Apollo 11: Race to the Moon

This week marks fifty years since the first manned mission to the Moon, with Neil Armstrong becoming the first person to walk on the lunar surface on July 21st 1969. To mark the occasion, I’m writing a seven-part series dedicated to Apollo 11, the mission to the Moon, starting with the background to space race and the ‘race to the Moon’.

Following the end of the Second World War, two global superpowers emerged – the capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union. Both nations soon became sceptical about their opponent’s intentions on the world stage and, following the American use of the atomic bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a nuclear arms race began.

In their efforts to get a technological advantage on the US and to improve their ability to have their weapons reach American soil, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite – Sputnik 1 – in October 1957.

The successful launch, which used the nation’s ICBM technology, caused widespread concern and fear in the West about a perceived technological gap between the US and the USSR, triggering what is known as the ‘space race’.

During the late 50s and early 60s, the United States attempted to keep up with the achievements of the Soviet Union. However, in 1961, the Soviet Union made another major accomplishment, sending the first man into orbit around the Earth – Yuri Gagarin.

With America suffering not only embarrassment in space but also from the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in the same year, then-President Kennedy was convinced of the need to restore American pride and demonstrate the nation’s supremacy in space. The following year, Kennedy gave an iconic speech calling for the Americans to land a manned mission to the Moon by the end of the decade.

But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the Moon! 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 organize 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 we intend to win, and the others, too.

President Kennedy, September 12 1962

It would later turn out that the Soviet Union were also working on a similar plan. However, Kennedy – under pressure over the forecast cost of such a mission – proposed a joint mission to the Moon with the Soviet Union at the United Nations General Assembly the following year. Premier Khrushchev was reportedly ready to accept the offer by November 1963, after his advisors said that the opportunity of acquiring American technology was too good to pass up. Unfortunately, the proposal came to nothing after Kennedy was assassinated the same month.

As both nations went head to head, they both encountered disaster – with 1967 proving an important year for both campaigns. At the start of the year, the United States lost three astronauts during a ground test of Apollo 1 after a fire in the spacecraft cabin, fuelled by pure oxygen, engulfed the crew inside.

Just a few months later, the Soviets would face a tragedy of their own, with Soyuz 1 pilot Vladimir Komarov becoming the first spacecraft in-flight fatality. During an emergency re-entry, several failures of the craft’s parachute system resulted in Soyuz 1 plummeting to Earth.

Both sides soon recovered and made improvements to their plans and their crafts. In March the following year, the Soviets’ Zond 4 completed the first successful unmanned circumlunar flight – although the craft was intentionally destroyed due to issues upon re-entry. A similar mission – Zond 5, this time manned by tortoises, also proved successful, but unreliability of the craft ruled out a manned flight in 1968.

Fearing falling behind once again, the US made significant progress towards a manned mission, with Apollo 7 testing the Command/Service module in Earth orbit in October 1968, and Apollo 8 in December – a manned mission which achieved lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, broadcasting a special message to American homes while around the Moon.

It was 1969 that would prove decisive. In May, the Americans launched a ‘dress rehearsal’ of a manned landing with Apollo 10, testing out the lunar lander. Following the success of that mission, the manned mission to the Moon – Apollo 11 – was set for July. The landing site, chosen back in February 1968, would be the Sea of Tranquility.

Mere days before Apollo 11 was due to launch, the Soviet Union’s latest unmanned mission, Luna 15, entered orbit around the Moon – the nation’s second attempt to return samples of lunar soil back to Earth. The mission would end up being unsuccessful, crashing into the lunar surface hours before Apollo 11 left to return to Earth.

Not everyone was a supporter of the mission to land men on the Moon. 50 years ago today, two dozen black families marched to Cape Kennedy, criticising the cost of the mission amid poverty and hardship in black America. However, even these protesters were in awe when they saw the Saturn V rocket, still the largest rocket to successfully take off, hurdle into space on launch day 24 hours later.

Tomorrow marks 50 years since the launch of Apollo 11 and I’ll be taking a look at a detailed timeline of the day’s events.

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