Ride Along with the Apollo 11 Crew on Their Historic First Lunar Landing Mission!

The Starry Night program is more than a planetarium utility. It's also a virtual space environment. The program's built-in SkyGuide features 3-dimensional simulations of all nine Apollo missions to the moon, allowing you to view each stage of a mission and to manipulate your viewing angle and distance from the accurately rendered spacecraft. In this scene, the command module is preparing to separate from the lunar ascent module and leave lunar orbit for home.
The Starry Night program is more than a planetarium utility. It's also a virtual space environment. The program's built-in SkyGuide features 3-dimensional simulations of all nine Apollo missions to the moon, allowing you to view each stage of a mission and to manipulate your viewing angle and distance from the accurately rendered spacecraft. In this scene, the command module is preparing to separate from the lunar ascent module and leave lunar orbit for home. (Image credit: Starry Night)

We're fast approaching the 50th anniversary of humankind's first steps upon another world. For some, Apollo 11 is a fond, but distant memory of gathering around the black and white TV watching grainy video of Neil Armstrong descending the ladder of the lunar excursion module and stepping onto the moon. Perhaps you dashed outside and looked up at the moon. Do you recall what phase it was showing? 

People born after the Apollo missions ended have had to settle for reading about the space program, or watching movies and documentaries about the era. Luckily for us, we now have a software tool that can bring the golden age of human space exploration to life as never before, allowing us to travel along on the Apollo missions, including Apollo 11 and its first lunar landing.

The Starry Night software package from Simulation Curriculum (for MacOS and Windows) is a perfect complement to this month's Apollo 11 celebrations. Used as a desktop planetarium, the program can show the moon in your sky from anywhere on Earth, and it can recreate the way the moon looked on July 20, 1969, when humans took their first steps on our natural satellite. You can also join Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin at Tranquility Base and view the realistically rendered Earth floating in the inky black sky overhead as they explored the moon. The program's photographic panorama of the Apollo 11 landing site will enhance your feeling of being there!  

Much more than a planetarium package, Starry Night also serves as a space simulator, with accurate three-dimensional representations of the Apollo spacecraft — including the Saturn V rocket, the command and service module and the lunar module. 

The nine lunar missions flown by the Apollo astronauts during the 1960s and 1970s, Apollo 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17, have all been included in exacting detail. For each mission, you can display and replay the spacecraft trajectories from Earth to the moon and back, all created from data published by NASA.

Starry Night's time flow controls let you watch events unfold in real time, in slow-motion, or at a faster rate. You can even pause time to fully appreciate the intricate ballet required for key mission milestones because the graphics engine lets you interactively view the mission from any perspective. You can hover right beside the spacecraft or fly away and view the mission from afar — displaying the trajectories taken by the command and modules from Earth to the moon, down to the lunar surface, and safely back to Earth.

Let's dive into the ways you can use Starry Night to experience Apollo 11.

Starry Night includes 360-degree panoramas of the Apollo landing sites, allowing you to re-create the star-filled black sky that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin worked under. You can add labels to the planets and drag the view around to find Earth sitting high overhead.  (Image credit: Starry Night)

Recreating the sky on July 20, 1969 

Here is how to use Starry Night to recreate the night sky on July 20, 1969. When you launch the program, it will display the sky at your location for the current time and date. (Those parameters are displayed in the Toolbar.) A set of icons located towards the right end of the toolbar let you control the rate that time is flowing. The default is real time (one second per second), which is indicated as "1x." 

To change the date, click on the month and it will become underlined. Use the up and down arrows on your keyboard, or your mouse wheel, to set the month to July. Click the date and change it to 20 and the year to 1969. 

To see how the moon looked from any location on Earth at the moment when humans took their first steps on the moon, set the program to July 20, 1969, at 02:56:15 Universal Time (or UT) and choose a location. For observers in the eastern USA and Canada, the moon was setting. But those located farther west could see the moon higher in the sky. Inset: The software allows you to magnify objects and to add labels and draw outlines of features on the moon.  (Image credit: Starry Night)

Next, we need to set Starry Night to the time when Neil Armstrong took his first steps, which was 02:56:15 Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). This was equivalent to 10:56:15 p.m. EDT and 7:56:15 p.m. PDT. (If you live in a different time zone, simply subtract from GMT the appropriate number of hours for your location.) 

Starry Night will now be displaying the historic sky for your current position on Earth. If you want to view the sky from another location, click the three horizontal lines to the right of the "AM/PM" and then click on "View From…" in the list that appears. Type the name of your town or city into the Search bar then click the "View from Selected Location" button.

For locations in eastern USA and Canada, the moon was close to setting in the west when Armstrong was making history. If the moon is hidden by the terrain in your horizon panorama at that time, just use a slightly earlier time of the evening. Now you can see the moon's phase on that date. I won't spoil the surprise! 

We can also use Starry Night to show the sky over Tranquility Base. We'll cover that below.

Related: Catch These Events Celebrating Apollo 11 Moon Landing’s 50th Anniversary

Using the SkyGuide Space Missions library 

Starry Night's SkyGuide offers an easy way to experience Apollo 11. With a few clicks, you can instantly view any stage of the mission, each featuring a selection of photographs and video clips with audio. 

If the SkyGuide panel is not already displayed on the left side of Starry Night's screen, reveal it by clicking View / Show SkyGuide Panel in the menu bar. You can also type "SkyGuide" into the Search Bar and click the "Toggle SkyGuide" item that appears in the list below. 

Click the Space Missions icon to view the list and click on a mission to explore it. The Apollo 11 mission is divided into 12 stages ordered chronologically, plus an introduction. You can start at the beginning, or jump into any stage. (Arrow keys and a home icon at the top of the SkyGuide pane let you navigate through the content.) 

Each event in the SkyGuide includes descriptive text and links to full-size photographs and video clips taken by the astronauts during their missions. The top area of the SkyGuide panel displays hyperlinked labels that allow you to jump between simulations with a click.  (Image credit: Starry Night)

When you select an event, the screen will update to show the simulation for that part of the mission. Starry Night includes many key moments. (The Apollo 13 accident is an interesting one!) Most of the simulations will launch with time flowing faster than real time. Just sit back and watch events unfold. Don't fret if the spacecraft disappears for a time. It has simply entered Earth's shadow, and will soon reappear! When you are ready to move on to the next scene, click Next at the bottom of the panel.

Feel free to take control of Starry Night to manipulate your view of each simulation. Drag the mouse to rotate the spacecraft and bring Earth or the moon into view. (I prefer to enable the labels for the solar system objects. Just click Labels in the Main Menu, and then click on Planets-Moons.)

The default distances from the spacecraft are designed to produce good views of the action. Rolling the mouse wheel or clicking on the distance control icons (V and Λ) in the toolbar will allow you to move closer or farther from the scene. If you get lost, just click the "Apollo 11" hyperlink near the top of the SkyGuide to return to the list of simulations and re-launch one. 

Sit back and watch events unfold — or use the time flow controls at the right end of the Toolbar to pause, rewind, or change the rate. The default rate for the Lunar Module descent is 10x real time. You can even relive history by starting the mission at launch on the morning of July 16, and allowing time to pass in real time.  (Image credit: Starry Night)

To join Armstrong and Aldrin on the lunar surface, select the simulation titled On the Moon. You can drag the scene to look around. Can you find the Earth? Once Earth is in view, roll the mouse wheel to enlarge it. If you alter the time, you'll see that Earth stays in the same spot while everything else shifts position. That's because the moon is tidally locked to Earth — keeping the same face towards us at all times.  

Additional simulations 

Some additional content is accessible by typing "Apollo 11" into Starry Night's Search Bar. The Search Pane will open and list the places Apollo 11 is referenced in the program. At the bottom of the list, under Favorites, is an entry called Apollo 11 Track. Clicking that will display an overview of the Earth-Moon system and the trajectory of the entire mission. As before, you can manipulate the time flow and zoom in and out on the scene. You can also change your cursor to the Location Scroller type and view the moon's orbit from different angles. 

Use the Search Bar to summon additional content outside of the SkyGuide material. Clicking an Application Favorite such as Apollo 11 Track will show you the mission from afar and allow you to rotate the Earth-moon system in three dimensions and to zoom in on the action.  (Image credit: Starry Night)

Starry Night will provide you with hours of fun and plenty of interesting Apollo 11 content. Once you've explored the other eight Apollo missions, have a look at the more recent Galileo mission to Jupiter, Cassini/Huygens to Saturn and New Horizons to Pluto and beyond! 

Simulation Curriculum is also running an Apollo 11-themed contest in association with Celestron and Space.com. Visit the Apollo 11 widget link, answer the questions, and enter your email address for a chance to win moon-related prizes. Good luck! And happy anniversary, Apollo 11! 

Chris Vaughan is an astronomy public outreach and education specialist at AstroGeo, a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, and an operator of the historic 74-inch (1.88-meter) David Dunlap Observatory telescope. You can reach him via email, and follow him on Twitter @astrogeoguy, as well as on Facebook and Tumblr. Follow SkySafari on Twitter @SkySafariAstro. Follow us @Spacedotcom and Facebook.  

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Chris Vaughan

Chris Vaughan, aka @astrogeoguy, is an award-winning astronomer and Earth scientist with Astrogeo.ca, based near Toronto, Canada. He is a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and hosts their Insider's Guide to the Galaxy webcasts on YouTube. An avid visual astronomer, Chris operates the historic 74˝ telescope at the David Dunlap Observatory. He frequently organizes local star parties and solar astronomy sessions, and regularly delivers presentations about astronomy and Earth and planetary science, to students and the public in his Digital Starlab portable planetarium. His weekly Astronomy Skylights blog at www.AstroGeo.ca is enjoyed by readers worldwide. He is a regular contributor to SkyNews magazine, writes the monthly Night Sky Calendar for Space.com in cooperation with Simulation Curriculum, the creators of Starry Night and SkySafari, and content for several popular astronomy apps. His book "110 Things to See with a Telescope", was released in 2021.