During the Cold War, competition between the United States and the Soviet Union intensified as they raced to go to outer space. When the Soviet Union launched its first satellite, the Sputnik in 1957, it took the world by surprise and increased the United States’ effort to match the Soviet Union’s incredible feat. In January 1958, the US finally succeeded with the Explorer 1, thereby starting the space race that eventually led to the historic Moon Landing in 1969.
Funds for the American Space Program
The Soviet Union space program was carried out in intense secrecy. When they launched the Sputnik, they took the world by surprise and caught the U.S. off guard. Soon, science research and science education in the US started getting large funds to accelerate their space program. While intense secrecy surrounded the Soviet effort, publicity accompanied the founding in 1958 of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). This was meant to excite the American people at large. This project grew to huge proportions. At its height during the Apollo program, 34,000 employees worked directly for NASA and hundreds of other companies were involved in providing equipment and materials for the project, with more than a third of a million contractors.
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Soviet Union Places Human in Space
The Soviet Union proved to be a tough contender in the space race. Once again, the Soviets amazed the world when it put the first human into space on April 12, 1961. The launch took place from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was lifted into orbital flight on the Vostok 1, the new orbital spacecraft. After 108 minutes in space, he returned to Earth. However, the first human spaceflight brought many questions. How would weightlessness be dealt with? How would the isolation of space affect the psychology of a human being? Would the dangers of re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere be managed successfully? Fortunately, the flight was a success, and space sickness could be surmounted. The 27-year-old cosmonaut became a world celebrity, the first to embody the cosmonaut (or astronaut) as a hero. In 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space on the Vostok 6.
John F. Kennedy’s Announcement About the Mission to the Moon
After Yuri Gagarin’s famous flight, the United States President John F. Kennedy was informed that experts such as Braun believed the Soviets might soon be able to send larger spacecraft with more cosmonauts around the Earth and even around the Moon. Hearing this, Kennedy charged his advisors with drafting a “space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win.” The resulting strategic plan concluded that the Moon should be the object because of the immense prestige that came from space exploration achievements as “part of the battle along the fluid front of the Cold War.”
On May May 25 1961, Kennedy announced publicly, to a joint session of Congress, that the United States would get to the Moon. Kennedy declared, “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space, and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.” Later Kennedy added, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because the challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
The Apollo Moon Program
In the three years after Kennedy’s announcement, NASA’s budget increased five times over. In 1966, NASA was spending 4.4 percent of the entire federal budget. The costs of this program were five times more than those of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Intense publicity surrounded the selection of a team of American astronauts, who became national heroes. Time magazine compared them to Columbus and to the Wright Brothers. The basis of the Apollo Moon program was the Saturn V rocket. It was decided to mount the spacecraft on the rocket rather than assemble it in outer space, as was an alternative proposal. The Apollo spacecraft came in three parts: a Command Module, a Service Module, and a Lunar Module. A big command post for this mission was established near Cape Canaveral in Florida, near where Jules Verne had set his fictional moon-shot.
Setbacks in the Space Program
The Soviet Union launched its new spacecraft the Soyuz in 1967. However, on re-entry, it slammed into the Earth, and Vladimir Komarov became the first casualty of a space flight. The death of the Soviet aeronautical engineer Sergey Korolyov in 1966 was a huge setback for the Soviet program, as his successors were not as effective as he had been. The American space program, too, met a tragic setback when three astronauts were killed during a fire while testing the Apollo Command Module in January 1967. Despite this failure, the first manned Apollo mission was put into orbit in October 1968.
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Apollo 11: A Global Event
On December 24 of 1968, American astronauts on Apollo 8 were the first to orbit the Moon and send back photographs of the “earthrise” over the Moon. It was an incredible sight as no one before had seen the whole Earth itself in all its beauty and perfection. On July 16 1969, Apollo 11 was launched. Onboard were Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr., and Michael Collins. When they covered the distance to orbit the Moon, Collins was posted to the orbiting Command Module, while Armstrong steered the Lunar Module with Aldrin aboard. The craft that would touch down on the Moon’s surface was nicknamed the Eagle. The landing was tricky, needing to avoid boulders, and to find a spot to touch down on the open plain, the Sea of Tranquillity. This was very critical as searching for a safe landing space used up almost all the reserves of fuel and a computer alarm caused by a software problem could have led to aborting the entire mission. However, the astronauts continued and touched down at 4:17 pm eastern daylight time. Armstrong announced to Houston, “The Eagle has landed”. Finally, after six and a half hours, Armstrong stepped out, and he announced, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
For two and a half hours, Armstrong, joined by Aldrin, moved about on the surface of the Moon. They planted an American flag, and they also placed a plaque that stated, “We came in peace for all mankind.” They continued to gather Moon rock samples as well. Then, they again took off and met up with the Command Module in orbit. The astronauts returned safely to the Earth on July 24, landing in the Pacific. When the astronauts returned, they were placed in quarantine. NASA wanted to ensure that no bacteria or viruses had accompanied the men from their encounter back to the Earth.
A Turning Point in Human History
More than half a billion people around the world had watched live television capturing this moment in human history. It was the most widely witnessed live media event up until then. So epic were the proportions of this turning point that inevitably, contrarian voices arose. Conspiracy theories developed about this and later Moon missions, claiming that they weren’t real, but rather were the product of special effects in a Hollywood studio. Contrary to these theories, 12 Americans on six Apollo missions walked on the Moon’s surface from 1969 to 1972 or rode about in a Moon rover on the last missions. The very last mission was Apollo 17 in 1972. After that point, no humans left the orbit of the Earth.
While it lasted, the era of Moon exploration gave us a new conception of human capacity, what humans could achieve. Certainly, being able to explore space was much more constructive and positive than being able to destroy the Earth with nuclear weapons. This feat of the Moon landing expanded our sense of what was humanly possible, and as we’ve seen before, this is a key attribute of the condition of modernity.
Commonly Asked Questions About the Moon Landing
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was founded in 1958 after the Soviet Union launched its first satellite, Sputnik.
The Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first human to go to space on April 12, 1961. He was lifted into orbital flight on the Vostok 1, the new orbital spacecraft. After 108 minutes in space, he returned to Earth.
The Apollo spacecraft came in three parts: a Command Module, a Service Module, and a Lunar Module.
On December 24 of 1968, American astronauts on Apollo 8 were the first to orbit the Moon and send back photographs of the “earthrise” over the Moon.
The craft that would touch down on the Moon’s surface was nicknamed the “Eagle“.