Written by: Aiya Madarang
On July 20, 1969, history was made when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Apollo 11 spacecraft on the Earth’s moon, then stepped out and landed themselves. The Apollo 11 mission was one of many shining moments of achievement during our country’s Space Age, a period of time that was defined by scientific innovation, exploration of the unknown, and a thirst for greatness. NASA’s Apollo program, which conducted a total of 18 missions from 1969 to 1972, exemplified this era of American history.
This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and the moon landing. With all that we’ve accomplished since, and because of, this momentous event, it’s hard to imagine the uncertainty that faced the NASA team and astronauts.
Apollo 11 was the program’s third manned mission into space, and it involved far more people than just the crew — in fact, more than 400,000 scientists, engineers, and technicians were responsible for the mission’s success. Among these was Margaret Hamilton, the computer programmer who led the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory. This division was tasked with developing the software that would guide and navigate the Apollo 11 spacecraft, and Hamilton’s contributions to this software (and coining of the term “software engineering”) led to the success of the moon landing and several technological advancements in the following years.
In 2016, Hamilton was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama for her pioneering work.
Still, with such brilliant minds at work, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins faced a high chance of risk. They understood that their mission was dangerous and possibly life threatening. Unable to afford life insurance, the three astronauts of the Apollo 11 crew, who were acutely aware of their fame even before the mission took place, got creative.
They spent the weeks before the mission autographing thousands of postcard-like envelopes, called “covers,” then had a friend take them to the post office on the days of the launch and the moon landing to get them postmarked. The astronauts knew that if they failed to return, the covers would become collectors’ items and bring in enough money to take care of their families. Though the astronaut covers fortunately turned out to be unnecessary, they began to appear in various auctions sometime in the 1990s, selling for as much as $30,000.