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Felt-tip pen that re-wrote history: A broken circuit in the lunar lander meant the first men on the moon were stranded and facing death, but salvation came in an unlikely form

Daily Mail logo Daily Mail 07/07/2019 Jonathan Mayo For The Daily Mail
UNSPECIFIED - JULY 20:  Apollo 11 astronaut during moon walk by Neil Armstrong & Buzz Aldrin standing on moon surface after planting Amer. flag (no caps).  (Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images) © Getty UNSPECIFIED - JULY 20: Apollo 11 astronaut during moon walk by Neil Armstrong & Buzz Aldrin standing on moon surface after planting Amer. flag (no caps). (Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

On Saturday we revealed how the crew of Apollo 11, Mission Commander Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, landed the lunar module Eagle on to the moon. It was a fraught journey and they arrived with just seconds of fuel to spare. With the astronauts safely down, Michael Collins was 60 miles above in Command Module Columbia, monitoring their progress.

Meanwhile, more than half the British population were watching TV coverage of the mission. What happened next would change history for ever. Here, JONATHAN MAYO recreates it in unrivalled detail . . .

Video: Apollo: Missions to the Moon clip features moon landing (CNET)

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MONDAY, JULY 21 12.05am GMT

On ITV’s Moon Party, the historian A.J.P. Taylor is discussing the merits of manned space flights with singer Sammy Davis Jr. On the BBC, Michael Charlton — their reporter at Mission Control — says: ‘Those first words that we heard there this afternoon from Armstrong, “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed”, will be words that every schoolboy in the coming generations is probably going to have to learn, and pass on to succeeding generations.’

2.01am

To get ready for the moon walk, Eagle’s cabin is about to be depressurised, so the astronauts are putting on their helmets. Aldrin is suddenly aware that he looks scruffy for such a momentous occasion. Stubble can also scratch the microphones inside their helmets, making the astronauts less distinct. ‘Sure wish I had shaved last night,’ he says to Mission Control CapCom (Capsule Communicator) Bruce McCandless.

Armstrong is pondering what he will say when he first walks on the moon, though he knows it will be something about ‘a step’. As the cabin depressurises, the expelled air is filtered to protect the moon from any germs brought from Earth.

a group of people posing for the camera: While Armstrong (middle) and Aldrin (left) were on the moon Michael Collins (right) was in orbit alone. While looking out he thought darkness needs a new name ¿ ¿black¿ is not descriptive enough © Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited While Armstrong (middle) and Aldrin (left) were on the moon Michael Collins (right) was in orbit alone. While looking out he thought darkness needs a new name ¿ ¿black¿ is not descriptive enough

2.39am

Armstrong opens the hatch of the lunar module. On his left forearm he has a checklist of all the tasks he has to perform on the moon. ‘About ready to go down and get some moon rock?’ Aldrin asks his commander.

In orbit alone in the command module, Collins is now on the other side of the moon to Earth and has no radio contact. Looking out he thinks the darkness needs a new name — ‘black’ is not descriptive enough.

2.49am

Aldrin helps Armstrong as, on his hands and knees, he cautiously backs out of a narrow hatch on to a small platform at the top of the ladder. ‘Move, here roll to the left. Okay. Now you’re clear. You’re lined up on the platform. Put your left foot to the right a little bit. Okay. That’s good.’

a close up of a device: Aldrin used a chrome-bodied felt-tip pen (pictured) in the hole in the circuit breaker. If it doesn't work, or the ascent engine fails, him and Armstrong have no hope of rescue © Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited Aldrin used a chrome-bodied felt-tip pen (pictured) in the hole in the circuit breaker. If it doesn't work, or the ascent engine fails, him and Armstrong have no hope of rescue Until April, Aldrin had thought that he would be the first man to walk on the moon, as on previous missions it had been the commander who remained inside the capsule during spacewalks. But, to Aldrin’s frustration, Nasa decided it was safer in the confined space of the lunar module for the astronaut closer to the hatch to exit first.

Armstrong moves slowly down the nine-rung ladder, testing his footing on each step as his bulky suit means he cannot see his feet.

2.53am

Partway down, Armstrong reaches with his left hand and pulls a lever on the side of Eagle. An equipment storage bay drops down containing the tools they need to explore the moon’s surface, as well as a TV camera to capture his first steps.

a close up of a desert: To lighten Eagle for lift-off, the astronauts open the hatch and throw out empty food packages, a spare Hasselblad camera, their boots and backpacks. Pictured is Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong's footprint on the moon © Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited To lighten Eagle for lift-off, the astronauts open the hatch and throw out empty food packages, a spare Hasselblad camera, their boots and backpacks. Pictured is Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong's footprint on the moon In Houston, McCandless exclaims: ‘We’re getting a picture on the TV!’ The first images sent from the Eagle’s roof antenna are upside down, but Nasa quickly rectifies the fault. Armstrong is amazed anyone is receiving any picture at all, as it had never worked in practice.

2.54am

Armstrong steps onto one of the flat golden foil-covered footpads of the landing gear, then jumps the 3ft back up on to the bottom rung to see how easy it is in the one-sixth gravity of the moon. ‘It takes a pretty good little jump,’ he advises the watching Aldrin. Eagle’s landing gear is designed for the moon’s weaker gravity; on Earth it would collapse under the weight of the lunar module.

2.55am

Still standing on the footpad, Armstrong describes what he sees. ‘I’m at the foot of the ladder. The LM [lunar module] footpads are only depressed in the surface about 1 or 2 inches, although the surface appears to be very, very fine grained, as you get close to it. It’s almost like a powder. Down there, it’s very fine.’

2.56am

Edwin Buzz Aldrin is pictured descending the steps of the Lunar Module ladder to walk on the Moon. As he went down the ladder he said to Armstrong: ¿I want to back up and partially close the hatch, making sure not to lock it on the way out!¿ © Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited Edwin Buzz Aldrin is pictured descending the steps of the Lunar Module ladder to walk on the Moon. As he went down the ladder he said to Armstrong: ¿I want to back up and partially close the hatch, making sure not to lock it on the way out!¿ Armstrong is tethered to the ladder in case the surface is soft and sucks him under.

‘I’m going to step off the LM now.’ Holding on to the ladder with his right hand, Armstrong leans out and takes his left boot off the footpad and places it on the surface of the moon, then bounces slightly to test the ground. He then says: ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’

Armstrong later said he meant to say ‘a man’ as ‘that was the only way the statement makes sense’. As Mission Control Flight Director Gene Kranz watches the TV pictures, he thinks of President Kennedy’s words seven years ago: ‘We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things…not because they are easy, but because they are hard!’

While on the moon the two men have their gold visors down to protect them from the sun¿s infra-red radiation. The visors give the moon landscape a yellow hue. The sound of air coming into their spacesuits hisses in their ears. Pictured is the Apollo Lunar Module in descent © Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited While on the moon the two men have their gold visors down to protect them from the sun¿s infra-red radiation. The visors give the moon landscape a yellow hue. The sound of air coming into their spacesuits hisses in their ears. Pictured is the Apollo Lunar Module in descent On CBS, veteran broadcaster Walter Cronkite wipes tears from his eyes and says: ‘Armstrong is on the moon! Neil Armstrong, a 38-year-old American, standing on the surface of the moon! Boy, look at those pictures!’

At their home in Houston, Janet Armstrong says to the flickering black-and-white image of her husband on the screen, who is a man of few words: ‘Be descriptive now, Neil.’ He starts to describe the alien world to the millions watching on Earth. ‘The surface is fine and powdery. I can pick it up loosely with my toe.

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.’ This is a relief to his mother, Viola, who was concerned that the moon’s surface would swallow him up.

3.06am

a room with white walls: To the astronauts¿ surprise President Nixon would like to speak to them while they're on the moon. ¿For one priceless moment in the whole history of man,¿ Nixon says, ¿all the people on this Earth are truly one; one in their pride in what you have done, and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth.¿ Pictured is the  Apollo Mission Control Room in Houston © Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited To the astronauts¿ surprise President Nixon would like to speak to them while they're on the moon. ¿For one priceless moment in the whole history of man,¿ Nixon says, ¿all the people on this Earth are truly one; one in their pride in what you have done, and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth.¿ Pictured is the  Apollo Mission Control Room in Houston At Yankee Stadium in New York, a baseball game is halted when the words ‘THEY’RE ON THE MOON’ flash on the scoreboard. The crowd cheers and launches into the song, ‘America, The Beautiful’. Armstrong takes some pictures of the surface around him with a 70mm Hasselblad camera Aldrin had lowered to him on a pulley nicknamed ‘the Brooklyn clothesline’. He then picks up some samples of rock and soil and places them in his thigh pocket.

Although the Soviet Union and China are not showing live pictures, 600 million people (a fifth of the world’s population) are watching the moonwalk, making it the most-watched TV event in history.

3.11am

Now it is Aldrin’s turn down the ladder. He too has a checklist of tasks attached to his left wrist. He says to Armstrong: ‘I want to back up and partially close the hatch, making sure not to lock it on the way out!’

a person on the machine: Mission Control, pictured, have failed to find a solution for the broken switch, but Aldrin thinks he may have one. He is holding a chrome-bodied felt-tip pen in the hole. If it doesn¿t work, or the ascent engine fails, they have no hope of rescue © Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited Mission Control, pictured, have failed to find a solution for the broken switch, but Aldrin thinks he may have one. He is holding a chrome-bodied felt-tip pen in the hole. If it doesn¿t work, or the ascent engine fails, they have no hope of rescue ‘A particularly good thought!’ Armstrong laughs. Back home, Joan Aldrin, sitting with Collins’s wife Pat, blows kisses at him on the TV screen. When Buzz reaches the footpad he makes a leap up to the first step but misjudges it and scrapes the rung, getting moon dust on his legs.

Feeling a little unsure of himself, he decides it is ‘an excellent opportunity to relieve the nervousness of my bladder . . . that dubious distinction is my “first” on the Moon,’ he wrote later. His urine collects in a bag inside his suit.

3.13am

Aldrin turns and looks about him. Armstrong says: ‘Isn’t that something? Magnificent sight out here.’ ‘Magnificent desolation’ is Aldrin’s memorable reply. He has seen Armstrong in his spacesuit many times, but on the moon it is ‘unnaturally white’. Aldrin looks up and thinks the Earth looks no bigger than a marble.

Charles Duke et al. taking a selfie: Aldrin and Armstrong reports the problem with the switch to Mission Control, then, because the module is cold, put their gloves and helmets on and try to sleep. Pictured are flight controllers at the Space Center in Houston, Texas © Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited Aldrin and Armstrong reports the problem with the switch to Mission Control, then, because the module is cold, put their gloves and helmets on and try to sleep. Pictured are flight controllers at the Space Center in Houston, Texas The two men have their gold visors down to protect them from the sun’s infra-red radiation. The visors give the moon landscape a yellow hue. The sound of air coming into their spacesuits hisses in their ears.

3.24am

The astronauts unveil a metal plaque bolted to a leg of the lunar module. Armstrong reads to the TV audience what it says: ‘Here, men from the planet Earth first set foot on the moon. We came in peace for all mankind.’ Above them, orbiting at 3,700mph, Collins is hard at work. He has to make hundreds of computer commands to get Columbia ready for when Eagle docks in a few hours.

On ITV, 25-year-old David Threlfall, a personnel officer from Lancashire, is handed a cheque for £10,010 by bookmakers William Hill. In April 1964 Threlfall had placed a bet at 1,000 to 1 that man would land on the moon before January 1971. William Hill offer new odds of 100-1 on man reaching Mars before July 1976.

3.41am

a couple of people posing for the camera: The wives of the astronaughts watched their husbands walk on the moon. Left to right is Mrs. Janet Armstrong, Mrs. Pat Collins, and Mrs. Joan Aldrin © Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited The wives of the astronaughts watched their husbands walk on the moon. Left to right is Mrs. Janet Armstrong, Mrs. Pat Collins, and Mrs. Joan Aldrin Armstrong and Aldrin have not rehearsed a flag ceremony as it had been a last-minute addition to their itinerary. They find it a struggle to get the pole into the moon’s hard surface, but eventually succeed. A telescopic arm on the top of the flag ensures that the Stars and Stripes can be seen.

Up in Columbia, Collins asks Houston how the mission is going. ‘They’ve got the flag up now and you can see the Stars and Stripes on the lunar surface,’ CapCom McCandless says. ‘Beautiful. Just beautiful,’ Collins replies. Aldrin steps back and salutes the flag and Armstrong takes a picture. Aldrin takes no photos of Armstrong on the moon, something flight director Kranz would later describe as ‘unacceptable’.

3.48am

To the astronauts’ surprise McCandless says President Nixon would like to speak to them from the White House. ‘For one priceless moment in the whole history of man,’ Nixon says, ‘all the people on this Earth are truly one; one in their pride in what you have done, and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth.’ Unknown to the astronauts, Nixon has with him a speech written in the event they will be stranded on the moon.

UNSPECIFIED - DECEMBER 1968:  Astronaut's foot leaving mark on the surface of the moon during unidentified Apollo mission (probably Apollo 11).  (Photo by NASA/NASA/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images) © Getty UNSPECIFIED - DECEMBER 1968: Astronaut's foot leaving mark on the surface of the moon during unidentified Apollo mission (probably Apollo 11). (Photo by NASA/NASA/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images) It begins: ‘Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery…’

4.55am

After almost two hours walking on the moon, the astronauts have completed their experiments, which include setting up a solar-wind instrument to catch electrically charged particles from the Sun and a seismometer to measure moonquakes. They hoist their samples up into Eagle via the ‘clothesline’.

When Aldrin reaches the top of the ladder he throws down a pouch containing a patch from the Apollo 1 mission in which three astronauts died, a silicon disc containing goodwill messages from 73 nations, a gold badge in the shape of an olive branch, and medals given to Nasa by the widows of Soviet cosmonauts Vladimir Komarov, who was killed returning to Earth in 1967, and Yuri Gagarin, the first man to orbit in space who died in a plane crash in 1968. It was a ‘tender moment’, Armstrong said, to recognise ‘fallen comrades on both sides who had not lived to see the event’.

5.01am

In this photo provided by NASA, mission control personnel watch the moon walk by Apollo 11 astronauts, July 21, 1969 in Houston. (AP Photo/NASA) © Getty In this photo provided by NASA, mission control personnel watch the moon walk by Apollo 11 astronauts, July 21, 1969 in Houston. (AP Photo/NASA) Armstrong is still on the surface and having difficulty closing the boxes containing the moon rocks. Mission Control is concerned as his cardiac monitor is showing a high heart rate, so to distract him and get him to slow down without alerting him, they ask Armstrong to report on the status of his tank pressure and oxygen.

5.09am

Armstrong is once again standing on the landing gear footpad. He jumps 6ft on to the third rung of the ladder and heads for the hatch.

7.01am

On Soviet TV, a seven-minute compilation of highlights of the moon landing begins.

7.50am

376713 16: (FILE PHOTO) One of the few photographs of Neil Armstrong on the moon shows him working on his space craft on the lunar surface. The 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing mission is celebrated July 20, 1999. (Photo by NASA/Newsmakers) © Getty 376713 16: (FILE PHOTO) One of the few photographs of Neil Armstrong on the moon shows him working on his space craft on the lunar surface. The 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing mission is celebrated July 20, 1999. (Photo by NASA/Newsmakers) To lighten Eagle for lift-off, the astronauts open the hatch and throw out empty food packages, a spare Hasselblad camera, their boots and backpacks. Mission Control pick up a reading from the seismometer placed on the moon as the backpacks hit the surface. Inside Eagle there is a new smell, from all the moon dust. It reminds Aldrin of gunpowder.

9.00am

Having eaten a meal of cocktail sausages, the astronauts are trying to sleep — Armstrong curled up on the cover of the ascent engine and Aldrin on the floor. But to Aldrin’s horror, he sees a circuit breaker switch that has broken off. Aldrin scans the instrument panels and gulps when he sees that the switch is for electrical power to the ascent engine that will hopefully get them safely back to Columbia. They report the issue to Mission Control, then, because the module is cold, put their gloves and helmets on and try to sleep.

Many Brits who have been up all night watching the coverage are arriving late for work.

2.31pm

Buzz Aldrin near the leg of the Lunar Module on the Moon, Apollo 11 mission, July 1969. The Apollo 11 Lunar Module, code named Eagle, with US astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on board, landed in the Sea of Tranquillity on 20 July 1969. Apollo 11 was the fifth manned Apollo mission, and was the first to land on the Moon. Artist Neil Armstrong. (Photo by Heritage Space/Heritage Images/Getty Images) © Getty Buzz Aldrin near the leg of the Lunar Module on the Moon, Apollo 11 mission, July 1969. The Apollo 11 Lunar Module, code named Eagle, with US astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on board, landed in the Sea of Tranquillity on 20 July 1969. Apollo 11 was the fifth manned Apollo mission, and was the first to land on the Moon. Artist Neil Armstrong. (Photo by Heritage Space/Heritage Images/Getty Images) CapCom Ronald Evans wakes up Collins in Columbia but he lets Armstrong and Aldrin sleep for another 45 minutes. ‘We’re going to keep you a little busy here,’ he apologises to Collins, who has 850 separate computer key commands to make in the next few hours before the ascent stage section of the lunar module docks with Columbia. ‘850 chances for me to screw it up,’ Collins admitted.

5.37pm

‘You’re cleared for take-off,’ Evans says to Armstrong and Aldrin on Eagle. ‘Roger. Understand. We’re number one on the runway,’ Aldrin jokes. He and Armstrong have been on the moon for more than 21 hours. Mission Control have failed to find a solution for the broken switch, but Aldrin thinks he may have one. He is holding a chrome-bodied felt-tip pen in the hole. If it doesn’t work, or the ascent engine fails, they have no hope of rescue.

Above them in Columbia, Collins is sweating with nerves. ‘My secret terror for the last six months has been leaving them on the moon and returning to Earth alone,’ he said. He has practised flying Columbia home without his colleagues.

5.54pm

Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong in quarantine after returning from the Moon landing, Apollo 11 mission, July 1969. The Apollo 11 Lunar Module, code named Eagle, with US astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on board, landed in the Sea of Tranquillity on 20 July 1969. Apollo 11 was the fifth manned Apollo mission, and was the first to land on the Moon. Artist NASA. (Photo by Heritage Space/Heritage Images/Getty Images) © Getty Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong in quarantine after returning from the Moon landing, Apollo 11 mission, July 1969. The Apollo 11 Lunar Module, code named Eagle, with US astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on board, landed in the Sea of Tranquillity on 20 July 1969. Apollo 11 was the fifth manned Apollo mission, and was the first to land on the Moon. Artist NASA. (Photo by Heritage Space/Heritage Images/Getty Images) Aldrin starts a countdown: ‘9, 8, 7, 6, 5...proceed.’ The felt-tip pen works, Eagle’s ascent engine fires, explosive bolts release the ascent stage section from the landing gear and a guillotine severs power cables between the two. Clouds of dust surround the lunar module as it lifts off, leaving the legs on the surface of the moon. Aldrin sees the American flag fall over. Back on Earth, their families are crying with relief.

6.01pm

Eagle is now in lunar orbit and will be united with Columbia by a combination of radar, precise navigation and Armstrong’s skilful use of Eagle’s thruster rockets. As Collins monitors their progress he wonders, if something goes wrong, ‘would I have enough fuel to catch them?’

7.52pm

Eagle piloted by Armstrong is just 15 miles beneath Columbia. The two million parts that make up Columbia are functioning well and Collins has been preparing it for his colleagues’ return. He feels like a hotel proprietor ‘about to receive the onrush of skiers coming out of the cold. I couldn’t make them more welcome unless I had a fireplace.’

9.35pm

Commander Neil Armstrong in the Lunar Module on the Moon, Apollo 11 mission, July 1969. The Apollo 11 Lunar Module, code named Eagle, with US astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on board, landed in the Sea of Tranquillity on 20 July 1969. Apollo 11 was the fifth manned Apollo mission, and was the first to land on the Moon. Artist Buzz Aldrin. (Photo by Heritage Space/Heritage Images/Getty Images) © Getty Commander Neil Armstrong in the Lunar Module on the Moon, Apollo 11 mission, July 1969. The Apollo 11 Lunar Module, code named Eagle, with US astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on board, landed in the Sea of Tranquillity on 20 July 1969. Apollo 11 was the fifth manned Apollo mission, and was the first to land on the Moon. Artist Buzz Aldrin. (Photo by Heritage Space/Heritage Images/Getty Images) Three hours and 41 minutes after lifting off from the moon, Eagle and Columbia are now just 50ft apart. Eagle has braked to a halt and Collins must now make sure Columbia is perfectly aligned with the lunar module — and it’s looking good. ‘Jesus!’ Collins thinks, ‘we really are going to carry this thing off!’

As the two spacecraft connect, the Apollo astronauts feel only a slight nudge. Collins flips a switch to draw Eagle in and suddenly he finds he is wrestling with a ‘wildly veering critter that seems to be trying to escape’. Eagle isn’t as perfectly aligned as he thought. Collins wrestles with the controls. He recalled modestly later, ‘I was sure busy there for a couple of seconds.’

10.52pm

Collins opens the hatch and sees a smiling Aldrin. He grabs his head and is about to kiss him when he thinks better of it and shakes his hand instead. Both Aldrin and Armstrong are still covered in moon dust.

376713 18: (FILE PHOTO) With a half-Earth in the background, the Lunar Module ascent stage with Moon-walking Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin Jr. approaches for a rendezvous with the Apollo Command Module manned by Michael Collins. The Apollo 11 liftoff from the Moon came early, ending a 22-hour stay on the Moon by Armstrong and Aldrin. The 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon mission is celebrated July 20, 1999. (Photo by NASA/Newsmakers) © Getty 376713 18: (FILE PHOTO) With a half-Earth in the background, the Lunar Module ascent stage with Moon-walking Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin Jr. approaches for a rendezvous with the Apollo Command Module manned by Michael Collins. The Apollo 11 liftoff from the Moon came early, ending a 22-hour stay on the Moon by Armstrong and Aldrin. The 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon mission is celebrated July 20, 1999. (Photo by NASA/Newsmakers) The three astronauts start the slow process of transferring from Eagle to Columbia their equipment, the rolls of film and the metal boxes that contain the precious moon rocks. They use a small vacuum cleaner to remove the dust in Columbia, but it’s ineffective and they feel rather ridiculous as they clean.

11.41pm

Eagle’s job is now over — it is Columbia that will bring the men home. Armstrong and Aldrin are sad to see the lunar module go, so they are pleased it is Collins who flips the switch to release it. There is a bang and Eagle is jettisoned. In a few years it drops out of orbit and crashes on to the moon.

The three men now concentrate on getting back to Earth. Later, despite the cramped conditions, an exhausted Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins sleep for more than eight hours, one of the longest of the mission.

TUESDAY, JULY 22, 4.55am

This is a replica of the plaque left behind on the moon by the Apollo 11 astronauts. The plaque is made of stainless steel, measuring nine by seven and five-eighths inches, and one-sixteenth inch thick. It was attached to the ladder on the landing gear strut on the descent stage of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module. © Getty This is a replica of the plaque left behind on the moon by the Apollo 11 astronauts. The plaque is made of stainless steel, measuring nine by seven and five-eighths inches, and one-sixteenth inch thick. It was attached to the ladder on the landing gear strut on the descent stage of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module. Now awake and on the dark side of the moon, and therefore out of contact with Houston, the astronauts face another nerve-racking moment: Collins is about to start the Trans-Earth Injection burn, which should boost Columbia’s speed by 2,000mph and force it out of the moon’s gravitational pull and towards Earth.

5.07am

CapCom Charlie Duke is eager for news of the Trans-Earth Injection burn. Columbia finally emerges from behind the moon. ‘Hello Apollo 11. How did it go?’ Collins grins: ‘Time to open up the LRL (Lunar Receiving Laboratory back on Earth) doors, Charlie!’ ‘Roger’ replies Charlie. ‘We got you coming home.’

THURSDAY, JULY 24, 4.35pm

Two days later, the command module enters the Earth’s atmosphere at 25,000mph. The astronauts splash down in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. Someone has placed a bouquet on the grave of President Kennedy at Arlington Cemetery, together with a note: ‘Mr President. The Eagle has landed.’

THE MOON - JULY 21: The flag of the United States of America planted on the surface of the Moon is seen by the crew of Apollo 11 from the inside of the lunar module on July 21, 1969 on the Moon. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images) © Getty THE MOON - JULY 21: The flag of the United States of America planted on the surface of the Moon is seen by the crew of Apollo 11 from the inside of the lunar module on July 21, 1969 on the Moon. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images) Before the Apollo programme ended in 1972, ten more men walked on the moon — one of them Charlie Duke of Mission Control. It is estimated that 30,000 everyday products are in use thanks to technology developed for the moon missions.

Michael Collins never travelled in space again. He now spends his time ‘painting, cooking, reading…and searching for a really good bottle of cabernet under ten dollars’. Buzz Aldrin is a passionate advocate for future space exploration and still has the broken circuit breaker switch and the pen that saved them. Neil Armstrong became a professor of Aerospace Engineering and a company chairman.

When he died in August 2012, aged 82, his family said the best way to remember him was to ‘honour his example of service...and the next time you walk out on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink’.

Gallery: Stunning NASA photos from Mars (USA TODAY)

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