Neil Armstrong will always have a place on the moon alongside his fellow Apollo astronauts Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin. Each has a crater in their name not far from the Apollo 11 landing site in the Sea of Tranquillity. These three craters and three on the lunar farside for the crew of Apollo 8 are the only ones to my knowledge named for living astronauts. Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders of Apollo 8 were the first the leave Earth orbit and travel around the moon.
14 other astronauts and cosmonauts who died while involved in their respective space programs have also been memorialized with craters. The most recent were seven craters named for the Space Shuttle Challenger astronauts who perished during while ascending to orbit after launch on January 28, 1986.
The astronauts who died in the Space Shuttle Columbia explosion while returning from orbit on February 1, 2003 are remembered in a cluster of craters in the Apollo Basin on the lunar farside and in seven named peaks in the Columbia Hills on the planet Mars. This range is located in Gusev Crater where the Spirit Rover landed in 2004.
Several years back on a clear night with little air turbulence, I trained my 10-inch telescope on the Apollo 11 landing site near the pair of medium-sized craters Ritter and Sabine. The site itself appears smooth and featureless to the eye, but Armstrong’s crater, along with his pals Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, who remained in orbit while the other two gathered rocks and set up experiments on the lunar surface, came into view at a magnification of around 200x.
All three form a neat little row with Armstrong the largest and Collins the smallest, but they’re all quite small really. Armstrong’s crater is just 2.9 miles across, Aldrin 2.1 miles and Collins 1.5 miles. The trio is located a short distance due north of the bright crater Moltke. With a 6-inch scope and steady air, you should be able to pick out all three out at high magnification starting about the time the moon is 6 days old or just before 1st quarter phase. Neil’s is the easiest to see.
Be patient. Unsteady air may cause them to waver and dissolve. If you keep your eye glued to the eyepiece, you’ll catch a few ideal moments when the trio will be tack sharp. I enjoyed the experience of seeing these “buddies for all of time” and picturing the nearby landing site.
Here are some photos to help you find them, too. The best time to look would be around the 6-8 day-old moon when shading and shadows will help reveal the craters’ contours, but feel free to try at any phase. Good luck in your explorations. Should you succeed, you will have taken one impressive leap for an amateur sky watcher.
Want to learn more about Apollo 11? Read an excellent re-telling of the first lunar landing and what it was like to be there in the NASA Science News article Wide Awake in the Sea of Tranquillity.