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The anniversary of the first man on the moon: 21 July 1969

To celebrate and appreciate humanity’s ability to adapt, both scientifically and spiritually, to the things around.

by Jude Scrutton

Suitable for Key Stage 3


To celebrate and appreciate humanity’s ability to adapt, both scientifically and spiritually, to the things around.

Preparation and materials

  • Visual aid of the solar system or 3-D model of earth, moon and sun.
  • Greek maps of the world showing the earth as flat.
  • Film of the first lunar landing (quality is inevitably poor).


  1. For thousands of years, most people thought that the earth was flat. As early as 300 bc, the ancient Greeks theorized that the earth was round, yet they still drew maps of a flat earth.

    As people explored more of the world, they were able to map large areas. In ad 150, the famous Greek astronomer Ptolemy made maps that included Europe, Africa and most of Asia. Even more important, these maps showed the earth as round!

    For hundreds of years after Ptolemy’s work, mapping was neglected. Much knowledge of the world, as well as the idea of a round earth, was forgotten. In the fourteenth century, interest in Ptolemy’s work was renewed. Once again, people believed that the earth might be round. Columbus’ voyage to the New World in 1492 was final proof that it was indeed round.
  2. Humanity has always asked questions about the moon and space. Astronomers and mathematicians were the first to work out that the earth and sun were almost spherical. This knowledge of science and maths helped the then USSR (the East European and Asian communist republics governed by Moscow) to send their first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit in April 1961.

    On 25 May 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued a challenge to NASA (the American space agency). The challenge was to beat the USSR in the space race by making America the first nation to land a man on the moon.
  3. The space race had begun in the late 1950s. It was a fight for supremacy in space exploration. Between 1957 and 1975, Cold War rivalry between the USSR and the United States focused on attaining firsts in space exploration. Victory in the space race was seen as necessary for national security and as proof of technological and ideological superiority. The space race involved efforts to launch artificial satellites, space flight round the earth and unmanned and manned voyages to the moon.

    The space race began with the Soviet launch of the Sputnik 1 artificial satellite on 4 October 1957 and concluded in July 1975 with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, which was the first joint US/Soviet spaceflight mission.

    The space race sparked unprecedented spending on education and scientific research. This increased the number of scientific discoveries and led to beneficial spin-off technologies such as:

    –  the birth of the environmental movement: the first colour pictures of the earth taken from deep space were used as icons to show the planet as a fragile ‘blue marble’ surrounded by the blackness of space;
    –  satellite television;
    –  mobile phone technology.

    Can anyone think of others? (Non-stick saucepan coating and ‘Velcro’ are probably the best known.)
  4. 1969 saw the final leg of the moon race. By then the United States was in the lead after the flight of Apollo 8 around the moon over Christmas 1968. Unbeknown to the Americans, the Soviet moon programme was in serious trouble. The Soviets, though they had made the first unmanned landing on the moon (in 1966), had had a number of disastrous accidents and were not ready to land a man on the moon. The Americans, by contrast, were ready to go ahead to an actual moon landing mission.

    The spacecraft Apollo 11 was being prepared for a July encounter with the Moon. It consisted of three sections or modules: the command module, called the Columbia; the lunar module, called the Eagle; and a service module which had the oxygen, water and fuel.

    The Apollo 11 crew consisted of Commander Neil Armstrong; command module pilot Michael Collins; and lunar module pilot Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin. They were selected as the crew in January 1969, and they trained for the mission until just before the actual launch day.

    On 16 July 1969, the enormous Saturn V rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, with Apollo 11 on board. The Saturn V went into orbit round the earth. Then, with a blast from its own engines, Apollo 11 sped away from the Saturn and the earth’s gravity and made for the moon.

    The lunar trip took just over three days. Apollo 11 circled the moon 11 times. Then Armstrong and Aldrin transferred into the Eagle, the lunar module, and began their descent. After overcoming several computer malfunctions, Armstrong took over manual-flight control at about 180 metres (590 feet). He guided the Eagle to a landing on the Sea of Tranquillity at 8.17 p.m. our time on 20 July 1969.

    The first human beings on the moon waited another six hours before they ventured out of their craft. On 21 July 1969, at 2.56 a.m. our time, Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on the grey surface of the moon. (In American Eastern Standard Time this was 9.56 p.m. on 20 July.)

    The first step was witnessed by at least 500 million television viewers back on earth. Armstrong’s first words when he stepped off the landing pad were, ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’ Aldrin joined him on the surface almost 20 minutes later. Altogether, they spent just under two-and-a-half hours outside their craft.

    The next day, 22 July, they performed the first launch from another celestial body, and rejoined Michael Collins in the command module. Apollo 11 blasted out of the moon’s orbit and on 24 July 1969 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.
  5. Watch or listen to footage of the moon landing.

Time for reflection

Think about how we have progressed from thinking the world was flat to sending people to and back from the moon.
That was a long time ago now.
So much has happened since.
The Internet.
The International Space Station.
Satellites exploring our neighbours in the solar system.
If we can achieve this, can we achieve anything?

(Play some reflective music and show the images of Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon, or some of the photographs of earth from space.)


‘Man on the moon’ by R.E.M
‘Walking on the moon’ by Police
‘Space oddity’ by David Bowie

Publication date: July 2011   (Vol.13 No.7)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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