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Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were lost on the Moon. Really

Once Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed Eagle on the Moon, the Apollo 11 astronauts and their spaceship were actually lost.

Oh, Mission Control never lost radio contact with them. But NASA was never able to figure out where, exactly, on the Moon they had set down, while they were on the Moon. And NASA sure did try.

The landing area on the Moon that had been picked out for Apollo 11 was about the length of Manhattan and twice as wide. In photo surveys, it looked plain, flat, and bland—not interesting for geologists but a safe place to land a spaceship, the first time human beings ever tried that on a place off of Earth.

But up close, the Sea of Tranquility was anything but tranquil. As Armstrong and Aldrin flew down toward the Moon in their lunar module, Armstrong was looking out the window and the spot the autopilot was flying them toward was, as Armstrong described it, a crater the size of a football field, littered with boulders, some as large as cars.

Not a comfortable place to try to land a gangly four-legged spaceship.

So Armstrong took manual control of where the lunar module was flying to—the spaceship computer still did all the actual flying, but Armstrong was instructing it where to go and at what speed.

In the end, he and Aldrin set down several miles from the original landing spot—on safe, level Moon ground, but not where they had planned to land. Armstrong, in particular, had studied photographs of the Sea of Tranquility in preparation for flying to it and knew the landmarks and the landscape of much of the area.

Andrew Chaikin, in his account of the Moon landings, A Man On the Moon, describes Armstrong’s reaction to landing in unfamiliar Moon terrain: “As he looked out (at Tranquility Base), Armstrong wondered where he and Aldrin had landed . . . . (He) searched the horizon for some feature he might be able to identify, but found none.”

There had been some worry inside NASA about whether, from Earth, they would be able to pinpoint the lunar module’s landing location. The Moon was mapped, but not in anything like fine, up-close detail; there were no constellations of tracking satellites around the Moon in 1969.

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