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Apollo 11: They Almost Forgot the American Flag

Apollo 11: They Almost Forgot the American Flag

Behind the scenes of the moon landing: NASA did incredible work, but almost forgot the flag, says author

Fifty years ago, the world watched in awe as the first humans set foot on the moon.

But while just two people took that small step for man, hundreds of thousands had worked to get them there in a gargantuan effort that took almost a decade.

Charles Fishman has written about that behind-the-scenes effort in his new book One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon.

He spoke to The Current's guest host David Common about the work NASA did — and the things they almost forgot.

Here is part of their conversation.

We've heard about how July 20, 1969 was the day in which everything just stood still, everyone in the world, paying attention to this. But what did it take to get to that moment?

It took 410,000 people back on Earth to send just 11 Apollo missions into space. That's more people than were fighting for the United States in Vietnam for three years of the war. It was the largest undertaking in human history that was not a war. It was really an extraordinary effort.

And all of these people were working on their various component parts, on the science, and on, I guess, making sure that theirs wasn't the thing that failed when these guys are up there?

Well, to start, they were working on inventing space travel. In 1961, there was no rocket big enough to go to the moon. There was no spaceship that could land on the moon, no computer small enough or fast enough to do the maths necessary to fly to the moon — no computer anywhere in the world. No spacesuits, no space food. So in the early years, people were furiously doing the engineering and technology development to make it possible to fly in space.

Their work actually had to be perfect … The spacesuits were sewed by hand, every single stitch was counted and inspected. Because a single stitch misdone in the spacesuit could put the astronauts and the whole mission at risk.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the moon

Of course there was the speech that was never read, the one written for the president in case the lunar lander couldn't take off again.

This is such an odd little corner of the Apollo history. Somebody at NASA warned the White House that even inside NASA, they weren't completely confident that everything was going to go perfectly. Of course not. They knew what could go wrong. And they suggested that the president be ready, in case something went wrong.

And so Richard Nixon's very talented, very well-known speechwriter William Safire sat down and wrote a speech in advance … in case Armstrong and Aldrin ended up trapped on the moon.

It's a beautifully written speech … and of course it's all the more beautiful because it never had to be given.

"IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER" - one of our most widely-known documents. The "widows-to-be" phrase gives us a chill EVERY SINGLE TIME we read it. No one was certain Apollo 11 astronauts would return from the Moon. Thanks to <a href="https://twitter.com/NASA?ref_src=twsrc%[email protected]</a> brilliant minds, they did! <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NASA60th?src=hash&ampref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NASA60th</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/ArchivesInSpace?src=hash&ampref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#ArchivesInSpace</a> <a href="https://t.co/xEj4xOeIU0">pic.twitter.com/xEj4xOeIU0</a>

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So they got down to the moon, they got off the moon in spite of all the challenges. But one of those iconic moments, perhaps the iconic moment is planting the American flag — Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin doing that. But that also is a moment that almost didn't happen?

At no point — right into the middle of 1969 — had anybody at NASA paused and thought about how to celebrate landing on the moon. Somebody at headquarters actually called NASA in Houston and said: "You've got to do something about this, we're gonna have to celebrate somehow." And NASA created the Committee for Celebrations of the First Lunar Landing on the Surface — it sounds like a NASA committee.

A guy named Jack Kinzler, who was a senior technical manager in Houston, came to the meeting with this plan for a flag. He said we've got to plant a flag, you don't go to the moon and not plant a flag. And in order to make it fly on the moon, with no air, and no atmosphere at all, we're going to have to have a vertical flagpole, and . hinged to it at the top, a horizontal flagpole. And then we're just going to slide the flag out, like a curtain.

And the senior officials who were on the committee . said: "Jack, that's a great idea. You go make that flag."

They bought off-the-shelf flags. It's pretty clear they bought those flags at Sears.

The astronauts had checklists of what they were supposed to do . on the surface of the moon. Plant the flag, erect the flag, is not on Armstrong or Aldrin's checklists, on their spacesuit gloves, because it happened too late.

That picture of Armstrong and Aldrin alongside the flag that was literally on half the front pages of newspapers around the world, [it's] amazing that they weren't thinking about that in advance.

Here we are 50 years on. What's the legacy?

When Kennedy said let's do this in 1961, it was literally impossible . eight years later it was happening.

I think one of the most important lessons is to take a step back and say, if you ask people to rally to a cause and you explain to them what the urgency of that cause is — they will do it, even if it seems impossible.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Howard Goldenthal. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Apollo 11: They Almost Forgot the American Flag - HISTORY

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According to a report by the Tampa Bay, Fla., Fox-affiliate, Black could find proof of her claim if she could inspect the flag on the Moon.

And all the way back on Earth, Dolores had a secret about that flag that no one else knew.

"Right before I sewed this webbing," Dolores says, pointing to a photo of the flag on the moon, "that's where I signed my name."

Although the report finds that "it is uncertain who manufactured the flag that was deployed by the Apollo 11 crew," the citations agree that the flown flag was bought off-the-shelf, either from a local store or through a government stock catalog.

According to a NASA Press Release of 3 July 1969, "the Stars and Stripes to be deployed on the Moon was purchased along with several others made by different manufacturers at stores in the area around the Manned Spacecraft Center near Houston. In order to attach the flag properly to its aluminum staff it was necessary to remove the binding and labels. For this reason the name of the manufacturer cannot be determined." (NASA Press Release 69-83E, 3 July 1969, on file at the JSC History Office).

In his book, "All We Did Was Fly to the Moon," (Gainesville, FL: Whispering Eagle Press, 1988), p. 121, Dick Lattimer states that the flags that went to the moon were made by Annin & Co. Randy Beard, Sr., of Annin contacted the Public Affairs Office at NASA Headquarters regarding the flag shortly after the moon landing. His company had supplied many flags to NASA throughout the manned space flight program.

Beard was told that three secretaries had been sent out to buy 3x5-foot nylon flags during their lunch hours. After they had returned it was discovered that all of them had purchased their flags at Sears. Annin was the official flag supplier for Sears at the time so this story seemed to confirm that the flag had been made by Annin.

Beard was informed that NASA would not confirm the manufacturer of the flag because they didn't "want another Tang" — in other words, the agency did not want another advertising campaign based upon the fact that a commercial product had been used by the astronauts. (Randy Beard, Sr., Annin & Co., personal communication, 24 August 1992 and 10 September 1992.)

Jack Kinzler was unable to verify that the flags were purchased at local stores or that the labels were removed. His notes indicate that the flags were purchased from the Government Stock Catalog for $5.50. (Kinzler, interview, 30 August 1992.)

Manatee Community College in Florida has an art exhibit dedicated to Dolores Black, called "Black Flag on the Moon." The exhibit runs through June 18 and will run for an additional four weeks starting in late August.

Unfortunately, the truth may never be known. As described by Tony Reichhardt in the September 2008 issue of Air & Space Magazine, "the flag is probably gone."

By the way, there are two Apollo 11 lunar plaques on the Moon, one made of steel attached to the LEM and one etched on the silicon disc.

As an aside, I've never understood the early reluctance to divulge the name of the flag maker. There was apparently no issue with Fisher Space Pens, Omega watches, or Hasselblad cameras. Why the concern over flags?

With respect to the seamstress, it would be nice to think that NASA planned the American flag long before the mission and I do think that if she was the creator of the flag NASA would have given her the recognition she deserves. That would be quite an honor.

Unfortunately, I think the flag came from Sears or the 5 and 10. But I do have an autographed picture of this lady in my collection — just in case! Maybe this is something for "Unsolved Mysteries" to tackle!

The astronauts struggled to get the flag into the lunar surface crust and also struggled getting the telescoping arm to extend fully, giving it a wicked looking curled appearance.

I'm interested in hearing if any other evidence is found to support Dolores Black's claims, out of historical interest.

Editor's note : Threads merged.

After my grandfather's death the plaque went to an aunt or cousin and I am unsure of its location at this time. I am asking those who may know where it is and will post back when I know more.

The town of Rhodhiss has gone so far as putting the claim on their official seal and road signs.

It is clear from the video that Burlington Mills did play a role sourcing fabric for NASA, but more information is needed to sort out the discrepancies between the town's claim to the flags and NASA's official account.

(There were also workers inside the S-II stage as late as T-minus 2 hours, 10 minutes tightening a leaky valve.)

They were inside the S-II? I thought they were outside! Crikey.

Also, working around spacecraft loaded with hypergols is not a big deal. It is a common occurrence for every EELV class launch.

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Flag Day isn’t once a year for vexillologists. They study the history and meaning of flags year-round.

Monday will be Flag Day, an event marking the day in 1777 when the Second Continental Congress approved a design for the first United States flag. Thirteen stars, white on blue. Thirteen stripes, alternating red and white. Sound familiar?

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson called the U.S. flag “the emblem of our unity, our power, our thought and purpose as a nation.” He asked that June 14 be celebrated each year as Flag Day, a day to think about the country’s ideals and principles.

Although Congress made Flag Day a national event in 1949, it is not an official federal holiday. Sandwiched between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, which are federal holidays, it often gets overlooked.

But not at Peter Ansoff’s house. He’ll be hoisting some of the more than 100 flags he owns up the three flagpoles in his Annandale, Virginia, front yard.

Ansoff is a vexillologist (pronounced vex-ill-LOLL-oh-gist). That’s a big word for someone who studies the history and meaning of flags. As president of the 700-member North American Vexillological Association, he enjoys sharing his knowledge and love of flags.

While some people see flags as just colorful pieces of cloth, Ansoff says there are other people who are excited about what they represent. His own excitement started when he was a kid and came across colorful pictures of flags in an encyclopedia.

“Our neighbors had a flagpole, and I told my dad I wanted one, too,” he recalled. His mother bought him his first flag and sewed others for him.

Ansoff doesn’t call himself a collector. He does have a few rare flags, but mostly “I buy them to fly them,” he said.

Some are copies of the 27 official flags the United States has had since 1777. Ansoff also has several unofficial U.S. flags, ensigns (EN-sins) flown by American and British merchant ships, and flags of other countries. On July 1, a national holiday in Canada, he hoists its red-and-white maple-leaf banner. And if it’s a cold winter day in Northern Virginia, he’ll warm things up by flying the flag of a toasty South Pacific island.

Ansoff can’t (or won’t) pick one flag as his favorite. For a photo for KidsPost, he chose a replica of the Serapis (sir-APE-us) ensign, named for the British warship that American naval hero John Paul Jones captured off the coast of England in 1779.

Take a close look at it. How does it differ from the U.S. 50-star flag?

The original Serapis banner is lost to history. But vexillologists such as Ansoff keep its memory aloft.

Name that state

States have their own flags. Can you match these states with their flags? Answers below.

1. Gulf Coast pelican feeding three chicks

2. Only state flag that includes a foreign country’s flag

3. Two colorful coats of arms (one of four flags without blue on it)

4. Only one with a portrait of a U.S. president

5. Newest: Magnolia blossom replaced Confederate banner in 2021

6. Two-sided, with state seal and a beaver on opposite sides

7. Triangular, swallowtail design (other 49 flags are rectangles)

8. Large grizzly bear, this state’s official animal

9. Eight gold stars for the Big Dipper and North Star

10. Ancient sun symbol sacred to native Zia people

Five fun flag facts

●The story that Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag was first told by her family nearly 100 years later. Ross is known to have sewn flags, but there is no proof she made the historic one.

●The huge “Star-Spangled Banner” that in 1814 inspired our national anthem has 15 stars and 15 stripes. Over the years, pieces of the flag were given away as souvenirs, and one of its stars was cut out. What happened to it remains a mystery. You can see this flag — the only official American flag with 15 stripes — at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

●The first flag planted on the moon, during the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, traveled there in a case attached to one leg of the lunar module to save space. In all, six U.S. flags have been left on the moon. In 2012, the U.S. space agency reported that at least three were still standing, though all six have probably been bleached white by sunlight.

● Flags don’t have an expiration date. It doesn’t matter how many stars or stripes it has: Once a U.S. flag, always a U.S. flag. You can fly any version you like.

●The 50-star flag has been in use since 1960, the longest of any official U.S. flag. Credit for its design went to Ohio high school student Bob Heft. He got a B-minus grade for his American history class project his teacher changed it to an A when the government adopted the design. Heft also designed a 51-star flag, which is standing by if and when it’s needed.

1. Louisiana 2. Hawaii 3. Maryland 4. Washington 5. Mississippi 6. Oregon 7. Ohio 8. California 9. Alaska 10. New Mexico


Only a year after men first set foot on the moon there are signs that even the names of the three Apollo 11 astronauts are fading from the national memory.

When Neil A. Armstrong stepped off the ladder from the lunar module onto the moon's surface at 10:56 P.M. on July 20, 1969, millions of Americans were watching his bulky, hel meted figure, and they stayed at their television sets for two hours and 21 minutes to watch Mr. Armstrong and Col. Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. walk and work on the moon and plant an Ameri can flag on its surface.

Their names — Armstrong, Aldrin, and Lieut. Col. Michael Collins, the pilot of the com mand ship—seemed surely in scribed in the pantheon of American heroes. But a spot check in eight American cities last week showed that many persons who recalled their ex citement at the time of the landing could no longer remem I her even Mr. Armstrong's name.

In St. Louis, for example, only one of 15 persons tele phoned at random knew the name of the first man to walk on the moon. In Montgomery, Ala., five of 13 persons could do so in Portland, Me., one of 12 persons recalled Mr. Arm strong's name.

But for Colonel Collins and Colonel Aldrin, tame fled even faster. Of 10 persons queried in Los Angeles, four identified Mr. Armstrong, but only one could name the other two. In Boston, where nine of 12 per sons questioned knew that Mr. Armstrong was the first — several after long pondering— only three persons could give the names of the other two as tronauts.

“Yeah, sure, I know. Let's see — it was Niles something. Oh, Neil Armstrong,” said Paul W. Dickson Jr. of Pittsburgh. but Mr. Dickson could not name Mr. Armstrong's Apollo 11 com panions. Of the 12 persons in terviewed in Milwaukee, five knew Mr. Armstrong's name one of these also identified Colonel Aldrin, but the remain der recalled none of the three.

Few denied that it had been thrilling at the time: “I thought it was the greatest thing to happen in the history of the world,” said Dennis Kesselhon of Milwaukee. But in New York City, where only eight of 22 persons could remember Mr. Armstrong's name, only six of these 22 thought the space pro gram should be continued at its present level or expanded.

Few persons in any city were able to estimate current space program expenditures accu rately and opinion appeared generally to be about evenly divided about the program's future.

The persons interviewed were also asked what they thought had been accomplished by the United States space effort which included the Apollo 12 moon landing by Cmdr. Charles Conrad Jr. and Cmdr. Alan L. Bean. Some cited a gain in na tional prestige, and many spoke in vague terms of expected benefits to sscientific knowl edge.

Apollo 11 missing tapes

The Apollo 11 missing tapes were those that were recorded from Apollo 11's slow-scan television (SSTV) telecast in its raw format on telemetry data tape at the time of the first Moon landing in 1969 and subsequently lost. The data tapes were used to record all transmitted data (video as well as telemetry) for backup.

To broadcast the SSTV transmission on standard television, NASA ground receiving stations performed real-time scan conversion to the NTSC television format. The moonwalk's converted video signal was broadcast live around the world on July 21, 1969 (2:56 UTC). At the time, the NTSC broadcast was recorded on many videotapes and kinescope films. Many of these low-quality recordings remain intact. As the real-time broadcast worked and was widely recorded, preservation of the backup video was not deemed a priority in the years immediately following the mission. [1] In the early 1980s, NASA's Landsat program was facing a severe data tape shortage and it is likely the tapes were erased and reused at this time. [2]

A team of retired NASA employees and contractors tried to find the tapes in the early 2000s but was unable to do so. The search was sparked when several still photographs appeared in the late 1990s that showed the visually superior raw SSTV transmission on ground-station monitors. The research team conducted a multi-year investigation in the hopes of finding the most pristine and detailed video images of the moonwalk. If copies of the original SSTV format tapes were to be found, more modern digital technology could make a higher-quality conversion, yielding better images than those originally seen. The researchers concluded that the tapes containing the raw unprocessed Apollo 11 SSTV signal were erased and reused by NASA in the early 1980s, following standard procedure at the time. [3] [1] [4]

Although the researchers never found the telemetry tapes, they did discover the best visual quality NTSC videotapes as well as Super 8 movie film taken of a video monitor in Australia, showing the SSTV transmission before it was converted. These visual elements were processed in 2009, as part of a NASA-approved restoration project of the first moonwalk. At a 2009 news conference in Washington, D.C., the research team released its findings regarding the tapes' disappearance. They also partially released newly enhanced footage obtained during the search. Lowry Digital completed the full moonwalk restoration project in late 2009.

Who's in the suit? And how we got to the moon in the first place

On July 20, 1969, around 11:40 p.m. EDT, the scene depicted in one of the most iconic photos ever taken unfolded.

Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Aldrin were more than 110 hours into the historic moon landing mission when they planted a U.S. flag. Video of the event was broadcast to millions back on Earth.

Aldrin stepped to the side to raise his hand in salute. Armstrong stepped back to photograph the moment.

"It's such an iconic image," said Jennifer Ross-Nazzal, a historian for the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "This has become part of American culture. . You see this photo in textbooks."

The photo was taken during the Apollo 11 mission, the first manned moon landing. Aldrin and Armstrong landed in the Sea of Tranquility on the lunar surface as Command Module Pilot Michael Collins remained in lunar orbit.

The mission came amid an intense space race with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Both the United States and the USSR rapidly advanced in technological achievements of spaceflight, a national security concern during the nuclear arms race.

Though the Soviet Union sent the first person into space, the United States took the lead in the space race when it landed two men on the moon.

The First Flag on the Moon Fell Over 10 Seconds After the Lunar Module Took Off

As The Simpsons once rightly said, you can’t diss the American flag because it partied on the moon. Apparently though the flag planted by Apollo 11 astronauts all those years ago partied too hard because it fell over roughly 10 seconds after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took off.

As we’ve already explained in excruciatingly sarcastic detail, the flag Neil and Buzz planted on the Moon back in 1969 is one of the most controversial and iconic images to be released from the Apollo 11 mission. Controversial because idiots seem to think it proves that the whole Moon landing was staged and iconic, because fucking look at it! It’s clearly waving. In the air.

For anyone who thinks the Moon landing was staged and didn’t read our article on why that train of thought is just so full of shit, a “shittrain” if you will, the flag in that image isn’t waving, it’s just really crinkly. Something you can can see from these two images taken of the flag a few seconds apart proving that it was less capable of movement than comatose, overweight tortoise.

Either that or Buzz Aldrin is sick at break dancing.

With that out of the way, lets talk about how that flag fell flat on its ass seconds after Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong decided to peace the hell out. You see NASA wasn’t comfortable letting either astronaut move more than a hundred feet or so from the Lunar Module partly because they had no idea about the durability of their space suits and whether an astronaut who fell would be able to stand himself back up.

NASA were so concerned that Buzz or Neil might accidentally rip their space suit or fall down like a dumbass and die of hunger and shame in a lunar pit, that both men were warned to kneel only in an absolute emergency. It wasn’t until NASA examined the wear and tear on both of their suits when they returned that they were convinced that falling over on the Moon or kneeling down to pick up a dropped sample wouldn’t risk killing an astronaut.

Which is great because now we have GIFs like this.

Because Neil and Buzz had to be careful and weren’t allowed to venture too far away from the Lunar Module, they ended up putting the American flag right next to it, which looked great on TV but meant that when Buzz and Neil had to leave, the Module’s exhaust ended up blowing it over. Something Buzz relayed back to Mission Control, much to their annoyance.

NASA were so annoyed that the very symbol of America had been ineffectually blown over literally seconds after man left the Moon, they refused to believe it and denied that it had happened right until satellite imaging in 2012 proved that it no longer cast a shadow, indicating it was either a ghost flag or that it had fallen over. Since there’s no air on the Moon, they were forced to admit that the Buzz was right and that the Lunar Module had indeed ruined their middle finger to the cosmos.

We’re guessing that NASA must have at least believed Aldrin a little though because on every subsequent mission to the Moon’s surface, the astronauts were instructed to put the flag as far away from the Lunar Module as possible. You know, just in case.

Everyone Missed An Apollo 11 Mistake, And It Almost Killed The Astronauts Returning To Earth

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin raise the American Flag on the Moon, with the shadow of the Lunar . [+] Module (where the camera is mounted) seen in nearby. The astronauts might not have successfully returned to Earth, however, if the procedure used to jettison the fuel from the Service Module had let it come into contact with the Command Module. (NASA/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Even from our perspective in 2019, 50 years later, humanity's achievements from July, 1969, still mark the pinnacle of crewed spaceflight. For the first time in history, human beings successfully landed on the surface of another world. After a 380,000 km journey, the crew set foot on the Moon, walked upon it, installed scientific instruments, took samples, and then departed for Earth.

Three days after leaving the Moon, on July 24, 1969, they splashed down in Earth's oceans, successfully completing their return trip. But during Apollo 11's return to Earth, a serious anomaly occurred: one that went undetected until after the crew returned to Earth. Uncovered by Nancy Atkinson in her new book, Eight Years to the Moon, this anomaly could have led to a disastrous ending for astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins. Here's the story you've never heard.

This NASA image was taken on July 16, 1969, and shows some of the thousands of people who camped out . [+] on beaches and roads adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center to watch the Apollo 11 mission Liftoff aboard the Saturn V rocket. Four days later, humanity would take our first footsteps on another world. Four days after that, the astronauts successfully returned to Earth, but that was not a foregone conclusion. (NASA / AFP / Getty Images)

According to our records, the flight plan of Apollo 11 went off without a hitch. Chosen as the mission to fulfill then-President Kennedy's goal of performing a crewed lunar landing and successful return to Earth, the timeline appeared to go exactly as planned.

    On July 16, 1969, the Saturn V rocket responsible for propelling Apollo 11 to the Moon successfully launched from Cape Kennedy. (Modern-day Cape Canaveral.)

Astronaut Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin Jr., Lunar Module Pilot, stands near a scientific experiment on the . [+] lunar surface. Humanity's first landing on the Moon occurred July 20, 1969, as the Lunar Module code-named "Eagle" touched down gently on the Sea of Tranquility on the east side of the Moon. The Lunar Module, completely intact before the ascent stage is launched, can be seen in full beside the planted American flag. (NASA/Newsmakers)

  • After 4 hours setting up, astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin left the lunar module to explore the lunar surface, performing an extra-vehicular activity (EVA) for a total of 2.5 hours, deploying scientific instruments, collecting samples for return, and famously planting an American flag.
  • On July 21, after just 21 hours and 36 minutes on the Moon, the ascent engine fired, bringing the Eagle back to dock with Columbia, and returning astronauts Aldrin and Armstrong to the Command and Service Module with astronaut Collins.
  • On July 21, the SPS thrusters fired, returning the Command and Service Module to Earth, with the lone mid-course correction coming on July 22.
  • And on July 24, re-entry procedures were initiated, returning the Apollo 11 crew to a safe splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

This artist's concept shows the Command Module undergoing re-entry in 5000 °F heat. The Apollo . [+] Command/Service Module was used for the Apollo program which landed astronauts on the Moon between 1969 and 1972. An ablative heat shield on the outside of the Command Module protected the capsule from the heat of re-entry (from space into Earth's atmosphere), which is sufficient to melt most metals. During re-entry, the heat shield charred and melted away, absorbing and carrying away the intense heat in the process. (Heritage Space/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

It all sounds so simple and straightforward, which obscures the real truth: for every one of these steps, there were hundreds (or more) potential points of failure that everyone involved needed to guard against. That final step alone, which returned the astronauts from their presence around to Moon — after journeying back to Earth — was one of the most crucial. If it failed, it would lead to certain death, similar to the demise of the Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov.

Successful re-entries after a journey to the Moon had already taken place aboard NASA's Apollo 8 and Apollo 10 missions, and Apollo 11 was expected to follow the same procedures. At the danger of becoming complacent, this step, in many ways, already seemed like old hat to many of those staffing the Apollo 11 mission.

This schematic drawing shows the stages in the return from a lunar landing mission. The Lunar Module . [+] takes off from the Moon and docks with the Command and Service Module. The Command Module then separates from the Service Module, which jettisons its fuel and accelerates away. The Command Module then re-enters the Earth's atmosphere, before finally parachuting down to land in the ocean. (SSPL/Getty Images)

Re-entry, in principle, ought to be straightforward for the astronauts returning from the Moon. The Command and Service Modules first needed to separate, with the astronauts inside the Command Module and the Service Module being jettisoned. Once safely away, the Command Module would re-orient itself so that the heat shield was in the forward-facing position, prepared to absorb the brunt of the impact of re-entering Earth's atmosphere while protecting the astronauts inside.

At the proper moment, when the atmospheric density was great enough and the external temperatures and speeds were low enough, the parachute would deploy, leading to a gentle splashdown in the Pacific Ocean approximately 5 minutes later, where the astronauts could then be safely recovered.

Although there are no known photographs of the Apollo 11 Command Module descending towards . [+] splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, all of the crewed Apollo missions ended in similar fashion: with the Command Module's heat shield protecting the astronauts during the early stages of re-entry, and a parachute deploying to slow the final stages of descent to a manageable speed. Shown here, Apollo 14 is about to splash down in the oceans, similar to the prior missions such as Apollo 11. (SSPL/Getty Images)

It sounds so routine. But of the innumerable things that could go wrong, one of them was entirely unexpected: the possibility that the Service Module, scheduled to break apart and safely burn up in Earth's atmosphere, could accidentally have a piece of its debris collide with the Command Module, ruining re-entry and killing the returning astronauts on board.

The plan to avoid it was simple: the Service Module, post-separation, would perform a series of thrust maneuvers to take it safely away from the re-entry path of the Command Module. By shifting the Service Module to a significantly different trajectory, it wouldn't even re-enter at the same time as the Command Module, but would skip off the atmosphere this time. The re-entry of the Service Module should have only come much later, after performing another orbit (or set of orbits) around Earth.

Both the Command Module and the Service Module from Apollo 11 followed the same re-entry trajectory, . [+] which could have proved fatal to the astronauts aboard the Command Module if a collision of any type had occurred. It was only through luck that such a catastrophe was avoided.

But that didn't happen at all. To quote from Nancy Atkinson's book, pilot Frank A. Brown, flying about 450 miles (725 km) away from the re-entry point, reported the following:

I see the two of them, one above the other. One is the Command Module the other is the Service Module. . . . I see the trail behind them — what a spectacle! You can see the bits flying off. Notice that the top one is almost unchanged while the bottom one is shattering into pieces. That is the disintegrating Service Module.

Fortunately for everyone, none of the debris resulting from the Service Module's re-entry impacted the Command Module, and the astronauts all arrived safely back on Earth.

The crew of Apollo 11 — Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin — in the Mobile Quarantine . [+] Facility after returning from the surface of the Moon. The U.S.S. Hornet successfully recovered the astronauts from the Command Module after splashdown, where the crew was greeted by President Nixon, among others. (MPI/Getty Images)

How could this have occurred?

There was a fault in how the Service Module was configured to jettison its remaining fuel: a problem that was later discovered to have occurred aboard the prior Apollo 8 and Apollo 10 missions as well. Instead of a series of thrusters firing to move the Service Module away from the Command Module, shifting it to a different trajectory and eliminating the possibility of a collision, the way the thrusters actually fired put the entire mission at risk.

The problem was that there were two types of thrusters on board the Service Module: the Minus X RCS jets and the RCS roll jets. And while the roll jets fired in bursts in an attempt to stabilize the Service Module, the Minus X jets fired continuously.

The Reaction Control System, visible towards the center-left of the image, consists of two types of . [+] thrusters that control both acceleration and orientation. With the original flaw, the thrusters fired in a pattern that put the Command Module at risk. Had those two modules collided, the astronauts on board would have had a failed re-entry, killing all three passengers.

In the aftermath of Apollo 11, investigators determined that the proper procedure for avoiding contact would be to properly time the firing of both the roll jets and the Minus X jets, which would lead to a 0% probability of contact between the two spacecrafts. This might seem like an extremely small point — to have the Minus X jets cut out after a certain amount of time firing as well as the roll jets — but you must remember that the spacecraft is full of moving parts.

If, for example, the fuel were to slosh around after the Service Module and the Command Module separated, that could lead to a certain window of uncertainty in the resultant trajectory. Without implementing the correct procedure for firing the various jets implemented, the safe return of the Apollo 11 astronauts would have to come down to luck.

This NASA picture taken on April 17, 1970, shows the Service Module (codenamed "Odyssey") from the . [+] Apollo 13 mission. The Service Module was jettisoned from the Command Module early, and the damage is clearly visible on the right side. This was to be the third crewed Apollo mission to land on the Moon, but was aborted due to the onboard explosion. Thankfully, the flaw in the jettison controller had been fixed, and the Service Module posed no risk to the astronaut-carrying Command Module from Apollo 13 onwards. (AFP/Getty Images)

Fortunately for everyone, they did get lucky. During the technical debriefing in the aftermath of Apollo 11, the fly-by of the Service Module past the Command Module was noted by Buzz Aldrin, who also reported on the Service Module's rotation, which was far in excess of the design parameters. Engineer Gary Johnson hand-drew schematics for rewiring the Apollo Service Module's jettison controller, and the changes were made just after the next flight: Apollo 12.

Those first four crewed trips to the Moon — Apollo 8, 10, 11 and 12 — could have all ended in potential disaster. If the Service Module had collided with the Command Module, a re-entry disaster similar to Space Shuttle Columbia could have occurred just as the USA was taking the conclusive steps of the Space Race.

View of the Apollo 11 capsule floating on the water after splashing down upon its return to Earth on . [+] July 24, 1969. If the Command Module and the Service Module had collided or interacted in any sort of substantial, unplanned-for way, the return of the first moonwalkers could have been as disastrous as the Space Shuttle Columbia's final flight. (CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

Atkinson's book, Eight Years to the Moon, comes highly recommended by me if you're interested in the behind-the-scenes details and rarely-told stories from the Apollo era. Inside, you'll find many additional details about this event, including interview snippets with Gary Johnson himself.

If Armstrong and Aldrin — the first two moonwalkers — were to perish before returning to Earth, the United States already had a presidential address drafted for such a purpose. We may chalk it up to good fortune that the following words never needed to be spoken:

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at the 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.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man's search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.