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Ten Things You Didn't Know About the Apollo Moon Missions

From 1968 until 1972, the United States sent a bunch of men to the moon.  Twelve of them actually got to walk on it.  Since then, nobody has been back.  As the years have passed, much of what those men did while they were up there has either been forgotten by an uninterested general public or ignored by people who didn’t really care in the first place. Most people know that Neil Armstrong was the first to actually walk on the moon, and many can even recite his famous words that followed his first step.  Thanks to the popular movie, many are familiar with the fate of the Apollo 13 mission, which miraculously made it back to earth after an on-board explosion.  A special few have made the lame argument that it was all a hoax, one of whom Buzz Aldrin dealt with by punching in the face.  However, there are tons of interesting facts about the things these men said and did during their historic journeys.  Here a few of the more obscure ones for enthusiasts and casual fans alike.
These can be found in Andrew Chaikin’s excellent book A Man on the Moon or in various official NASA archives, most of which can be found online.

10.  That famous American flag only stood for a few hours.
One of the iconic images of the first lunar landing is that of Buzz Aldrin standing next to an American flag that was specially made for the moon’s low gravity.  However, the sad fate of that flag was that it was knocked over a few hours later when he and Neil Armstrong took off to head back to the command module.  After Aldrin hit the button to fire the rocket to take him and Armstrong back into lunar orbit, he looked out the window and watched as the rocket blast blew everything away, including the famous flag.

9.  Unauthorized ESP experiments.
During the Apollo 14 mission, unbeknownst to his bosses in Houston, or even his crewmates in the spaceship, Edgar D. Mitchell conducted several unscheduled experiments in extrasensory perception.  During the wee hours of their sleeping time, while traveling to and from the moon, Mitchell would focus his mind intensely on a series of symbols that are commonly used in ESP trials.  He and a group of physicians in Florida had arranged the sessions in advance, hoping to gain insight into whether thoughts could be transmitted over thousands of miles of space.  The results were inconclusive at best.  As it turns out, Mitchell and his partners on earth were probably out of synch during most of the experiments.  However, the results were published in The Journal of Parapsychology of 1971, for what that’s worth.

8.  There was crying on the moon.
When we think of the stereotypical type A, chisel-featured men who made up the early space program, we would never imagine them blubbering all over themselves wiping tears away, especially not Alan Shepard.  Shepard is truly one of America’s unsung astronauts.  Not only was he the first American in space, but he was also the oldest person to ever walk on the moon, at age 47.  After being grounded from the space program years earlier because of an inner ear disorder, Shepard vowed to fight through it and get back in the game.  His time finally came in early 1971 when he was put in command of the Apollo 14 mission.  Many people will remember his fashioning a makeshift golf club out of a digging tool and smacking the longest drive in history (“miles and miles”), but what many don’t know is that the old man was unable to contain his emotions as he took his first steps on the lunar surface.  Alan Shepard cried while standing on the moon.  After everything he had been through, who could blame him?  Too bad there was no way to wipe the tears away.

7.  Lunar Communion
The NASA bosses had warned the astronauts that since practically the whole world would be listening in, they should not engage in any overtly religious observations during their trips to the moon.  Seeing as how they were supposed to be representing all of humanity, why risk offending people of other faiths, or nonbelievers?  However, Buzz Aldrin felt the event of humans being on the moon for the first time in history was too much of an important occasion not to do something of significance.  So after the landing was complete and they were waiting to take those historic first steps, Aldrin got on the radio and asked everyone who was listening to find a way to reflect on this moment in history and to give thanks however they saw fit.  For him, that was to produce a wafer of unleavened bread and a small flask of wine that he had stowed on board.  After reciting a passage from the Gospel of John, he ate the wafer and drank the wine, becoming the first, and so far only, person to observe the central Christian ritual of Communion on the moon.  Neil Armstrong reportedly watched his partner respectfully but did not partake. 

6.  Nobody knows the first words spoken on the moon.
Neil Armstrong’s famous words that he uttered as he took his first step onto the moon – “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” – have been the subject of endless debate, with many believing he misspoke by leaving out the “a” before man, making his statement redundant.  That aside, the first words spoken while the spacecraft was actually on the surface of the moon have traditionally been understood to be the words that Armstrong said shortly after safely landing: “Houston, Tranquility Base here.  The Eagle has landed.” 
However, there was so much technical jargon being relayed back and forth between the two astronauts during the landing that it is very difficult to say exactly what the very first words spoken on the moon were.  Further complicating matters was that Armstrong’s landing was so soft that neither man could ever be completely sure what was said immediately after they had touched down.  According to the transcripts, it boils down to three likely candidates.  It could have been Aldrin pointing out that the contact light had turned on by saying, “Contact light.”  Armstrong then instructed Aldrin to turn off the descent engine by saying, “Shut down.”  Aldrin followed by turning off the engine and saying, “Okay.  Engine stop.”  None of these sound very historical, which is why it’s probably best to stick with Armstrong’s message to mission control in Houston.

5.  The moon stinks.
One of the surprises that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin encountered right after they finished their historic moonwalk was the smell.  As soon as they were back inside and able to get out of those bulky spacesuits, they immediately noticed that the moon had a very pungent odor, at least when it’s exposed to oxygen.  Aldrin compared it to the smell of gunpowder after it’s been spent.  Armstrong said it was more like wet ashes in a fireplace.  Yuck. 

4.  NASA didn’t trust its own astronauts.
A mere two months before the historic Apollo 11 mission, another historic mission took place.  Apollo 10 was to be a dress rehearsal for the moon landing.  It would rehearse all of the aspects of the moon landing mission to follow, except the actual landing.  The astronauts would keep the lunar module a good fifty thousand feet from the surface.  Onboard the lunar module, named Snoopy (the command module was Charlie Brown) were astronauts Thomas Stafford and Eugene Cernan, two of NASA’s finest who had been through all of the rigors of astronaut training, which ensured that they would be able to respond to any unexpected event and never operate outside of mission parameters.  However, the bosses at NASA’s trust for its flyers only went so far.  They were so concerned that Stafford and Cernan would be tempted to take Snoopy down to the surface and attempt to land that they ordered the ship’s fuel tanks filled with only enough to get to the moon and cruise around the sky, but not enough to take off if they did land.  So they technically could have landed on the moon; they just would have been stuck there.

3.  Only one lunar module pilot ever got to pilot the lunar module.
When it comes to trust and operating outside of mission parameters, Pete Conrad was one who was known to push the limits.  As commander of Apollo 12, the second manned mission to the moon, he waited until his lunar module was on the dark side of the moon and outside of radio range when he did the unthinkable: during the trip from the lunar surface to the command module, he allowed his pilot to actually do some flying.  As it turned out, being given the title “lunar module pilot” during the Apollo missions was only that, a title.  The lunar module pilot’s job (among many others) was to make sure the commander had all the information he needed to do the flying.  He would only actually fly the module if the commander became unable to fly for some reason, which never happened.  So as they went into the deep darkness of the far side of the moon, Conrad turned to his LM pilot, Alan Bean, and said, “You can take a minute and fly this vehicle.”  Surprised but elated, Bean was happy to take the controls for a while. 

2.  A priceless sculpture was left there.
David Scott, commander of Apollo 15, was looking to pay tribute to the many people who had died in the American and Russian space programs.  Before his mission, he asked a Belgian artist named Paul Von Hoeydonck if he would create a small statue that would commemorate all of the astronauts, American and Russian, who had died in the pursuit of manned space travel.  The sculpture was to be human-looking, but could not represent any race, gender or nationality.  Scott also insisted that there would be no commercial gain from this gesture of goodwill, just a lasting memorial for all those astronauts who had perished in the line of duty.  The artist agreed and on August 1, 1971, the crew of Apollo 15 left the 3-inch statuette on the Plain at Hadley alongside a plaque bearing the names of the 14 known astronauts who had died (2 additional Soviet astronauts had also died, but the USSR did not make their names public until after the mission).  A few years later, the artist attempted to make some money by selling signed replicas of the sculpture, but Scott convinced him that it was a violation of their original agreement.  The one on the moon is still the only one.  Maybe someday it will be on display in a lunar museum on the surface of the moon, but for now, it remains the most remote memorial in the solar system. 

1. An actual scientist walked on the moon.
As the Apollo program wound down due to funds being cut and more attention being paid to the coming space station (later to be known as Skylab), NASA was getting more and more pressure from the scientific community to send a real scientist up there while they still could.  Until that point, NASA had sent only their own test pilots who had trained as astronauts.  These astronauts had been put through a crash course on geology before their trips to the moon, but surely this was no substitute for someone who had actually devoted his life to studying rocks.  With that in mind, NASA had already begun bringing on scientists with PhDs and training them as astronauts, starting with teaching them to fly jets.  None of these guys had much of a chance of being on one of the moon missions, but as it became clear that Apollo 17 would be the last mission to the moon and no scientists had been up there, NASA gave in and called upon Harrison Schmitt, a Harvard educated geologist. He had completed the intense training required to be a fully qualified astronaut and was more than willing to go.  Needless to say, sending a geologist to the moon was like sending a Civil War historian back in time to witness the Battle of Gettysburg.  Schmitt spent three days poking and digging for rocks on the moon and it was no coincidence when he returned to earth with a rock that was dubbed Troctolite 76535, which has become known as the most interesting rock to have been brought back earth.  What makes it so important?  Geologists say many things. Among them is that it proves the moon once had a magnetic field.  Other scientists went to space in later programs, but Schmitt remains the only one to walk on the moon.

BONUS: The astronauts COULD NOT see the Great Wall of China

It’s a myth that’s been repeated too many times.  They could barely make out continents from that far away. The Great Wall can actually be seen from earth’s orbit, as can the Pyramids of Egypt and many other human-made structures, but not from the moon.  Not even close.

A version of this arcticle originally appeared on


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