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VIDEO: Apollo 11 blasted off 50 years ago today. Here’s how it happened, minute by minute

This detail from the first picture Neil Armstrong took during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity shows a jettison bag under Eagle's descent stage. (NASA/TNS/Released)

Apollo 11 launched from Kennedy Space Center 50 years ago this morning, the start of an eight-day, 953,000-mile journey which would take the first humans to the surface of the moon and return them home.

The 36-story Saturn V rocket with astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins blasted off at 9:32 a.m. on July 16, 1969 from launch pad 39A.

Using NASA logs and historical data, here’s a look back at how the countdown to history proceeded that day.

Time to wake up

4:15 a.m. — Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins are awakened in their crew quarters at Kennedy Space Center. They quickly dress with Aldrin in a blue-and-gold plaid short-sleeved shirt, Armstrong and Collins in white short-sleeved shirts. They undergo a physical examination and are declared “flight-ready,” NASA says.

They move to a dining room where “the normal astronaut fare on launch day” is awaiting them: A breakfast of orange juice, steaks, scrambled eggs, toast and coffee. As the astronauts sit down at a table with white table cloths and white china, two other men join them.

The first is Deke Slayton, one of the original Mercury astronauts. After being grounded for health reasons, he became NASA’s Director of Flight Crew Operations and the man who assigned Apollo astronauts to their missions. It was his decision to have Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins go to the moon on Apollo 11.

Also joining the astronauts is Apollo 11 backup command module pilot Bill Anders, who was the lunar module pilot on Apollo 8 and the man who took the famous “Earthrise” photo. With his role as mission backup now complete, he’s leaving NASA to become Executive Secretary of the National Aeronautics and Space Council.

It is a quick breakfast for the five men, just 25 minutes. A photo from the meal showed Slayton going over some maps with the astronauts as they finish their food.

Suiting up and checking out

5:35 a.m. — Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins begin putting on their spacesuits. Each specially-made garment weighs 35.6 pounds, and it takes a team of NASA workers dressed in all white to help each man into his suit.

Zippers are zipped, gloves are fastened, straps are tightened. As the assembled suits become heavier, the astronauts sit in recliners – tan ones for Armstrong and Collins, a gray one for Aldrin.

Once their clear plastic helmets are attached, the astronauts start breathing pure oxygen from a portable system about the size of a suitcase.

5:43 a.m. — While the astronauts are still getting dressed, work continues at launch pad 39A where their Saturn V rocket awaits. At the 320-foot level, the hatch of the Command Module is opened and Fred Haise, the Apollo 11 backup lunar-module pilot, prepares to go aboard to make some preliminary checks.

5:52 a.m. — After a planned hold of 1 hour and 32 minutes, the countdown for Apollo 11 resumes with 3 hours, 30 minutes on the clock. .

Journey to moon starts with 8-mile trip

6:27 a.m. — Flashbulbs flash and cheers rise as the astronauts emerge from the crew facility to enter a small motor home-sized vehicle that will take them the first 8 miles of their mission to the moon, from the crew quarters to the launch pad. Armstrong and Aldrin wave while Collins gives a couple of hearty nods to the crowd.

“The trip in the transfer van should take some 15 minutes or so to reach the pad,” explains Jack King, the NASA public affairs officer whose commentary is heard during launches, “at which time the astronauts board the first of two elevators for the trip to the 320-foot level at the launch pad where they will then proceed to ingress the spacecraft.”

The Apollo 11 emblem is on the back door of the vehicle, and when it swings open, also on the inside of the door. There is a “No Smoking” sign in red with white letters above the emblem.

A problem at the launch pad

6:47 a.m. — As the astronauts are riding to the launch pad, King breaks some potentially bad news. “We have a leak in a valve located in a system associated with replenishing liquid hydrogen for the third stage of the Saturn V launch vehicle. We have sent a team of three technicians and a safety man to the pad and these technicians are now tightening bolts around the valve.”

6:52 a.m. — The Apollo 11 crew arrives at the launch pad. Their vehicle backs up outside a first-stage elevator the astronauts board to reach another elevator to take them up to the top of the rocket and their capsule. “At this time, the prime crew for Apollo 11 has boarded the high-speed elevator from inside the A level of the mobile launcher,” King says. “This is the high-speed elevator; 600 feet per minute, which will carry them to the 320-foot level, the spacecraft level.”

6:54 a.m. — Armstrong enters the command module and takes his seat position on the left.

7:00 a.m. — Collins, who’ll be sitting on the right-hand side during liftoff, boards the spacecraft.

7:07 a.m. — Aldrin now enters the spacecraft. He’ll sit in the middle seat during liftoff. As Lunar Module Pilot, his normal position would be on the right-hand side. “However, due to crew preference” King explains, “we have the commander of course, Neil Armstrong, sitting on the left-hand side. The Lunar Module Pilot for the overall flight, Buzz Aldrin, sitting in the middle seat, and the Command Module Pilot Mike Collins sitting in the right-hand seat at liftoff.”

The ‘fourth astronaut’

7:09 a.m. — “We actually have a fourth astronaut still aboard the spacecraft at this time,” King reports. Haise is in the Lower Equipment Bay of the spacecraft, “giving a helping hand to the three prime crewmen as they start to perform some of their preliminary checks.”

7:22 a.m. — The fourth astronaut regretfully leaves, King says. Meanwhile, 120 feet below the astronauts, technicians have completed their work on the leaky valve and they are getting ready to leave the launch pad. Everything is Go for launch.

7:25 a.m. — The hatch is closed on the Apollo 11 spacecraft. “Several of the close-out crew shook hands with the astronauts and then proceeded to close the hatch,” King says. While the astronauts are already breathing pure oxygen in their spacesuits, once the hatch is closed, NASA will start to produce a cabin atmosphere that is 60% oxygen and 40% nitrogen for launch.

7:58 a.m. — “All aspects Go,” King explains. “The weather is very satisfactory for launch this morning. A thin cloud cover about 15,000 feet. Temperature at launch time expected to be about 85 degrees. “

Cronkite on the air

8 a.m. — CBS News’ coverage of the Apollo 11 launch begins on Orlando station WDBO-TV Channel 6. On their TV screens, viewers see the Saturn V rocket in the distance and then they hear the familiar, distinctive voice of anchorman Walter Cronkite.

“Man embarks today on history’s greatest adventure,” he says. “Here at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a massive complex and fragile vehicle waits to launch three American explorers into space, into the future, toward the lunar surface. The dawn of this day heralded the dawning of a new age, for with the first steps on the moon, man’s strides across the universe really begin. It’s a time of exhilaration, reflection, hope, fulfillment as a centuries’ old dream starts toward reality.”

NBC, with David Brinkley at the space center and Chet Huntley in New York, started its coverage at 6 a.m. ABC began an hour later.

But the moonshot is Cronkite’s story, and his space broadcasts are the most popular in the ratings. Four days from now, when the astronauts walk on the moon, Cronkite and CBS will draw 45 percent of television viewers. NBC will get 33% and ABC 15%.

8:08 a.m. — “Armstrong once again appears to be the busiest worker in the spacecraft as he is performing a series of alignment checks associated with the guidance system in the spacecraft,” King says. “He’s working these checks with the Spacecraft Test Conductor as the Spacecraft Test Conductor reads out the various procedures and Armstrong responds to them.”

8:22 a.m. — Cronkite and his TV sidekick, former astronaut Wally Schirra, interrupt a discussion about how the Apollo 11 astronauts are seated in the command capsule to note that former President Lyndon Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, have arrived in the VIP viewing area. It’s the first time Johnson is at a launch.

“We got a picture there of former President Johnson and Mrs. Johnson as they arrive in that VVVIP viewing area,” Cronkite says. “He arrived down here yesterday. Flew directly from the ranch in Texas. And told a small group of us at lunch yesterday — Wally, you were there for awhile — that he felt that he has ridden along on every one of these flights. Certainly has been instrumental in the entire space program.”

8:23 a.m. — King says the Civil Defense Agency estimates there are more than a million people in and around Brevard County to watch the launch. “Civil Defense Agency reports further that there is extensive heavy traffic, a number of traffic jams, particularly in the area of Titusville and the U.S. 1 and Route 50.”

8:36 a.m. — The Apollo 11 countdown is going so well that it’s actually 15 minutes ahead of schedule. When Armstrong is told the news, he replies that it’s fine just as long he doesn’t launch 15 minutes early.

8:37 a.m. — U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater approaches the VIP area to shake hands with former President Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater may have been trounced by Johnson in the 1964 presidential election, but he’s the winner today in 86-degree weather. Goldwater is wearing a short-sleeved red polo shirt while Johnson is wearing a charcoal-gray suit with a striped tie and white handkerchief in his jacket pocket. LBJ repeatedly removes another handkerchief from his pocket to wipe sweat from his face and brow.

8:51 a.m. — NASA is about to check the destruct system aboard the three stages of the Saturn V rocket. “In the event, during powered flight, that the vehicle strayed rather violently off course, the Range Safety Officer could take action to destroy the vehicle,” King says, and quickly adds, “which obviously would occur after the astronauts were separated by their escape tower from the faulty vehicle. “

8:54 a.m. — Cronkite tells his viewers there are more than 4,000 members of the media registered at the space center to cover the launch, “more than have covered any other event in history.” Media from 50 nations are represented.

CBS’ David Schumacher tells Cronkite, “It is the foreign reporters who seem to be enjoying themselves the most. About one quarter of the press, as you pointed out, are from overseas. They provided some problems for NASA with a great many arrived with no hotel reservations, no cars, no money and no English, in some cases.”

An Agence France reporter says the launch is big news. “It is a huge story in France and a big magnificent story around the world,” the French reporter explains.

8:56 a.m — King reports, “All still going well with the countdown. A short while ago Spacecraft Test Conductor Skip Chauvin asked Neil Armstrong if the crew was comfortable up there, and Neil reported back. He said, ‘We’re very comfortable – it’s very nice this morning.’”

9:01 a.m. — NASA is finishing checking the various batteries aboard the Saturn V. “We remain on external power through most of the count to preserve those batteries which must be used during the powered flight,” King says. “The batteries all look good.”

9:23 a.m. — “The astronauts in the spacecraft are busy again,” King says. “Commander Neil Armstrong has performed some final switch settings for the Stabilization and Control System of the spacecraft. … Both Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin have armed their rotational hand controllers – the controllers they use in flight.”

The final minutes

9:27 a.m. — “The swing arm now coming back to its fully retracted position as our countdown continues,” King says. “T-minus 4 minutes, 50 seconds and counting.”

9:28 a.m. — King reports that the Test Supervisor tells Launch Vehicle Test Conductor Norm Carlson, “You are Go for launch.”

9:29 a.m. — Launch Operations Manager Paul Donnelly wishes the crew “Good luck and Godspeed.”

9:30 a.m. — “One minute, 25 seconds and counting,” King reports. “Our status board indicates the third stage completely pressurized. Eighty-second mark has now been passed. We’ll go on full internal power at the 50-second mark in the countdown. Guidance system goes on internal at 17 seconds leading up to the ignition sequence at 8.9 seconds. We’re approaching the 60-second mark on the Apollo 11 mission.

9:31 a.m. — “Neil Armstrong just reported back: ‘It’s been a real smooth countdown.’ We’ve passed the 50-second mark. Power transfer is complete – we’re on internal power with the launch vehicle at this time. Forty seconds away from the Apollo 11 liftoff. All the second stage tanks now pressurized. Thirty-five seconds and counting. We are still Go with Apollo 11. Thirty seconds and counting. Astronauts report, ‘It feels good.’ T-minus 25 seconds.

“Twenty seconds and counting. T-minus 15 seconds, guidance is internal. Twelve, 11, 10, 9, ignition sequence starts…

“…6, 5, 4, 3, 1, zero, all engine running,” King says excitedly, instead of “all engines running.”

9:32 a.m. — “LIFTOFF! We have a liftoff, 32 minutes past the hour. Liftoff on Apollo 11,” King exclaims.

“Oh, boy,” Cronkite says in a low half-excited, half-nervous voice. “Oh, boy, it looks good Wally.”

After someone is heard in the background saying “tower clear,” King repeats “Tower cleared.” This is the signal that control of Apollo 11 is now transferred from Kennedy Space Center to Mission Control in Houston.

Armstrong, heard for the first time today, radios back to Mission Control, “Roger. We got a roll program,” meaning the Saturn V is now aligned properly for its historic flight.

“What a moment!” Cronkite says enthusiastically, “Man on the way to the moon!”

This story is part of the Orlando Sentinel’s “Countdown to Apollo 11: The First Moon Landing” – 30 days of stories leading up to 50th anniversary of the historic first steps on moon on July 20, 1969. More stories, photos and videos at


© 2019 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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