Thanks to that one small step back in the summer of '69, the name Neil Armstrong is now synonymous with American space exploration. Armstrong is still a household name because of Apollo 11, but the man himself says he thought the odds were 50/50 that he'd ever actually touch the moon during the mission.
In a rare new interview appearance, Armstrong said he was confident that the Apollo 11 mission would be a safe one. After all, Americans had already made it to the moon and back by then. What he wasn't so confident about was the mission's historic end goal: touching down on the lunar surface. Why? Because when you're landing somewhere no human being has ever landed before, there are just too many unknowns.
"A month before the launch of Apollo 11, we decided we were confident enough we could try and attempt on a descent to the surface," said Armstrong. "I thought we had a 90% chance of getting back safely to Earth on that flight but only a 50-50 chance of making a landing on that first attempt. There are so many unknowns on that descent from lunar orbit down to the surface that had not been demonstrated yet by testing and there was a big chance that there was something in there we didn't understand properly and we had to abort and come back to Earth without landing."
But Armstrong and his cohort Buzz Aldrin did make it, touching off an unprecedented (and some say still unmatched) era of human spaceflight. One moon shot, Apollo 13, did have to abort, but not because of any complications on the lunar surface. In all, six Apollo missions made successful moon landings. Astronauts drove cars on the moon, played golf, planted flags and took lots of pictures before the final moon mission returned to Earth in late 1972. Like many of his fellow astronauts, Armstrong is still mourning the end of that era, and still trying to drum up public interest in a NASA resurgence, not just for the glory of space exploration but for the education power the agency has.
"NASA has been one of the most successful public investments in motivating students to do well and achieve all they can achieve," said Armstrong. "It's sad that we are turning the programme in a direction where it will reduce the amount of motivation and stimulation it provides to young people."
So the first man on the moon thought he only had a 50/50 chance of touching the surface. Makes you wonder what the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, though the odds were that he'd blow up on the launch pad.