Little bit of SA at Apollo 11 mission lift-off

2019-07-22 11:03
Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin.

Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin. (NASA)

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While the only “moon walk” most will ever attempt, is pop culture icon Michael Jackson’s dance move, today [Saturday] marks the day a spaceflight sent three American astronauts on a trajectory to the moon.

Fifty years ago, the world watched together on July 20, 1969, as Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin who were part of the Apollo 11 mission, reached the moon, and humans set foot on another world for the first time.

And while no African has yet travelled to the moon, something South African and a little sticky, travelled the 380 000 km with the three astronauts: Pratley’s Putty Gum.

According to, the sticky substance, an invention of Krugersdorp engineer George Pratley, was used to keep parts of the Apollo 11 expedition’s landing vehicle stuck together. Pratley developed the gum in the 1960s.

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), only 12 men have walked on the moon and they were all American.

The Apollo project began in earnest inside a football stadium in 1962, when then U.S. president John F. Kennedy declared that the United States would put a man on the surface of the moon before the end of the decade. The president had announced the mandate to congress a year earlier.

However, Kennedy did not live to see the achievement he had promised, as he was assassinated six years prior, on November 22, 1963.

The three pioneers, Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin, were all 39 at the time.

Armstrong and Aldrin became the first people to land on the moon and the next day, spent two and a half hours outside the spacecraft while Collins remained in lunar orbit in the command module. When Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface, he famously said: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Armstrong died in August 2012 of complications resulting from a heart condition. He was 82 at the time. The other two, Collins and Aldrin, are still alive to tell the tale.

A half-century later, people continue to share their memories of the day. Commenting on The Witness Facebook page, Pietermaritzburg resident Beverley Bradbury said she remembers listening to the broadcast on radio as an eight-year-old.

Another resident, who asked to remain unnamed, said she also remembers the day vividly.

“I was eight years old. It was very exciting for us. In those days, we didn’t have TV and to hear the actual report was exciting and made an impression on people.”

This week, other people from around the globe shared memories of the day on the Nasa website.

“I got a view from afar. I was in Valencia, Spain, when the Apollo 11 landed. The Paris newspaper covered it on a full page and it was a colour picture of Neil Armstrong. The person I was visiting was watching television and the announcer spoke in Spanish. When they landed, the announcer screamed in Spanish. The next day, no matter what the subject was, everyone was talking about the moon landing,” recalled one person.

Franco from Geneva, Switzerland, said he was 18 years old in Italy during the landing. He woke up a café owner so that he and his friends could watch the first steps on television.

“The landing of the moon happened at 5 am, and we were in a small village in southern Italy. Everything was closed and nobody was really aware of what was going to happen. Even my friends were not very keen on watching this, but I had to wake them up and said we need to find a TV and see what is happening.”

In a video, posted on his website ahead of the 50th anniversary of the mission, Aldrin, who was the Apollo Lunar Module pilot, said he fell in love with aviation from a young age.

Aldrin’s father, Edwin Eugene Aldrin, was an army aviator in World War 1.

“I loved the feeling of breaking free from gravity. I loved going as fast as a human being could go,” he said.

Recalling moments during the most important voyage of his life, Aldrin said: “I could see the sun coming, the waves coming in from this height and I looked up and saw the evidence of millions of people. It was a moment of brief solitude, that I said to myself … ‘I just don’t ever want to forget this moment where I can just contemplate how wonderful my life has been to get me to this point’.”

In an interview with Nasa this week, Collins said that at lift-off, the gravitational force was not the only pressure they felt.

He said that Apollo 11 was “serious business” and that the crew knew everyone would be watching them.

“We felt the weight of the world on our shoulders. Everyone was looking and we were worried we were going to screw something up,” he said.

“We wanted to put our best foot forward and that required a lot of work on our part, not too much time left over for any other things we might have enjoyed.”

Collins said simulators made up an extensive part of their training in preparation for the mission. “They [simulators] were very good machines,” he said. “They were excellent duplicators of what we would see in flight. The one failing was that they couldn’t duplicate well the view we saw out the window.”

He said he spent about 600 hours in the command module simulators preparing for Apollo. He said the most challenging thing during the flight was experiencing tension and worrying about what was coming next. 

The Only woman among 400 launch engineers

Joanne Morgan, Apollo 11 firing room instrumentation controller, also recalled the historic venture during an interview with Nasa this week.

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Morgan, who was the only woman among the 400 launch engineers on the day, said: “There was palpable tension and the firing room quieted down once the flight crew came out.

“After Apollo 8, 9 and 10, it was a delight to have the Apollo 11 count down. It was the end of a five-year period of intense work and you’re not relaxed because engines have to fire, and they have to cut off.”

Morgan, now 80, said for engineers in the firing room, while some of their jobs were going to end after the Apollo 11 launch, she and others had to get ready for more launches.

“We were doing four launches that year; we had to get ready for more launches after the Apollo 11. It was a lot of intensity and great hope.”

Morgan said she was “thrilled” to have been the only woman in the firing room.

“Apollo 11 was my first opportunity to be there at lift-off. It was doubly exciting for me. Many of the men in the room had already gone through the lift-off phase. After that launch, I felt accepted and part of the team.”

Recalling some of the challenges she encountered along the way in the rise to her position, Morgan said: “Some men just resist change and a woman coming into their workplace was a change.

“Little things happen that are uncomfortable but it’s like mosquitoes … you swat them, and you keep on. I just had a passion for doing this, I just wanted to be part of it.”

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Witness to the best of us

Speaking on the significance of the moon landing, Bryon Brassel of the Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said: “It was and still is the largest leap for humankind, and the moon became a witness to this truth. The moon became a witness to the good that humanity is capable of when the best of us do the best of things. So as that orb revolves around us, it will be a constant reminder of what we are capable of and where we can go, when only we persevere.”

Logan Govender, former Durban Astronomical Society of South Africa spokesperson, agreed that the moon landing was a milestone for humanity.

“It was a technical achievement that was beyond comparison. To get out of the Earth’s orbit and go to a distant sister satellite is not an easy feat,” Govender said.


Moon journey – step by step

July 16: Blast off at Cape Kennedy.

July 20: Armstrong and Aldrin land on the moon.

July 21: Moon walk and return to link up with moon-orbiting Columbia and Collins.

July 22: Astronauts begin return to Earth

July 24: Splashdown!

apollo 11

What the moon-landing doubters say

Even though there’s lots of proof that the moon landing happened, some people don’t believe it.

People who suggest the moon landing didn’t happen are often called conspiracy theorists because they believe it was a hoax set up by Nasa. According to Wiki­pedia, here are some of the reasons that people say the landing didn’t happen. 


Some conspiracy theorists reference the lack of stars in the pictures taken by the Apollo astronauts from the surface of the moon. There is no air, which means the sky is black, but some people still say it is strange that there are no stars.  


Another claim is that the U.S. flag, which appears in photos of the moment, appears to be flapping in the wind. Doubters say there wouldn’t be wind on the moon as there is no air. 


A piece of evidence for the landing is the fact that the astronauts came back with rocks from its surface. They returned with more than 382 kg of moon rocks, which have been shared and studied by scientists in many countries for decades. All of the tests have confirmed that they did indeed come from the moon.

— Nasa and Wikipedia

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