Quirks and Quarks

Countdown to the moon landing — relive the missions that led to 'one small step for man'

Spaceflight historian Amy Shira Teitel chats with Bob about Apollo 8 which went to the moon, but didn't land

Spaceflight historian Amy Shira Teitel chats with Bob about Apollo 8

Apollo 11 launch on July 16, 1969. The Quirks & Quarks countdown to the 50th anniversary of the historic Moon landing begins today (NASA)

This summer, on July 20th, it'll be 50 years since humans first landed on the moon, and Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong took his famous "one small step."  Half a billion people - the largest live TV audience ever - watched as Armstrong bounced down onto the lunar surface. It is certainly one of the most celebrated moments in human history.

But Apollo 11 was not the start of human exploration of the Moon, or the end. There were vital missions before it. Missions that tested the technology, the rockets - and the men - that would make the landing possible. In fact while the moment of Apollo 11 was dramatic, the months leading up to it were full of furious activity, suspense, and risk.

So as we count down to the 50th anniversary of the first human steps on the moon, Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald will also do a countdown of what was happening in the Apollo program leading up to the landing, with help from another space enthusiast Amy Shira Teitel. Amy's a Canadian space flight historian, author, and host of her own YouTube channel 'Vintage Space'.

Several times over the next few months Amy and Bob will discuss what was going on as the world got ready for the first men on the moon. Here is an excerpt from the first installment.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Bob McDonald: I was around in 1969. I remember all the crazy stuff that was going on. The hippie counterculture movement was in full bloom. The war in Vietnam was going on. There was a Cold War all that horrible stuff. But at the same time there was this magic of the space race and what was astounding about it is that everybody knew scientific technology. We knew what a lunar module was what a command module was, orbital rendezvous, we were talking about it in school and it was really amazing. Now I know you were not around at that time. You're just a bit younger than me but look at what got you fascinated in the space program of the 60s.

Amy Shira Teitel: Yeah, I discovered the moon landing when I was about seven. I was researching for a second grade project on Venus and I saw this little image of two astronauts standing on the moon in front of a cartoon lunar module and I just thought, wait, people went to the moon. Why was I not informed. And I just needed to know everything about it. It was just so fascinating to my little seven year old brain and you know it's been my my obsession ever since.

A grade two project ignited a passion for space travel in then seven year old Amy Shira Teitel, who now makes her living talking about the subject. (Amy Shira Teitel)

Bob McDonald: Well let's trace the history. Kennedy famously announced the moon missions in his speech in 1962. So that means that there were seven years of furious activity up to January of 1969. So take me through that chronology. What happened?

Amy Shira Teitel: A lot of things. When when Kennedy promised America not only a moon landing but the safe return of those astronauts,  America only had 15 minutes of suborbital space flight under its belt. It didn't know how you would go to the moon. It didn't know what that spacecraft would look like. And as NASA started answering those questions and settled on the mission mode, it realized we have to figure out how to do things like do a rendezvous in space and understand whether or not we can actually do that in the, at the time, completely unknown gravity field around the moon. Not to mention can humans survive for two weeks in space? How are they going to get outside and walk around?  All of these things had to be answered before we could even start thinking about realistically sending people to the moon.

Astronauts, from the left, Gus Grissom, Ed White II and Roger Chaffee during training for Apollo 1 in January 1967. On January 27, 1967, the three astronauts were preparing for what was to be the first manned Apollo flight. The astronauts were sitting atop the launch pad for a pre-launch test when a fire broke out in their Apollo capsule. The investigation into the fatal accident led to major design and engineering changes, making the Apollo spacecraft safer for the coming journeys to the moon. (NASA)

Bob McDonald: So then that takes us to 1968,  the year before the actual moon landings. Well we actually went to the moon. I think a lot of people don't realize that people went to the moon before they actually landed there.

Amy Shira Teitel: There were so many elements of the moon landing that we need to work out. One of them being actually going to the moon. You know it's a quarter of a million miles away on average and takes three days. It would have been insane if the first time we ever went was the time we attempted the landing. So Apollo 8 actually made the first mission right around Christmas in December of 1968. It was NASA's attempt to salvage a flagging schedule. The lunar module was so far behind, it was not going to be ready to fly. So NASA decided well why don't we take what we've got, which is a functioning command module that can't land on the moon, and at least figure out this whole tricky business of going into orbit around the Moon and coming out of lunar orbit and making that whole journey. So not only did Apollo 8 go to the moon, it actually orbited the moon 10 times.

Bob McDonald: One of the things that did happen very early in 1969 was the crew for Apollo 11 was announced. So we have Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Now we know who they are now. Did anybody in 1969 know who these guys were?

Amy Shira Teitel: I think a handful of people probably knew who they were. But you would have to be deeply enamoured with the space program to know about them. Neil Armstrong was already well-known as a pilot, as a pilot of the x15. And of course if again if you were close to the space program you would know the Gemini 8 mission, which almost ended in his death, but he piloted his way out of that. Buzz was known maybe as the Gemini 12 pilot and. Mike Collins was also a Gemini astronaut. We look back at it and assume that they must have been chosen because they were the perfect people to make that first landing. In reality Deke Slayton who was an original Mercury astronaut and then did all the flight selection as head of the astronaut office, he had a rotation schedule and they just rotated into that first flight.

The Apollo 11 lunar landing mission crew was named 50 years ago this month. From left to right, Neil A. Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, command module pilot; and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot. (NASA)

Bob McDonald: Now it's also not well-known that Apollo 11 was not necessarily going to be the first landing. It would be the first attempt at a landing but if things went wrong they wouldn't do it and they would move it on to the next one.

Amy Shira Teitel: Yeah. NASA had actually scheduled Apollo 12 to fly in November or December of 1969 to give one more chance at making that lunar landing by the end of the decade. So it was almost Pete Conrad the first man on the moon. For anybody who knows Pete Conrad would be a very different person to be celebrating as the first man on the moon.