Apollo – America’s race to the Moon

Half a century ago, history was made when humans walked on the Moon for the first time. Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the lunar surface in the culmination of a project begun just seven years earlier.

President Kennedy issues Moon challenge at Rice Stadium
President Kennedy issues his challenge to land astronauts on the Moon, at Rice Stadium, Houston, in 1962. Image credit: NASA

President John F Kennedy had issued a challenge in 1962 to reach the Moon before the end of the decade. NASA managed it in July 1969. Between then and December 1972, 12 humans (all men) explored our natural satellite.

The speed of the achievement was driven by the space race that then existed between Cold War rivals the USA and the then USSR. The Soviets had beaten America into space, firstly with the first satellite, Sputnik, in October 1957, and then with the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, in April 1961.

Kennedy was keen for the USA to regain the initiative. Just days after America’s first astronaut, Alan Shepard, flew a sub-orbital flight in Friendship 7, in May 1961, Kennedy announced his goal.

After consulting with NASA Administrator James Webb and other experts, the President told a special joint session of Congress, on May 25, 1961: “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 Earth.”

Kennedy expanded on his theme the following year in a speech at Rice Stadium, Houston, Texas. On September 12, 1962, in words that have become famous, he declared: “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, because that goal will serve to organise 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 which we intend to win . . . ”

It was a bold ambition. By the time Kennedy spoke in Houston, the U.S. had already made four attempts to send a robotic probe to the Moon with the start of the Ranger programme, designed to help find landing sites. All had failed. Rangers 1 and 2 both failed to leave Earth orbit in 1961, Ranger 3 missed the Moon by a 36,000 km with contact lost, and Ranger 4 crashed into the Moon, as intended, but without sending back any images, due to a computer fault.

The next two Rangers, 5 and 6, were duds too, the first missing the Moon having lost contact with Earth, and the second crashing but with camera failure. However, there followed three successful mission to end the series. Ranger 7 impacted Mare Cognitum (the Sea that has Become Known) in July, 1964, Ranger 8 hit Mare Tranquillitatis (the Sea of Tranquility) in February, 1965, and Ranger 9 crashed into Alphonsus crater in March, 1965. They sent back photos 1,000 times better than could be taken with telescopes on Earth. These lunar “seas” are all dry incidentally!

Early Soviet efforts to reach the Moon, with the Luna programme, had been largely unsuccessful too, though Luna 3 bucked the trend by flying past and taking the first images of the lunar far side which had never before been seen by human eyes. Further success came after a flurry of launch attempts, when Luna 9 became the first spacecraft to make a soft landing in Oceanus Procellarum (the Ocean of Storms), in January, 1966. They had once again stolen a march on the United States, which successfully landed its own Surveyor 1 four months later in May, also in Oceanus Procellarum.

The U.S. made four further successful landings in the Surveyor series with Surveyors 3, 5 and 6 in 1967, landing in Oceanus Procellarum, Mare Tranquillitatis, and Sinus Medii respectively, and Surveyor 7 in January 1968, touching down near the crater Tycho. Surveyors 2 and 4 both failed. The successful, three-legged Surveyors returned pictures from the Moon’s surface, while those from Surveyor 5 onwards also carried out scientific studies of the lunar soil, or regolith. Importantly, they also demonstrated technology that would be developed for Apollo, and showed that, contrary to some fears at the time, landers would not simply sink deep into moondust!

Meanwhile in orbit

As well as carrying out soft landings on the Moon, NASA sent five identical spacecraft to orbit the Moon and photograph it in detail, mainly to locate the smooth, level areas where the first humans could safely land. The Lunar Orbiter missions, launched in August and November 1966, and February, May and August, 1967, photographed 99% of the Moon in high resolution, allowing 20 potential landing sites to be narrowed down to eight.