The history of the moon landing: everything you need to know

On 20 July 1969, the world watched in anticipation as Apollo 11’s ‘Eagle’ lunar module touched down on the moon’s surface. From the early Apollo 1 tragedy to the social pressures that threatened the 1969 moon landing, spaceflight historian Amy Shira Teitel traces the history and legacy of NASA’s early attempts to put man on the moon… 

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the moon's surface

Apollo 11’s moon landing was a prestigious international coup and a moment of global celebration – but the journey had been far from straightforward, coming at the end of a turbulent decade in American history…

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On 16 July 1969, at 9.32am local time, the five F-1 engines on Apollo 11’s Saturn V roared to life. Thousands of people spread along the coast of Merritt Island, Florida saw the fire and exhaust a fraction of a second before they heard the rumbling – many pulled over on highways and on beaches, while others looked out from their hotel balconies. Millions more people around the world saw the launch on TV. They watched as the rocket became a dot in the sky and disappeared, taking astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon for NASA’s first attempted manned lunar landing.

For America, this day was nearly a decade in the making.

JFK and the origins of the moon landing

When President John F Kennedy took office on 20 January 1961, he inherited a country locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union. But whatever worries the nation might have had about Soviet missile and satellite development, the incoming president tried to put minds at ease. The handsome 43-year-old gave America the impression that it was on the precipice of a golden age in which the government could solve the nation’s biggest problems.

On 12 April 1961, the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin into orbit around the Earth, proving that Soviet engineering was far more advanced than anything America possessed. Five days later, Kennedy suffered another embarrassment with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, when US-backed exiles made a disastrous attempt to overthrow the Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Seeking redemption, the president looked to NASA for a way to save face. The agency’s recommendation was to land a man on the moon.

A lunar landing wasn’t something America could do right away; at the time NASA had only astronaut Alan Shepard’s suborbital Mercury mission under its belt, which had taken place on 5 May 1961. That 15-minute mission had afforded Shepard just five minutes of weightlessness, a far cry from going to the moon – but a moon landing wasn’t something the Soviets could do, either. A lunar landing was a sufficiently distant goal that levelled the playing field between the two nations and gave NASA engineers plenty of time to figure out how to get there. The result, if successful, would be a non-aggressive but definitive show of America’s technological superiority. Kennedy committed America to the moon landing on 25 May 1961, when he asked Congress to support a programme to be completed within the decade, in which he vowed NASA would land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth.

President John F Kennedy giving a speech about America's space programme
President John F Kennedy delivers a special message committing America to the moon landing on 25 May 1961. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

Challenges to Kennedy’s moon landing plan

The Cold War escalated in the wake of Kennedy’s lunar landing promise. After the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy clashed with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in October 1962 after discovering the Soviets were setting up missile sites in Cuba. Kennedy announced a naval blockade of the island nation and the subsequent standoff lasted two weeks before the situation was resolved. The following year, Kennedy increased US involvement in Vietnam in an attempt to curb the spread of communism.

NASA, meanwhile, was wrapped up in the fundamental question of how to get to the moon. The most obvious way was to go straight there with a spacecraft that could land upright and would be ready to launch off the surface again for the return to Earth. This mission might have worked in science fiction, but in reality this spacecraft would be so heavy it would need an unfathomably large and expensive rocket called Nova to get it off the Earth in the first place.

US President John F Kennedy and Vice President Johnson in front of a rocket
President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson (right) visit the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. Kennedy’s death in 1963 threw the nation into mourning, but it also saved Apollo, says Amy Shira Teitel. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

A potential workaround was to launch the spacecraft in halves on two smaller Saturn rockets, but the risks of a failed launch or inability to connect (dock) the halves in orbit complicated the mission. A third method emerged known as the ‘lunar orbit rendezvous’. This left the heavy mothership in lunar orbit while a small, dedicated lander reached the surface. It was complicated, and astronauts would have to dock the spacecraft while in lunar orbit, but the mission was light enough to launch on a single Saturn rocket.

NASA finally settled on the method of a lunar orbit rendezvous in July 1962. This decision made, NASA now had to figure out how to live and work in space. The Mercury programme [the US’s first human spaceflight programme] couldn’t do that; the spacecraft was too basic and didn’t have any hardware for docking, so NASA added an interim program to its Apollo planning called Gemini.

The cost of research and development caused NASA’s budget to rise, and Kennedy became increasingly concerned that the amount of money he was spending on this moon mission would destroy his reputation. So, believe it or not, he tried to cancel the Apollo project. Before the 18th General Assembly of the United Nations on 20 September 1963, Kennedy called to replace Apollo with a joint US-Soviet mission to the moon that would foster peace and cooperation instead of competition.

A month later, on 22 November, Kennedy was assassinated during a motorcade in Dallas. His death threw the nation into mourning, but it also saved Apollo: NASA couldn’t let the fallen president’s dream die. It helped, too, that Kennedy’s successor, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, was a big space proponent. He threw his support behind the programme after taking office on the same day Kennedy was assassinated.

A turbulent decade for the USA

Not long into his presidency, Johnson introduced programmes that attempted to free the United States from poverty and racial injustice. Social programmes like Medicare and Medicaid; Head Start; and Job Corps sought to give Americans a “helping hand rather than a hand out”, but the cost of these programmes clashed with the commitment he’d inherited from Kennedy to stop the spread of communism in Asia. Before long, America entered a full-scale war against the communist Viet Cong, which forced a new wave of conscription in the United States, known as ‘the draft’. Civil rights was also becoming an increasingly volatile issue. In 1964, Johnson pushed a Civil Rights Act through Congress that prohibited discrimination based on race in public spaces, but that didn’t eliminate the racist strain present in large parts of the country, or offset the poverty of many black urban areas.

Against this backdrop, NASA operated in something of a vacuum, the agency remaining laser-focused on taking strides towards the moon. Between 1965 and 1966, NASA launched 10 manned Gemini missions that demonstrated all the functionality the agency would need on a lunar mission. This programme proved, firstly, that a spacesuit offered sufficient protection outside the spacecraft, which was necessary for walking on the moon’s surface; secondly, that fuel cells could power the spacecraft for the necessary two-week mission; thirdly, that astronauts could manoeuvre their spacecraft to a rendezvous and docking as they would do in lunar orbit; and, lastly, that the crew could survive in space for 14 days.

The launch of Apollo 11
By the middle of the decade, Apollo hardware was nearing flight readiness, including the Saturn V that would launch the mission. (Image by NASA)

Apollo hardware, meanwhile, was nearing flight readiness: the Saturn V that would launch the mission; the conical command module mothership; the cylindrical service module with all the crew’s consumables; and the bug-shaped lunar module that was custom-designed to support two men for a limited stay on the moon. As 1966 wound to a close, the agency was ready for its first manned Apollo mission.

Early tragedy for Apollo

Apollo 1 was intended to be a so-called “shakedown cruise”, a simple test of the command-service module in orbit before taking on more pointed objectives like a duration mission or a rendezvous test. But, tragically, it never got off the ground. During a routine pre-launch test on 27 January 1967, a fire broke out in the crew cabin where the environment was pure oxygen under pressure. The fire quickly became an inferno, and the crew of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee asphyxiated.

Astronauts Virgil 'Gus' Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee inside a practice module for the Apollo 1 mission
Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee inside a practice module for the Apollo 1 mission at Cape Kennedy, Florida. (Image by MPI/Getty Images)

The subsequent investigation uncovered a host of technical and managerial problems plaguing Apollo. Issues and concerns with the spacecraft had been left unaddressed, owing to convoluted chains of command between NASA and the spacecraft’s contractor, North American Aviation, and the sense of urgency causing all parties involved to rush, as shown by the accident report and testimonies in NASA’s archive. There was, however, a small silver lining: the fire had occurred on the launch pad, which meant that NASA could take it apart to understand the root cause. NASA used the lessons learned in the accident investigation to build not only a safer spacecraft, but a culture that put safety above all else.

NASA was on the path to recovery as 1968 dawned, but America seemed divided like never before. Riots based on racial issues were common, as were anti-Vietnam War protests and feminist demonstrations calling for women’s rights. Both Martin Luther King Jr and Senator Bobby Kennedy were assassinated that year. Amid this national discord, NASA launched Apollo missions 4, 5, and 6 as tests of both rocket and spacecraft hardware. In October 1968, Apollo 7 marked NASA’s return to manned spaceflight with a simple orbital test of the command-service module. In December, it launched Apollo 8 to the moon with another command-service module, proving that the mothership was up to the lunar journey. The year 1969 opened with the final checks for the lunar landing; Apollo 9 tested the lunar module in Earth orbit and Apollo 10 did a full ‘dress rehearsal’ of the lunar landing. Now, all that was left to do was touch down on the moon’s surface.

A crowd watches the launch of Apollo 11
Former President Lyndon B Johnson and Vice President Spiro Agnew are among the spectators at the launch of Apollo 11, which lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969. (Image by NASA)

Against the deadline

Apollo 11 launched on 16 July 1969. For three days people followed updates of the crew’s progress via news bulletins and TV transmissions from translunar space. By the time Apollo 11 entered lunar orbit on 19 July after more than 75 hours in space, the real-life drama had captivated America. On 20 July, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin transferred into the lunar module christened ‘Eagle’ and separated from Mike Collins in the command-service module ‘Columbia’. They adjusted their orbit to pass lower over the moon’s surface, then began their descent with Americans listening to the voice transmissions broadcast live on TV and radio. The world heard call alarms in the ‘Eagle’ – 1201 and 1202 programme alarms that forced the lunar module’s computer to reboot – and heard NASA give the crew a ‘GO’ for a continued descent. At 4.17pm Eastern Time, the ‘Eagle’ landed.

The world stopped and watched Neil Armstrong take man’s first step on the moon seven hours later. When he did, ($28 billion only 53 percent of Americans believed that the programme had been worth the cost, a staggering $25 billion USD.

A ticker-tape parade showing the Apollo 11 astronauts
New York City welcomes the crewmen of Apollo 11 in a shower of ticker-tape down Broadway and Park Avenue. (Image by Bill Taub/NASA)

The legacy of Apollo 11

Six missions flew to the moon after Apollo 11, all of them successful landings that emphasised science and exploration (with the infamous exception of Apollo 13 – an explosion on board forced it to circle the moon without landing). Apollo 12 made a pinpoint landing to recover hardware from the Surveyor 3 probe that had landed three years earlier. Apollo 14 explored the more geologically-diverse ‘Fra Mauro’ formation on the moon’s surface, rich in samples from an impact event. Apollos 15, 16, and 17 added a lunar rover to the mission, thereby extending the ground that astronauts could cover in a single moonwalk. These missions explored mountain regions, highlands, and valleys on the moon, adding diversity to the collected samples. And each of these missions left instruments on the moon’s surface to measure seismic events and solar wind, among other things. All told, the six landing missions brought back 842 pounds of rocks and other samples and a wealth of data that scientists continue to use to this day.

NASA’s plan was to build on Apollo’s success with the Apollo Applications Program (AAP). This would have seen longer lunar missions and even potential manned missions to Mars and Venus. But in the early 1970s, with President Richard Nixon newly in office, America was even less interested in funding space science. Apollo was cut short – Apollos 18, 19, and 20 were cancelled – and the AAP was canned in favour of the shuttle programme, which was designed to make spaceflight routine and ultimately more cost-effective.

From our modern perspective, 50 years after Armstrong’s “one small step,” it’s easy to romanticise Apollo 11 and the whole lunar landing programme as a peaceful one done for the sake of exploration and human ingenuity. In reality, going to the moon was an offshoot of the Cold war, with Apollo 11’s landing a moment of success at the end of a difficult decade.

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Amy Shira Teitel is a spaceflight historian, author, YouTuber, and popular space personality. She holds a Bachelor’s degree with combined honours in History of Science and Technology Studies and a Master’s in Science and Technology Studies. You can find her on Twitter @AmyShiraTeitel, where she will be live-tweeting Apollo 11’s mission during the anniversary of the lunar landing.