Amazing Simulation Shows What Neil Armstrong Saw Moments Before Landing On The Moon

This is the Apollo 11 lunar lander ground track — the flight path over the moon’s surface — in the final approximately 3 minutes when Neil Armstrong skirted the rocky flank of West Crater to land safely just east of Little West Crater on July 20, 1969. The time marker at right matches the lunar module’s (LM’s) location at the 0:59 second mark in the What Armstrong Saw video below. The lander was traveling from lunar east to west. NASA

The only visual record of the historic Apollo 11 landing is from a 16mm time-lapse (6 frames per second) movie camera mounted in Buzz Aldrin’s window on the right side of LM or lunar module Eagle. Although the windows in the LM weren’t very far apart we never saw what mission commander Neil Armstrong saw as he flew and landed the Eagle.

View inside the lunar lander or LM with Buzz Aldrin facing the camera. Behind him you can see Neil Armstrong. Each astronaut looked through a separate window. Also visible is the 16mm movie camera mounted near the top of Aldrin’s window (right) that took the footage shown in the What Aldrin Saw video below. NASA

Recently, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera team reconstructed the last three minutes of the landing trajectory using landmark navigation and altitude call-outs from the voice recording. Paired with high resolution images taken from low-altitude lunar orbit the team simulated what Armstrong saw in the final approximately three minutes as he guided the LM down to the surface of the Moon.

A simulated view of what Neil Armstrong saw out his window using real photos taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. At the end of the footage, get ready for a surprise — the shiny object is a current image of the LM descent stage (and its shadow) which remains on the moon to this day. It looks like Neil is landing right on top of it!

As the video begins, Armstrong observes that the proposed landing location on the northeastern flank of the 625-foot-wide (190 m) West crater is littered with hazardous boulders, so he made the decision to wrest control from the computer and manually fly the LM to search for a safer landing spot. At the time, only Armstrong saw the hazard. It’s not visible in the original footage because the movie camera could only look in one direction — its viewpoint was fixed. Armstrong was able to lean forward and back and turn his head to see better in other directions. That’s what makes the Armstrong simulated view so fascinating. We can see the danger! Just look at how many boulders litter the slopes of that crater.

At left is the actual movie footage shot through Aldrin’s window. At right is a simulation based on real LRO photographs taken from low lunar orbit.

After flying over the hazards presented by the bouldery flank of West crater, Armstrong spotted a safe spot about 500 meters down track where he carefully descended to the surface. Just before landing, the LM flew over what would later be called Little West crater 130 feet (40 m) in diameter. Armstrong would visit and photograph this crater once he and Aldrin left the lander to set up experiments and gather rock samples.

This close-up of the Apollo 11 landing site taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter shows the remaining descent stage, experiments set up on the surface and the astronauts’ footpaths, one of which leads to rim of Little West Crater. NASA

In both the original and simulated videos the LM is traveling from east to west along the ground track shown in the photo at the top of the blog. With a little effort you can follow that track by watching the Armstrong movie and checking it against craters visible in the photo. The photo has north up and east to the left, but in the lunar module, north was to the right and east straight ahead in the direction of travel. To follow more easily, use this rotated version of the photo with north to the right and east at top. Start near the bottom (beginning of video) and work your way up to the landing at the end. Enjoy the journey.