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Apollo 11 blasts off for historic voyage

By AL ROSSITER JR.   |   July 17, 2009 at 3:06 PM
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CAPE KENNEDY, Fla., July 16, 1969 (UPI) -- Apollo 11, carrying three astronauts and the dreams of humanity, blasted away for the moon today on a historic voyage to place the footprints of man in the dust of an alien world.

"You're well on your way now," Mission Control radioed Astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin E. Aldrin as they slammed away from earth orbit and hurtled toward the moon at 24,395 mph.

If all goes as planned, Armstrong and Aldrin, before dawn Monday, will become the first men ever to set foot on the moon, 250,000 miles from earth.

"This is the big one," said Launch Director Rocco Petrone after the perfect, on-time liftoff at 9:32 a.m. by the 363-foot tall Saturn rocket.

So magnificent was the launch that even the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, here with his followers to protest the spending of billions on space instead of fighting poverty, said that at the moment of liftoff "I really forgot the fact that we had so many hungry people. I was one of the proudest Americans as I stood on this spot."

The astronauts, sticking entirely to business with no chit-chat whatsoever, hurtled first into a 119-mile-high orbit around earth. After checking out the ship's systems, they triggered a five-minute, 20-second burst of the Saturn 5 third stage rocket.

It accelerated the 3,242-ton spaceship about 7,000 mph. "That Saturn gave us a magnificent ride," reported Armstrong.

Moments after leaving orbit, Apollo 11 separated from the Saturn 5 third stage and gently pulled the lunar landing module out of its housing atop the rocket stage. The lunar Lander, named Eagle, rides to moon orbit on the nose of the command ship Columbia.

"It looks like a good morning," Armstrong said just before takeoff.

Hundreds in the crowds of spectators joined in the countdown. Nearly everybody was on his feet when broadcasts announced it was 60 seconds to liftoff. Then all began shouting with the voice on the radio: "Four ... three ... two ... one."

"All engines are looking good," reported Armstrong four minutes into the flight.

"It's bright," remarked one of the steely calm crew, peering out the moonship window as the spaceship raced at 8,500 mph toward earth orbit.

The astronauts arose at 4:15 a.m. and a doctor said they were "rested, fit as a fiddle and ready to go."

"You carry with you a feeling of good will in this greatest adventure man has ever undertaken," President Nixon told the crew by telephone last night. "I want you to know that my hopes and my prayers, and those of all Americans, go with you."

Nixon watched the liftoff on television along with astronaut Frank Borman at the White House. Borman, who commanded the Christmas flight around the moon and who will participate in Sunday services at the White House, explained technical details to the president.

The terminal portion of the six-day countdown began on schedule at 11 last night. Technicians began pumping frigid liquid oxygen into the Saturn. 5 rocket two hours later.

It was the climactic step in America's eight year, $24,000,000,000 drive to fulfill the goal set by President Kennedy when he challenged the nation to try to land men on the moon this decade and safely return them to earth.

The men of Apollo 11 are scheduled to turn man's ages-old dream into a reality Sunday when Armstrong and Aldrin leave Collins in lunar orbit and fly their landing ship "Eagle" to a touchdown on the moon's vast arid Sea of Tranquility.

Armstrong, 38-year-old ex-Navy pilot from Wapakoneta, Ohio, is set to crawl feet first through a 32-inch square hatchway, ease slowly down a nine-rung ladder and set the first foot on the dark, sandy surface at 2:21 a.m. Monday.

Aldrin, a 39-year-old Air Force colonel, will follow and for two hours and 40 minutes the astronauts will explore the lunar surface, implant the American flag, set up remote geophysical station and collect 130 pounds of some of the must valuable rocks man will ever have.

After spending nearly 22 hours on the lunar surface, the astronauts will take off on the 3,500-pound push of Eagle's lone ascent engine and fly to a rendezvous with Collins and the mothership Columbia in lunar orbit.

The three pilots are scheduled to blast out of the moon's gravitational grasp shortly after midnight July 22 and return to a Pacific Ocean splashdown at 12:51 p.m. July 24. President Nixon will be aboard the recovery ship, but the moon pilots will have to wait out a three-week quarantine period before receiving the world acclaim.

Armstrong gave his mission about an 80 percent chance of total success -- meaning a landing on the moon and a return to earth. He said the chances the pilots would come back safely were "far greater than that."

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