In the current climate, it’s not often we believe a politicians promise. So imagine the reaction in 1962, when John F. Kennedy declared the USA would put a man on the surface of the moon before the end of the decade. He made this declaration without having any exact idea of how it would be carried out (which is relatable), but his political promise ended with an achievement which now, fifty years on, is still considered one of mankind’s greatest ever feats (which is not).
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 John F. Kennedy, 1962.
The moon landing was more political project than space exploration. In April 1961, the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin into outer space, making him the first human to exit Earth’s atmosphere, and in 1959 Vice President Richard Nixon had conceded to Russian leader Nikita Kruschev that the Soviets had better space technology.
Spaceflight and exploration had become an indicator of national strength, and JFK saw putting a man on the moon as a way for the US to overtake Russia and restore some much needed prestige and unity to America during the Cold War years.
The planned effort to land on the moon – ‘Project Apollo’ – received criticism from many Americans, but certain parts of the process moved quickly. Lunar Orbit Rendezvous was chosen over Direct Ascent. This meant that rather than landing the spacecraft directly on the moon, a main spacecraft and a smaller lunar lander would travel to lunar orbit, and the lunar lander would then descend to the surface of the moon. This design would eventually play out in 1969 with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descending to the moon in the Eagle, while Michael Collins remained in lunar orbit aboard Columbia.
Just as is it suffered criticism, Project Apollo also suffered setbacks and tragedy. A fire in January 1967 saw the death of three astronauts and a subsequent investigation which held up the entire project. There was also the tragedy of a different nature, which meant that JFK, still considered by many to be the man primarily responsible for the moon-landing, never saw the project come to fruition. And of course, given the nature of the project, further tragedy was always a distinct possibility, as Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the moon aware that there was no guarantee they would return. A speech was even prepared in the eventuality that they would be stranded there.
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace…these brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.Words prepared by William Safire, US President Richard Nixon’s speechwriter, in the event that astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin never made it back from the moon.
Thankfully this speech wasn’t needed. At 02:51, Neil Armstrong began his descent down a ladder from the Eagle to the surface of the moon. While descending, he activated the TV camera which brought live images to over 530 million viewers on earth. He also uncovered a plaque which would remain on the moon, bearing two drawings of Earth, signatures of the astronauts and Nixon, and an inscription: Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.
As he finally set foot on the moons surface, Armstrong declared the instantly famous words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Aldrin joined him on the surface shortly after, and the pair collected moon rocks, soil samples, and took some of the most iconic photographs ever seen. They also received a phone call from Nixon, who said: “Hello, Neil and Buzz. I’m talking to you by telephone from the Oval Room at the White House. And this certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made. I just can’t tell you how proud we all are of what you’ve done.”
Having spent a total of 21 hours and 36 minutes on the moon’s surface, both inside and outside the spacecraft, they lifted off on the Eagle’s ascent stage to rejoin Collin’s in Lunar Orbit. They left behind on the moon: scientific instruments; memorials for those who had died in teh Apollo 1 fire and Soviet cosmonauts; a gold replica of an olive branch; and a silicon message disk carrying the goodwill statements by Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon along with messages from leaders of 73 countries around the world.
Fifty years on, the lack of anything as culturally significant as the first moon-landing means that many people believe we have taken something of a step back from space exploration. The reality however is that crucial work continues to be done, and the reason nothing has captured the public imagination quite like 1969 is because capturing the public’s imagination is exactly what the first moon landing was planned to do.
Since then, decisions have been based on practicality and science, rather than politics. Because no matter how significant it proved in terms of human discovery, the first moon landing was primarily a political strategy created by JFK to bring his country closer together. All around the world, there must be politicians who wish they had something as good hidden up their sleeves.