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Starts With A Bang

Today Marks The Anniversary Of Neil Armstrong’s Near-Fatal Lunar Landing Vehicle Crash

The small step that one man took would never have happened without this narrow escape.

On July 20, 1969, history was made as humanity set foot on the Moon for the first time.

On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the Moon and began performing the first mission ever to take place with human beings on another world. The year prior, Neil Armstrong, holding the camera here, was almost killed in a test flight accident. (NASA / APOLLO 11)

With his “great leap forward for mankind,” Neil Armstrong achieved one of the most ambitious dreams ever attempted by humans.

Neil Armstrong on the surface of the Moon, where we learned so much about the origin of Earth’s only natural satellite. (NASA / APOLLO 11)

But Armstrong almost didn’t make it, narrowly escaping death the year prior.

Neil Armstrong with his birthday cake in August 1969 in the United States. This was the first birthday ever celebrated by a human being after having walked on the surface of another world. (GETTY)

Softly landing on the Moon, with no horizontal motion and only slight vertical motions, was a tremendous problem facing NASA.

By 1965, NASA scientists had determined what an optimal trajectory would look like for safely landing on the Moon. Only the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV), built explicitly for this purpose, was capable of simulating such a trajectory here on Earth. (NASA HISTORY DIVISION / G. J. MATRANGA, C. W. OTTINGER, AND C. R. JARVIS)

There was no computerized guidance or high-resolution maps of the lunar landing site.

Using data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and its narrow angle camera (LROC), we can now construct 3D models of the surface of the Moon and simulate any potential landing sites for missions. This was not possible given the technology and data sets available in the 1960s. (NASA / SVS / LROC)

The eventual lunar module pilot would have to navigate the touchdown manually.

From the Command/Service Module, Apollo 9 pilot David Scott photographs the Lunar Module in its landing configuration. Lunar surface probes can be seen extending from the ends of the landing gear foot pads. The preparatory tests of the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV) were designed to mimic the conditions that the Apollo Lunar Module would experience on the Moon, with Buzz Aldrin eventually serving as the Lunar Module pilot for Apollo 11. (NASA / DAVID SCOTT)

Armstrong was training in Lunar Landing Research Vehicle #1 on May 6, 1968, when something went horribly awry.

The Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV) was one of the most important tools that the Apollo astronauts trained on. It was the best opportunity they had to simulate an actual landing on the lunar surface here on Earth. (NASA HISTORY DIVISION / G. J. MATRANGA, C. W. OTTINGER, AND C. R. JARVIS)

During his 22nd LLRV test flight, he lost control.

Earth’s surface gravity is six times as powerful as the Moon’s, meaning that to simulate landing on the Moon, a special vehicle would need to be designed. The Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV) had a special gimbaled engine, which could maintain effective approximate lunar gravity, enabling the pilot to tilt the vehicle and test its responsiveness under conditions that would simulate landing on the Moon. (NASA HISTORY DIVISION / G. J. MATRANGA, C. W. OTTINGER, AND C. R. JARVIS)

The reserve attitude thrusters, which should have engaged when needed, were non-responsive.

This photograph shows Lunar Landing Research Vehicle #2 (LLRV-2) being moved from Armstrong Flight Research Center for display at the Air Force Test Flight Museum at Edwards Air Force Base. It is almost identical to the vehicle that almost killed Neil Armstrong in 1968. (NASA)

200 feet above the ground, with no noticeable on-board warnings, Armstrong unilaterally decided to eject.

On May 6, 1968, Neil Armstrong was piloting Lunar Landing Research Vehicle #1 when he lost the ability to successfully orient the aircraft. Using his own decision-making power, he ejected from the vehicle (L); four seconds later, the craft struck the ground, where it burst into flame less than a second after impact (R). (NASA)

A loss of helium pressure caused the depletion of hydrogen peroxide, cause the reserve attitude thrusters to fail.

Immediately following the crash, Armstrong returned to his desk, continuing his normal work.

The Lunar Module was successfully deployed on its first in-orbit test flight during Apollo 9. Here you can see the landing gear out, demonstrating the potential for landing on the Moon. The return engines have not yet been fired. This mission occurred in February of 1969, nine months after Armstrong’s crash and just four months after the problem that caused his crash was resolved. (NASA / APOLLO 9 ROLL 21/B)

Engineers corrected the problem, with test landings resuming that October.

This is one of the final official appearances of all three Apollo 11 astronauts: Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins, and Neil Armstrong. If it weren’t for his cool-headed actions and survival during his disastrous 1968 test flight, Neil Armstrong never would have been the first human to set foot on the Moon. (NASA / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA)

Tonight, wink at the Moon for Neil.

This was the first photo, safely back in the Lunar Module, that was ever taken of Neil Armstrong after his historic first steps on the surface of the Moon. (NASA / APOLLO 11 / BUZZ ALDRIN)

Mostly Mute Monday tells an astronomical or scientific story in images, visuals, and no more than 200 words. Talk less; smile more.

Ethan Siegel is the author of Beyond the Galaxy and Treknology. You can pre-order his third book, currently in development: the Encyclopaedia Cosmologica.