The story of how men first set foot on the Moon one fateful day on July 20, 1969, will always be enshrined as one of America’s greatest contributions to history. When the first humans looked upwards to the night sky thousands of years ago, they must have marveled at the pale Moon looming in the heavens, set against the backdrop of countless stars. Inspired by the skies, and driven by a natural desire for exploration, humans must have wondered what was out there, and if it would be somehow possible to ever explore the distant heavens above.
Indeed, even the Bible tells us that the patriarch of faith, Abraham, was told by God in Genesis 15:5, “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them. So shall your descendants be.”
The word given to Abraham may have been more than just an impressive way of promising an elderly man way past the age of conception that he would bear many children; it seems more like an invitation that mankind’s destiny belongs not merely on Earth, but among the stars of the limitless cosmos, as a spacefaring civilization.
For most of mankind’s history, space travel was relegated to wild myths, hopeless dreams, and fanciful science fiction. The first hurdle in reaching for the stars would be mastering staying aloft in Earth’s atmosphere, which by itself was no easy task. Observing birds, humans for millennia had tried to emulate organic wings with little to no success, not truly understanding the science of lift or the physics of flight.
Like Icarus of Greek mythology, the 11th century English Benedictine monk Eilmer of Malmesbury attempted to foray into the skies by fashioning wings as a kind of primitive glider, but he only succeeded in flying a short distance before he crashed, breaking his legs. Later, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier would give mankind a critical first in flight when he took off aboard the Montgolfier hot air balloon in 1783.
Ironically, it would not be benevolent inspiration that would free mankind from his millennia-old ties to the ground beneath his feet, but the pressing demands of war and increasing militarization of the planet. As the Industrial Age began, so also arose the age of warfare, and men knew from countless battles that whoever held the high ground could defend any stronghold or defeat any army. And what greater high ground could afford victory, than the heavens themselves?
Once balloons had been proven an effective and stable means of flight, militaries began to use them as spotting platforms to see enemy movements from a distance and provide accurate targeting for artillery. Notably, during the American Civil War, balloons made for a kind of early air forces for both the Union and Confederacy.
When the Wright Brothers at last mastered the art of controlled and powered flight in a fixed-wing aircraft on December 17, 1903, less than a decade later after the invention of the airplane, the First World War would erupt and aircraft and blimps would become crucial weapons in deciding the outcome of battles.
Germany’s defeat, which was seen by many Germans as something that should not have happened and should never happen again, stirred people like the former army lance corporal Adolf Hitler to pursue more advanced aerial weapons as a means of establishing military superiority.
Even as propeller planes were seen as the ultimate form of aircraft by most militaries of the time, in the late 1930s, German engineers Eugen Sänger and Irene Bredt were already envisioning spacecraft to attack enemies from orbit. In 1941, they conceived plans for the Silbervogel (“Silver Bird”), a rocket-powered space bomber that could take off into low Earth orbit, descend, and bounce off the outer atmosphere like a tossed stone skipping across a pond to reach an enemy target even half a world away.
Fortunately for the United States, the Silbervogel would never be produced, but other German scientists would be working on wonder weapons of their own, one of them being Wernher von Braun, an engineer who had childhood dreams of landing men on the Moon with rockets.
Working at the Peenemünde Army Research Center, von Braun infamously gave Nazi Germany the power to use V-2 rockets, a kind of early ballistic missile that could deliver a high-explosive warhead hundreds of miles away. One such V-2 rocket, MW 18014, test launched on June 20, 1944, became the first man-made object to cross above the Kármán line – Earth’s atmospheric edge of space – when it reached an apogee of 176 kilometers in flight.
While these weapons did not win the war for Nazi Germany, they aroused the interest of both the United States and the Soviets, and as the victorious Allies reclaimed Europe, a frantic effort to capture German scientists for their aerospace knowledge would become the prelude to a coming Cold War.
The Nuclear Age and Space
The use of the Fat Man and Little Boy atomic bombs against Japan brought to light a realization among planners in both the United States and the Soviet Union: The next battleground for control of the planet would be space. Between the difficulty in intercepting weapons like the V-2 rocket, and the destructive capability of the atom bomb, the nations that emerged victorious in WWII all saw potential in combining these technologies together.
At the end of WWII, both the Soviet Union and the United States brought back to their countries numerous German scientists and unused V-2 rockets for the purposes of creating their own next-generation of missiles.
The early V-2 rockets developed by von Braun for Nazi Germany were primitive and inaccurate weapons, but they had demonstrated the capability to carry objects, such as an explosive warhead, in high ballistic arcs over the earth. Early atomic bombs were bulky and extremely heavy, which meant that in order to deliver these weapons of mass destruction across space, larger rockets would need to be developed.
It is no accident then that the early space launchers of both the Soviet Union and the United States were, in fact, converted intercontinental ballistic missiles (or ICBMs) meant for delivering nuclear payloads. The first successful nuclear ICBM was the Soviet R-7 Semyorka (NATO reporting name SS-6 “Sapwood”), which would be the basis for the modified rocket 8K71PS No. M1-1PS, that sent Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, into orbit on October 4, 1957.
The success of the Soviets in putting the first satellite into orbit awed the entire world, but was disturbing to the President Dwight D. Eisenhower White House, because it was not lost on the U.S. military that this accomplishment was more or less a demonstration of nuclear delivery capabilities by the Russians.
And while the United States in 1957 had an overwhelming superiority in nuclear weapons numbers relative to the Soviets, the nuclear doctrine of the early Cold War was structured around a bluff of “massive retaliation” created by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that intended to minimize the proliferation of new conflicts – including space – by threatening atomic use as the default response.
“If an enemy could pick his time and place and method of warfare,” Dulles had said in a dinner before the Council on Foreign Relations in January 1954, “and if our policy was to remain the traditional one of meeting aggression by direct and local opposition, then we needed to be ready to fight in the Arctic and in the Tropics; in Asia, the Near East; and in Europe; by sea, by land, and by air; with old weapons, and with new weapons.”
A number of terrifying initial conclusions emerged from the success of Sputnik. First, it showed that the Soviets had reached the ultimate high ground before U.S./NATO forces, and that their future ICBMs could potentially put any target in the world at risk for nuclear bombardment.
To put things into perspective, a jet plane like the American B-47, B-52, or B-58 bombers of the time, took upwards of 8 hours or more cruising through the stratosphere to strike a target from its airbase. But an ICBM, which can reach speeds of Mach 23 or faster in its terminal descent from orbit, can hit any target in the world in 35 minutes or less from launch. This destabilizing development whittled down the U.S. advantage, as it gave the Soviets the possibility of firing first in a surprise attack to “decapitate” any superior American or NATO forces that might be used against them.
The second, and more alarming perception paved by the Soviet entry into space was that America had dropped the ball and been left behind, not only technologically, but historically. In the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev sought to gut check the integrity of both the United States and the NATO alliance by showcasing novel technological accomplishments, such as the Sputnik launch, to cast a long shadow over Western democracies and to imply that communism would be the wave of the future.
In a flurry of briefings and technical research studies that followed the Sputnik orbit, von Braun and other scientists in the U.S. determined that while the Soviets had beaten the West into orbit, the engineering and industrial capabilities of America would ultimately make it feasible for the U.S. over the long term to accomplish a greater feat, in which a man could be landed on the Moon.
Texas Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, later to be vice president to the young, idealistic John F. Kennedy, would be one of the staunchest drivers behind the scenes in pushing for America’s landing on the Moon. The early years of the space race were tough to endure, as NASA, America’s fledgling new civilian space agency, seemed – at least in public – to always be one step behind the Soviets in accomplishing space firsts.
Johnson, a rough-on-the-edges, technocratic leader who saw the necessity of preventing a world “going to sleep by the light of a communist Moon” pushed to keep America in the space fight even when it appeared, to some, as though American space rockets “always seemed to blow up.” His leadership would put additional resolve in the Kennedy administration to stay the course, and may have arguably ensured America being the first and only nation to land men on the Moon.
The Soviets would score another blow to America when on April 12, 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space when he made a 108-minute orbital flight, launched on the Vostok-K 8K72K rocket, another R-7 ICBM derivative.
But a month later on May 5, 1961, NASA began to catch-up with the Soviets when Alan Shepard and his Freedom 7 space capsule successfully made it into space, brought aloft by the Mercury-Redstone rocket which was adapted from the U.S. Army’s PGM-11 short range nuclear ballistic missile.
Each manned launch and counter-launch between the two superpowers was more than just a demonstration of scientific discovery; they were suggestions of nuclear launch capabilities, specifically, the warhead throw weight power of either country’s missiles, and a thinly veiled competition of who, at any given point in time, was winning the Cold War.
International Politics and Space
President Kennedy, speaking at Rice University on September 12, 1962, just one month before the Cuban Missile Crisis, hinted to the world that the Soviet advantage in space was not quite what it seemed to be, and that perhaps some of their “less public” space launches had been failures. Promising to land men on the Moon before the decade ended, Kennedy’s “Moon speech” at Rice has been popularly remembered as the singular moment when America decided to come together and achieve the impossible, but this is not the whole story.
In truth, ten days after giving the Moon speech, Kennedy privately reached out to Khrushchev pleading with him to make the landing a joint affair, only to be rebuffed, and then to find himself in October 14 of that same year ambushed by the Soviets with offensive nuclear missiles pointed at the U.S. in Cuba.
Kennedy thought himself to be a highly persuasive, flexible leader who could peaceably talk others into agreeing to make political changes, which set him at odds with the more hard-nosed, realpolitik-minded members of both his administration and the U.S. military. It also invited testing of his mettle by the salty Khrushchev, who saw the youthful American president – “Profiles in Courage” aside – as inexperienced, pliable, and a pushover.
Still, while the Moon race was a crucial part of keeping America and her allies encouraged amidst the ever-chilling Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis deeply shook Kennedy and brought him face-to-face with the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse.
Kennedy had already nearly gone to nuclear war once before during the now largely forgotten Berlin Crisis of 1961 when his special advisor to West Berlin, Lucius D. Clay, responded to East German harassment of American diplomatic staff with aggressive military maneuvers, but the Cuba standoff had become one straw too heavy for the idealistic JFK.
Fearing the escalating arms race, experiencing sticker shock over the growing cost of the Moon race he had committed America to, and ultimately wanting to better relations with the Soviet Union, a year later on September 20, 1963 before the United Nations, Kennedy dialed his public Moon rhetoric back and revisited his private offer to Khrushchev when he asked, albeit rhetorically, “Why, therefore, should man’s first flight to the Moon be a matter of national competition?”
The implications of a joint U.S.-Soviet Moon landing may have tickled the ears of world leaders throughout the General Assembly, but behind the scenes, it agitated both Democrats and Republicans alike, who not-so-secretly began to wonder if Kennedy was “soft” on communism.
Even Kennedy’s remarks to the press over the developing conflict in Vietnam during his first year as president were especially telling about his worldview amidst the arms race and space race of the Cold War: “But we happen to live – because of the ingenuity of science and man’s own inability to control his relationships with one another – we happen to live in the most dangerous time in the history of the human race.”
Kennedy’s handling of the Bay of Pigs, Berlin, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his more idealistic approaches to the openly belligerent Soviet Union began to shake the political establishment, and the possibility of ceding the Moon to a kind of squishy, joint participation trophy embittered those who saw an American landing as a crucial refutation of Soviet advances.
JFK was an undeniably formidable orator, but in the halls of power, he was beginning to develop a reputation in his presidency as eroding America’s post-WWII advantages as a military superpower and leader of the international system. His rhetoric made some nervous, and suggestions of calling off an American Moon landing put a question mark over the future of the West for some.
Again, the Moon race wasn’t just about landing men on the Moon; it was about showcasing the might of one superpower over the other, and Kennedy’s attempts to roll back America’s commitment to space in favor of acquiescing to a Moon shared with the Soviets could have potentially cost the West the outcome of the Cold War.
As far back as 1961, NASA had already sought the assistance of the traditionally military-oriented National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) to gain access to top secret, exotic spy technologies which would assist them in surveying the Moon for future landings, and would later enter into memorandums of agreement with the NRO, Department of Defense, and Central Intelligence Agency. This is important, because the crossover between the separations of civilian spaceflight and military/intelligence space exploitation reflects how the space race served strategic goals rather than purely scientific ones.
On August 28, 1963, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and NASA Administrator James Webb had signed an MOA titled “DOD/CIA-NASA Agreement on NASA Reconnaissance Programs” (Document BYE-6789-63) which stated “NRO, by virtue of its capabilities in on-going reconnaissance satellite programs, has developed the necessary technology, contractor resources, and management skills to produce satisfactory equipments, and appropriate security methods to preserve these capabilities, which are currently covert and highly sensitive. The arrangement will properly match NASA requirements with NRO capabilities to perform lunar reconnaissance.”
Technology transfers also went both ways. The Gemini space capsules, developed by NASA as part of the efforts to master orbital operations such as spacewalks, orbital docking, and other aspects deemed critical to an eventual Moon landing, would even be considered by the United States Air Force for a parallel military space program on December 16, 1963. Adapting the civilian Gemini design into an alternate military version called the “Gemini-B,” the Air Force intended to put crews in orbit to a space station called the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL), which would serve as a reconnaissance platform to take pictures of Soviet facilities.
While the MOL program would ultimately be canceled in its infancy before ever actually going online by the President Richard Nixon Administration in 1969, it was yet another demonstration of the close-knit relationship between civilian and military space exploration to accomplish the same interests.
Gold Fever at NASA
Whatever President Kennedy’s true intentions may have been moving forward on the space race, his unfortunate death two months after his UN speech at the hands of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas on November 22, 1963 would be seized upon as a justification by the establishment to complete the original 1962 Rice University promise of landing an American first on the Moon, before the end of the decade.
Not surprisingly, one of Johnson’s very first actions in assuming the presidency after the death of Kennedy was to issue Executive Order 11129 on November 29, 1963, re-naming NASA’s Launch Operations Center in Florida as the “John F. Kennedy Space Center,” a politically adroit maneuver which ensured the space program was now seen as synonymous with the fallen president.
In world history, national icons and martyrs – even accidental or involuntary ones – are powerful devices for furthering causes that would ordinarily burnout and lose interest, if left to private opinion alone. Kennedy’s death led to a kind of “gold fever” at NASA in defeating the Soviets, and many stunning advances in space technology would be won in the aftermath of his passing.
So intense was the political pressure and organizational focus at NASA that some began to worry that corners were being cut and that there were serious issues that needed to be addressed.
On January 27, 1967, NASA conducted a “plugs out test” of their newly developed Apollo space capsule, where launch conditions would be simulated on the launch pad with the spacecraft running on internal power. The test mission, designated AS-204, had been strongly cautioned against by the spacecraft’s manufacturer, North American Aviation, because of the fact that it would take place at sea level and with pure oxygen, where the pressure would be dangerously higher than normal atmospheric pressure. Nevertheless, NASA proceeded with the test.
Veteran astronauts Roger B. Chaffee, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, and Ed White, who crewed the test mission, would perish when an electrical malfunction sparked a fire that spread rapidly as a result of the pure oxygen atmosphere of the capsule. Their deaths nearly threatened to bring the entire U.S. space program to a screeching halt, but NASA was able to rise above the tragedy, adding the loss of their astronauts as yet another compelling case for making it to the Moon before the decade would end.
On January 30, 1967, the Monday that followed the “Apollo 1” fire, NASA flight director Eugene F. Kranz gathered his staff together and gave an impromptu speech that would change the space agency forever.
“Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect,” he began. “Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it.”
He would go on to say, “We did not do our job. We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts we knew it would be a miracle. We were pushing the schedule and betting that the Cape would slip before we did. From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: Tough and Competent. ‘Tough’ means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control, we will know what we stand for.”
“‘Competent’ means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills; Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today, you will go back to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write ‘Tough and Competent’ on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room, these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.”
And “tough and competent” would be exactly what NASA would become in the days, months, and years to follow. The U.S. space agency in the wake of the Apollo fire would set exacting standards of professionalism, quality, and safety, even as they continued to increase in mastery of the technology and skills necessary to make it to the Moon.
America’s Finest Hour
Unbeknownst to U.S. intelligence agencies, the Soviets had already fallen vastly far behind in their own Moon program, and their N1 rocket, which was meant to compete with the U.S. Saturn V rocket, was by no means ready for manned use. Unlike NASA, the Soviet space program had become completely dependent on a volatile combination of personalities and politics, which bottlenecked innovation, slowed necessary changes, and in the end, made it impossible to adapt appropriately in the race for the Moon.
On December 21, 1968, the U.S. leapt into first place in the space race when Apollo 8 entered history as the first crewed spacecraft to leave Earth, orbit the Moon, and return. Having combined decades of military and civilian science, overcome terrible tragedies, and successfully applied lessons learned into achievements won, NASA could at last go on to attain mankind’s oldest dream of landing on the Moon with the Apollo 11 mission, launched on July 16, 1969 from the Kennedy Space Center launch complex LC-39A.
Astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” E. Aldrin Jr., and Michael Collins would reach the Moon’s orbit on July 19, where they would survey their target landing site at the Sea of Tranquility and begin preparations for separation from the Command Module, Columbia, and landing in the Lunar Module, The Eagle.
On Sunday, July 20, Armstrong and Aldrin would leave Collins behind to pilot the Apollo Command Module and begin their descent to the lunar surface below. Discovering their landing area strewn with large boulders, Armstrong took the Lunar Module out of computer control and manually steered the lander on its descent while searching for a suitable location, finding himself with only a mere 50 seconds of fuel left. But at 8:17 pm, Armstrong would touch down safely, declaring to a distant Planet Earth, “Houston, Tranquility Base here, The Eagle has landed!”
Communion on the Moon
As if to bring humanity full circle, two hours after landing on the surface of the Moon, Aldrin, a Presbyterian, quietly and unknown to NASA back on Earth, would remove from his uniform a small 3” x 5” notecard with a hand-written passage from John 15:5. Taking Communion on the Moon, Aldrin would read within the Lunar Module, “As Jesus said: I am the Vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in Me, and I in Him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without Me.”
Abraham, the Bible’s “father of faith,” could almost be said to have been honored by Aldrin’s confession of faith. In a sense, the landing of a believing astronaut on a distant heavenly object was like a partial fulfillment of the prophecy of Genesis 15:5, in which Abraham’s descendants would be like the stars in the sky.
Later, when Armstrong left the Lunar Module and scaled the ladder down to the Moon’s dusty surface, he would radio back to Earth, “That’s one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind.” Due to a 35-millisecond interruption in the signal, listeners would not hear the “one small step for a man” but instead, “one small step for man,” leaving the entire world with the impression that the NASA astronauts had won not just a victory for America, but for humankind, as a whole.
After planting Old Glory, the flag of the United States of America in the soft lunar dust, the Moon race had officially been won, and the Soviets, having lost the initiative, would scale back their space program to focus on other objectives, such as building space stations and attempting to land probes on other planets. The Soviets not only lost the Moon race, but their expensive investment that produced no propaganda success would also, ultimately, cost them the Cold War as well.
America would go on to send men to the Moon a total of six times and with twelve different astronauts between July 20, 1969 (Apollo 11) and December 11, 1972 (Apollo 17). The result of the U.S. winning the Moon race would be the caper of assuring the planet that the Western world would not be overtaken by the communist bloc, and many useful technologies which were employed either for the U.S. civilian space program or military aerospace applications would later find themselves in commercial, everyday use.
While other nations, including Russia, the European Union, Japan, India, China, Luxembourg, and Israel all have successfully landed unmanned probes on the Moon, to this date, only the United States holds the distinction of having placed humans on the Moon.
Someday, hopefully soon, humans will return once again to the Moon, and even travel from there to distant planets, or even distant stars. But no matter how far humanity travels, the enduring legacy of July 20, 1969 will be that freedom won the 20th century because America, not the Soviets, won the Moon race.
Landing on the Moon was a global victory for humanity, but getting there first will forever be a uniquely American accomplishment.
Dr. Danny de Gracia, Th.D., D.Min., is a political scientist, theologist, and former committee clerk to the Hawaii State House of Representatives. He is an internationally acclaimed author and novelist who has been featured worldwide in the Washington Times, New York Times, USA Today, BBC News, Honolulu Civil Beat, and more. He is the author of the novel American Kiss: A Collection of Short Stories.
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