Written By: Ben Cosgrove

For millions of people who witnessed the Apollo 11 mission, watching on television or following it on the radio as humanity improbably, literally walked on the moon, the event perhaps did not feel quite real until, more than two weeks later, LIFE published its definitive account of the epic journey.

Waiting two weeks was simply the price one paid for getting it right. One look through the page spreads in this gallery (we recommend viewing all of the slides in “full screen” mode) makes it clear that, with this special issue, LIFE created not only the best first draft of history around the 1969 lunar landing, but produced an astonishingly comprehensive, coherent and, at times, poetic account of what LIFE’s editors called “history’s greatest exploration.”

As Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and command module pilot Michael Collins reached out for destiny all those years ago, 500 million people around the world watched in awe as the grainy black-and-white television footage beamed back to Earth from the cold surface of the moon and it seemed then, for America, that anything was possible. In a sense, LIFE magazine shared in that triumph, as it had rigorously followed and reported on the soaring successes and the tragedies of America’s space program since well before President John Kennedy, in 1961, challenged the country to set foot on the moon.

Less than a decade after JFK’s bold proclamation, America did just that. This is what it looked like, and what it felt like, to be a part of it for the three men who flew, and for the countless others on Earth who watched, and marveled, and willed the trio safely back home.

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969.

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. July 20, 1969: “Neil Armstrong’s booted foot pressed firmly in the lunar soil. . . .”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “In orbit 63 miles high the Lunar Module approaches the landing zone.”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “The Eagle has landed.”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Buzz Aldrin eased down Eagle‘s ladder, paused on the last rung and jumped the final three feet.”

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Aldrin’s gold visor mirrored Eagle and Armstrong, who took most of these pictures.”

LIFE Magazine

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Aldrin walked from the Lunar Module to set up two experimental packages—the laser beam reflector and the seismometer.”

LIFE Magazine

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Adrin made final adjustments to the seisometer, left behind to monitor possible moon quakes. Earlier he unfurled the ‘solar wind sheet,’ designed to trap tiny particles hurled from the distant Sun.”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Nine hours after his arrival, man had littered the moonscape with his paraphernalia.”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “On the windless plain Aldrin saluted the American flag, stiffened with wire so that it would ‘wave’. . . .”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Eagle landed 125 feet west of a rock strewn-crater, several feet deep and 80 feet across.”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Left: Aldrin inspected the condition of the Lunar Modules footpad. Right: The view from Eagle‘s window after the walk.”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “The simplest mark of man’s first visit footprints in the fine moon sand.”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “As seen at some distance from Columbia, Eagle rolled left and closed for rendezvous 69 miles above moon …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Eagle turned its docking port towards Columbia moments before hookup. earth is in upper right corner of large picture …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Tired but triumphant Armstrong got ready for the trip back …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Left:The plaque left behind with the Lunar Module’s descent stage. Right: Aldrin, Collins and Armstrong heroes of history’s greatest exploration …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Three kids bound for the moon. From left: Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Neil Armstrong: He could fly before he could drive …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Despite a relentless schedule Armstrong sometimes found moments for normal family life …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Away from work Armstrong enjoyed a few frivolous moments …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin: ‘The best scientific mind in space’ …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Aldrin is like most astronauts, an exercise buff who spends nearly an hour a day keeping fit …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Aldrin with his wife and daughter …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Mike Collins: An engineer who does not love machines …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Before the moon flight Collins spent time at home with his family …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Collins with his wife and daughter …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “A Calendar of Space Flight: Man’s Countdown for the Moon …”

LIFE Magazine

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “A Calendar of Space Flight: Man’s Countdown for the Moon …”

LIFE Magazine

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “A Calendar of Space Flight: Man’s Countdown for the Moon …”

LIFE Magazine

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

LIFE magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “A Calendar of Space Flight: Man’s Countdown for the Moon …”

LIFE Magazine

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Unlocking the ancient mysteries of the Moon …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Anatomy of the Lunar Receiving Lab …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “What the Moon Samples Might Tell Us …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “What the Moon Samples Might Tell Us …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “So long to the good old moon …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “So long to the good old moon …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “The dawn of the day man left his planetary cradle. Right: Armstrong led the way from gantry to spacecraft …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Apollo 11 lifts off …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Journalists— nearly 3,500 of them from the U.S. and 55 other countries — watched in hushed expectant awe as Apollo began its slow climb skyward …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Jan Armstrong raised a hand to ward off the bright morning sun and watched her husband’s spacecraft rear toward a rendezvous with the moon …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “At Disneyland (left) hundreds gave up ‘moon rides’ to watch the real thing. While in Manhattan people cheered and worried in front of huge TV screens. Las Vegas casino crowds paused over Baccarat (below) and passengers jammed a waiting room at JFK airport (right) to watching Armstrong’s walk …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “The moonwalk was broadcast live in London (left) and other world capitals, although Moscow viewers (right) had to wait several hours for an edited version. Pope Paul got a telescopic close-up of the moon, while South Koreans clamored around a 20-foot-square TV screen. GIs read of lunar adventure …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Andy Aldrin watched with grim determination as his father set foot on the moon, while at the Collins home Pat and friends followed the walk on two television sets. Joan Aldrin collapsed on the floor in happy relief when Eagle lifted safely off the moon …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “The fiery sideshow as Apollo comes home …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “The capsule was first righted by floatation bags. Then as astronauts in special insulation suits watched, frogmen scrubbed it down with disinfectant. (right). Apollo crew waved as they entered quarantine aboard [the recovery ship] the USS Hornet …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “In Houston the splashdown joy was personal and intense. NASA workers leaped from their consoles waving flags, and at home Jan Armstrong (below left) beamed and sighed in relief. Joan Aldrin applauded as Buzz Aldrin struggled into the raft and Pat Collins served champagne to a house full of happy friends …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin grinned jubilantly from inside their quarantine chamber on the carrier Hornet before their flight home to Houston …”

Neil Armstrong Apollo 11

Life magazine Special Edition, August 11, 1969. “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind …”

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