6 Things You Need To Know About Apollo 11

From the actual first words said on the Moon, to the secret ritual Buzz Aldrin conducted after landing, here’s our essential guide to celebrate the anniversary of the 1969 moon landing on 21st July.

6 Things You Need To Know About Apollo 11

1. THE FIRST WORDS

While Neil Armstrong's "One small step" line has become enshrined as one of the most important utterances in world history, these were far from the first words said on the Moon. After all, Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin had landed hours earlier, and there's a bit of debate about what technically qualifies as the first statement made on the Moon. Some say it was "Contact light", which was Aldrin's acknowledgement that the module's extended feeler probe had connected with the lunar surface.

Others argue the module itself was still in descent at "Contact light", and that the first word actually said when the module was at rest on the Moon was Armstrong's "Shutdown". Or was it Aldrin's "Okay" a moment later? Whatever the truth, Neil Armstrong himself would later say the truly significant moment of Apollo 11 was the successful landing of the module, rather than his own left foot pressing down on the surface.

2. UNLIKELY INSURANCE

The Apollo astronauts faced a weirdly banal problem before embarking on their world-changing journey: travel insurance. They literally couldn't afford the (understandably) elevated insurance bill for a jaunt to the Moon. And as there was a very real possibility of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins not coming back alive, they had to think of a way to have their families provided for.

They hit upon a novel solution: autographing envelope covers. About a month before launch, the three men signed hundreds of envelopes, which were then given to the families. Should the worst happen, they could sell the envelopes for big amounts of cash - a contingency plan which was taken up by subsequent Apollo missions, but was thankfully never needed.

3. THE SECRET COMMUNION

One of the first things Buzz Aldrin did after the module landed on the Moon was take Holy Communion. He had even brought his own small chalice, wine and bread, requesting permission from mission control to "pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours".

He didn't explicitly mention Holy Communion over the airwaves, though, and with good reason. During the previous year's Apollo 8 mission, astronauts had read out extracts from the Bible, causing NASA to be sued by atheist activist Madalyn Murray O'Hair. She argued that, since the astronauts were on government duty, reading the Bible was a violation of the separation between church and state. As NASA didn't want any more religious controversy, Aldrin's ritual had to be hushed up at the time.

Astronaut footprint on the moon.

Astronaut footprint on the moon.

4. THE OTHER SPEECH

We take for granted Apollo 11's status as a monumental victory of human endeavour. But at the time, many people - including Neil Armstrong - felt there was only a 50/50 chance they'd get back alive. Down on Earth, the White House had an alternative speech ready for President Richard Nixon to read out to a grieving nation if disaster was to strike.

Penned by presidential speechwriter William Safire, it was headed IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER and contained these lyrical words: "Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace... In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood."

5. THE NEW MINERAL

One of the more unusual ways in the Apollo 11 astronauts were honoured was in the naming of a new mineral found on the Moon. Excavated and brought back from the mission, this titanium-rich mineral was called Armalcolite, a word created from the first few letters of each astronaut's surname (Arm, Al, Col). It turned out not to be a form of rock unique to the Moon though, with examples later discovered at various locations on Earth.

6. THE THIRD MAN

The "forgotten" man of Apollo 11 is Michael Collins, who remained in the command module "mothership" while Armstrong and Aldrin went down to the surface and took their places in history. While he's not a household name like his fellow Apollo 11ers, Collins played a crucial role in the mission, and was terrified that the other two men would fail to blast off from the lunar surface, and remain there to die.

And, though he didn't set foot on the Moon himself, Collins was a different kind of pioneer. When his module floated around the dark side of the Moon, he lost contact with Earth and briefly became the most isolated person in world history. As mission control so poetically put it: "Not since Adam has any human known such solitude".