First on the Moon: Looking Back on the Apollo 11 Decision, 50 Years On

Five decades ago, in the first half of 1969, the United States space program was consumed by a single, over-arching goal: to plant American boots on the Moon, by year’s end. It was to be the culmination of a national directive from the late President John F. Kennedy, made in May 1961 in response to the Soviet Union’s successful launch of the first man into space. In Kennedy’s words, the United States was to achieve a manned landing on the lunar surface, “before this decade is out”, and in spite of a multitude of technical troubles and human tragedies—most notably the loss of the three Apollo 1 astronauts during a “plugs-out” launch pad test—significant strides had occurred to bring the goal closer. In December 1968, Americans had flown around the Moon for the first time and only weeks later the complete Apollo spacecraft had been trialed in Earth orbit.

In January 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Mike Collins and Buzz Aldrin were assigned to Apollo 11, which was looking to be a likely contender to execute humanity’s first manned landing on the Moon in July. Of those three men, Armstrong and Aldrin would pilot the spider-like Lunar Module (LM) down to the surface and perform a single session of Extravehicular Activity (EVA). But the question on everyone’s lips in early 1969 was who would take the first steps on alien soil. Although the “decision” itself is difficult to date precisely, it is generally believed that by April—50 years ago, this month—Armstrong, as Apollo 11 commander, had been earmarked to perform those historic steps and, in doing so, become one of the most famous people the world has ever known.

For his part, Mike Collins labeled the crew as “amiable strangers”, arriving for training separately, going to lunch separately, talking only of mission-related matters and acting in some ways like passing acquaintances. Armstrong’s reserved nature juxtaposed sharply against Aldrin’s upfront confidence and Collins’ gregariousness, but during their six months of training for Apollo 11 a number of issues did arise, including the question of who—Armstrong or Aldrin—would be first onto the lunar surface. When queried by a member of the press in January 1969, Armstrong diplomatically handed the question over to his boss, Deke Slayton, who responded that the decision had not yet been made.

One of the key factors in Slayton’s mind was that further simulations in the cabin of the LM simulator were necessary to better inform the decision. Armstrong added that the choice depended on how best to execute the timeline on the surface, rather than an individual desire to be first, but he did reveal in those early remarks the whoever did emerge onto the surface first would be walking on the Moon for about 45 minutes before the second man came out. All told, it was expected that humanity’s first walk on the Moon would last about 2.5 hours.

In his biography of Armstrong, First Man, James Hansen noted there was “no doubt” in Aldrin’s mind, at least early in 1969, that he would be first. Aldrin’s rationale stemmed from a precedent established during the Gemini program, in which the command pilot remained inside the spacecraft and the pilot went EVA. Some journalists shared this view, and even NASA associate administrator George Mueller was quoted as declaring that Aldrin, as Lunar Module Pilot (LMP), would go outside first. This situation changed shortly after Apollo 9 returned to Earth in March 1969 and rumor began to spread that Armstrong would be first. Reasons for the choice, which appears to have been set in stone from April onwards, are numerous and complex and have aroused great debate over the years.

One of the earliest and, for Aldrin, perhaps most denigrating to his parent service, the U.S. Air Force, was that Armstrong was a civilian and received the coveted spot as first on the Moon because NASA—a civilian government entity—did not want the military to “blight” humanity’s first footsteps. At the time, America was embroiled in the maelstrom of Vietnam, although Aldrin had not served in any formal military capacity since joining the astronaut corps in October 1963 and even Armstrong had flown combat missions as a naval aviator in Korea. In his memoir Men from Earth, Aldrin noted that he brought the matter up with Armstrong and witnessed “a coolness I’d never seen in him before”, whereupon his commander accepted the historical significance of the first Moonwalk, but refused to rule himself out of consideration for making the first steps.

Aldrin’s reasoning for being first was valid and technical, based upon procedures and checklist demands. It was part of his job to plan the lunar surface activity and he reckoned that with Armstrong would have his hands full with the landing. Why, pondered Aldrin, should he also be saddled with the demands of suiting up first and plunging into the physiological intensity of the Moonwalk? Aldrin, of course, already had EVA experience—from his Gemini XII mission in November 1966—and he was acutely aware of its difficulties and the idiosyncrasies of the space suit. Armstrong was also no fitness fanatic; during his Gemini VIII training, as his crewmate Dave Scott pumped iron in the gym, Armstrong put the exercise bike on its lowest possible setting and pedaled slowly, observing that a man had only a finite number of heartbeats and it was best not to waste them.

In his landmark book A Man on the Moon, historian Andrew Chaikin wrote that other Apollo commanders rolled their eyes and gritted their teeth in the face of Aldrin’s lobbying. Many of them were naval officers and turned to their seafaring traditions for a solution. “The Gemini precedent” of the pilot doing the EVA, wrote Chaikin, “didn’t apply, because a lunar module sitting on the Moon wouldn’t be in flight: it would be in port. And as any naval officer knows, the protocol on such matters is clear. When a ship comes to port, the skipper is always first down the gangplank.” For his part, Deke Slayton made a similar point, stressing that Armstrong was the senior astronaut and should go first.

Over the years, Aldrin argued that his motives were misinterpreted and the actual outcome bothered him less than the need to reach a decision, one way or the other. In Hansen’s biography of Armstrong, Aldrin is quoted as admitting that it would have been “inappropriate” for him, the junior member of the Apollo 11 crew, to hae gone outside first, uttered the famous first words and gathered the priceless first lunar specimens, observed mutely from inside the LM by his commander.

Still, it is not difficult to speculate that the input of Aldrin’s father may have also been a contributory factor. When he first described the process of “egress” to his father, the older Aldrin reacted with surprising anger, threatened to “do something about it” and indeed tried to pull strings among his high-level friends at NASA and the Pentagon to get the plan reversed. Aldrin Senior, wrote Deke Slayton in his memoir Deke, co-authored with spaceflight historian Michael Cassutt, “just couldn’t seem to leave well enough alone”.

At length, the decision came down to pure practicality. The interior of the LM was only about the size of a broom closet and its square hatch opened inwards, hinged on its right-side edge. This required the astronaut on the right-hand side of the cabin—Aldrin—to pull it open and stand back in his corner, whilst the commander got down on hands and knees and reversed himself through the hatch, onto the tiny porch to prepare to descend the nine-rung ladder to the surface. For Aldrin to go first would require the two men to swap places in the cabin; a difficult act, given that both would be wearing space suits and backpacks. When faced with the risk of accidentally hitting a switch or circuit breaker, it was safer to go with the design and let Armstrong go first.

Finally, on 14 April 1969, a press conference at the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) in Houston, Texas, presided over by George Low, head of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, revealed that Armstrong would be first to step onto the Moon. Next day, an editorial cartoon showed the two men opening the hatch immediately after landing as confused Alphonse and Gaston characters: both politely offering the other the chance to go first, whilst at the same time discreetly muscling their way ahead of each other.

Humor aside, stories abounded (including one by a disgruntled public affairs officer) which claimed that Armstrong had “pulled rank” and demanded that he be first on the Moon. This was a point endorsed by Mike Collins in his autobiography, Carrying the Fire: “Neil ignored [original plans] and exercised his commander’s prerogative to crawl out first.” Such stories garnered sufficient public interest for George Low himself to admit that preliminary studies several years earlier, had called for the LMP to go first, but that simulations and planning eventually fell in favor of the commander. Buzz Aldrin has argued that he was fine with the decision, although other astronauts, engineers and managers have said otherwise. Mike Collins, for one, recounted a distinct element of melancholy and coolness in the air immediately after the announcement. And this, it would seem, was a final nail in the coffin for Aldrin being first on the Moon.

Years later, Chris Kraft, who was in 1969 head of flight operations at the MSC, spoke candidly about the fact that Armstrong was the best choice to take the historic first step, simply because he had no ego. The first man on the Moon would be remembered forever as the Charles Lindbergh of his generation, “a hero…beyond any soldier or politician or inventor”, and it was Armstrong’s very lack of ego, his calmness under duress, his quietness, his understated confidence and his desire not to put himself in the spotlight of fame and attention made him the perfect choice and the best ambassador for humanity.