NASA Moon landing: How Neil Armstrong and Apollo astronauts risked death at every corner

landed the first human on the surface of the Moon on July 20, 1969, half-a-century ago this year. The monumental achievement saw astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin successfully fly to the Moon, land and return to Earth. The Moon landing was hailed the greatest achievement of the 20th century but the Apollo programme was far from a smooth ride from start to finish. Most notably, the crew of Apollo 1 – the first manned Apollo mission – died in a tragic cabin fire during a launch rehearsal. 

And the many astronauts who flew into under NASA’s banner, risked their lives every time they blasted off from Earth. 

Professor Craig Underwood of the Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey spoke to about the incredible courage and determination of NASA’s astronauts. 

The majority of NASA’s crews in the Gemini, Mercury and Apollo programmes had a background in aviation, the military and experimental aircraft test flights. 

Because of this, the astronauts were mavericks in the field of spaceflight who could calmly stare death in the face every single day. 


NASA Moon landing: Neil Armstrong of Apollo 11

NASA Moon landing: Neil Armstrong came close to dying on multiple occassions (Image: NASA)

NASA Moon landing: Neil Armstrong X-15

NASA Moon landing: The astronauts was almost stranded on the edge of space in an X-15 rocket plane (Image: NASA)

Professor Underwood said: “They were working in a way that we wouldn’t possibly contemplate today, in terms of the risks that were taken. 

“The test pilots were dying a huge rate in the 1960s, not just in the US but in the UK as well. 

“It’s something that we find absolutely horrifying today but they were up to take those risks and push forward progress.” 

Commander Armstrong was a naval aviator in the Korean War before joining NASA and was a test pilot for the experimental X-15 rocket aeroplane. 


The future Apollo 11 commander first cheated death in 1951 when his Panther jet fighter was struck over Korea by enemy fire. 

The test pilots were dying a huge rate in the 1960s

Professor Craig Underwood, Surrey Space

Then in 1957, he flew the experimental Bell X-1B plane, which crashed when its landing gear failed to deploy properly and disintegrated. 

Just a few years later in 1962, while flying the rocket-powered X-15 on the edge of space, the aircraft skimmed or “ballooned” on the Earth’s atmosphere, almost stranding Armstrong in space. 

Thankfully, the astronaut’s famous nerves of steel kicked in and allowed him to fly a trajectory that dragged him back down towards the ground. 


Professor Underwood said: “The X-15 was a tremendous aircraft exploring the boundaries of knowledge, flying hypersonically. 

“So they were all extraordinarily brave people. Of course, we did lose three astronauts in the Apollo 1 fire and ironically, that was a ground test.

“That was a wake-up call and although tragic, it was an important lesson and they redesigned it and made it a much safer craft.” 

But Commander Armstrong’s near-death-experiences did not end there. 

Moon landing timeline: Apollo 11 on the Moon

Moon landing timeline: Detailed look back at the Apollo 11 Moon landing (Image: GETTY)

NASA Moon landing: Neil Armstrong accident

NASA Moon landing: A lunar landing exercise almost killed the astronaut in 1968 (Image: NASA)

In 1966, during the Gemini 8 mission, a critical malfunction of the spacecraft’s thrusters threw the astronaut and his fellow co-pilot David Scott into a near-lethal spin above Earth.

Commander Armstrong stabilised the spacecraft and aborted the mission but came dangerously close to passing out from the G-forces exerted by the spin.

Then in 1969, just a year before flying to the Moon, a training accident with a Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (LLTV) almost killed Commander Armstrong when it crashed. 

Luckily, the pilot jettisoned from the plummeting jet-powered vehicle before it spectacularly erupted into a ball of flame. 

One last brush with death came during the Moon landing itself when Apollo 11’s Lunar Module Eagle was thrown off-course towards a boulder-strewn crater on the Moon. 

With alarms blaring and the onboard computers overladed with navigational data, Commander Armstrong had to hand-guide the Eagle to a clear landing spot. 

The astronaut safely touched down in the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility with less than 30 seconds of fuel left. 

The nail-biting descent ended with Armstrong buzzing NASA’s Mission Control to say: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” 

In total, there have been 18 deaths of US astronauts and Russian cosmonauts who have died in spaceflight, excluding non-spaceflight activities such as the tragic Apollo 11 disaster. 

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