47 years ago today, 2 men set foot on the moon for the first time in human history. This event captured the attention of the entire world; it is estimated that 500 million people (about 14% of total world population in 1969) watched the moon landing coverage live on television; it was the largest audience for a live broadcast at the time. It’s no surprise that an event of that magnitude has been commemorated on coins and stamps as well.
As with many historic events, the space program was celebrated with commemorative tokens. These were struck for all the missions, from the initial Mercury project up through the Apollo program. NASA and its astronauts were national heroes, and many space-themed collectibles were created during the 1960’s.
The Apollo 11 mission, naturally, received special focus. By the time of the Apollo missions, the United States had pulled ahead in the space race, after coming in second to the USSR in nearly every milestone until the Gemini 3 mission. For Gemini 3, Gus Grissom (who died in the Apollo 1 disaster) and John Young (who went on to several Apollo missions as well as the Shuttle program) demonstrated the ability to change the orbit of their craft. Each Gemini mission had a special focus in order to build the knowledge and experience that was needed to safely reach the moon. The Apollo program took the information from the Gemini missions and set forth a daring but achievable plan to reach the lunar surface.
On January 27, 1967, a fire broke out in the Apollo 1 capsule during a routine test. The combination of an oxygen-rich environment and the design of the escape hatch resulted in the death of the Apollo 1 crew: Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. NASA took time after the accident to reassess the module design and the cost of the space program. Flight Director Gene Kranz (most famous for his leadership during the Apollo 13 crisis) told the Mission Control team, “We were too ‘gung-ho’ about the schedule and we blocked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work.” New safety measures and procedures were put into place, and the Apollo missions continued. The Apollo 1 mission name was retired in honor of the lost astronauts, and Apollos 2 and 3 never flew. Apollo 4 lifted off in November of 1967, and the race for the moon continued.
After successful trips around the moon with Apollos 8 and 10 (Apollo 9 was a test of all modules in low earth orbit), Apollo 11 launched on July 16, 1969. Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins were aboard; only Armstrong and Aldrin would land on the lunar surface, as Collins stayed behind with the spacecraft.
On July 20, 1969, after a harrowing descent in which the “Eagle” lander ended up short on fuel and kilometers off course, Armstrong and Aldrin landed safely on the surface. Several hours later, the two astronauts descended onto the lunar surface, making history for their nation and for all of humanity.
Since the first moment when Armstrong’s boots touched the surface of the moon, the image of the first moon landing have become iconic. They have been featured in movies, videos, songs, and on everything from t-shirts to jewelry. The eagle and moon motif on the reverse of the Eisenhower and Susan B. Anthony dollars was based on the emblem for Apollo 11, since NASA was established during Eisenhower’s administration (the design was re-used for the Anthony dollar, though she had no connection to the program.)
On the 47th anniversary of the first moon landing, we remember the sacrifices made to further the cause of peaceful exploration and scientific inquiry, and look hopefully to the future.