A multi-part series on the history of NASA's Apollo missions.

Part One:
The Decision to Go to the Moon

President John F. Kennedy stood before a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, and declared “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” At the time of Kennedy’s declaration, only one American had been in space, and that was a brief 15-minute suborbital mission.

President Kennedy's Speech at Rice Stadium. Image Credit: NASA

The Soviet Union opened the “Space Age” on October 4, 1957, with the launch of Sputnik-1, the world’s first artificial satellite. America’s first satellite program, Vanguard, was still months away from being ready. Sputnik stunned America’s political leaders because It signaled the Soviet Union was more technologically capable than previously believed. A month later, the Soviets launched Sputnik-2, which carried a dog named Laika.

America’s response to Sputnik included passage of the National Defense Education Act, which increased funding for science and mathematics education, and the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Soviet space “firsts” dominated the early years of the Space Age. In addition to launching the first satellites, the Soviets were the first to photograph the far side of the moon, and impact the moon with a probe. In the Cold War arena of global competition, there was a widely held perception that America’s space effort was lagging behind the Soviet Union. Then, on April 12, 1961, Red Air Force Major Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space aboard Vostok 1.

President John F. Kennedy addresses Congress May 25, 1961. Image Credit: NASA

To regain America’s prestige and counter the perception that the United States was behind the Soviets, President Kennedy challenged the National Aeronautics and Space Council to come up with a goal that the United States could achieve before the Soviet Union did. They considered an orbital laboratory, orbiting an astronaut around the moon, or landing a man on the moon.

After consulting NASA Administrator James Webb, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, who chaired the Council, advised Kennedy that the manned lunar landing was far enough in the future that the United States could achieve it first.

Alan Shepard and MR-3 Onboard USS Champlain, May 5, 1961. Image Credit: NASA

Alan B. Shepard, Jr., became the first American in space on May 5, 1961, with a 15-minute suborbital space flight aboard a Mercury spacecraft he named “Freedom 7.” Twenty days later, Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress and issued his national challenge.

NASA already had an advanced spacecraft called “Apollo” on the drawing boards; this became the lunar spacecraft. The buildup for Apollo required an unprecedented peacetime commitment of resources. With an estimated cost of $24 billion, Apollo needed new spacecraft, rockets and facilities. At its peak, more than 400,000 people at 20,000 companies and universities supported Apollo.

On July 20, 1969, President Kennedy’s challenge was fulfilled when the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle landed on the Moon.

Future articles in this series will explore each Apollo mission that led up to the first lunar landing and the technologies required for that feat. The next article in the series will highlight the 50th anniversary of Apollo 7, the first piloted flight with an Apollo spacecraft.

Click to read part two.

Gregory P. Kennedy is Director of Education Programs and Director of Space Training for the NASTAR Center. He is a former Associate Curator for Manned Space Flight at the National Air and Space Museum and past Director of the Space Center in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Mr. Kennedy has authored 8 books, including Apollo to the Moon (Chelsea House, 1992.)