Apollo 11, how'd they decide who goes first?

OK, so I was wondering . . . were there any other missions before Apollo 11 that had the goal of landing on the moon, or what? But my main question is, how’d they decide that Neil got to go first? Don’t you think that Aldrin and/or Sheppard (he was the other one right? fingers crossed) would have had something to say about that? I mean Neil is the answer to all those trivia questions now, if anyone remembers one of the three it’s usually Armstrong. So how’d they decide?

The third astronaut was Michael Collins and he never landed on the moon. He stayed in the command module in orbit.

Each astronaut has an assignment and a title. On the shuttle there are the commander, pilot, mission specialists, etc. I don’t know the details but Armstrong (who was the pilot for the LEM) got to go first because of his assignment. The assignments were made up a long time before the mission and then they trained for their speciality.

Apollo 11 was the first flight that intended to land on the moon. IIRC, Apollo 8 was the first to fly to the moon but that was just a test of the ability to get there and back. Apollo 9 was a rehearsal flight in earth orbit. Apollo 10 was the full rehearsal – all the way to the moon, separate the LEM from the command module, fire the descent engines – but then fire the ascent engines and come back. They did everything BUT land on the moon.

The original plans called for more rehearsal and test missions but everything went so well (after the launch pad fire) that they cut out some of them. That also kept them in the 60’s. (Kennedy’s pledge was that we would get to the moon before the decade was out.) Of course, once they’d been there, once they’d achieved their goal, the interest of the fickle public wained quickly. There were more lunar landings scheduled but they were cancelled after Apollo 17.

On the HBO series “From the Earth to the Moon”, they cover this briefly.

Aldrin and Armstrong were on Apollo 11 because “it was their turn.” I am not really sure how the rota was decided, though.

Aldrin asked for a decision to be made about who would be the first one out the door.

The answer came back that it would be Armstrong. Partly because he was the Commander, and partly because he would be closer to the door. In the close confines of the lunar lander, it would be hard to swap places while wearing their space suits.

It would have been tough for Michael Collins (he was the third member of the Apollo 11 crew) to be the first, as he wasn’t on the moon. He was the Command Module pilot, and stayed in orbit around the moon (that would have been some “giant leap”). Only Armstrong and Aldrin were in the LEM and actually landed on the moon during that mission.

Aldrin apparently had lobbied with the powers-that-be to be first. But Armstrong was the mission commander, and so had rank. Also, the LEM was pretty small, and Armstrong was closer to the small hatch they had to crawl out of. For Aldrin to go first would have required some gymnastics in bulky spacesuits.

So while it was possible to have sent either man first, Armstrong was the logical choice.

Speak for yourself. Although there are (unfortunately) not as many as there should be, more than just a few of us do remember all three men, and many others.


Interestingly, there was a little bit of controversy about this, mainly by Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. Basically, he wanted to go first. IIRC, it had something to do with seating arrangements-- he argued it made sense for him to go out first, since he was closer to the exit, or something like that.

Still, I think Armstrong was mission commander, and he wasn’t in the mood to argue about it. In my experience, pilots can get pissy about things, but this takes the cake.

I think that had Armstrong and Aldrin not been the first names to come up in the mission rotation, Armstrong might have been offered the chance anyway. If I remember rightly, Armstrong had proved himself unflappable when on a prior Gemmini mission an attitude rocket had stuck open and sent the craft into a 20 RPM axial spin, arguably one of the most dangerous in-space mishaps of the entire space program up to that time.

The guy was known to be the Ice Man, able to think his way out of trouble in situations that most people–and maybe even most astronauts–would find completely panic inducing. His timing was also impeccable. I don’t have this on any authority other than my father, but according to him when an earthbound mock-up of the LEM began to fail in flight, Armstrong tried to maintain control of the vehicle until the very last moment. Dad claims that had he fired off the ejection seat just 1/4 of a second later than he did, the LEM-trainer would have heeled over too far for his 'chute to open before he hit the ground. I’ve seen the films–it’s definitely a sketchy situation.

Among the other really, really hot astronauts, John Young had just done Apollo 10, Grissom was dead (and possibly still tainted by the mysterious Mercury hatch-blow), Shepherd was considered to valuable to risk, and Conrad wasn’t a favorite among the technical folks on the ground. Most of the others lacked the mission experience–with potential disasters thrown in–that Armstrong had.

Maaaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnnnnnnnnn do I feel stupid!

He said that the 1st person on the moon biz was decided by the heads of NASA before Apollo 11 even lifted off. Armstrong was chosen because he, unlike Aldrin, was not an active duty member of the military. NASA didn’t want the moon missions to appear to be a military enterprise in any way, so poor Buzz was doomed to be second fiddle from the get-go.

Still suffering from caffeine deprivation…

Wasn’t Aldrin the LEM pilot? I think that his argument was that as the pilot, he should go out first. Armstrong was the mission commander, so everyone else thought he should go first. In the end (and possibly to avoid shooting Aldrin down directly) it was decided that Armstrong was closer to the door and they would not be able to change places with their packs on.

Remember: These guys were all test pilots. They were extremely competitive and none of them liked to come in second. It’s amazing they could actually fit two egos into the LEM! I think Aldrin’s plea was doomed from the start. Armstrong was the mission commander and that was that.

Why was Shepherd so valuable? And wasn’t the reason that he was not selected for a moon flight previous to Apollo XIV that he suffered from a medical condition (ear infection, IIRC) which prevented him from being cleared by Nasa’s medical staff to take part in a space flight.

Alan Shepard suffered from Meniere’s (sp) disease. This is a condition of the ear that attacks the sense of balance and disqualified him from flight status.

I think you might be confusing two or three incidents. Alan Shepard’s condition was one of them. The other two were John Glenn’s status as the first American in orbit and Deke Slayton’s heart condition. Many people assumed that Glenn would be the first man on the moon since he was the first American in orbit (the Soviets had the first man in space and in orbit). I think it was Glenn who was considered “too valuable” to risk on a moon shot. Deke Slayton had an irregular heartbeat that disqualified him from flight status. Even though it would not have disqualified him as a pilot of an aircraft and there was some evidence that piloting a spacecraft would not have been a problem, the doctors at NASA refused to release him for space flight. If something happened it would have been a public relations disaster and they did not want to take the risk.

Shepard underwent an operation that cured his ear problems and flew on Apollo XIV. Slayton, who had been working out regularly and had been taking lots of vitamins, discovered one day that his irregular heartbeat became regular and flew on the Apollo-Soyuz mission, the last of the Apollo flights. Glenn, of course, went into politics and became a senator. He flew on the Space Shuttle.

One thing has been bothering me for a while. Before the Challenger exploded, John Glenn went on record stating that he felt civilians should not be put into space. I’m sure he meant that a non-professional civilian who did not have a specific task and a professional career to back up the performance of that task should not be put into space. I don’t recall if he said “I told you so” after the tragedy. And yet he (now a civilian) went up on the Shuttle, even though he did not have a real purpose on the flight. IMO he wanted to fly again, NASA thought it would be good PR, and he was the first American in orbit. But I don’t think he met the criteria he supported back in the 80s. I don’t begrudge him his flight. I just think he was wrong before.

…yeah, Shepherd was grounded due to an inner ear problem for a while. I don’t recall if he was back in the pilot rotation prior to A11; though if he was it was too late to be on the first moon landing. I believe he was reactivated in time to be assigned to Apollo 13, but it was decided (lucky for him and his crew) to allow him extra training time and he was bumped to Apollo 14.

The official line at NASA has always been (and will always be, I imagine) that the mission rotations were set ahead of time, that the backup crew for Apollo N would be the primary crew for Apollo N+2. Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were back-ups for Apollo 9; Apollo 11 didn’t become The mission until it was decided in 1968 to send Apollo 8 around the moon, and it could have been pushed back to Apollo 12 or 13 if any problems had cropped up on later missions.

Aldrin was indeed the LM pilot, though this title was a misnomer. The true pilot of the LM was the Mission Commander. To some extent he was different from other astronauts at the time (though they were all idiosyncratic), as he had a doctorate in orbital mechanics and was interested in the space program. I’m overgeneralizing here, but my impression has always been that many of these guys were test pilots who felt that going to the moon was the ultimate test flight.

jrepka reminded me of an incident when Aldrin was with a group of astronauts. IIRC he was wearing a tie clasp with air force wings on it and a Phi Beta Kappa pin. Someone said something to the effect of, “Hell, Buzz, we know who you are! You don’t have to wear your résumé!”

From what I have read…

The order of the egress from the LEM was justified by NASA, as mentioned on the hatch. Not that Armstrong was closer – it was between them – but that the way it opened, he had to get out of the way anyhow for Aldrin to get out.

One of Aldrin’s arguments involved a pretty much standard practice that the Mission Commander/primary pilot either stays aboard or is the last man out during EVA. (And yes, the “LEM pilot” billet was really more that of LEM Flight Systems Officer.) Technically speaking, all it would have involved would have been switching the commander’s and “pilot’s” stations left to right. But rank hath its privileges…

Armstrong’s choice to be the commander and first out, as pointed out before, involved his proven skill in keeping cool and getting out of tight spots, and the undoubted political value of being a civilian.


The question was raised about who selected Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins for the mission. That was Deke Slayton, who became the head of the NASA Astronaut Office when he was grounded as an astronaut himself. Although crew assignments were undoubtedly made with some consultation with other NASA brass, the final decisions were Slayton’s.

One other consideration was that Armstrong was a civilian by that time, despite his extensive USAF flight test experience. Letting the mission have a military overtone might have counteracted the US world leadership effort, as represented by the plaque reading “We came in peace for all mankind.”