Practice Makes Perfect: How the Apollo 11 Crew Prepared for Launch

You may have recently seen Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11 documentary, featuring archival film from the National Archives’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) holdings. The film footage of Apollo 11 makes the July 16, 1969 launch and subsequent Moon landing look like a breeze. But the years leading up to the launch were full of rigorous training exercises and mock run-throughs performed by the Apollo 11 prime and back-up crews. The astronaut activities featured in the Apollo 11 documentary were meticulously rehearsed to ensure a successful mission, and in true NASA fashion of the time, much of this was captured on film.

Astronauts Aldrin, Armstrong, and Collins participate in water egress training in the Gulf of Mexico. Still from 255-FR-7546.
Astronauts Aldrin, Armstrong, and Collins participate in water egress training in the Gulf of Mexico. Still from 255-FR-7546.

After the initial launch from Earth, the Lunar Module “Eagle” carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin undocked from the Command and Service Module, piloted by Michael Collins, and descended to the Sea of Tranquility for landing. Armstrong and Aldrin practiced this landing maneuver by conducting test flights in the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle. Dubbed the “LLTV,” this vertical-takeoff aircraft featured computer-controlled jet thrust, which emulated lunar gravity and simulated operations of the actual Lunar Module to be used in the mission. This clip shows Neil Armstrong successfully piloting the LLTV at the Ellington Air Force Base just one month prior to the Apollo 11 launch:

Item 255-FR-7593

After the Eagle landed on July 20th, 1969, and Armstrong and Aldrin took those historic first steps onto the lunar surface, they began setting up equipment from the aptly named “Early Apollo Scientific Experiments Package.” The experiments package included a light reflector to measure the distance between the Earth and the Moon, seismometers to measure potential moonquakes, and a foil panel to analyze solar wind. The astronauts were also tasked with collecting soil and rocks from the Moon’s surface. In order to perform these activities in lunar gravity, the astronauts practiced aboard the KC-135, a reduced-gravity aircraft that simulated the 1/6th gravity of the Moon. In the clip below, Armstrong can be seen aboard the KC-135 in a full space suit practicing soil collection with the contingency sampler. Note that a small rock was placed in the tray of dirt for Armstrong to try and capture:

Item 255-FR-7459

After a successful lunar landing, the Eagle reconnected with the Command and Service Module and began the return trip to Earth. The Command Module “Columbia” separated from the Service Module and returned to Earth via splashdown in the North Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969. Aided by a recovery crew from the USS Hornet, the astronauts put on biological isolation garments, designed to contain possible contaminants from the Moon, and exited Columbia onto a raft. The astronauts were doused with a sterilizing solution and then airlifted by helicopter onto the USS Hornet. From there, the astronauts were immediately moved into the mobile quarantine facility, where they would begin their journey to the Lunar Receiving Laboratory at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. A run-through of this entire water egress, conducted in the Gulf of Mexico less than two months prior to the launch, can be seen here:

Item 255-FR-7546

Practice makes perfect for just about any skill–even space exploration. And mock run-throughs such as these gave astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins the experience they needed for success in the Apollo 11 mission.

These Apollo 11 training films are only a few of many recordings available in Record Group 255, Series FR and can be accessed at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.

You can learn more about the lead-up to the Apollo 11 mission in our earlier Unwritten Record posts: “Shooting the Moon: Photos of the Lunar Surface and Beyond”, “Stepping Stones to the Moon”, and “This Week in Universal News: Apollo 1 Disaster”.

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