Between July 1969 and December 1972, 12 American astronauts walked upon the lunar surface. Their 240,000 mile journey to the moon began centuries earlier as the first human gazed skyward into the heavens. As the closest celestial body to the Earth, the moon inspired dreams of exploration through masterworks of literature and art. While such visionary dreams became reality with the technological giant known as Project Apollo, the atmosphere of the Cold War precipitated the drive to the moon.
By 1961 the Soviet Union garnered many of the important "firsts" in space—the artificial satellite (Sputnik I), a living creature in space (Sputnik II), and an un-manned lunar landing (Luna II). Space was no longer a vast territory reserved for stargazers and writers of science fiction; it was now at the forefront of national prestige. The race for placing a human into orbit was the next "first" prize. The American public eagerly looked to Cape Canaveral to finally capture the gold, only to once again be outdone by the Soviets with the orbital flight of Yuri Gagarin.
President John F. Kennedy consulted with scientific advisors about what first the United States might secure. On May 25, 1961, the President made a bold proclamation to the world, "I believe that this nation should commit itself of achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth." With these words he captured the imagination of the nation and set forth on a project whose size rivaled the bid for an atomic bomb with the Manhattan Project. When Kennedy delivered his speech, the United States had a mere 15 minutes and 22 seconds of space flight under its belt. Such a complicated venture would require billions of dollars and years to develop the systems and machinery.
Apollo was set to debut in 1967 with the orbital flight of its first crew in Apollo 1. On January 27, however, an electrical spark ignited the capsule's pure oxygen atmosphere ending the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White II, and Roger Chaffee. The tragedy showed the first chink in Apollo's armor. As the political climate had changed in the years since President Kennedy's pledge, some began to wonder if the billions of dollars needed to fund Apollo were worth it.
The flight of Apollo 8 in December of 1968 resurrected the program, proving the redesigned hardware could deliver the goods by 1969. Astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders became the first humans to escape the Earth's gravitational pull and circumnavigate the moon. The desolate and forbidding surface of a lifeless moon made the "blue marble" of Earth seem like a "grand oasis" in the dark void of space. For the first time humans could see their fragile planet in its entirety. Television cameras transmitted the images back to Earth as the crew quoted Genesis on the eve of Christmas. Apollo 8 had been one of the few bright spots in a year filled with domestic political turmoil, riots, war, and assassination.
Apollo 11 was the news event of 1969. Nearly half of the world's citizens watched Neil Armstrong take his historic first lunar steps on July 20. The images of Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins turned into a marketing bonanza. Their likeness graced buttons, towels, glasses, plates, lunchboxes, posters, and charms. Apollo 11 made the cover of magazines ranging from Time and National Geographic to TV Guide.
With the success of Apollo 11, however, came an end to the anxiety within the public raised by Sputnik. The United States had unequivocally regained its national honor with the fulfillment of the lunar pledge. Many Americans now felt it was time to put space aside and concentrate on problems on Earth. Moreover, the necessity to finance a protracted war in Southeast Asia and the social programs of the Great Society led to reductions in NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) budgets.
As big as Apollo 11 was, Apollo 12 was not. It became NASA's equivalent to a summer rerun on television. The next mission, Apollo 13, would have suffered a similar fate had it not been for its near disaster in space. The explosion of an oxygen tank brought with it the prospect of suffering a loss of life in space, and Apollo once again captured headlines. Apollo 14 had moments of interest for the public—it featured Alan Shepard hitting golf balls for "miles and miles" courtesy of the moon's reduced gravity. The crews of Apollo 15, 16, and 17, regardless of the scientific value of the missions, became anonymous figures in bulky white suits bouncing around on the lunar surface. Their activities were relegated to a mere mention on the evening news broadcast.
No great conquest program would supplant Apollo; the political circumstances of the early 1960s no longer prevailed by the decade's end. Even the original plans for Apollo were trimmed as budgetary constraints forced NASA to cut three of the ten scheduled lunar landings. Ironically, the last flight of Apollo in 1975 was a joint Earth-orbit mission with the Soviet Union, the very menace whose space efforts had given birth to the United States lunar program.
Apollo is not simply a collection of wires, transistors, nuts, and bolts put together by an incredible gathering of scientific minds. Rather, it is a story of great adventure. The missions of Apollo went beyond the redemption of national pride with the planting of the United States flag on the moon. Project Apollo was a victory for all to share, not only Americans.
—Dr. Lori C. Walters
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Murray, Charles, and Catherine Bly Cox. Apollo: The Race to the Moon. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1989.
Shepard, Alan, et al. Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Race to the Moon. Atlanta, Turner Publishing, Inc., 1994.