How Humans Reached the Moon: The Rocky Road to Apollo 11

Dan Snow

20th Century America Cold War Twentieth Century
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In late 1960 Americans elected a new President.

John Kennedy, young and charismatic, had warned on the election trail about the challenge posed by the Soviet Union.

Cold War

The Second World War had ended 15 years earlier, leaving the World divided between two superpowers: The Soviets and the United States of America.

Previous rivals had contented themselves with dominating the Earth’s land and sea, and the skies above. But now technology had opened up space as a new area of rivalry. And the Soviets were winning.

It was one of the most remarkable achievements in history. Just 66 years after humans first lifted off the surface of the Earth in an aeroplane, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon. This is the story of Project Apollo, and how humans got to the Moon.Watch Now

In 1957 the Soviet Sputnik satellite was successfully put into orbit around the Earth. Americans were shocked, and worse was to come.

Shortly after Kennedy’s election, in April 1961 27 year-old Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was blasted into orbit on spacecraft Vostock 1. The era of human spaceflight had dawned.

Determined that the USA would not cede space to the Soviets President Kennedy announced a massive spending increase for the US space program. And one month after Gagarin’s flight, he told the US Congress that he was committing the nation to landing a man on the Moon before the decade was out.

A short, animated video of John F Kennedy's famous speech, made to Congress on 25 May 1961, where he outlined the United States' intentions to put a man on the Moon before the end of the decade.Watch Now

This was easier said that done.

Dawn of Apollo

Kennedy’s announcement kick-started the greatest burst of innovation and engineering in human history. In early 1960 the US space agency NASA had launched a project to build a rocket that could put three men into space with a view to eventually orbiting, and possibly even landing on, the Moon. It was called Apollo.

Named after the Greek god of light, this project would see humans riding through the heavens like Apollo on his chariot.

At its peak it would employ 400,000 people, involve over 20,000 companies and universities, and it all cost much much more than the Manhattan Project which had split and atom and created an atomic bomb during the Second World War.

Scientists considered various ways to get humans to the Moon, and safely back again. They explored the idea of blasting several rockets into orbit, where they would combine and go to the Moon.

Launch of AS-201, the first flight of the Apollo spacecraft and Saturn IB launch vehicle.

Another idea was a drone rocket would land on the Moon and the astronauts would transfer to it to get home to Earth.

The men who would travel in these spacecraft were healthy, tough, young, test pilots with thousands of hours of flying experience. They would be flying the most complex vehicle in human history in an environment where there was nowhere to crash land.

32 men were chosen. Three were tragically killed when the Command Module interior of Apollo 1 caught fire in January 1967. It was a terrible reminder of the dangers of the project, the vulnerability of the astronauts and their total dependence on a vast army of technicians.

The road to Apollo 11

Following the fire on Apollo 1 there was a delay. Some thought the project was over. But in late 1968 Apollo 7 took three men into an 11 day Earth orbit.

A hugely ambitious Apollo 8 took three men around the Moon.

Apollo 10 saw Thomas Stafford and Eugene Cernan detach the landing module from the command module and descend to within 15km of the Moon’s surface.

Apollo 11 would take the next step, and land on the Moon.

Tags: Apollo Program John F. Kennedy

Dan Snow