Fifty years ago this month, an indelible impression was made on the moon and our minds. On July 20, 1969, humans first walked on the moon leaving footprints that are still there today and capturing our collective imagination.

Like many exploration feats, the drive to the moon was fueled by a competitive spirit. The first climbers to summit Denali, the Sourdough Expedition in 1910, were encouraged by a bet. British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and Norwegian Roald Amundsen drove each other to try to be the first to reach the South Pole from 1910-1912. The space race was fueled by the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Apollo 11 was the mission that brought Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong to the lunar surface while Michael Collins remained on the command module, “Columbia,” in orbit around the moon. The Apollo program is an example of our drive to explore as well as the trial and error that’s part of any exploration.

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the world’s first artificial satellite. Later that year, Sputnik II carried the first living being into space, a dog named Laika. In April 1961, Soviet Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space. He orbited the earth and by becoming the first person in space, embarrassed Americans. The U.S. sent Alan Shephard to space in May of that year but only on a 15 minute suborbital flight. It was amidst this tension and competition that, in May 1961 President John F. Kennedy announced the goal of sending Americans to the moon and back by the end of the decade. He and many others saw it as more than friendly competition. Kennedy told Congress, “Finally, if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.”

The Apollo program ran from 1961-75. The first mission, Apollo 1, resulted in the tragic loss of three astronauts during a pre-flight test at Cape Canaveral. A fire in the command module trapped and killed Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Ed Chafee. For a time, the Apollo program was put on hold. No missions were named Apollo 2 or 3. In 1961, an uncrewed launch was designated as Apollo 4. This was the first flight of the Saturn 1 rocket. Apollo 5 was a test of the lunar module in space in 1968. Later that year, Apollo 6 became the final uncrewed Apollo test flight.

Apollo 7 launched astronauts in October 1968. Following 11 days in space, the astronauts jettisoned the service module and splashed down in the Indian Ocean in the command module.

The second crewed spaceflight for the U.S. followed in December. Apollo 8 was the first to reach the moon, orbit it and return. Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders saw the “earthrise” over the moon, an image that became famous. The astronauts also made a Christmas Eve broadcast, reading from the Book of Genesis. It was the most watched television broadcast at the time.

Apollo 9 orbited Earth in March 1969. It was a test of the lunar module, the component that would be used to reach the moon’s surface. In May, Apollo 10 returned to the moon and orbited.

Finally, in July 1969, the U.S. was ready to send astronauts to the moon’s surface. Apollo 11 launched on July 16 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The voyage to the moon was 3 days long. At this point, Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins entered the lunar orbit and 21 hours later, Aldrin and Armstrong separated from the main rocket in the lunar module, the “Eagle.” They descended to the moon’s surface, spending just shy of three hours exploring and collecting samples. Then the lunar module and command and service modules were rejoined until eventual splash down in the command module.

The moment Neil Armstrong stepped off the Apollo 11 lunar module onto the moon on July 20, 1969, was seen by 1 million people around the world. It was also the first live satellite television broadcast in Alaska.

The following six Apollo missions were all planned as lunar landing missions. All but Apollo 13 did return to the moon’s surface between 1969 and 1972. While Apollo 13 was forced to abort plans to land on the moon in 1970 following an oxygen tank explosion, it did orbit the moon and record photographs.

The UA Museum of the North holds an object connected to the Apollo history. Astronaut John “Jack” Swigert gave a model of Apollo 13 to the University of Alaska. It came to the museum from the office of Dr. William Wood, who was the president of the university from 1960-73. Swigert was the command module pilot on Apollo 13, having taken on that role just three days before launch. He was also the one to say “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” The model of Apollo 13 bears a card with Swigert’s signature and shows how the service module, command module and lunar module all fit together

Museum objects give us a tangible way to connect to the past. Seeing Swigert’s handwriting makes the past come alive and sparks our imaginations. Even without knowing the details, we can imagine the path the model took to Alaska, to the president’s desk, and into the museum’s care. The entire Apollo 11 command module, checklists, astronauts’ gloves and more are preserved in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Each of these objects carry meaning and acquire new meanings through people’s interactions with them. An Apollo model in a different place would have different significance to Alaskans.

Through museums we can connect to history and to our world. We can come closer to understanding motives for competitive spirit or the drive to explore. Objects allow us to imagine the experiences and explorations of others and to better understand our own interests and passions.

Jennifer Arseneau is the education and public programs manager for the UA Museum of the North. She can be reached at 474-6948.

To Try At Home

Pack for space. A trip to Mars will take much longer than going to the moon. Imagine you will venture to the red planet. The journey is 6 months one way and you need to stay 19 months before Earth and Mars are close again. Plan what personal items you would take for 2 ½ years. How much can you fit in a 1 meter by 1 meter by 1 meter box?

If You Go

NASA will be broadcasting live on July 19 in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. To learn more, visit Also check out the astronomy page on the museum’s website at Summer hours at the museum are now in effect, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information, visit or call 474-7505.