Apollo 11 Mission Timeline: The Launch the World Stopped to Watch

On July 20th, 1969, NASA’s Apollo 11 spacecraft, carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, successfully landed on the lunar surface, becoming the first manned mission to set foot on the Moon.

It was a momentous event that captivated the world and forever changed our perspective on what is possible.

In this thread, we will dive into the fascinating story of Apollo 11, exploring its historical context, the preparations leading up to the mission, the journey to the Moon, the iconic moonwalk, and the lasting legacy it left behind.


On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced America’s intention to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” – John F. Kennedy

Thus, the United States committed to the space race, and the Apollo Program was born.

At the time of Kennedy’s speech, the American space program was struggling, and the Soviet Union was winning the race to space.

Americans watched the Soviet Union put the first satellite, Sputnik I, and humans into orbit. At the time, the U.S. didn’t know how to get to the moon and didn’t have a big enough rocket to reach it.

NASA began hiring lots of engineers and technicians from all over the country to build this rocket.

For many of these engineers and technicians, Apollo was their life.

They worked nonstop, 10-15 hours a day at times, and rarely saw their families.

It wasn’t an easy feat to bring people together, but Kennedy’s challenge had touched a nerve in America’s psyche.

After 8 years and countless tests and previous missions, the Apollo 11 spacecraft was ready for the world to see.

Apollo 11 Mission Timeline

1. The Launch of Apollo 11

Mission Time: 0:00:00

apollo 11 launch on July 16, 1969.

On July 16, 1969, Kennedy’s dream was realized as Apollo 11 launched from Cape Kennedy, Florida.

“All engines running. Liftoff! We have a liftoff … 32 minutes past the hour, liftoff on Apollo 11”

Over a million spectators, including Vice President Spiro Agnew and former President Lyndon Johnson, came to watch the spectacular launch.

To overcome Earth’s gravity, NASA required a rocket significantly more potent than the Mercury boosters used in 1961.

The colossal three-stage Saturn V, comparable in size to a Navy destroyer, generated a staggering 7.5 million pounds of thrust, propelling the Apollo 11 astronauts to a maximum velocity of 25,000 mph.

To sustain such power, the Saturn V carried nearly a million gallons of kerosene, liquid oxygen, and liquid hydrogen.

“If the Saturn V were to explode on or near the launch pad, it would wield the force of a small nuclear weapon.”

2. The Loop Around Earth

Mission Time: 02:44:16

Following the firing and separation of two out of three engines from the Saturn V rocket, the spacecraft entered Earth’s orbit at an altitude of approximately 120 miles above the surface.

After completing one orbit around the planet, the third-stage J-2 rocket initiated its ignition, propelling the Apollo astronauts away from near-Earth orbit and setting them on their course toward the Moon.

3. Vessel Rearrangement in Space

Mission Time: 03:24:03

Next came a truly tricky maneuver. Aside from the Saturn V boosters, the Apollo 11 consisted of three vessels: the Lunar Module (LM) named “Eagle,” transporting astronauts to and from the moon’s surface; the Command Module (CM) known as “Columbia,” serving as their dwelling during the journey; and the Service Module, housing propulsion, and support systems.

(When the Command Module was attached to the Service Module, it was called the CSM.)

To arrange the vessels correctly for lunar orbit and landing, the CSM maneuvered out of the stage three rocket, executed a 180-degree turn, and docked head-first with the LM—all while hurling through space at approximately 20,000 mph.

Once connected, the Apollo 11 spacecraft bid farewell to the Saturn V, embarking on a three-day journey across the 238,000-mile distance separating Earth and the moon.

4. Entering the Moon’s Orbit

Mission Time: 75:49:50

Once separated from the Saturn V, the Apollo spacecraft relied upon the Service Module engine for mid-course corrections and for the critical maneuver of slipping into the moon’s weaker gravitational orbit.

This last move, known as lunar orbit insertion, went off without a hitch, swinging the astronauts around the moon at 62 miles above the lunar surface.

5. The Descent

Mission Time: 100:39:53

Apollo 11 Lunar Model in descent to the moon

During the spacecraft’s second lunar orbit, Mission Commander Armstrong and Lunar Module Pilot Aldrin transitioned from the Command Module (CM) to the compact Lunar Module (LM) in preparation for detachment, while Command Module Pilot Michael Collins remained in orbit, awaiting their return.

The “powered descent” of the LM was deemed the most critical and perilous phase of the mission.

After separating from the CM, Armstrong and Aldrin guided the 32,000-pound LM for two hours toward the lunar surface.

In a tense moment, with fuel running low, Armstrong realized that the computer’s auto-landing program was dropping them in the middle of a boulder-strewn crater.

Armstrong manually took control and skillfully maneuvered the spacecraft forward, avoiding the hazardous boulder-filled crater and ensuring a safe landing beyond it. This legendary act has since become an iconic moment in space history.

6. “The Eagle Has Landed”

Mission Time: 102:45:40

Armstrong, a seasoned test pilot, maintained composure despite blaring warning alarms in the confined cabin and Mission Control’s announcement of a mere 30 seconds of fuel remaining.

Side by side with Aldrin, they peered out of small triangular windows, skillfully guiding the LM to a gentle touchdown as the engines were cut.

In a moment that will be forever etched in history, Armstrong calmly relayed, “The Eagle has landed.”

7. First Man on the Moon

Mission Time: 109:07:33

Footprint of astronaut Neil Armstrong after being the first man on the moon during the apollo 11 mission

At 10:56 PM EDT on July 20, Armstrong made history by becoming the first human to step onto the lunar surface, uttering the iconic phrase,

“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” 20 minutes later, Aldrin followed, descending the ladder onto the lunar soil.

For the next two hours, the astronauts engaged in various tasks, capturing photographs, documenting their impressions of the lunar landscape, and collecting significant amounts of moon rocks and soil samples.

Additionally, they deployed a set of scientific experiments designed to stay on the moon after their departure.

These experiments included a seismograph to measure “moonquakes” and the Laser Ranging Retroreflector, enabling precise measurements of the moon’s distance from Earth.

8. Apollo 11’s Return

Mission Time: 124:22:01

After a brief period of rest, Armstrong and Aldrin prepared to rendezvous with Collins and the Command Module (CM) in lunar orbit. However, the success of their return depended solely on the performance of the single ascent engine— the lifeline back to the CM and Earth.

The prospect of Armstrong and Aldrin being stranded on the moon was high enough that President Richard Nixon and his speechwriter, William Safire, had prepared a somber contingency speech if Armstrong and Aldrin were unable to lift off from the moon’s surface.

The speech began, “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.”

9. Docking with the Command Module

Mission Time:128:03:00

Fortunately, the ascent engine ignited flawlessly, allowing Armstrong and Aldrin to ascend from the lunar surface and rejoin Collins in lunar orbit.

Armstrong and Aldrin executed another precise maneuver, successfully docking the Lunar Module (LM) with the Command Module (CSM) while both spacecraft were in mid-flight.

The three-man crew reunited in the CSM, jettisoned the LM for good, and set course for home.

10. Atmosphere Re-entry

Mission Time: 195:07:15

Following the firing of its engines for one final time to enter Earth’s orbit, the Service Module was discarded, and the three astronauts prepared for re-entry inside the cone-shaped Command Module.

The Command Module had to re-enter the atmosphere at an extraordinarily precise angle to avoid disaster.

As they hurtled towards Earth at a staggering 24,000 mph, the capsule faced the intense heat and pressure of re-entry, creating a blazing fireball around it.

A slight deviation in angle could spell doom for the crew. Too steep, and the capsule would burn up; too shallow, and it would skip off the atmosphere like a stone on water.

After a three-minute communication blackout, Armstrong eventually signaled the successful re-entry, and the recovery ships breathed a sigh of relief as they spotted the capsule with its parachutes deployed, signifying the safe return of the Apollo 11 crew to Earth.

11. Splashdown & Celebration of Apollo 11

Mission Time: 195:18:35

The historical Apollo 11 mission reached its conclusion eight days, three hours, 18 minutes, and 35 seconds after liftoff, as the Command Module (CM) safely splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, approximately 800 nautical miles southwest of Hawaii, close to the recovery ship, the USS Hornet.

Apollo 11 astronauts exiting in hazmat suits in case of potential moon bacteria.

Emerging from the slightly battered CM capsule, the three astronauts donned biological contamination suits as a precautionary measure, concerned that they might have inadvertently carried back potentially hazardous moon bacteria.

To ensure the safety of Earth’s environment, they entered a mobile medical quarantine facility, resembling a modified Airstream trailer, where they remained isolated for 21 days.

After this critical quarantine period, the Apollo 11 crew was finally given the all-clear to reunite with their families, marking the triumphant end to their historic journey and securing their place in the annals of space exploration history.

Apollo 11 ticker tape parade on August 13, 1969 to celebrate the succesful apollo 11 mission.

On August 13, 1969, The Apollo 11 crewmen were welcomed in New York City with a ticker tape parade down Broadway and Park Avenue in a parade that was termed the largest in the city’s history.

In an unforgettable display of admiration and gratitude, countless tons of confetti, shredded paper, and ticker tape were tossed from high-rise office windows, creating a scene of celebration and joy.

The city’s skyscrapers echoed with the resounding cheers of a nation, expressing their profound appreciation for the extraordinary feat accomplished by the astronauts.

Impact of the Apollo 11 Mission on the World

From the time of its launch on July 16, 1969, until the return splashdown on July 24, almost every major aspect of the flight of Apollo 11 was witnessed via television by hundreds of millions of people in nearly every part of the globe.

“This is the greatest week in the history of the world since Creation,” President Richard M. Nixon enthused upon greeting the Apollo 11 crew when they returned from the Moon. There was never a time to be prouder of being an American than on the day our flag flew on the Moon.

1. Apollo 11’s National Impact

The flight of Apollo 11 met with an ecstatic reaction around the globe, as everyone shared in the success of the astronauts. The front pages of newspapers everywhere suggested how strong the enthusiasm was.

NASA estimated that because of nearly worldwide radio and television coverage, more than half the population of the planet was aware of the events of Apollo 11. Police reports noted that streets in many cities were eerily quiet during the Moonwalk as residents watched television coverage in homes, bars, and other public places.

Official congratulations poured into the U.S. president from other heads of state, even as informal ones went to NASA and the astronauts.

2. Apollo 11’s Impact on Humanity

The impact of the Apollo 11 mission extended far beyond its historical moment, leaving an enduring legacy on humanity’s collective consciousness. Apollo 11 instilled a spirit of exploration and sparked a fascination with science and space that continues to inspire new generations of scientists, engineers, and dreamers.

It demonstrated the boundless potential of human ingenuity and determination, proving that with ambition and collaboration, we can overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges.

The journey to the moon reshaped our perception of what is possible, igniting a passion for space exploration that endures to this day. The Moon landing serves as a timeless symbol of humanity’s quest for discovery and reminds us that, when united by a shared purpose, we can achieve the extraordinary.

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