On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin (1930-) landed an ungainly spacecraft named Eagle on the moon and spent two hours exploring the lunar surface. They left the next day, rendezvousing in lunar orbit with the command ship Columbia and returning safely to Earth. The Apollo 11 landing ended a decade of competition between the Soviet and American space programs, helped to restore the nation's self-confidence, and began an intensive program of exploration that transformed scientists' understanding of the Moon.
The dream of traveling to the moon was already centuries old when the Second World War ended in 1945. It had inspired Robert Goddard (1882-1945), who built and flew the first modern rockets in the New Mexico desert during the 1930s, and captivated Wernher von Braun (1912-1977), leader of a team that gave Nazi Germany the world's first guided missiles in 1944-45. Postwar Soviet and American leaders, recognizing the military potential of such missiles, clamored for bigger, more powerful versions. By 1957 the arms race had produced rockets strong enough to carry a nuclear bomb halfway around the world or a small satellite into Earth orbit. The Soviet Union launched such a satellite, Sputnik I, in October 1957. The success of Sputnik opened the Space Age and added a new dimension to the superpowers' already intense rivalry.
Soviet achievements in space overshadowed American ones from 1957 through April 1961, when Major Yuri Gagarin (1934-1968) of the Red Air Force became the first human to orbit Earth. America's seemingly permanent second-place status in space stung the pride and undermined the Cold War foreign policies of the newly inaugurated president, John F. Kennedy. He proposed, in a May 1961 address to Congress, that the United States take a bold step: committing itself to landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth by the end of the decade.
The engineering and organizational challenges involved in meeting Kennedy's goal were immense. Project Apollo (as the moon-landing program came to be known) would involve flights a half-million miles long, taking as much as two weeks to complete. It would require boosters more powerful, guidance systems more accurate, and spacecraft more complex than any then in existence. It would also require the command ship and the lander to rendezvous and dock twice: once in Earth orbit, and once in lunar orbit. No such maneuver had even been planned, much less carried out, in 1961.
Designing, building, and testing the Apollo spacecraft and its massive Saturn V booster took six years, millions of government dollars and the combined efforts of America's leading aerospace manufacturers. Simultaneously, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) conducted preparatory flights designed to lay the groundwork for Apollo. The ten flights of Project Gemini (1964-66) tested rendezvous techniques and crew endurance in Earth orbit. Three series of robot probes--Ranger, Surveyor, and Orbiter--returned detailed information about the lunar surface, allowing NASA planners to select possible landing sites.
In January 1967, only weeks before the first manned test flight, Project Apollo suffered a tragic setback. Faulty wiring ignited a flash fire in the spacecraft during a routine launch simulation, killing astronauts Gus Grissom (1926-1967), Ed White (1930-1967), and Roger Chaffee (1935-1967). Extensively redesigned after the fire, the Apollo spacecraft would not fly with a human crew until late 1968. Once operational, however, it performed flawlessly. Two test flights in Earth orbit (Apollo 7 and 9) and two round trips to the moon (Apollo 8 and 10) proved its reliability, and gave NASA confidence to designate Apollo 11 as the first lunar landing mission.
The July 20, 1969, lunar landing confirmed NASA's confidence in the Apollo spacecraft. Neil Armstrong's words as he jumped onto the surface of the Moon were heard by millions of Americans and have since become legend: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."
Many of the technologies developed for Project Apollo eventually found their way onto the consumer market: nonstick coatings, dehydrated foods, and miniaturized electronic components. NASA publicity often focused on such products in an effort to suggest that the space program provided taxpayers with tangible returns on their investment. These consumer spin-offs are, however, only the smallest part of Project Apollo's impact. The most significant results of Apollo 11, in particular, were intangible rather than tangible--scientific and social rather than technological.
The successful landing and return of Apollo 11 ended the Soviet-American space race that had begun with Sputnik in 1957. No subsequent lunar landing could be as impressive as the first, Soviet planners recognized, and no other space achievement then within reach could have the same luster. A successful attempt to land a Soviet crew on the Moon would bring only modest benefits; a failed attempt, on the heels of America's success, would be disastrous. The longstanding political and military rivalry between the superpowers was also diminishing at that time, making a continuation of the space race even more unlikely. New leaders and new diplomatic initiatives such as arms-control treaties created a temporary thaw in the Cold War. With competition giving way to a new spirit of superpower coexistence (known as détente), the space race seemed to belong to another era.
The words and symbols connected with the Apollo 11 landing dramatized this shift in attitudes. They reflected little of the intense superpower rivalry that gave birth to Project Apollo in 1961. Instead, they embodied the new ideal of superpower coexistence. Armstrong and Aldrin had ample cause to gloat and to celebrate as they set foot on the Moon, but they did neither. They planted their nation's flag where they landed but did not claim the land beneath it for their nation or their leaders. After stepping onto the Moon for the first time, Neil Armstrong's words were those of a human, not an American. A metal plaque left behind to commemorate the landing expressed the idea even more clearly. "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. We came in peace, for all mankind."
Although the official symbols of Apollo 11 did not define it as a specifically American triumph, most Americans saw it in just those terms. The year before the landing, 1968, had been one of the most turbulent in the nation's history. American forces suffered major setbacks in Vietnam; incumbent president Lyndon Johnson ended his bid for reelection; civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated in April, and presidential hopeful Senator Robert Kennedy in June; protests against the Vietnam War grew increasingly angry and divisive; demonstrators and police fought in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic national convention. The series of successful Apollo missions that culminated in the landing of Apollo 11 was welcome good news amid this string of national catastrophes. It was also proof, for those whose faith had begun to waver, that big government (NASA) and the American military (most of the astronauts) could still rise to greatness as they had during World War II.
Apollo 11, in particular, also boosted Americans' confidence in their ability to solve society's problems. The moon landing became proof of American competence and achievement. "If we can send a man to the moon," a popular expression asked, "why can't we cure cancer, clean up the air, end poverty, etc.?"
NASA promoted the Apollo 11 landing as the climax of a decade of hard work and as the fulfillment of the late President Kennedy's 1961 challenge. News commentators called it epoch-making and compared it to the European discovery of the New World. These attitudes encouraged Americans to see the first moon landing as a triumph for the human race in general and America in particular. The same attitudes, however, made the flight of Apollo 11 a nearly impossible act for NASA to follow. Public interest in Project Apollo diminished sharply after the first landing, as did Congressional support. Three projected lunar landing missions--Apollo 18, 19, and 20--were cancelled for lack of such support. NASA undertook a variety of ambitious, successful missions in the three decades after Apollo 11, but few even came close to generating the same public interest or nationwide high spirits. NASA's desire to recapture the public confidence and substantial budgets it enjoyed in 1969 has, some critics charge, distorted its mission. Too often, they argue, the space agency neglects scientific research in order to fly missions that will draw public interest.
These criticisms, while valid to some extent, are also ironic. The Apollo 11 landing itself made possible some of the most important science ever done in outer space. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent only a few hours on the lunar surface, deployed only a few scientific experiments, and collected only modest samples of lunar rock and soil. Because they were the first humans to walk on the Moon, however, even these limited contributions vastly expanded scientists' understanding of it. The robot orbiters and landers that preceded Apollo 11 provided close-up pictures of the lunar surface, but they could not assess its texture or chemical makeup. Pictures allowed Earth-bound geologists to form hypotheses about the Moon but not to test them. Tests, and a clearer understanding of the Moon's structure, composition, and age, required samples. The Apollo 11 landing provided those samples and began a revolution in the earth sciences.
Equally important, Apollo 11 demonstrated that humans could make a soft landing on the moon, do useful work, and return safely to Earth. Premission concerns about possible hazards evaporated as the mission went on. Neither lander nor astronauts sank, as some had feared they would, into a thick layer of dust. Lunar soil did not burst into flames upon contact with oxygen. No alien microbes infected the returning astronauts. Apollo 11 showed that the exploration of the Moon was well within NASA's capabilities. Its success opened the door for later Apollo missions to concentrate on science, and as long as its budget allowed, NASA took full advantage of the opportunity. A generation after Neil Armstrong took his "one small step," the legacy of Apollo 11 remains very much alive. Scientists' understanding of the Moon is built almost entirely on data collected by the crews of Apollo 11 and the five landing missions that followed. The landing remains a symbol of American greatness, and images of it remain fixtures of numerous historical retrospectives. NASA, for all its accomplishments, is still best remembered as the agency that put a man on the Moon.