One human out of five watches it live — for the first time in history, a man steps on the Moon. The name is Neil Armstrong, the date July 20, 1969. But what else do we know about the iconic Apollo program? Let’s spare a thought for space dogs, rocket-riding astronauts and Nazi pioneers who made Armstrong’s achievement a possibility.
The Apollo program stems from the (rather aggressive) post-WW2 diplomacy. Brief recap: we have two blocks with differing views on how to handle world affairs. In the red corner, Soviets advocate centralized, authoritarian government and communism; in the blue one, Americans favor laissez-faire capitalism and free markets. So instead of coming to terms on the battlefield (WW2 has already claimed millions of lives), both superpowers confronted one another on the scientific level. The space race, major challenge of the 20th century, became the main concern of both governements. One thing is certain: who will first land a man on the Moon will win the Cold War.
Kennedy’s helping hand
Created in 1960, the NASA was almost immediately tasked with landing a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. Easy enough. Two years later, John Fitzgerald Kennedy kickstarted the Apollo program when he delivered his famous speech at the Rice Stadium of Houston, on September 12, 1962:
“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 that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”
The race against time was set. Nevertheless, Kennedy initially considered cooperating with the Soviets: he had offered his counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev, a helping hand to join forces in the Space Race. But the USSR leader understandably refused: after all, Soviet scientists were way ahead American ones back in the 1960s. The USSR had already sent the first animal into Earth orbit — the dog Laika aboard Sputnik 2 in 1957 — and the first man into space — Yuri Gagarin at the helm of Vostok 1, April 1961.
Despite the far-reaching achievements of the USSR, NASA scientists figured they would still give it a try… The organization invested more than $1.5 billion to shape the future of spatial exploration, through the pioneering Mercury (1958-63) and Gemini (1961-66) projects. Both provided NASA with sufficient data and exploits to lay the foundations of the Apollo program.
It’s Now Rocket Science
Undoubtedly, what greatly facilitated the work of US scientists was the amount of reasearch already undertaken during WW2. Nazi Germany was well ahead of any nation in terms of missile technology — so both Soviet and American superpowers recycled the drawings, prototypes and bombs developped by German engineers at the end of the war. During Operation Paperclip, 1,600 German scientists joined the American rocket scientists’ staff, including one man named Wernher von Braun. (The USSR, again, did better in ‘recruiting’ 6,000 experts — their families included.) The main challenge facing all those people, newly-arrived in the U.S. or the U.S.S.R., was the same: to convert destructive, military-purpose technology into spatial breakthroughs.
U.S.-born Atlas missiles are particulary tricky to handle: their fire power is a hundred times that of the atomic bomb dropped over Nagasaki (!). Needless to say scientists need to be particularly careful when setting it on the launch pad… Wise choise: the first Mercury/Atlas rocket exploded after a mere 4-inch liftoff. Surely, stars were still a lightyear away. Nevertheless, von Braun made some progress and, step by step, caught up with Soviet technology. But the Americans’ confidence suddenly broke apart.
Houston, we have a (big) problem
In February 1967, the spacecraft carrying Gus Grissom, Edward H. White and Roger B. Chaffee burst into flames on the launch pad of Cape Canaveral, claiming the lives of all three astronauts. This tragedy plunged the whole NASA into mourning, bringing the Apollo missions to a standstill. On top of that, the eye of the nation shifted from space challenges to serious national concerns — racial segregation, demonstrations against the Vietnam War (fueled by Flower Power ideology), Kennedy’s assassination… The home context was far from favorable to space racing with the Soviets, and the Johnson administration hardly managed to keep the Apollo missions on track.
Nevertheless, while security processes and equipment had to be revamped (later astronauts would wear beta cloth, a non-flammable fabric), the U.S. government kept on funding Apollo. Wise decision.
Armstrong almost beaten
In 1968, fresh crews walked to the door of the command module, trying to learn from the Apollo 1 disaster. They did. Everything went smoothly for the next three manned missions: Apollo 8 even got (for the first time) ahead of Soviet cosmonauts, becoming the first spacecraft to orbit the Moon. U.S. and U.S.S.R. superpowers were neck-and-neck.
Apollo 10 was set as a ‘dress rehearsal’ for the upcoming Moon landing: it managed its itinerary so well that the module stopped some 10 miles (15 kilometers) away from the Moon surface… Can you imagine? The commander of the mission, Gene Cernan, certainly captured the tiniest details of our satellite through the spacecraft’s triangular window… but he could not go farther — the actual landing had been promised to the next crew aboard Apollo 11. And to prevent any temptation, legend has it that the spacecraft had been filled with just enough fuel to stop there… In case Cernan would disregard the orders to step first on the Moon.
Apollo 11 thus inherited the historic mission. And a fifth of the world’s population watched it unfold before their eyes… On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to step on the Moon, and they celebrated it by hammering the Star-Spangled Banner into the (solid) lunar soil. That was it: the Space Race was over. Two weeks earlier, an enormous explosion had swept across Soviet space facilities at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, making it impossible for them to catch up with von Braun’s Saturn V rocket. What next?
The Next Frontier
Despite six following lunar missions, all but one landing on our satellite (Jack Swigert aboard Apollo 13 coining the famous “Houston, we’ve had a problem here”), the most important task of the Apollo program was achieved. That marked the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union, whose economy and ideology crumbled in the late-1980s. How symbolic: the first McDonald’s of Moscow opened its doors in 1990. Capitalism had won.
The general public did not show great interest in the following Moon missions, despite their many achievements between 1969 and 1972 — Gene Cernan, the last commander of them (aboard Apollo 17) expressing deep sorrow about it. Even NASA looked at other horizons, sending the Mariner 9 probe towards Mars. The next frontier? Perhaps. Eventually JFK’s promise was kept; and the text of his ’62 speech flashed up on Houston screens, with the sentence “Mission accomplished. July 1969” at the bottom — his signature beyond the grave.
- Andrew Chaikin, A Man On The Moon (2009), Penguin Books.
- Sharon Gaudin, “NASA’s Apollo technology has changed history”, ComputerWorld, 7/20/2009.
- Charlie Plain, “Apollo’s Small Steps Are Giant Leap for Technology”, NASA, 6/21/2004.
- Amy McKenna et al., “Wernher von Braun”, Encyclopaedia Britannica.