It’s hard to believe, but it’s been 50 years since the first Moon landing and this week people from all over the world are celebrating the anniversary of “a giant leap for mankind.”
More than 400,000 people worked behind the scenes at NASA to make it happen, culminating a decade of space exploration, full of success, heartbreak, and disaster. In one of the most turbulent times in American history with a Cold War backdrop, three Americans became overnight heroes around the world.
“We choose to go to the Moon”
President Kennedy’s words, given at Rice Stadium in Texas in 1962 sounded like fantasy then, but seven years later, they became a reality. Unfortunately for Kennedy, he wouldn’t live to see it, as a year after he made the inspirational speech, he’d be killed by an assassin’s bullet.
Kennedy’s words put the United States firmly in the Space Race with the Soviet Union. The Soviets were involved in the Cold War with the West and were two steps ahead from the very beginning.
The Soviets launched the first satellite, “Sputnik,” in 1958. They were determined to beat the U.S. in every facet of the Space Race and to be the first to land a man on the Moon. The Soviets also had the first space probe to touch the Moon, Luna 2.
Kennedy’s urging and backing got NASA moving. NASA was created in 1958 and things finally got moving when Wernher von Braun and his team of German scientists were brought on-board. Von Braun ran the V2 program for the Germans during World War II and was a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party before surrendering to the Americans at the close of the war.
Von Braun was named director of NASA in the summer of 1960 and would oversee the program until January of 1970.
The first NASA program was called Project Mercury and its crew of seven pilots became known as the Mercury Seven. The project was the first attempt to get Americans into space. By the time it ended in 1963, six Americans had reached orbit. The Mercury Seven were portrayed in Hollywood in the film, “The Right Stuff.”
Project Gemini followed. It was the precursor to the Apollo projects that would take men to the Moon. The missions went from a one-man space capsule to a two-man vehicle. Gemini was also the first time the new Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas was put into use for flight control.
Finally, NASA launched the Apollo Project. The total expenditure of NASA flights for Apollo was over $25 billion in 1960s dollars. That equates to 2.5% of the United States’ gross domestic product.
The first planned mission met with disaster when Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee all died in a flash fire inside the command module during a prelaunch test in January of 1967.
Apollo 8 was the first mission to orbit the Moon. It was during this flight, astronaut Bill Anders took the famous “Earthrise” photo, showing our planet seeming to hover just above the Moon’s surface. The Apollo 9 and 10 missions tested the lunar module in orbit around the Earth and now NASA was confident that the craft could operate independently as the crew performed its docking and rendezvous maneuvers. These tests closely replicated a lunar landing.
The Apollo 10 mission contained a command and service module named “Charlie Brown” and a lunar module, “Snoopy.” This mission, which launched on May 18, 1969, just two months before Apollo 11, was a “dry run” for the Moon landing.
To get the astronauts to the Earth’s orbit and eventually the Moon, NASA was relying on von Braun’s pet project, the Saturn V rocket. Standing a towering 363 feet tall at the Kennedy Space Center, formerly Cape Canaveral, the Saturn V was known as a heavy lift vehicle and produced a liftoff thrust of 7.6 million pounds. It was the tallest and the most powerful rocket ever launched. It was first used for the Apollo 8 mission and would be used for the launch of Skylab later.
For the Apollo program, the Saturn V was constructed with three stages. The first stage had the most powerful engines on the rocket to lift it off the ground. This first stage would separate from the rocket with the launch escape tower. The second stage of the rocket carried the rocket into orbit. The third stage then broke the vehicle out of Earth’s gravitational pull and launched it toward the Moon.
The crew took off from Florida on July 16, 1969. It was just 66 years after the Wright brothers first flew above the dunes of coastal North Carolina.
Unknown to most of the world, the Soviets had tried to beat the United States to the Moon. Just two weeks before the Apollo 11 launch, the Russians launched a massive rocket with the goal of setting cosmonauts on the Moon, but it exploded moments after lift-off.
After three days, Apollo astronauts Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong separated the spacecraft from the third stage of the rocket as they entered the Moon’s orbit.
Armstrong and Aldrin climbed into the lunar module, named “Eagle,” and began their descent to the Moon’s surface. As they neared the surface, the way was blocked by numerous boulders and larger rocks. With just seconds of fuel remaining, they set the lunar module down on the Moon’s surface. Armstrong radioed back, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
It was 4:17 p.m. on July 20, 1969.
“You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again,” Mission Control’s Charlie Duke radioed back. Duke himself would walk on the Moon three years later.
Everything stopped around the world as the astronauts touched down. Worldwide, there were over 600 million people viewing on grainy black-and-white televisions. Police departments around the planet said that at the time of the Moon landings, crime was way, way down.
A few hours after landing, Armstrong made his way down the ladder to the Moon’s surface. He pulled on a D-ring to activate the lunar module’s television camera that was beaming back live video of the event. As he neared the bottom rung, Armstrong described the surface dust as “very fine-grained” and “almost like a powder.” Then, six and a half hours after landing, Armstrong stepped off Eagle’s footpad and declared: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Kennedy’s vision to place a man on the Moon had come true.
Armstrong uncovered a plaque that was signed by the three astronauts and President Nixon. It was inscribed with this:
Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
They set up a small American flag and Aldrin saluted it as Armstrong captured the moment forever with an iconic snapshot. The Moonwalk lasted 2.5 hours. The pair spent 21 hours on the surface and then lifted off for docking with Collins, who was still in orbit in the command module.
They then headed for Earth and splashed down in the Pacific on July 24. The crew spent 2.5 weeks in quarantine in the event they were exposed to germs on the Moon.
A massive ticker-tape parade followed in New York City.
Collins recently was interviewed for the 50th anniversary. He spoke about how this event brought people together. “How often can you get people around our globe to agree on anything? Hardly ever,” Collins said. “And yet briefly, at the time of the first landing on the Moon, people were united. They felt they were participants.”
He added, “It was a wonderful achievement in the sense that people everywhere around the planet applauded it: North, South, East, West, rich, poor, Communist, whatever.”