Iconic Photos of Neil Armstrong, the First Man on the Moon

Neil Armstrong made history on July 20, 1969, when he became the first man to walk on the moon. “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” the commander of the Apollo 11 spaceflight famously uttered as more than half a billion people watched the moment on television.

Armstrong’s life is about to get the Hollywood treatment with the release of First Man, a biopic directed by Oscar-winner Damien Chazelle and starring Ryan Gosling as Armstrong. The movie is sure to spur more interest in the life of the world’s most famous astronaut. Let’s look back at Armstrong’s life, from his years as a naval aviator to the moon landing and beyond.

1. Armstrong’s path to the moon

Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong poses for a portrait in July 1969. | NASA/Newsmakers

Long before he became an astronaut, Armstrong was enthralled by the idea of flight. The Ohio native, who was born in 1930, took his first airplane ride when he was just six years old and earned a pilot’s license in 1947, when he was 16. When he went away to college at Purdue University, he chose to study aeronautical engineering.

Next: Armstrong joins the war effort

2. The Navy years

Neil Armstrong in the Navy | United States Navy/Wikimedia Commons

The start of the Korean war interrupted Armstrong’s studies at Purdue. He flew 78 combat missions during the conflict, was shot down once, and was awarded three Air Medals for his service.

After the war ended, he returned to Indiana and completed his degree in 1955. He married his wife Janet in 1956, and they went on to have three children — two sons and a daughter who died at age three in 1962.

Next: The first step toward space

3. Armstrong the test pilot

Neil A. Armstrong is photographed in the cockpit of the Ames Bell X-14 aircraft at NASA’s Ames Research Center. | NASA/Lee Jones

After graduating, Armstrong wasn’t ready to give up flying. He became a civilian research pilot for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) – the precursor to NASA. He worked as a test pilot and an engineer and spent more than 1,100 hours flying planes such as the X-15, a rocket-powered aircraft.

Armstrong is pictured above in an undated photo with the X-14, another experimental aircraft.

Next: Becoming an astronaut

4. The “New Nine”

Some of NASA’s 16 astronauts participate in tropic survival training from June 3, through June 6, 1963, at Albrook Air Force Base, Canal Zone. From left to right are unidentified trainer, Neil Armstrong, John H. Glenn, Jr., L. Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad. | NASA

In 1962, NASA announced that it was expanding its astronaut program. Armstrong applied, and though his application arrived a week past the deadline, he was selected to join America’s second class of astronauts, dubbed “The New Nine.” These astronauts would support NASA’s new Gemini space program, which aimed to perfect spaceflight in preparation for an eventual trip to the moon.

Next: Rigorous training

5. Preparing for the worst

Astronauts Frank Borman, Neil Armstrong, John Young, and Deke Slayton are shown during desert survival training, at Stead Air Force Base in Reno, Nevada. | NASA

The astronaut selection process was rigorous, and more training was required after joining the program. The photo above shows Armstrong along with fellow astronauts Frank Borman, John Young, and Deke Slayton in the Nevada desert in 1964. They were completing a training course for future space travelers. Spaceflight was perilous in NASA’s early years, and NASA wanted to prepare its astronauts for the worst, including crash landings in remote areas.

Next: A mission that almost ended in disaster

6. Armstrong’s first trip to space

Astronauts David R. Scott (left), Pilot; and, Neil A. Armstrong (right), Command Pilot, pose with model of the Gemini Spacecraft after being selected at the crew for the Gemini VIII mission. | NASA

In 1965, NASA announced that Armstrong and David Scott would be the crew for the upcoming Gemini 8 mission. It would be Armstrong’s first trip to space.

During the 1966 flight, the two men became the first to link two spacecraft together in Earth’s orbit. But the trip didn’t go quite as smoothly as planned, and Armstrong and Scott nearly lost control of the spacecraft. Fortunately, some quick thinking saved the day.

Next: The Gemini 8 splashdown

 7. Gemini 8 returns home

Astronauts Neil Armstrong and David R. Scott sit with their spacecraft hatches open while awaiting the arrival of the recovery ship, the USS Leonard F. Mason, after the successful completion of their Gemini 8 mission. | NASA

After narrowly avoiding disaster in space, Armstrong and Scott returned to Earth. Though the original plan had been to splash down somewhere in the Atlantic, the onboard emergency forced a change of plans. Instead, Armstrong and Scott landed in the western Pacific Ocean about 500 miles east of Okinawa, Japan.

This photo shows Armstrong and Scott sitting in their spacecraft while they wait for the recovery ship to arrive.

Next: Gemini 11

8. Gemini 11

Gemini XI prime and backup crews are pictured at the Gemini Mission Simulator at Cape Kennedy, Florida. Left to right are astronauts William A. Anders, backup crew pilot; Richard F. Gordon Jr., prime crew pilot; Charles Conrad Jr. (foot on desk), prime crew command pilot; and Neil A. Armstrong, backup crew command pilot. | NASA

After Gemini VIII, Armstrong was assigned to the backup crew for the Gemini 11 mission. This photo, taken at the Gemini Mission Simulator at Cape Kennedy, Florida, shows Armstrong at the far right along with fellow astronauts William Anders, Richard Gordon Jr., and Charles Conrad Jr.

Next: A training mishap

9. A frightening crash

Armstrong parachuting to safety after he lost control of his test vehicle, which is seen burning on the ground after its crash. | NASA

Space travel could be dangerous, even during training. Armstrong experienced that firsthand on May 6, 1968, during a simulated lunar landing mission at Ellington Air Force Base near Houston. Armstrong had already completed 22 flights of the test vehicle, but on the 23rd, he lost control of the craft due to a problem with the vehicle’s warning system. While about 200 feet above ground, he made the decision to eject and was able to parachute safely down to the ground, as shown in the photo above.

Next: Heading to the moon

10. The Apollo 11 crew

Lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin; commander Neil Armstrong; and command module pilot Michael Collins are shown in this portrait taken on January 10, 1969. | NASA

In January 1969, NASA announced that it had selected the three-man crew for the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. Armstrong would serve as the commander, while Buzz Aldrin would be the lunar module pilot and Michael Collins would be the command module pilot.

Immediately, people began speculating about who would be the first man on the moon – Aldrin or Armstrong. (Collins was ineligible because he was the command module pilot.) Reportedly, Armstrong was first because it was easier for him to exit the cramped landing module before Aldrin.

Next: Preparing for the moon landing

11. Training for the moon landing

Neil Armstrong at the Lunar Landing Research Facility on Feb. 12, 1969. | NASA

With less than a year before the trip to the moon, Armstrong and the other astronauts immediately began to prepare. In the months before the mission, they practiced everything from how to collect samples from the moon’s surface to how to step on and off the lunar module ladder, according to Mashable. NASA developed a fake lunar surface designed to simulate the surface where Aldrin and Armstrong would be working. The training was so intense that the astronauts even had to turn down a dinner invitation from President Nixon, since taking time off would put them too far behind schedule.

This photo shows Armstrong at the Lunar Landing Research Facility in February 1969. This is where astronauts practiced touchdowns and used the Reduced Gravity Simulator to practice walking, running, and completing various tasks.

Next: Armstrong’s family

12. Armstrong’s wife and children

Neil Armstrong with his wife Janet and his two sons Eric and Mark, on July 11, 1969. | AFP/GettyImages

While Armstrong prepared for his trip to the moon, his wife, Janet, and their two sons, Eric and Mark, got ready for their husband and father to make the exciting but dangerous journey. Though she received little attention at the time, Armstrong’s sons have said that their mother was an “unsung hero.”

“We never felt Dad was in danger of not coming home,” Armstrong son Mark told The Daily Mail. “But Mum, of course, knew the risks … While Dad got all the fame and glory, my mum – and all the astronauts’ wives – were the ones who held it all together.”

Janet, who is played by Claire Foy in First Man, died in June 2018. She and Armstrong divorced in 1994.

Next: Would they make it to the moon?

13. The moon landing wasn’t a guaranteed success

Neil Armstrong shortly before he set off for the Moon with fellow astronauts Michael Collins and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin. | Central Press/Getty Images

Despite all the prep work and a public display of measured confidence, Armstrong and the other astronauts privately acknowledged that there was plenty that could go wrong during their attempt to land on the moon.

According to Scientific American, Armstrong believed that the Apollo 11 crew had a very good chance of making it back to the earth safely. But he thought the odds of actually landing on the moon were much lower. As he explained in a 2012 interview:

I thought we had a 90% chance of getting back safely to Earth on that flight but only a 50-50 chance of making a landing on that first attempt. There are so many unknowns on that descent from lunar orbit down to the surface that had not been demonstrated yet by testing and there was a big chance that there was something in there we didn’t understand properly and we had to abort and come back to Earth without landing. 

Next: Liftoff

14. July 16, 1969

Neil Armstrong leads Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin and Michael Collins out of the space center on the Apollo 11 space mission to the moon. || Keystone/Getty Images

By mid-summer, everything was ready for the trip to the moon. On July 16, 1969, Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins boarded the spacecraft, which took off from Kennedy Space Center at 9:32 a.m. The photo above shows Armstrong leading his co-astronauts out of the space center.

This NASA video shows the three astronauts entering the spacecraft, followed by the launch of the 363-foot-tall Saturn V rocket that would carry them to the moon.

Next: The moon landing

15. Armstrong on the moon

This photo of Neil Armstrong on the moon shows him working on his spacecraft on the lunar surface. | NASA/Newsmakers

On July 20 at 4.:18 p.m. EDT, the lunar module Eagle landed on the moon. A few hours later, Armstrong took what may be the most famous step in human history when he exited the module and set foot on the moon’s surface.

Armstrong may have been the first man on the moon, but there are remarkably few photos that show him on the lunar surface. Most of the pictures taken during the 2½ hours astronauts spent on the moon are of Buzz Aldrin, not Armstrong.

It’s not entirely clear why there are so few images of such an important moment, but it might have been a simple oversight, according to the Atlantic. Whatever the reason, the photo above is one of the only ones that actually shows Armstrong on the moon.

You can watch video footage of Armstrong’s first steps on the moon here.

Next: Armstrong’s surprising thoughts on being the first man on the moon.

16. How Armstrong felt about his historic moonwalk

Astronaut Neil Armstrong inside the Lunar Module July 20, 1969. |  NASA/Newsmakers

Most people probably assume that setting foot on the moon for the first time was the most exciting part of the mission for Armstrong. But surprisingly, that wasn’t the case. Mastering the difficult landing was the thing he was most proud of. As he said in a 1988 interview:

In my view, the emotional moment was the landing. That was human contact with the moon, the landing…. It was at the time when we landed that we were there, we were in the lunar environment, the lunar gravity. That, in my view, was…the emotional high. And the business of getting down the ladder to me was much less significant.

Next: Returning to Earth

17. Splashdown in the Pacific

U.S. Navy Pararescueman Lt. Clancey Hatleberg disinfects astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins And Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. after getting into the life raft during Apollo 11 recovery operations | NASA/Getty Images

On July 24, four days after the moon landing, Apollo 11 returned to earth. The crew splashed down in the Pacific Ocean at 11:49 a.m. about 812 miles southwest of Hawaii, where they were picked up by a helicopter from the USS Hornet.

This photo shows the Apollo 11 crew, along with a Navy swimmer, waiting for pickup. All four men are wearing biological isolation suits.

Next: The isolation unit

18. A 21-day quarantine

Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin on July 24, 1969, after splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. | NASA

The Apollo 11 astronauts may have been heroes, but they didn’t get to rush right into the waiting arms of their families or head to a meeting with the president after they landed. Instead, Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins spent 21 days in a mobile quarantine facility. The goal was to prevent any possible pathogens that the astronauts might have encountered on the moon from spreading to earth.

The astronauts even went through Customs after they returned from their groundbreaking journey. The form, which declared moon rock and moon dust samples, was signed by each of the three astronauts as a joke upon their return, according to Space.com

Next: A visit from the president

19. Nixon visits the Apollo 11 astronauts 

Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin laugh with President Richard Nixon aboard the USS Hornet on July 24, 1969. | Richard Nixon Foundation via Getty Images

A lengthy quarantine didn’t prevent some distinguished visitors from coming to congratulate Armstrong and his fellow astronauts. President Richard Nixon was in the Pacific to welcome the space travelers back to Earth. This photo shows the president speaking to the three astronauts who are in their quarantine facility on the USS Hornet. Armstrong is on the left. The quarantine facility was actually a converted Airstream trailer.

Next: The celebrations begin

20. The homecoming parade

The ticker-tape parade hooring the Apollo 11 astronauts in New York City on August 13, 1969. Pictured in the lead car, from the right, are astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin. |  NASA/Newsmakers

Upon their return home, the Apollo 11 astronauts were celebrated wherever they went. On August 13, shortly after the end of their isolation period, Aldrin, Armstrong, and Collins were honored with a ticker-tape parade down Broadway in New York City. The men also received the key to the city

At the time, the parade was the largest in the city’s history. Crowds thronged the streets and at times the confetti “so dense that the astronauts could hardly see,” the New York Times reported.

In the photo, Armstrong is in the first car on the far right, waving to the crowd. Collins is in the center and Aldrin is on the left.

Next: Meeting dignitaries

21. An audience with the pope

Pope Paul VI pictured with Apollo 11 astronauts and their wives. | Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The president of the U.S. was hardly the only dignitary who wanted to congratulate the Apollo 11 crew. In the fall of 1969, the astronauts and their wives embarked on a 24-country world tour, which aimed to show that the U.S. was willing to share its new knowledge about space.

One stop on the tour was at the Vatican, where Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins met with Pope Paul VI on October 18. Armstrong is standing to the left of the Pope.

Next: After the moon landing

22. Armstrong’s post-Apollo 11 career

Apollo 11 space mission US astronaut Neil Armstrong poses on July 23, 1970, in Washington.| AFP/GettyImages

Armstrong never returned to space after his trip to the moon and preferred to stay out of the public eye, despite his fame. He continued to work at NASA until 1971, serving as the deputy associate administrator for aeronautics. This photo shows him in his office in Washington, D.C., in 1970. But he reportedly didn’t enjoy the work.

“He basically left NASA because they sent him to Washington and kept trotting him out, sending him to this dinner, that event,” fellow astronaut Pete Conrad told the Washington Post. “I guess he felt obligated to do a certain amount of it, but when he figured he had that square filled in, he was gone.”

Afterward, Armstrong became a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati. Later, he worked in the private sector for several companies.

Next: A rare public appearance  

23. Supporting an American automaker

Neil Armstrong in a commercial for Chrysler | TELEVISIONARCHIVES via YouTube

Armstrong was notoriously publicity shy. He rarely gave interviews and seemed eager to return to private life once he left NASA. But he made a notable exception in 1979, when he agreed to appear in an ad for Chrysler cars that first ran during the Super Bowl. While the move was unusual, at the time he said he wanted to support the struggling American automaker. He praised the company’s “long history of solid engineering” and said he wanted to ensure that American didn’t become “a one-automobile company country.”

Next: Supporting NASA

24. Testifying before Congress

Neil Armstrong testifies on Capitol Hill May 12, 2010, in Washington, DC. Astronaut Eugene Cernan is pictured in the background. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

While Armstrong was a reluctant celebrity, he continued to support NASA and the U.S. space program throughout the rest of his life. He was vice chairman of the Presidential Commission the investigating the Challenger accident in 1986. In 2010, he testified before Congress regarding NASA’s future plans for human spaceflight. He was adamant that the space program continue.

“America is respected for its contributions it has made in learning to sail on this new ocean. If the leadership we have acquired through our investment is simply allowed to fade away, other nations will surely step in where we have faltered. I do not believe that would be in our best interests,” Armstrong said.

Next: Armstrong passes away

 25. Armstrong’s burial at sea

Members of the U.S. Navy ceremonial guard hold an American flag over the remains of Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong during a burial at sea service | Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images

Neil Armstrong died on August 25, 2012, at the age of 82, following complications from heart surgery. He was buried at sea in the Atlantic Ocean during a ceremony aboard the USS Phillippine Sea on September 14, 2012. After his death, his family released the following statement.

“For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”

Biographical details from Biography.com and Britannica.com. 

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