The Soviet Union was the first country to send a person into space, but the United States won the race to the moon when its Apollo 11 lunar module landed there on July 20, 1969, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the lunar surface. This momentous achievement captivated around 600 million television viewers worldwide. After Armstrong, Aldrin, and fellow astronaut Michael Collins (who had piloted the command module instead of joining the lunar landing) returned to Earth, they embarked upon a goodwill tour of 24 countries over the course of 38 days. One stop was at Buckingham Palace, where the astronauts were welcomed by Queen Elizabeth II and other members of the royal family.
The White House wanted to showcase the astronauts to their allies and the press
After the Apollo 11 astronauts splashed back down onto Earth on July 24, 1969, they were required to spend three weeks in quarantine, just in case they were carrying any lunar diseases. Once cleared for travel, a celebratory tour across the globe was deemed the next step. The Nixon White House, having taken control of the travel arrangements, wanted an itinerary optimized to reward allies and receive positive press coverage.
On September 29, 1969, astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, along with their wives and officials from NASA and the State Department, departed on a presidential jet to begin the global tour. The group arrived in England on October 14 and proceeded to the U.S. Embassy. They interacted with cheering crowds before heading to Buckingham Palace to meet Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip and their children Princess Anne, Prince Andrew, and Prince Edward.
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The royal visit didn't go smoothly
Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were able to spend enough time with the queen to appreciate her knowledge about the space program. Unfortunately, the monarch may have been less impressed with her American visitors. The day of their visit, Armstrong was suffering from a cold that had left him feeling so unwell he'd considered skipping the royal encounter in order to rest. But his wife hadn't cared for that idea. "She told me that if I had to be embalmed, we were going to the palace. She wanted to see the place," Armstrong would later recount.
Armstrong heeded his spouse and made the trip to Buckingham Palace. But when he tried to thank the queen for her hospitality, his cold made him cough on her. An attempt to apologize for his behavior only resulted in another round of coughing. Reportedly, the queen responded by lifting her hands in mock surrender. The encounter was memorable enough for her that when she met an Armstrong acquaintance a few weeks later, she asked about the astronaut's health.
Yet Armstrong wasn't the only awkward visitor at the palace that day. In 2016, Aldrin revealed on Twitter: "Mike Collins almost fell down the stairs trying not to turn his back on Queen Elizabeth II."
Prior to the lunar landing, the queen reluctantly agreed to send a message to be left on the moon
Prior to Apollo 11's departure, NASA had asked leaders from 73 countries to share messages for the mission. These were reduced in size, then etched on a disc that was left behind on the moon. Queen Elizabeth offered the words: "On behalf of the British people I salute the skills and courage which have brought man to the moon. May this endeavor increase the knowledge and well-being of mankind."
Five decades later, the public learned the queen had only reluctantly acceded to NASA's request. Her private secretary at the time had noted, "Her Majesty agrees that this idea is a gimmick and it is not the sort of thing she much enjoys doing but she certainly would not wish to appear churlish by refusing an invitation which is so obviously well-intentioned."
The Apollo 11 astronauts and their handlers would have been unaware of the queen's lack of enthusiasm. Therefore, they marked their visit by presenting her with a framed panel that held a replica of the disc and its messages.
Her interest in space extended beyond Apollo 11's crew
The Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States meant that relations between the United Kingdom and the Communist country could be difficult, but Queen Elizabeth still managed to meet some Soviet space travelers. In July 1961, Yuri Gagarin, the first man to go into space, came to the United Kingdom. He proved such a popular guest that an audience with the queen was added to his itinerary. And in 1964, Elizabeth welcomed Valentina Tereshkova, who'd been the first woman in space, to Buckingham Palace.
Before the Apollo 11 astronauts visited, Elizabeth had also interacted with an astronaut from Apollo 8, the mission that first orbited the moon. And after her Apollo 11 encounter, the queen continued to pay attention to the U.S. space program. When Apollo 12 returned to the moon in November 1969, she got up early to watch coverage on TV.
However, according to Sally Bedell Smith's biography of Elizabeth, the queen was not completely swept away by Apollo 12's voyage. She agreed with an artist then painting her portrait that though "it filled us with wonder and admiration, it did not move us emotionally." Perhaps when one is queen, concerns of crown and country will always outweigh even the most impressive of extraterrestrial endeavors.