In 1961, then President John F. Kennedy made a statement to the American people.
“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. No single space project…will be more exciting, or more impressive to mankind, or more important…and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish….”(1)
It may be the first time in history that a politician openly admitted to the public that a project was going to be outrageously expensive, and still gained popular support.
The American people were in a race against the Soviet Union to be the first to land a man on the moon. The Soviets had already had two successful launches of artificial satellites: Sputnik I and Sputnik II. Though these two satellites did little more than send signals back to Earth, the development of the technology to get into space was a victory for the USSR.
What’s more, Sputnik II carried a dog. The Russians had been first in putting a living creature into space.
These launches took place in 1957. The space race between the two nations was, at this point, little more than a few laps around a bumpy track. It wasn’t until President Kennedy defined a mission to the American public that the prize became clear.
The National Aeronautic Space Administration (NASA) implemented the Apollo Space Program in 1963. The purpose of the program was to develop a craft that would land a man on the moon and return him safely back to Earth. The program, though, had other lofty goals:(2)
1) To establish the technology to meet other national interests in space.
2) To achieve preeminence in space for the United States.
3) To carry out a program of scientific exploration of the Moon.
4) To develop man’s capability to work in the lunar environment.
Several unmanned crews began the actual exploration of space during the Apollo Space Program. As each mission was successfully completed, America came closer to sending a manned craft into space. On January 27th, 1967, Lt. Virgil I Grissom, Lt. Col. Edward H. White, and Astronaut Roger B. Chaffee were due to become the first Apollo crew to enter space.
They were the first astronauts to lose their lives to the program. During a launch pad test, a flash fire erupted in the Command Module, and the three men were killed.
This tragedy did not deter the program from its mission. NASA continued to build and improve the technology. In December of 1968, Apollo 8 was the first manned flight to successfully orbit the moon and return safely to Earth.
In March of 1969, Apollo 9 was launched and spent 10 days in space. Apollo 10 was launched in May of 1969. With each new mission, milestones were reached. Hardware was tested. Photographs of the Earth and the moon were taken. Live broadcasts were televised.
Americans were winning the race. The prize was very close, and it was won on July 20, 1969. Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Neil Armstrong was the first human to step foot onto the surface of Earth’s natural satellite. An American Flag was planted. President Kennedy’s vision of landing a man on the moon within the decade had been realized.
The Apollo Space Program was a success. There were five more manned missions to the moon: Apollo 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17. Each mission served to further the goals of the Apollo Space Program.
Apollo 13, though, very nearly was the second fatal mission. It was April of 1970. Apollo 13 was to be the third trip to the moon. But a rupture of the oxygen tank of the service module turned the mission into a life and death situation. When Apollo 13 landed safely back on Earth, the mission was termed a ‘successful failure’, largely due to the experience and knowledge gained from the rescue of the crew and craft.(3)
In December of 1972, Apollo 17 landed on the moon. The crew spent 12 days there. It was the last lunar landing.
The entire expenditure of the Apollo Space Program was $19,408,134,000.00(4) It comprised 34% of the NASA budget.
The race to the moon was won. Though President Kennedy was tragically killed on November 11th of 1963, it was his vision and his words that captured the American public’s imagination, and brought public support to the space program. The Apollo Space Program, and all the advancements it has brought to the American people, will forever be linked to President Kennedy’s legacy.