This is the 40th in an exclusive series of 50 articles, one published each day until July 20, exploring the 50th anniversary of the first-ever Moon landing. You can check out 50 Days to the Moon here every day.
The Apollo 11 astronauts—Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins—were a worldwide sensation. That was true on the Moon, where they got the largest TV audience to that date in history, 600 million people worldwide.
And it was the case back on Earth as well, and NASA and the Nixon White House moved quickly to unleash the astronauts by sending them on a rock star-style world tour.
There was considerable tension between NASA and President Nixon, personally, over the itinerary and purpose of the tour, and the White House ultimately took over planning it, as space historian John Logsdon recounts in his book After Apollo. On the day before the astronauts left, Nixon spoke personally to Armstrong, who had been Apollo 11 commander, to give him some parting advice on how to position the Moon landing when he spoke to leaders around the world.
The Apollo 11 world tour—nicknamed “Giant Leap” by NASA—began September 29, 1969, in Mexico City. The astronauts had been back from the Moon for just nine weeks.
They traveled with their wives, support staff from NASA and the U.S. State Department, as well as two staffers from the United States Information Agency and four from the Voice of America. (No U.S. reporters were permitted to join the tour.) Nixon had given them a plane from the presidential fleet: Air Force 2, typically used by Vice President Agnew, with the same china-blue paint scheme as Air Force 1.
They met with, among others:
The Queen of England
The King of Belgium
The King of Norway
The Queen of the Netherlands
The Shah of Iran
The King and Queen of Thailand
The Emperor of Japan
The estimate of the crowd in Mumbai (then Bombay) was 1.5 million people. In Dhaka, Pakistan: 1 million.
The day their plane returned to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C., November 5, 1969, the astronauts and their wives were flown by helicopter to the lawn of the White House, where they had dinner with President Nixon and the First Lady, and spent their first night back as the guests of the Nixons in the White House.
In the end, the astronauts and their wives visited 27 cities, in 24 countries, in 39 days.
These pictures give a sense of the head-spinning pace of the tour, and also the incredible outpouring of curiosity and joy from audiences where the astronauts visited.
The first stop, on the first day, was Mexico—Air Force 2 picked up the astronauts and their wives from Houston and then flew south to Mexico City, which set the pattern for what the next two dozen cities would be like: The astronauts in a parade, in sombreros, mobbed by thousands of eager Mexicans, in a crowd officials struggled to control. The “Giant Leap” tour would be hectic, overwhelming, improvisational, surprising—in many ways, exactly the opposite of the perfectly planned, perfectly controlled, perfectly executed, three-person mission that inspired it.
Charles Fishman, who has written for Fast Company since its inception, has spent the past four years researching and writing One Giant Leap, his New York Times best-selling book about how it took 400,000 people, 20,000 companies, and one federal government to get 27 people to the Moon. (You can order it here.)
For each of the next 50 days, we’ll be posting a new story from Fishman—one you’ve likely never heard before—about the first effort to get to the Moon that illuminates both the historical effort and the current ones. New posts will appear here daily as well as be distributed via Fast Company’s social media. (Follow along at #50DaysToTheMoon).