MOON — When President John F. Kennedy made his Urgent National Needs speech on May 25, 1961 and called for, “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth,” the United States did not have the technology to back up this call to action and the Soviet Union had already beat the United States to several key Space Race Goals.
Previous American support for a crewed space program was partial at best. This changed on April 12, 1961 when Yuri Gagarin, cosmonaut of the Soviet Union, was the first person in history to orbit the Earth. The Soviet Union had also put the first satellite in space, Sputnik, in 1957.
Kennedy chose to peruse the Apollo space program. The program was started in 1961 and lasted until 1972. Its goal was a crewed lunar landing and it cost $24.4 billion to achieve, but the road there would not be easy.
On Jan. 27, 1967 a cabin fire during a launch rehearsal killed the three members of Apollo 1. Intense investigations into the cause of the fire were held and it delayed the program. The following Apollo missions would take place throughout 1968 and 1969. They gradually increased the scope of each mission.
Apollo 7 was the first crewed Earth orbital demonstration of the Block II module, Apollo 8 was the first crewed flight to the moon. Apollo 10 was a dress rehearsal for the lunar landing itself.
The Apollo program utilized the Saturn V to launch its crews into space. The three-stage liquid propellant rocket was a technological masterpiece. To date it remains the tallest, heaviest and most powerful rocket ever to be brought to operational status. For example, the most powerful rocket today is SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, whose low Earth orbit payload is less than 50 percent of the Saturn V’s.
The first stage of the rocket was the most powerful, having to lift itself, the payload and fuel high enough to beat Earth’s gravity. It generated 7.8 million pounds of thrust at lift off, the fuel it burned was a rocket fuel known as RP-1. The second and third stage used super-cooled liquid hydrogen.
The separation of each stage was an incredibly complex process. The first stage burned for two minutes and 41 seconds and lifted the rocket to an altitude of 42 miles at a speed of 6,164 mph.
The second stage burned for six minutes, propelling the craft to a farther 109 miles, speed was close to orbital velocity at a blistering 15,647 mph.
Stage three burned for 2.5 minutes until cutoff, the spacecraft would then enter Earth’s orbit, circling one and a half times while the mission computers were prepared.
Apollo 11 lifted off on July 16, 1969 at 9:32 a.m. from Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex. There was an estimated million spectators watching in the vicinity alone. The launch was televised live in 33 countries with 25 million watching in the United States alone. Several more million listened in via radio.
Not all in America thought the space mission was needed, some thought the money was better spent helping people back on Earth. Yet one protester, Ralph Abernathy, leading a protest march, was so captivated by the launch of Apollo 11 he forgot what he was going to say.
The crew of Apollo 11included Commander Neil Armstrong, lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin and command module pilot Michael Collins. The man destined to the first human to touch foot on the moon, Armstrong, was a veteran test pilot.
Among other test flights, Armstrong had made seven flights in hypersonic X-15 experimental aircraft. Basically a missile with a man in it, in speed runs Armstrong had flown the X-15 close to its max speed of 3,989 mph at an altitude of 18 miles.
On July 20, Armstrong and Aldrin made their final preparations for lunar decent. They had made thirty orbits, getting passing views on the landing site, it had been chosen for being relativity flat and smooth. Landing was an intense process, with Armstrong taking over semi-automatic control. After dodging boulders and craters, he put the craft down on Sunday, July 20 with 216 pounds of usable fuel remaining.
Armstrong notified Huston control they had landed on the surface, Capsule communicator Charles Duke said, “We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again.”
Preparations for the astronauts to walk began on July 19, this took longer than expected, but at 2:39 a.m. on July 20, the hatch to the module was opened. Armstrong moved down the ladder and at 2:56 a.m. Armstrong stepped off the ladder, declaring the now famous quote, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”
There were an estimated 500 million people worldwide watching via television, the largest live broadcast at this time. In other words, 20 percent of the world’s population watched the landing.
Armstrong described moving around in lunar gravity to be easier than even their simulations and had no trouble traversing the area.
One of the things Armstrong wanted to go right was the planting of the United States flag on the surface. After some initial trouble they were able to erect it and Buzz Aldrin was photographed saluting the flag on the surface. Armstrong also spoke via telephone radio transmission with President Nixon, who described it as, “the most historic phone call ever made from the White House.”
Flying solo around the moon, Michael Collins said, “not since Adam has any man known such solitude,” he reported he still felt a part of the mission. He would be in place to pickup with lunar lander and make the journey back to Earth. Both machines linked up on July 21 and set off for a return journey to Earth.
The reentry into Earth’s orbit went smoothly, except for the crew having to change their landing location due to an approaching weather front. They landed in the Central Pacific around 1,440 miles east of Wake Island. The USS Hornet aircraft carrier, a veteran of World War II was the ship responsible for recovering the three astronauts.
Unknown if there would be moon borne pathogens, the astronauts were kept in quarantine for 21 days. This practice would later be dropped as it was discovered the moon was devoid of any life.
The three astronauts were treated to a ticker-tape parade through New York and Chicago with around six million showing up to wish them well.
With a man on the moon, Kennedy’s goal set eight years earlier had been met. The Apollo 11 mission’s success was an seen as end to the Space Race, between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Moscow officially declared landing humans on the moon was “dangerous and unnecessary.” It was discovered after the fall of the Soviet Union, they had attempted to put their own people on the moon but failed due to technological difficulties.
The cultural and scientific significance of the Apollo mission cannot be understated. The world came to know the moon evolved as a terrestrial planet and the youngest moon rocks are as old as Earth’s oldest rocks. This gave to science knowledge of how planets likely formed and added more to our understanding of the early history of Earth and the moon.
As President Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the Moon. 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.”