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.
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.
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.
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.
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.