In their own words: Remembering the Apollo 11 launch

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Apollo 11 blasted off at 9:32 a.m. on July 16, 1969 -- 50 years ago. 

The engineers in Mission Control were young; their average age was 26. Apollo 11 flight director Gene Kranz said he was the oldest that day -- a month shy of his 36th birthday. 

The three astronauts were in their late 30s. Neil Armstrong earned a salary of $30,000 a year. Buzz Aldrin, $18,000. Michael Collins, $17,000.

Those are equivalent to six-figure salaries today when you adjust for inflation. But they could not afford life insurance, given their line of work. So before they took off, they signed and left behind hundreds of postcards and asked friends to postmark them July 20 so their loved ones could sell them and get something if they did not return. 

But that's not what Armstrong told his two little boys before he left. 

"He said, ‘We're confident we're coming back. You know, there is some risk. We don't know if we're going to land on the moon, you know, 50-50 chance if everything is going to work right. But we're coming back,’" Rick Armstrong recalled.

A million people poured into Central Florida to watch the launch, along with more than 3,000 journalists from 56 nations. 

“It was, I'm speechless. I mean you can't, I don't have the words for it,” engineer Jim Ogle recalled of the liftoff. “Just the excitement of moment, but as you mature and look back on tat moment, it even become more significant, because holy mackerel, we really did something here. This country!”

As the giant Saturn V rocket blasted off, former President Lyndon Johnson and Vice President Spiro Agnew watched from the stands -- adversaries united. President Richard Nixon stayed in Washington with Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman at his side to tell him what was happening each step of the way. 

When the astronauts were half-way to the moon, the White House wrote a speech for President Nixon in case the astronauts got stuck on the moon.  It reads, “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.”

People around the world were praying and biting their nails.     

“During a flight, it was customary to have sort of a perpetual open house. So friends, neighbors, relatives, they would come by sort of at any hour, bring food over, talk, chat. Run errands when Mom couldn't do it. In retrospect, console. Support. Support Mom,” Rick and Mark Armstrong continued.

Meanwhile, the four-day run through space was quite stressful in other ways.  It required precise steps and maneuvers in cramped and putrid conditions. Collins described the smell in the module as a mix of wet dog and swamp gas. 

Their spaceship hooked into the moon's orbit July 20. That move alone required calculations and maneuvers scientists liken to shooting at a moving target from a spinning teacup.

And the army of young engineers worked the calculations without computers as we know them today. We have more computing power in our smartphones than they had available, and many used slide rules.

“Yeah it was simple,” recalled Bob Sieck, a member of the launch team. “As the old chief engineer briefed us when we came on board in the early ‘60s, it’s just high school physics.” 

The Apollo 11 crew had a primitive push dial-computer -- the world's first digital computer designed specifically for them. 

“We could figure out how to do anything,” Sieck continued. “We just need the sustained commitment to say, ‘Go do it.’”