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Apollo Program


In the early twenty-first century, the Apollo program still is invoked as the ultimate technological achievement. In terms of percentage of the national budget, that effort to land astronauts on the moon was the largest single scientific program ever undertaken by the United States. Six successful lunar landings were accomplished from 1969 to 1972. The twelve astronauts who walked on the surface of the moon collected samples, set up equipment, and conducted scientific experiments. The scientific return from those missions revolutionized people's understanding not only of the moon, but of the earth and the rest of the Solar System. The program also raised many ethical concerns, notably its motivation, the safety of the astronauts, and its cost at the possible expense of other national needs.

The Origins of Apollo

In a speech to Congress on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy stated, "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth." This marked the official genesis of the Apollo program, although the rationale had been building steadily since October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik, into space. A series of successful Soviet space missions followed, culminating with Yuri Gagarin becoming the first human in space during the voyage of Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961. The United States countered with Alan Shepard's suborbital flight on May 5, 1961, but it was clear that the Soviet Union was the preeminent spacefaring nation and that the United States was losing international prestige.

Many people saw the space race as another front in the long-standing rivalry between capitalism and communism. Politicians and the general public also feared that the Soviet Union might use a dominant position in space to gain military advantage. In that climate, Kennedy decided that nothing short of becoming the first nation to put an astronaut on the moon would allow the United States to win the space race and regain its technological leadership in the eyes of the world. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was charged with developing a program to achieve that task before 1970. Clearly, the primary goals of the program were political rather than scientific.

Early Apollo Program

The Apollo program proceeded through a series of tests, each building on the one before it. The lunar missions were designed to launch on a Saturn V rocket. The first two stages of the Saturn V would boost the craft into space, and the third stage would put Apollo into an earth parking orbit and then fire a second time to send Apollo toward the moon. The Apollo spacecraft consisted of a command module that carried the three astronauts; a service module that held much of the water, oxygen, and fuel; and the lunar module, which was designed to bring two astronauts to the surface of the moon. The first Saturn rocket, a Saturn I, was launched on October 27, 1961. Through 1966 over a dozen uncrewed orbital and suborbital flights were completed. The components of Apollo were tested and determined to be ready to fly with a human crew.

APOLLO 1. The first crewed Apollo test flight was scheduled for early 1967 to carry the astronauts Virgil Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. However, in a preflight test on January 27, 1967, fire broke out in the sealed command module. It grew explosively in the pure oxygen atmosphere and killed all three men. Intense public scrutiny was focused on the first U.S. spacecraft casualties, and a reexamination of NASA procedures resulted in new safety protocols. The public had been awakened to the dangers of space travel and to questions regarding the wisdom of using astronaut versus robots in space exploration.

APOLLO 11. Much testing and three more uncrewed flights followed the Apollo 1 tragedy. Apollo 4, the first launch of a full Saturn V, took place on November 9, 1967. Confidence in the Saturn rocket and the Apollo spacecraft was so high that the first astronaut flight, Apollo 7, was launched on October 11, 1968. That was an earth-orbiting mission during which the Apollo command and service modules were tested thoroughly. On December 24, 1968, Apollo 8 became the first crewed mission to reach and orbit the moon. Apollo 9 and Apollo 10 followed in early 1969, completing the testing of all the aspects of a lunar landing mission.

Apollo 11 launched on July 16, 1969, carrying the astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, and Michael Collins. It reached lunar orbit on July 19, and on July 20 Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon in the lunar module. Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface at 10:56 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, stating, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," to an audience estimated to include half the world's population. The astronauts spent just over two hours on the lunar surface, collecting samples, taking pictures, and setting up experiments. They returned to earth on July 24, completing Kennedy's challenge. Apollo 12, launched on November 14, 1969, demonstrated the ability of Apollo to make a targeted landing on the moon and recovered pieces of the 1967 Surveyor 3 lunar lander.

APOLLO 13. The Apollo 13 mission was the only Apollo mission failure. The explosion of an oxygen tank on April 14, 1970, on the way to the moon, forced the mission to be aborted. The spacecraft circled the moon and headed directly back to earth, overcoming a number of life-threatening problems through the coordinated work of the ground crew and the astronauts. The crew made it back to earth safely, but as had happened after the Apollo 1 tragedy, the wisdom of risking astronauts' lives was questioned.

Later that year the Soviet Union launched the robotic probes Luna 16 and Luna 17 to the moon. Luna 16 brought back a small sample from the moon, and Luna 17 carried a rover, Lunokhod 1, that traveled across the lunar surface, remotely controlled from the earth, and sent back television images. Over the next six years the Soviets launched two more successful sample return missions and another lunar rover. Those missions demonstrated the capacity of uncrewed vehicles to do scientific work on the moon at a far lower cost and without the risk of astronaut missions. The Apollo missions had a far greater scientific return, but as technology improves, the abilities of robotic probes will come closer to those of astronaut missions. Meanwhile, the dangers inherent in the astronaut program became even more apparent after the space shuttle Challenger and Columbia accidents.

End of the Apollo Program

The four missions that followed Apollo 13 were increasingly ambitious, with each spending more time on the moon, setting up more scientific experiments, and returning with more samples, culminating in the Apollo 17 mission. Three more missions originally had been planned. After Apollo 11, the prime motivation for the program had been achieved, and public and political support began to wane. Additionally, the argument was made that money going to Apollo could be spent better elsewhere. The total cost of the Apollo program was over $20 billion and accounted for more than 2 percent of U.S. budget appropriations in the middle to late 1960s. The country was still fighting an expensive war in Vietnam, and it was pointed out that many social programs were underfunded. The final three missions were canceled as a cost-cutting measure. Apollo spacecraft were used in 1973 to launch and bring three crews to Skylab and in 1975 for the Apollo-Soyuz earth orbiting mission, in which the United States and the Soviet Union cooperated in a joint rendezvous mission.

Was the Expense of the Apollo Program Justified?

One of the arguments routinely used to defend the cost of the Apollo program is the value of spin-offs, technological developments made in the course of building the spacecraft. Although this would be hard to quantify, many technological advances were made during the Apollo program that later had commercial applications. However, it also can be argued that the economic return would have been even greater if the Apollo budget had been spent directly on technological innovation.

The scientific return from Apollo is unquestioned, but the economic value of those achievements is difficult to quantify. Much current knowledge of the moon, the earth, and the solar system is a direct result of the data returned from the Apollo missions.

Another unmeasurable aspect of the Apollo program is the effect on the public of the moon landings and pictures of earth from space. Apollo represented a cultural as well as a scientific milestone. The pictures of earth and of the astronauts on the moon are among the most famous photographs ever taken.

Arguably, Apollo also gave an impetus to science programs in schools and inspired many young people to go into science and engineering. Although science was not the primary motivation behind the Apollo program, the scientific benefits derived from it are of inestimable value and could not have been garnered during that period in any other way.


SEE ALSO National Aeronautics and Space Administration; Space Exploration; Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia Accidents.


Chaikin, Andrew. (1994). A Man on the Moon. New York: Penguin. An account based on interviews with the Apollo astronauts.

Cortright, Edgar M., ed. (1975). Apollo Expeditions to the Moon. Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration. A collection of chapters written by astronauts and Apollo managers and flight directors on all aspects of the Apollo program.

Holman, Mary A. (1974). The Political Economy of the Space Program. Palo Alto, CA: Pacific Press. A survey of the economic impacts of the Apollo program.

McDougal, Walter. (1985). The Heaven and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. New York: Basic Books.

Siddiqi, Asif A. (2000). Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945–1974. Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration. A history of the Soviet Union's part in the space race.

Spudis, Paul. (1996). The Once and Future Moon. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press. A scientific view of the moon largely based on samples and data returned by the Apollo program.

Van Nimmen, Jane; Leonard C. Bruno; and Robert Rosholt. (1988). NASA Historical Data Book. Vol. 1: NASA Resources 1958–1968. Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration. A collection of information and statistics on NASA programs.

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