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July 20 marks the fiftieth anniversary of humankind’s first steps on the Moon. Apollo 11—crewed by Neil Armstrong, Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin and Michael Collins—left Earth four days earlier, travelling 384,400 kilometres to make the historic landing. In a feat of engineering and accomplishment that had never been seen before, the landing was a climactic symbol of a showdown between two superpowers that had started over a decade earlier.

The fall of Nazi Germany in 1945 signalled the end of the Second World War in Europe. While the country surrendered, the United States and Soviet Russia swiftly rounded up key scientists and research on the V-2 rocket, which contained an explosive warhead that could level a building in one hit. The Americans and Soviets planned to develop the technology further, each having their own ideologies, and both fearing the other would launch a nuclear warhead. Distrust between the nations continued to increase over time.

Project Mercury

The Soviets were successful in achieving early space victories. They launched the first successful human-made object, Sputnik, into orbit on 4 October 1957. A month later they launched Sputnik 2, with Laika the dog onboard. Sadly, the life support system wasn’t equipped to bring her back to Earth and she was put to sleep. It’s estimated that she lived in space between a couple of hours to a few days.

America was getting left behind. After the many embarrassing failures of Project Vanguard, the artificial satellite, Explorer 1, reached space in January 1958. The U.S. had finally matched a Soviet milestone. In the wake of the project’s triumph, NASA was formed, after which Project Mercury was announced—a program to get the first human into space. The early astronauts were test pilots with backgrounds in the Air Force and Navy.

The U.S. was, again, too slow. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to venture into space on April 12, 1961, in Vostok 1. America followed with Alan Sheppard in Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961, however, the flight was suborbital (straight up and down) and lasted 15 minutes. John Glenn was the first American to properly orbit the planet in Friendship 7 in early 1962.

Project Gemini

The superiority of Soviet technology was damaging to American self-esteem and they needed something big that would finally show them up. Coming just three weeks after Sheppard’s flight, President John F. Kennedy addressed a crowd at a Houston university. He announced that the “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”. NASA had a lot of work to do if they were going to send people to the Moon in only eight short years.

Project Gemini was the precursor to America’s Moon program, running from 1965­-1966. Unlike the Mercury capsules, that only seated one astronaut, Gemini had room for two. NASA learnt a lot about space travel and honed many skills through the missions. On Gemini 4, Ed White became the first U.S. citizen to walk in space. Gemini 6A and 7 met in orbit, something no American flight had yet achieved. Frank Borman and Jim Lovell, who manned Gemini 7, spent two weeks in orbit—the longest anyone had been in space at the time.

On the Gemini 8 mission, Neil Armstrong and David Scott were tasked with docking their capsule with an unmanned craft. Once the connection had been made, Gemini 8 began to roll dangerously. Armstrong managed to separate the two vehicles before both astronauts blacked out. They could’ve died had he not regained control at the last second.

Gemini 8’s Return

The Apollo Missions

NASA was making great progress. Apollo 1 was due to be the maiden launch of a Saturn series rocket, however, on 27 January 1967, a fire broke out in the Command Module, and “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were killed.

The astronauts were conducting tests with Mission Control and a wire shorted. The spark ignited the pure oxygen environment and the men died in seconds. After an investigation, NASA spent the next year and a half drastically redesigning the Apollo spacecraft.

Since the incident, astronauts breathe an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere and use non-flammable equipment on missions. The chances of a cabin fire have been significantly reduced.

Apollo 8 was launched during Christmas 1968. Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Andres became the first people to circle the Moon. NASA’s next daring attempt was Apollo 10 and it took Thomas Stafford and Gene Cernan within sixteen kilometres of the Moon’s surface.

 

Apollo 11 during lift-off.

Apollo 11 had made it to the Moon. The Lunar Excursion Module, with Armstrong and Aldrin inside, had separated from the Command and Service Module and was descending towards its landing spot. Collins stayed behind in the CSM and maintained it while they were gone.

Alarms began to sound as Armstrong and Aldrin got closer to the ground. Unknown at the time, the LEM’s computer was being overloaded with information. While the astronauts and NASA worked through the issues, the craft was getting dangerously low on fuel. They were a minute away from an abort when the LEM finally touched down.

Crew Portrait (From Left): Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin

Armstrong was the first to head outside. He inspected the area and put the first footprints in the lunar dust, uttering the famous words, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”.

Aldrin followed twenty minutes later. The two conducted scientific experiments and collected lunar samples. They spent about two and a half hours on the surface before leaving.

When the three men returned to Earth, they were greeted as heroes. America had won the space race.

Public Opinion

After the triumph of Apollo 11’s mission, public interest in deep space exploration faded away and the Vietnam War was putting pressure on the endeavour. People felt the money being spent on America’s space program could be better used in other areas; NASA’s budget was slashed and later Apollo flights began to be cancelled. The last mission, Apollo 17, occurred on December 1972. In the end, there were six successful missions to the Moon, with only twelve men walking on its surface.

Aldrin on the moon.

The Soviets never formally acknowledged the race to the Moon and did everything in secret. It wasn’t until the Soviet Union’s dissolution in the early 1990s that the history became available. Their four Moon rocket test flights ended in disaster and the program was officially cancelled in the mid-1970s.

The rivalry between American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts ended in 1975. The last Apollo flight docked with a Russian Soyuz. The two crews shook hands and exchanged gifts in a gesture of peace.

Fifty years after the first humans landed on the Moon, people are once again getting excited about space exploration and feel it’s time to get back out there. America has recently announced the Artemis Program and has plans to return to the Moon in 2024. NASA’s next-generation rocket, the Space Launch System, will be what takes us back. This time, they plan to stay.