“Amiable Strangers”

Three distinct personalities, one goal: reach the moon.

apollo 11 crew
NASA

Neil Armstrong was the first to know. Deke Slayton, the head of NASA’s astronaut office, had pulled him aside in mission control on December 23, 1968, during the flight of Apollo 8, and asked him to command the first moon landing mission—or rather, the first attempt. There was no guarantee of succeeding on the first try.

Less than two weeks later, on January 4, Slayton called Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins into his office, where Armstrong was waiting, and informed them that they were the prime crew for Apollo 11. Armstrong (center, above) would command the mission, Aldrin (left) would be the lunar module pilot, and Collins would be the command module pilot. All three had flown on Gemini missions less than three years earlier.

Collins later coined the term “amiable strangers” for the Apollo 11 astronauts, noting that other crews had seemed to bond more readily than this one. The photo above was taken on January 10, 1969, a day after NASA announced that the three men would make the first lunar landing. See the photo gallery below for more scenes from the weeks leading up to their July 16, 1969 launch.

Dress Rehearsal

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(NASA)

The crews of Apollo 10 and 11 huddle on June 3, 1969, shortly after the Apollo 10 mission took the lunar module on a dress-rehearsal flight to within 50,000 feet of the moon’s surface. Clockwise from left: Mike Collins and Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 10 lunar module pilot Gene Cernan, Apollo 10 commander Tom Stafford, Neil Armstrong, and Apollo 10 command module pilot John Young.

Flight Review

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(NASA)

Aldrin, Collins, and Armstrong review their flight plan five days before launch. Aldrin, the lunar module pilot, would normally have occupied the right couch of the command module during launch. Instead, he took the center couch because he had trained for that position as part of the backup crew for Apollo 8. In the interest of time, NASA decided to train Collins, who had been absent recovering from surgery for a neck spur, to occupy the right couch rather than retrain Aldrin.

Saturn V

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(NASA)

The Apollo 11 astronauts walk past the base of the mammoth Saturn V rocket in early June, a few weeks before it propelled them to the moon. In the foreground, Bill Schick, Apollo Test Conductor, leads the crew around the launch pad during a walk-through emergency egress test. Armstrong would later tell biographer James Hansen, “In the first stage, the Saturn V noise was enormous, particularly when we were at low altitude because we got the noise from seven and a half million pounds of thrust plus the echo of that noise off the ground that reinforced it. After about thirty seconds, we flew out of that echo noise and the volume went down substantially. But in that first thirty seconds it was very difficult to hear anything over the radio—even inside the helmet with the earphones. It was considerably louder than the Titan. In the first stage, it was also a lot rougher ride than the Titan. It seemed to be vibrating in all three axes simultaneously.”

Mock-Up

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(NASA)

Armstrong practices descending the ladder on the lander mock-up, July 11, 1969. When he came down the real ladder on the moon, he climbed back up onto the last rung, about 32 inches, and observed, “Okay. I just checked getting back up to that first step, Buzz. It’s.…The strut isn’t collapsed too far, but it’s adequate to get back up.” A few seconds later he added, “[It] takes a pretty good little jump.” During the technical debrief after the mission, Armstrong recalled being more comfortable with the ladder at the end of the moonwalk. “The technique I used was one in which I did a deep knee bend with both legs and got my torso down absolutely as close to the footpad as I could. I then sprang vertically up and guided myself with my hands by use of the handrails. That’s how I got to the third step, which I guess was easily five to six feet above the ground.”

Corvettes for Astronauts

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(NASA)

Aldrin shows up for work in his Corvette six days before launch. The Corvette might have been the car of choice for moonwalkers anyway, but the attraction was fueled by a Houston Chevy dealer who offered any astronaut a deep discount. Armstrong had also bought one upon his arrival in Houston. It was damaged in his garage during a house fire in April 1964. In a bit of foreshadowing, Armstrong’s next door neighbor in the El Lago suburb favored by the astronauts was Ed White, who would perish in the January 1967 Apollo 1 fire. White helped Neil and Janet Armstrong get their young sons away from the house, and White then helped Neil push the Corvette out of the superheated garage.

Maps

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(NASA)

Aldrin reviews maps of the region that he and Armstrong will overfly as their lunar module rises from the surface after their moonwalk. The oval drawn at the bottom of the sheet in his left hand shows the landing ellipse the pair will target. No desktop computer. No cell phone next to the car keys. The most sophisticated piece of equipment on his desk is the rotary phone. The photo was filed on July 14, 1969.

Inspection

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(NASA)

Armstrong examines the rotor on a helicopter two days before the launch of Apollo 11, possibly in preparation for a final training flight. Armstrong has said that helicopters didn’t provide as useful a simulation for the lunar lander as did the more dangerous lunar landing training vehicle (LLTV), from which he ejected 14 months before his lunar mission. But helicopters did allow the astronauts to fly trajectories similar to those they would fly above the moon.

Eve of the Mission

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(NASA)

The picture of confidence on the eve of their lunar mission, Armstrong and Aldrin relax over dinner in the crew quarters at the Kennedy Space Center, July 15, 1969. A few days before launch, as chronicled in Armstrong’s biography First Man, Chris Kraft, director of flight operations, asked the mission commander, “What can we do? Is there anything we’ve missed?” “No, Chris, we’re ready,” Armstrong replied. “It’s all done except the countdown.” “He was right,” Kraft said. “If there was anything undone, none of us could say what it was….We had come to this last point, and for a moment I felt my legs shake.”

Fair Wishes

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(NASA)

Bill Anders, one of the first three astronauts to orbit the moon on Apollo 8, wishes Buzz Aldrin good luck as the Apollo 11 crew enters the elevator of the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building on their way to the launch pad, July 16, 1969.