. No birds. No green below. There were many shades of gray on the surface and areas of utter black where rocks cast their shadows from an unfiltered Sun, but no real color. Possibly tan under certain lighting.

The land curved gently but noticeably away — all the way out to the horizon that was only half the distance Buzz and Neil were used to seeing on Earth. But there on the Moon, they could actually see they were standing on a sphere, and when they walked and looked down, their motion fascinated them. Each time they took one of their half-walking and half-floating steps, their boots set in motion a spray of lunar soil sailing outward and upward sharply and quickly without the hindrance of an atmosphere, and they even tried running and leaping strides that were impossible to do on Earth. But when they tried to sustain a jog, the mass and velocity created kinetic energy, and stopping quickly was impossible.

It was as if they had found a new playground after school, and they even tried bunny hopping, an assortment of moves, and they wished they could stay on their new playground until they had explored every nook, every cranny, so much to see and do and so little time.

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