Moon Landing 50th: CBC News takes you inside the landmark mission and its impact

This story is part of Moon Landing: 50th Anniversary, a series from CBC News examining how far we’ve come since the first humans landed on the moon.

The moon landing in 1969 captured the world’s imagination and kick-started a new era of discovery.

“It’s one of the most important events not only in the history of the United States or the history of the Western world, but in the history of humanity,” said Andrew Chaikin, an American space historian and author of A Man On The Moon and Voices From The Moon.”There are a lot of other ways in which Apollo’s legacy lives on.”

Fifty years later, CBC News is looking back at the landmark mission, considering its impact on the world today and exploring Canada’s role in the new space economy.

Liftoff to landing

Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin and Michael Collins lifted off from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on the east coast of Florida at 9:32 a.m. ET on July 16, 1969. 

Watch the Apollo 11 liftoff 

The space mission to the moon left Earth July 16, 1969. 1:35

Four days later, as Collins orbited the moon in the command module, Armstrong and Aldrin landed Apollo 11’s lunar module, Eagle, on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility.

Armstrong became the first person to step on the surface. Aldrin joined him about 20 minutes later.

NASA is commemorating the historical mission with a live TV broadcast Friday and a series of events across the U.S. throughout the week. Aldrin and Collins will reunite at the launch pad on Tuesday morning before visiting the Launch Control Centre.

CBC News Network and CBC Radio will have special coverage of NASA events and those taking place at science centres across Canada. Retired and current Canadian astronauts will take part in the events across the country on Saturday, the anniversary of the landing.

Fly me to the moon

NASA plans to return to the moon and after pressure from U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, has moved up its launch year to 2024. Some experts are calling the timeline unrealistic.

India wants to take a giant leap in its space program, too. But its dream of a soft landing on the lunar south pole was temporarily deferred Monday when the launch of its second moon mission was aborted less than an hour before liftoff. 

While Canada might not be able to compete with larger players in the commercialization of space, the country is still finding ways to get in on the action through unique business ventures. CBC reporter Aaron Saltzman will take a closer look at the business of space on Wednesday.

Canadians inspired to explore

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has committed to participating in the Lunar Gateway, a platform from which humans can travel to the moon, an asteroid or Mars.

Space travel takes a physical toll, however, and a Canadian researcher is involved in efforts to create artificial gravity to allow us to spend more time and go further in space. CBC reporter Vik Adhopia will explore that work on Thursday.

In fact, the 1969 lunar landing inspired numerous Canadians, many of whom weren’t even born at the time, to pursue a career in the space realm. Some of them spoke with CBC News in reports coming later this week about what’s driving their desire to explore the vast unknown.

Astronauts sound off on Hollywood

The moon landing has inspired countless Hollywood tales about space, from Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock, to the more recent First Man, starring Canadian Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong.

Here are the space travel films that get a thumbs up and a thumbs down, according to astronauts themselves.

CBC News spoke to the experts to see which movies have the right stuff when it comes to the great beyond 5:39

But who needs Hollywood when you have the real thing? A former NASA intern stands to make millions because of tapes he bought in bulk for next to nothing at a government surplus auction decades ago. He intended to re-sell them for re-use.

Turns out three of them appear to be original video recordings of the moon landing, which NASA admitted in 2006 had gone missing. The tapes include Armstrong’s famous line that was broadcast live: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” 

Immortalized quote includes (a) change

Armstrong, who died in 2012 at the age of 82, said after the mission he had been misquoted, that he had intended to — and thought he did — insert an “a” before “man.” But he also admitted at a 30th anniversary celebration of Apollo 11 that he couldn’t hear it in the audio recordings either.

Listen to the live broadcast of the 1969 moon landing 

Armstrong’s immortal words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” 2:28

As a result, NASA’s official transcript of the landing on its website includes a correction to “honour Neil’s intent.”

It reads: “That’s one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind.”

According to a transcript of the news conference held after the landing, Armstrong was asked how he came up with the line.

“I did think about it,” said Armstrong. “It was not extemporaneous, neither was it planned. It evolved during the conduct of the flight and I decided what the words would be while we were on the lunar surface just prior to leaving the lunar module.”

After the astronauts arrived back with lunar rock samples, one Canadian city became a hotspot for further learning: Sudbury, Ont. Here are some of the lesser-known ways Canada played a role in the ambitious journey.

Armstrong, left, Michael Collins, centre, and Aldrin are pictured in this 1969 Apollo II crew portrait. (The Associated Press)

Clearing up an urban legend

Before Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins returned to Earth, they appeared to follow the same protocol as any other international traveler.

The trio supposedly had to pass through U.S. Customs, signing a general declaration form upon arrival in Honolulu, Hawaii dated July 24, 1969. The “moon” was given as the departure location and “Apollo 11” was recorded as the flight number. As for cargo to declare, it was written: “Moon rock and moon dust samples.”

Aldrin shared a copy of the document in 2015 on social media and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection even posted it on its website to mark Apollo 11’s 40th anniversary.

However, NASA’s chief historian, Bill Barry, told CBC News that while the document is technically “authentic,” it wasn’t actually filled out by the astronauts. They were in quarantine at the time because of a fear they could have brought unknown lunar germs back to Earth.

Barry said NASA’s history division investigated the backstory of the document a few years ago alongside U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“It was sent to NASA by the Customs Service’s District Director in Hawaii and the astronauts’ signatures were apparently auto-penned onto the document as a courtesy to the requestor,” said Barry.

While many at NASA have believed the declaration to be a gag, historians suggest it might have been an attempt to nab the astronauts’ autographs, who were returning as national heroes.

The moon landing sparked a host of fake stories and conspiracy theories. CBC’s daily news postcast Front Burner will look Friday at the political and social climate that allowed them to develop and continues today.

Lessons learned

With no wind on the moon, the astronauts’ iconic footprints will remain there forever. But that’s far from the only reason the landing continues to leave its mark on society. 

And the scientific discoveries resulting from the moon samples brought back have helped decode many facets of the solar system.

But Chaikin also said some of the biggest lessons learned from the moon landing have less to do with space and more to do with human behaviour, so much so that Chaikin now teaches NASA engineers about trust, working together and group achievement based on the success of Apollo 11.

“Four hundred thousand people worked together to do something that seemed impossible at the time it was first proposed,” Chaikin said. “There are some very powerful lessons in there about collaboration, about being open to ideas that may or may not align with what you think you know.”