Final Voyage of NASA's Space Shuttle

Final Shuttle Crew Pays Tribute to Apollo 11 Moon Landing

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin stands on the lunar surface during the first moon landing in 1969
Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin stands on the lunar surface during the first moon landing in 1969. (Image credit: Apollo 11/NASA)

As the astronauts flying on NASA's final space shuttle mission prepare for their return to Earth tomorrow (July 21), they took a moment to pay tribute to another historic space milestone: the 42nd anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing.

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to step foot on the lunar surface, followed by Lunar Module pilot Buzz Aldrin.

"Forty-two years today, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon," Atlantis' commander Chris Ferguson radioed to Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "I consider myself fortunate that I was there to actually remember the event. I think there was probably a lot of folks in that room who didn't have that privilege or honor." [Giant Leaps: Top Milestones of Human Spaceflight]

"It's kind of interesting to be here on the final night of a shuttle mission. We don’t quite know what to think, we're just trying to take it all in," Ferguson said just before the his crew's sleep period.

NASA's Apollo moon program was sparked by President John F. Kennedy's compelling speech in 1961 that challenged the nation to put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of the 1960s.

The dramatic events of July 20, 1969 achieved Kennedy's goal, and over the course of the Apollo program, five subsequent missions eventually landed astronauts on the lunar surface. In total, 12 ambassadors have had the unique privilege of leaving their boot prints on a world beyond Earth.

The last Apollo moon mission, Apollo 17, launched in December 1972, and the program officially ended in 1975.

Ferguson and his crewmates, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim, launched on the final mission of NASA's space shuttle program on July 8. Atlantis and its crewmates delivered critical supplies and hardware during its 13-day mission to the International Space Station.

Atlantis is scheduled to land on Thursday (July 21) at 5:56 a.m. EDT (0956 GMT).

After 30 years of flying the shuttles, NASA is retiring its three-orbiter fleet to focus on deep-space exploration missions to destinations like an asteroid and Mars.

You can follow Staff Writer Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow. Senior Writer Clara Moskowitz (@ClaraMoskowitz) contributed to this report. Follow for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Denise Chow
NBC News science writer

Denise Chow is a former staff writer who then worked as assistant managing editor at Live Science before moving to NBC News as a science reporter, where she focuses on general science and climate change. She spent two years with, writing about rocket launches and covering NASA's final three space shuttle missions, before joining the Live Science team in 2013. A Canadian transplant, Denise has a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto, and a master's degree in journalism from New York University. At NBC News, Denise covers general science and climate change.