A desperate president who set an ambitious deadline to reach the moon. A Cold War rival whose technological edge in space prodded Americans into action. The unsparing ingenuity of U.S. scientists and industry to overcome long odds.
The lunar landing 50 years ago Saturday was the culmination of numerous factors: pressure, brilliance, perseverance … and some luck.
But most agree it would not have happened – at least not until much later – if John F. Kennedy hadn’t pushed to win the space race against the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.
“He gave us a timeline and I think that matters so much,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told USA TODAY recently. “When there is no end in sight, programs become just programs for the sake of being programs.”
It seemed an impossible goal on May 25,1961, the day Kennedy issued his challenge in an address to Congress to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade – and bring him back safely.
“It will not be one man going to the moon,” Kennedy told lawmakers. “It will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.”
That call to action lit a fuse of American inspiration that still stands as one of humanity’s crowning achievements considering what little was known about space travel at the time, according to Charles Fishman in his book, ‘One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew us to the Moon.’
“When President John Kennedy declared in 1961 that the United States was going to the Moon, he was committing the nation to do something we couldn’t do,” Fishman wrote in his book, which was published by Simon & Schuster in June. “We didn’t have the tools, the equipment – we didn’t have the rockets or the launchpads, the spacesuits or the computers or the zero-gravity food – to go to the moon. And it isn’t just that we didn’t have what we would need; we didn’t even know what we would need.”
Losing the space race
NASA is once again setting its sights on the moon. President Donald Trump has called for a return to the lunar surface by 2024 – this time to stay.
Trump's call comes nearly 47 years after the last human – Apollo XVII astronaut Gene Cernan – took the last steps on the moon and amid concerns today that foreign powers, chiefly China, are gearing up to inhabit the lunar surface.
Much has changed since Kennedy first decided on a moon shot. What hasn't is how top government officials view such a mission as a way to advance national security interests rather than as a pioneering journey designed to uplift America's spirits.
When he addressed Congress in 1961, the U.S. was reeling from the botched Bay of Pigs invasion into Cuba and the Soviets were walloping the United States in the space race.
The communist government launched Sputnik, on Oct. 4, 1957, a beach-ball sized satellite that startled – and panicked – America as it orbited the Earth.
Sputnik 2, much larger (weighing more than half a ton) and carrying a passenger – a female part-Samoyed terrier named Laika – rocketed into orbit a month later.
It wasn’t until Jan. 31,1958 that the U.S. countered with its first satellite, Explorer 1, a much lighter object than either Sputnik.
Then, on April 12, 1961 – six weeks before Kennedy’s speech to Congress – the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit Earth. It was almost a year later when John Glenn became the first American in orbit.
Barely a week after Gagarin’s momentous flight, Kennedy spilled his frustration in a memo to Vice President Lyndon Johnson.
“Do we have a chance of beating the Soviets by putting a laboratory in space, or by a trip around the moon, or by a rocket to land on the moon, or by a rocket to go to the moon and back with a man,” he wrote. “Is there any … space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win?”
‘A desperate battle with the Soviets’
Kennedy might not have given his speech to Congress had Alan Shepard not completed a short, suborbital flight in a Mercury spacecraft in early May 1961 that made him the first American in space. Shepard’s success gave the president the footing he needed to make the case for a moon shot.
When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon on July 20, 1969, the milestone was viewed largely as a testament to the pioneering spirit and technological wizardry of humankind.
But it was chiefly about beating the Soviets, who were reportedly very close to launching their own crew to the lunar surface, Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman told USA TODAY recently.
“The Apollo program wasn’t designed to be a great scientific venture or means of exploration. It was a battle of the Cold War,” he said. “We were in a desperate battle with the Soviets, and that’s why we were pressing.”
Borman, whose lunar orbiting mission in December 1968 paved the way for the Apollo 11 moonwalk seven months later, believes winning the race changed history on Earth.
If the Soviets had landed on the moon first, “it might have changed the whole nature of the post-World War landscape,” he said. “I’m not certain we would have had the dissolution of the Soviet empire. I’d like to think that the success of the Apollo program was an important first step in the end of the Soviets.”
Tragedy and technology – lots to overcome
The U.S. space program gained steam after Glenn’s orbit, scoring a series of impressive achievements through Apollo’s precursor programs Mercury and Gemini.
Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 could have derailed or delayed success, but Johnson proved to be just as fervent an advocate of the space program.
Under his watch, NASA’s budget consumed 4.6 percent of the annual federal budget during the peak spending years of the space program. Today, the agency makes up less than one-half of 1 percent.
But public backing for a moon landing in the mid-‘60s was hardly universal. Polls showed support above 50% only at the time of the moon landing itself. The Apollo Program won support from key policy makers because it was viewed as strategically important in trying to stay ahead of the Soviet Union.
“Everybody talks about how much political support the Apollo program had (but) it was a fight year in and year out to keep that program alive because it was expensive and there was a risk,” Bridenstine said. “People were saying what do we achieve by doing this?”
There were serious, sometimes tragic, setbacks along the journey.
The Apollo 1 fire on Jan. 27, 1967 as the rocket sat on the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center, killed astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee and destroyed the space module.
The disaster, caused by a short circuit in the electrical system and exacerbated by the oxygen-rich capsule that fueled the fire’s intensity, forced NASA to overhaul safety protocols. The next crewed mission – Apollo 7 – would not occur for 18 months.
Apollo 6, an unmanned mission that flew on a Saturn V rocket in April 1968, encountered numerous problems of its own: unexpected up-and-down shaking, dubbed the “pogo effect” shortly after launch; premature shutdown of two of the five engines during the second stage burn; and a failure of the third stage to restart.
There were also the constant day-to-day technological hurdles to conquer, such as synchronization between hardware and software, the continual retraining of astronauts and programmers as systems changed and the unforeseen challenges engineers had to tackle. In addition, agency scientists were sometimes at odds with each other over the best way to reach the moon and what it would take to get there.
The lunar module, the vehicle that would take Armstrong and Aldrin from the command module orbiting the moon to the surface, was a particularly thorny issue because “guidance, maneuverability, and spacecraft control … caused no end of headaches,” according to a history of Apollo on NASA’s web site.
NASA was also aware of reports that the Soviets were poised to launch their own lunar mission and – once again – beat the U.S. in space.
So they pressed.
The Apollo 8 mission that flew around the moon around Christmas 1968 took 16 weeks from conception to launch, compared to similar ones that took at least a year to execute.
Flight simulators couldn't be used because they weren't finished. It was the first time Saturn V would be carrying humans – and one of its two previous test flights (Apollo 6) had failed. And it would fly without a lunar module that serves as the backup engine in case of a problem.
It proved a roaring success.
Seven months later, Armstrong, Aldrin and pilot Michael Collins would captivate the world with the historic lunar landing.
“What I remember is that it was a complicated trip and I was amazed by the fact that all our equipment worked 100% to perfection,” Collins, who orbited the moon as Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the surface using the lunar lander. “I’m accustomed to things breaking in machines that fly in the air and God knows there were plenty of things that could have broken on that flight along that fragile daisy chain. None broke. Everything worked as advertised.”
Back to the moon
The success of Apollo carried on for the next three and a half years with five more missions and 10 other astronauts who walked on the moon.
Efforts to go back to the moon faded amid exorbitant cost projections and a been-there-done-that mindset. The primary human exploration element of the space program recalibrated to setting up the International Space Station and sending astronauts via the space shuttle.
Even that ended in 2011.
Now the Trump administration wants to return to the moon by 2024. And this time to stay, and to explore the entirety of the moon, including the water ice discovered near the south pole.
“We love the history of Apollo (but) we don’t want to recreate Apollo. That’s been done,” Bridenstine said. “We want to go sustainably. We want to prove how to live and work on another world. We want to retire that risk and ultimately take that knowledge on to Mars.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Apollo 11: moon landing chiefly about beating Soviets in space race