On July 20, 1969, an estimated 650 million people watched as astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, just days after Apollo 11 launched on July 16.

The American flag heralded the launch of Apollo 11, the first lunar-landing mission, on July 16, 1969. The massive Saturn V rocket lifted off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center with astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins at 9:32am Eastern.
Four days later, on July 20, Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon.

The grainy, black-and-white images are an indelible part of U.S. history — as is the monumental feat achieved 50 years ago by the crew of Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins — and by the highly skilled NASA team of men and women and its various contractors who made this feat seem effortless.

Humans had left Earth and walked on the moon.

Ten years ago, in a front-page feature, “NASA Catholics Mark 50 Years,” then-Register senior writer Tim Drake spoke with Apollo flight director Gene Kranz, a Catholic, about the fateful day. Kranz told the story of the words he offered to his colleagues on a private communications loop. “I told my communication officers that from the day of our birth, we were destined to be in this room on this day,” recalled Kranz. “All my life I’ve felt that the Creator had a very special role for me that I really didn’t have too much to do with.”

The space race also received the attention of another prominent Catholic — the pope himself.

Pope Paul VI began talking about the Apollo 11 mission at his weekly general audience on May 21, 1969.

“We are all so dominated by images, by news, by the event of space travel, which is taking place in these days, that we cannot avoid making it the object of our brief meditation today. The eyes or, better, the thoughts of the world follow, once again, but perhaps this time with more intense interest, the astonishing itinerary of the astronauts, who go with unthinkable speed to explore closely the satellite of our earth, the quiet moon friend of our nights, with a changing face, cold and silvery. We look, we admire, we reflect; hopefully, we pray,” he said.

He then discussed the great human achievement of space exploration and noted its source: “Today, in an hour of scientific triumph, it brings us back to the Source of everything, to the one necessary, to the creator Principle, to the living God. Let us not fail, dearest children, an occasion like this to find ourselves humble, pious, good, religious and happy, before such obvious signs, for those who want to see, of the supreme Presence in our world and in our lives.”

His subsequent audiences also addressed the forthcoming moonshot.

Pope St. Paul VI watches the moon landing.

Then came July 20. After looking at the moon through a telescope at Castel Gandolfo and watching the landing live on TV, Paul sent a message to the astronauts.

“Honor, greetings and blessings to you, conquerors of the moon, pale lamp of our nights and our dreams,” Paul VI said. “With your living presence bring to it the voice of the spirit, the hymn to God, our Creator and our Father.”

“Glory to God! And honor to you, men architects of the great space enterprise! Honor to the responsible men, scholars, creators, organizers, operators! Honor to all those who made the daring flight possible! To you all honor, that you have somehow engaged! Honor to you, who, seated behind your prodigious apparatus, governed; to you, who notified the world of the work and the hour, which enlarged the wise and audacious dominion of man to the heavenly depths.”

That fall, Pope Paul received the Apollo 11 astronauts in his private library on Oct. 16, 1969.  “It is with the greatest joy in our heart that we welcome you here today — you who have broken through the barrier of space to land on another world of God’s creation.

“Man has a natural urge to explore the unknown — to know the unknown; yet man has also a fear of the unknown. Your bravery has transcended this fear, and through your intrepid adventure, man has taken another step towards knowing more of the universe; in your words, Mr. Armstrong, ‘one giant leap for mankind.’”

Neil Armstrong smiles from inside the lunar module following the historic first moonwalk.

“We admire your courage, and we admire the spirit with which you fulfilled this mission: a spirit of service to humanity and a spirit of peace,” he continued. “Our prayers, with the prayers of the Church throughout the world, were with you every moment of your voyage, and we, on behalf of the whole Church, offer our sincerest congratulations to you, and also, through you, to the scientists, the technicians, the workers and all who contributed knowledge, skill and labor to this supreme enterprise. We also congratulate and thank the president and people of your beloved nation for making possible this exploration, with typical generosity of spirit, for the good of man and the world. … We thank and give glory to God for the successful achievement of your mission, for the things you have discovered, and for your safe return to Earth, and we invoke upon you, your wives and your children richest blessings and favors from the Lord of the heavens.”

Godspeed, Apollo 11!

  Amy Smith is the Register’s associate editor. 

Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.