Neil Armstrong believed he had a 50% chance of making it back to Earth after the moon landing. Would you take that risk?
On 21 July 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to ever set foot on the moon. It was a great historical moment, but even in that triumph there were doubts of returning safely. In the back of his mind, Armstrong believed he only had a 50/50 chance of getting off the moon and returning to earth.
The reliability of the ascent engine of the Eagle, the astronaut’s moon lander, could obviously never be tested and this concern plagued almost everybody involved in the programme. If the engine failed, Armstrong and Aldrin would not be able to leave the moon and would die there when their oxygen ran out. If it did ignite but failed to burn for at least seven minutes, they would be in low orbit, too close to the moon’s surface to be retrieved by the mothership Columbia, or they would crash back to the moon's surface. All the above scenarios meant certain death.
It was such a big possibility, that then-president Richard Nixon even prepared a speech he would deliver in case of engine failure of the Eagle. An excerpt of the speech ran: “These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.”
When Armstrong pressed the engine’s firing button, the Eagle soared above the moon’s surface and safely reached the mothership Columbia, where an extremely relieved Michael Collins awaited them. All three astronauts returned safely to earth, and history was made—not through tragedy, but through a huge success that is still celebrated today.