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Astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin places the Passive Seismic Experiment Package experiment during his two-hour Apollo 11 spacewalk. NASA photo.

July 20 marks the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s successful landing on the moon. Although the feat is considered a NASA accomplishment, the Air Force and USAF personnel played a crucial and indispensable role in the achievement.

07192019 Apollo Panorama.jpgA panorama of the Apollo 11 site taken by mission commander Neil Armstrong. Armstrong had to extend the landing to avoid the large crater to the right, touching down with only 17 seconds of fuel remaining. Photo: NASA
Early in the “space race,” NASA urgently needed a way to compete with the Soviet Union, and turned to the Air Force for its ride to orbit. While the first two astronauts in the Mercury program made their suborbital flights aboard Army Redstone rockets, Marine Corps Maj. John Glenn’s flight—the first in which an American orbited the Earth—was made atop the Air Force’s Atlas rocket, then being developed as an intercontinental ballistic missile. The remaining three Mercury flights, each longer and more complex than the last, were also made with the Atlas. Likewise, the 12-mission Gemini program, which lofted two astronauts at a time to space, used the Air Force’s larger and more powerful Titan missile. Air Force Systems Command provided the rockets and modified them for compatibility with the NASA spacecraft. The Air Force also offered up its facilities at Cape Canaveral, Fla. (later renamed Kennedy Space Center for much of the manned spaceflight period) as the launch site for Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. 

07192019 Cooper.jpgAir Force Maj. Gordon Cooper after his May, 1963 Mercury flight, during which he completed 22 orbits. Photo: NASA

The Mercury program established that human beings could survive the trip into space, function while outside the atmosphere, and return safely and in good health. Gemini proved out various techniques necessary for the moon flights to come: working safely outside a spacecraft; space rendezvous; docking and undocking of multiple spacecraft; space navigation and maneuver, etc. Apollo verified the specific hardware needed to land on the moon and continue its exploration over a series of six successful landings.

07192019 Apollo Celebration.jpgAir Force Lt. Gen. Samuel Phillips, second from right, celebrates Apollo 11’s successful launch with, L-R, Charles W. Mathews; Wernher von Braun, Director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, and George E. Mueller, NASA Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight. Photo: NASA

In 1963, NASA Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight George Mueller persuaded the Air Force to lend him a gifted manager to oversee the development of Apollo’s rockets and spacecraft. He brought in Maj. Gen. Samuel C. Phillips, who had been highly successful running the Minuteman ICBM and B-52 bomber programs, to be director of the Apollo Manned Lunar Landing Program. In writings and speeches after the Apollo program, Wernher von Braun, NASA’s rocket chief and director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, credited Phillips as the person most singularly responsible for Apollo’s success, programmatically and within the nine-year time limit originally set by President John Kennedy. Phillips returned to the Air Force two months after Apollo 11, heading up the Space and Missile Systems Organization, then the National Security Agency, and ultimately rising to four stars and command of Air Force Systems Command.

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A Boeing EC-135E ARIA is shown at the National Museum of the US Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. Photo: Air Force

Throughout the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, the Air Force provided tracking of spacecraft through its worldwide radar systems, and through a fleet of specially-modified C-135 aircraft providing tracking between ground stations. Called Apollo Range Instrumentation Aircraft (later the Advanced Range Instrumentation Aircraft), or ARIA, these EC-135N airplanes were jointly funded and crewed by NASA and the Air Force.

The Air Force and NASA also partnered on the X-15 rocketplane, which made numerous contributions to Apollo by exploring the thermal environment the moon rockets would travel through and by testing materials and insulation to be used in those launch vehicles. The Air Force’s Tullahoma, Tenn., engine test facility also performed more than 55,000 hours of testing of Apollo rocket engines and components, and Air Force rocket sled research at Holloman AFB, N.M., provided essential data on human factors of space flight. Air Force medical teams provided most of the personnel who tested, evaluated, and selected astronauts based on physical condition.

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Apollo 11 crew Neil Armstrong, Michal Collins and Buzz Aldrin, in their quarantine trailer aboard the USS Hornet, receive a visit from President Richard Nixon after their July 24, 1969 splashdown. Photo: NASA

On the Apollo 11 flight itself, two of the three crew members were Air Force officers. Commanded by Neil Armstrong, a civilian NASA test pilot and former Naval aviator, Apollo 11 also carried Command Module Pilot Michael Collins, an Air Force fighter and test pilot, as well as Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, another USAF fighter pilot who had shot down two enemy aircraft during the Korean War. Both Collins and Aldrin were space veterans, having flown during the Gemini program, and both had made multiple spacewalks. Aldrin had earned a doctorate in astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in orbital rendezvous and was the first person with a doctorate to fly in space.

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Aldrin descends from the “Eagle” to the lunar surface, a sight which he described as “magnificent desolation.” Photo: NASA

Although bearing the title lunar module pilot, Aldrin’s role during the descent to the moon was to keep Armstrong, flying the lunar lander, apprised of pertinent information regarding altitude, sensor and computer alarms, and fuel remaining. Aldrin was the second person to walk on the moon, emerging from the lunar module “Eagle” some 19 minutes after Armstrong. Together, they spent about two hours on the moon, collecting rock and soil samples and deploying a series of experiments. (Of note, all but two of the color photos taken of an astronaut on the moon during Apollo 11 are of Aldrin, as Armstrong had the camera for most of the surface activity period.)

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The “Eagle” ascent stage, with Armstrong and Aldrin aboard, climbs to a rendezvous with “Columbia,” piloted by Collins.
Photo: NASA

Meanwhile, Collins orbited the moon in the combined Command/Service Module, took photographs of future Apollo landing sites, and maintained the health of the spacecraft. When Armstrong and Aldrin returned to lunar orbit in the upper half of the Eagle, Collins navigated the two craft to re-docking.

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The Apollo 11 mission patch, designed by Collins, was the only one to exclude the names of the crew, which wanted to honor those who designed, built, and tested the spacecraft. The Eagle bears only an olive branch, to symbolize the theme “We Came in Peace.” Image: NASA

Collins designed the iconic patch worn by the crew; the only Apollo mission patch not to feature the names of the astronauts. The crew chose not to include their names because they considered the accomplishment that of the 400,000-strong enterprise of technicians, engineers, and scientists who designed, built, tested, and operated the gear that sent Apollo 11 successfully to the moon and returned the astronauts safely to Earth.

07192019 Collins Portrait 2.jpgLt. Col. Michael Collins, Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot, trains to operate the spacecraft’s docking mechanism. Photo: NASA

Collins was in line to command Apollo 17 and would have walked on the moon during that mission, but wrote in his book Carrying the Fire that he considered Apollo 11 to have won the space race and he was less interested in the further exploration of the moon. He left NASA to first run the State Department’s public affairs organization, and then became the first director of the modern National Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC. Collins managed the concurrent design, construction, and placement of exhibits in the new facility located on the National Mall, beating its planned July 4, 1976 opening deadline—the nation’s bicentennial—by two days. Later, Collins was a senior officer at LTV Aerospace and a consultant. He wrote several books about the space race—notably Carrying the Fire—and continued to serve in the Air Force Reserve, retiring as a major general.

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Col. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin in his official Apollo 11 portrait. Aldrin was the first astronaut to hold a doctorate, and was later commandant of the Air Force’s test pilot school. Photo: NASA

Aldrin returned to the Air Force after Apollo 11 and became commandant of the Air Force Test Pilot school. Soon after, he retired as a colonel and wrote a number of books about space, Apollo—notably, Return to Earth—and the future of US space exploration. He has served as a goodwill ambassador for the US space program and formulated a cyclical trajectory that could send astronauts back and forth to Mars.

The Air Force contribution to Apollo 11 also included countless radar operators, communications technicians, inspectors, fuel specialists, contracting officials, weather forecasters, chase pilots, cargo pilots, instructor pilots, security operators, and many more who provided both direct and indirect support and assistance to the enterprise.      

07192019 Apollo-Fallen Astronauts.jpgThe Apollo 1 crew, who were killed in a fire atop the Apollo 1 rocket. L-R, Lt. Col. Ed White, who had been the first American to walk in space; Col. Virgil “Gus” Grissom, mission commander and second American to fly in space, and Navy Lt. Roger Chaffee. Photo: NASA

Air Force members also sacrificed their lives in pursuit of the moon landing goal. Astronaut Ted Freeman was killed in a T-38 crash due to a bird strike in 1963; the first US astronaut fatality. Astronaut Charles Bassett, slated to fly on Gemini 9, was killed in a T-38 crash while traveling to St. Louis for Gemini simulator training in 1966 along with Elliot See, a civilian astronaut. Astronauts Gus Grissom and Ed White were killed in the Apollo 1 capsule fire in 1967 along with Navy astronaut Roger Chaffee.

The Air Force continued to lend essential support to the moon landing program throughout the six missions that followed Apollo 11, as well as three trips to the Skylab space station and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.