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Apollo 11 at 30

Launch day, 1969: A quick breakfast, a long elevator ride ...

The Saturn V rocket sits in the shadow of a sunrise on the morning of the historic launch  

July 16, 1999
Web posted at: 3:22 p.m. EDT (1922 GMT)

In this story:

Moon suits were donned

The crew enters the fiery Saturn

All systems go for launch


By Miles O'Brien
CNN Space Correspondent

(CNN) -- You had to get up early if you were going to be first to land on the moon.

The wake-up call for Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins came at 4:15 a.m. EST on Wednesday, July 16, 1969.

Their first opportunity for a launch was at 9:32 a.m. and they had just 13 minutes and 54 seconds of leeway beyond that. The timing was precise so they would arrive four days later at the moon's Sea of Tranquility with optimal sunlight coming from behind the lunar module and low on the horizon.

The astronauts eat a breakfast of steak and eggs  

For exactly 25 minutes they ate their breakfast -- steak, eggs, toast, juice and coffee. Mike Collins described pre-launch breakfasts as having "an air of studied casualness."

Moon suits were donned

Armstrong had told reporters he wasn't worried about the launch of the Saturn V -- which had carried humans into space three times prior. "It's been done before ... and we're quite sure this girl will go," he said.

Suit up began with technicians shaving the astronauts' chests and attaching four electrodes that allowed flight surgeons in Houston to constantly watch the astronauts' heart rate and respiration.

Their $100,000 white pressure suits came in two versions: a 35-pound "intravehicular" suit for Collins and an "extravehicular" suit that included Teflon-coated cloth overalls to provide meteoroid protection for moonwalkers Armstrong and Aldrin. When coupled with the Portable Life Support System backpack, the suit weighed 83 kilograms (183 pounds) on Earth but felt like 14 kilograms (30 pounds) on the moon.

pressure suit
Suiting up for the mission  

The crew enters the fiery Saturn

They called it getting "locked in the suit" -- and once it was done, they were effectively in a cocoon.

In a metal suitcase, the astronauts carried their air supply. Wearing yellow galoshes to protect their boots, they walked to the crew transfer van seeing a crowd of NASA workers and photographers but hearing only the sound of their breathing.

With a backup van trailing, they drove slowly from the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building (MSOB) to Launch Complex 39-A -- about eight miles away.

Until then, it could have been just another simulation. But when the van turned onto the 3 1/2-mile access road that links the Vehicle Assembly Building and the launch pad, reality set in.

Armstrong is the model of confidence and concentration prior to liftoff  

The Saturn V/Apollo stack measured 111 meters (121 yards) from the base of the mammoth F-1 engine quintet to the tip of the Launch Escape System solid rocket.

Once fueled, most anyone who got near it described the Saturn as a living, breathing thing. It had a belly full of super-cooled liquid oxygen and hydrogen. The thin-skinned giant creaked, groaned and belched gases like a raging bull and shed sheets of ice like a molting serpent.

Twenty minutes after leaving the MSOB, the crew arrived at the pad, stepped in the elevator and began their long vertical voyage -- marking time and height as red capital letters S-E-T-A-T-S--D-E-T-I-N-U blurred by.

At the 320 foot mark, they were greeted by the legendary "Launch pad Fuhrer" Guenter Wendt. Small gifts and bits of conversation were exchanged, and then Wendt cracked the whip so the rocket could run on time.

The crew arrives at the pad  

First Armstrong (left seat), then Aldrin (right seat) and then Collins (middle seat) contorted themselves into the tight confines of the Command Module.

The hatch was shut with a "clang" and the countdown continued with onlookers including 3,500 members of the media, 20,000 VIPs and a million people along the Florida coast, as well as millions more watching at home.

All systems go for launch

In the Launch Control Center, the father of the Saturn V -- Wernher von Braun -- looked on as launch director Rocco Petrone polled his troops. "Go" was the reply from every post and the crew.

The Saturn V rocket propels the crew of Apollo 11 skyward  

At T-minus 12 seconds, the ignition sequence began. The swing-arms pulled away and a 500-volt charge was sent to the launch pad to spark the conflagration. With 8.9 seconds to go, the first flames snorted out of the F-1 engines. But the rocket stayed in place building thrust as huge clamps held it down.

When the countdown clock hit "0," the clamps were released -- and the 6.5 million pound rocket was set free. Despite a nudge that was 7.75 million pounds strong, Saturn seemed reluctant to leave. It seemed to lumber skyward in slow motion.

It took 15 seconds just to clear the tower. The crew reported later that it seemed even longer than that.

They were on their way. Their destination was destiny.

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