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For millions of people who witnessed the Apollo 11 mission, watching on television or following it on the radio as humanity improbably, literally walked on the moon, the event perhaps did not feel quite real until, more than two weeks later, LIFE published its definitive account of the epic journey.
Today, in the age of 365/24/7 media consumption, learning that any publication had the confidence—or the audacity—to wait for two hours, much less two weeks, before publishing its take on arguably the signal event of the 20th century might strike some as close to unbelievable. But for a magazine like LIFE, which had earned its reputation as the de facto chronicler of the Space Race not through dumb luck, but through years of hard work, phenomenal photography and inspired reporting, waiting two weeks was simply the price one paid for getting it right.
One look through the page spreads in this gallery (we recommend viewing all of the slides in “full screen” mode) makes it clear that, with this special issue, LIFE did what it set out to do: the magazine created not only the best first draft of history around the 1969 lunar landing, but produced an astonishingly comprehensive, coherent and, at times, poetic account of what LIFE’s editors called “history’s greatest exploration.”
As Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and command module pilot Michael Collins reached out for destiny all those years ago, 500 million people around the world watched in awe as the grainy black-and-white television footage beamed back to Earth from the cold surface of the moon—and it seemed then, for America, that anything was possible. In a sense, LIFE magazine shared in that triumph, as it had rigorously followed and reported on the soaring successes and the tragedies of America’s space program since well before President John Kennedy, in 1961, challenged the country to set foot on the moon.
Less than a decade after JFK’s bold proclamation, America did just that. This is what it looked like, and what it felt like, to be a part of it—for the three men who flew, and for the countless others on Earth who watched, and marveled, and willed the trio safely back home.
Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com