Apollo 11, propelled by a Boeing-built rocket, lands on the moon on July 20, 1969, the first human visit to another world.

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 2/22/2024
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 1502
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On July 20, 1969, four days after being launched into space by the massive Boeing-built Saturn V S-1C first-stage rocket, the Apollo 11 lunar module "Eagle" touches down in the Sea of Tranquility on the surface of the moon. Mission commander Neil Armstrong becomes the first human being to set foot on another celestial body, followed by lunar module pilot Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin. Command module pilot Michael Collins remains in lunar orbit. Boeing Company engineers and scientists began designing the first stage of the three-stage liquid-fueled Saturn V rocket in 1963, initially in Seattle before moving the project to Kent three years later. The rocket will be built at Boeing’s facility in Michoud, Louisiana. In addition to the Saturn V S-1C booster, NASA contracts with Boeing to develop lunar orbiters and lunar rovers as well as coordinate technology and integration for the Apollo manned space program.

Boeing and the Apollo Space Program

On July 16, 1969, three astronauts aboard Apollo 11 lifted off from Cape Kennedy, Florida, on a four-day trip to the moon. The spacecraft was commanded by Neil Armstrong (1930-2012), a naval aviator and test pilot from Wapakoneta, Ohio. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (b. 1930), the second man to walk on the moon, piloted the lunar module, while Michael Collins (1930-2021) stayed on board and kept the command module in lunar orbit.

The Boeing Company, headquartered then in Seattle, played a pivotal role in the Apollo space program. After successful work on the military’s Minuteman missile project, Boeing was selected by NASA in December 1961 to develop and produce the first-stage booster for the Saturn V rocket, the largest American rocket ever constructed. North American was awarded the second-stage contract while McDonnell Douglas built the third stage.

The five-year Boeing contract, signed in February 1963, was worth more than $418 million, and company management surmised that it was likely to lead to additional work for the space agency. During an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Lisle A Wood (1904?-1991), Boeing vice president and general manager of the aerospace division, noted that, standing at 363 feet, the full Saturn V rocket was about as tall as Seattle’s Smith Tower.

In 1964, Boeing was chosen to build five lunar orbiters that would enable NASA to photograph potential lunar landing sites. “Constructed in South Seattle, they were equipped with cameras which photographed 99 percent of the moon’s surface – constructing a nearly complete atlas of the moon’s 14 million square miles of previously unexplored territory” (Guevara).

Work on the Apollo program suffered a major blow in January 1967. During ground testing, an intense flash fire caused by an electrical short raced through the command module cockpit, killing all three astronauts aboard – Gus Grissom (1926-1967), Edward White (1930-1967), and Roger B. Chaffee (1935-1967) – who made up the Apollo 1 crew. Investigations commenced immediately, followed by months of hearings, which led to a number of process and managerial changes. NASA asked Boeing to coordinate the technological integration and evaluation, or TIE, of all Apollo systems. "Boeing’s TIE assignment is one of evaluating for NASA that the Apollo spacecraft – the service, command and lunar modules – and its launch vehicle will work together and the complete ‘stack’ is ready to safely perform the mission it has been assigned" (Boeing and Apollo 11, p. 1). Boeing dedicated four teams to this critical task.

"Oh, The Roar Is Terrific!"

The 12-story-high S-1C booster was assembled and completed by May 8, 1967. The first-stage rocket was enormous, weighing more than 5 million pounds, and powered by five F-1 engines built by the Rocketdyne division of Rockwell International. Firing together, the rockets produced nearly 7.7 million pounds of thrust, fast enough to lift the heavy Saturn V off the launch pad and out of Earth orbit. The S-1C rocket was built at Boeing’s Michoud, Louisiana, facility and transported by barge to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

On the ground, the power unleashed by the massive Saturn V rocket was a sight to behold. During the 1967 lift-off of Apollo 4 – an historic all-up systems first flight – veteran CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite (1916-2009), who was usually unflappable, tried to describe the incredible sights and sounds he was experiencing. "The building’s shaking. This big blast window is shaking. We’re holding it with our hands. Oh, the roar is terrific! Part of our roof has come in here" (Evans).

By 1969, all signals were go for a walk on the moon. "At the Cape, the three stages of the Saturn V launch vehicle and the Apollo 11 capsule were assembled under Boeing's supervision. On May 20, 1969, the 36-story high rocket was rolled out to Pad A at Launch Complex 39 to prepare for launch" ("The Boeing Company Wins NASA Contract ..."). An estimated 1 million spectators watched the July 16, 1969, lift-off in person, lining the highways and beaches of central Florida. An estimated 650 million viewers watched the lunar landing on television sets in living rooms, shop windows, schools, and theaters around the world; it was televised in 33 countries. Millions more tuned in to radio broadcasts, listening as the unprecedented event unfolded from 240,000 miles away.

Seattle Residents Celebrate

In Seattle, nearly 2,000 people watched the landing and moon walk at the Pacific Science Center, culminating with Armstrong’s first step on the moon at 7:56 p.m. Pacific time. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer offered this description leading up to that heady moment: "Twenty minutes before touchdown, people stood spellbound watching the large screen and listening to the conversations of Mike Collins with Mission Control ... Tension in the theater increased as the little space taxi named Eagle slowed to 3 miles per second two miles from the moon. Moments later, Collins could be heard saying, 'The engines have stopped.' With that, the theater exploded into wild applause. Strangers thumped one another on the back. Some wept" ("Apollo 11 Launches for Moon Walk on July 16, 1969").

As the Apollo spacecraft made its way back home after astronauts spent more than 21 hours on the moon, "residents of the Pacific Northwest turned on their lights from 9 p.m. to midnight on July 23 as a ‘welcome-home beacon’ for the spacecraft as it sailed back to Earth" (Bush).

In all, 13 Saturn V S-1C boosters were used between 1967 and 1973. This included two unmanned test flights, 10 manned Apollo missions ending with Apollo 17, and the 1973 launch of the Skylab Orbital Workshop.


Robert Redding and Bill Yenne, Boeing: Planemaker to the World (San Diego: Thunder Bay Press, 1997); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “The Boeing Company Wins NASA Contract for Lunar Rover on October 28, 1969” (by John Caldbick); ”Apollo 11 Launches for Moon Walk on July 16, 1969” (by Greg Lange); “Boeing Launches its First Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) from Cape Canaveral on February 1, 1961” (by Walt Crowley); www.historylink.org; Evan Bush, “How The Seattle Times Covered the Moon Landing in 1969,” The Seattle Times, July 20, 2016, Local section; Chris Talbott, “Boeing’s Role in Moon Missions Helped Launch Seattle as Tech Center,” Ibid., July 14, 2019, Business section; Natalie Guevara, “How Seattle-Based Boeing Contributed to Apollo 11’s ‘One Small Step for Man’ 50 Years Ago,” Ibid., July 16, 2019, Business section (seattletimes.com); William Schulze, “Boeing Saturn V Contract Signed; 10-Year Job Predicted,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 27, 1963, p. 1; John Harris, “Surface Fine and Powdery, ‘A Magnificent Desolation,’” Ibid., July 21, 1969, p. 1; Boeing and Apollo 11, Apollo 11 press kit booklet, The Boeing Company Southeast Division, July 1969 (https://cdn2.hubspot.net/hubfs/413105/Apollo%20Press%20Kits/Boeing.pdf); “Looking Closer at the Saturn V,” July 20, 2018 blog post, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, website accessed February 20, 2024 (https://airandspace.si.edu/stories/editorial/looking-closer-saturn-v); Ben Evans, “The History of the Saturn V Rocket,”  BBC Star at Night Magazine, March 11, 2020 (https://www.skyatnightmagazine.com/space-missions/saturn-v-rocket-history-facts); “Boeing Huntsville at 60: Where the Past is Prologue,” December 12, 2022, website accessed February 19, 2024 (https://www.boeing.com/features/2022/12/boeing-huntsville-at-60); Eric Simonsen, “Boeing Marks 30th Anniversary of Apollo 11; Built Major Components for Lunar Mission,” press release, The Boeing Company, July 14, 1999, website accessed February 19, 2024 (https://boeing.mediaroom.com/1999-07-14-Boeing-Marks-30th-Anniversary-of-Apollo-11-Built-Major-Components-for-Lunar-Mission). Note: This entry replaces an earlier item on the same subject. 

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