For years, man has looked up at the stars and wondered, what power they
possessed or from what great God were they born? The answer to this question has
always been a dream to man, but the dream is getting closer to reality. Space travel in
the 1960’s was become a reality, but man went farther with his expectations. Man now
wanted to land and walk on the the only one of Earth’s natural satellites know as the
Moon. The splashdown May 26, 1969, of Apollo 10 cleared the way for the first formal
attempt at a manned lunar landing.1 The 363-foot-tall Apollo 11 space vehicle was
launched from Pad A, Launch Complex 39, Kennedy Space Center, at 9:37 a.m., July 16,
1969. It was the United States’ first lunar landing mission. The launch vehicle, AS-506,
was the sixth in the Apollo Saturn V series and was the fourth manned Saturn V vehicle.
After a 2?-hour check-out period, the spacecraft was injected into the translunar phase of
the mission.2 ? July 1996 marks the twenty-seventh anniversary of the epochal lunar
landing of Apollo 11 in the summer of 1969. Although President John F. Kennedy had
made a public commitment on 25 May 1961 to land an American on the Moon by the end
of the decade, up until this time Apollo had been all promise. Now the realization was
about to begin. Even though Kennedy’s political objectives were essentially achieved
with the decision to go to the Moon, Project Apollo took on a life of its own over the
years and left an important legacy to both the nation and the proponents of space
exploration. Its success was enormously significant, coming at a time when American
society was in crisis.?3
A unique confluence of political necessity, personal commitment and activism,
scientific and technological ability, economic prosperity, and public mood made possible
the 1961 decision to carry out an aggressive lunar landing program. It then fell to NASA,
other organizations of the federal government, and the aerospace community to
accomplish the task set out in a few short paragraphs by the president. By the time that
the goal was accomplished in 1969, only a few of the key figures associated with the
decision were still in leadership positions in the government. Kennedy fell victim to an
assassin’s bullet in 1963, and science adviser Jerome B. Wiesner returned to MIT soon
afterwards. Lyndon B. Johnson, of course, succeeded Kennedy as president but left office
in January 1969 just a few months before the first landing. NASA Administrator James
E. Webb resolutely guided NASA through most of the 1960s, but his image was tarnished
by, among other things, a 1967 Apollo accident that killed three astronauts. He retired
from office in October 1968. Several other early supporters of Apollo in Congress and
elsewhere died during the 1960s and never saw the program successfully completed.
The first Apollo mission of public significance was the flight of Apollo 8. On 21
December 1968 it took off atop a Saturn V booster from the Kennedy Space Center.
Three astronauts were aboard–Frank Borman, James A. Lovell, Jr., and William A.
Anders- -for a historic mission to orbit the Moon. At first that mission had been planned
as a flight to test Apollo hardware in the relatively safe confines of low Earth orbit, but
senior engineer George M. Low of the Manned Spacecraft Center at Houston, Texas, and
Samuel C. Phillips, Apollo Program Manager at NASA headquarters, obtained approval
to make it a circumlunar flight. The advantages of this could be important, they believed,
both in technical and scientific knowledge gained as well as in a public demonstration of
what the U.S. could achieve.
After Apollo 8 made one and a half Earth orbits its third stage began a burn to put
the spacecraft on a lunar trajectory. It orbited the Moon on 24-25 December and then
fired the boosters for a return flight; it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on 27
December. The public reaction to the Apollo 8 circumlunar mission was enthusiastic. It
rekindled the excitement felt in the early 1960s during the first Mercury flights, and set
the stage for the Apollo landing missions.
Perhaps most important, the flight was a significant accomplishment because it
came at a time when American society was in crisis over Vietnam, race relations, urban
problems, and a host of other difficulties. And if only for a few moments the nation
united as one to focus on this epochal event. Two Apollo Earth- orbital missions occurred
before the climax of the program, but they did little more than confirm that the time had
come in mid- 1969 for a lunar landing.
That landing came during the flight of Apollo 11, which lifted off on 16 July 1969
and, after confirmation that the hardware was working well, began the three day trip to
the Moon. Then, at 4:18 p.m. EST on 20 July 1969 the Lunar Module–with astronauts
Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. Aldrin aboard–landed on the surface of the Moon while
Michael Collins orbited overhead in the Apollo Command Module. After checkout,
Armstrong set foot on the surface, telling millions who saw and heard him on Earth that
it was one small step for man–one giant leap for mankind. Aldrin soon followed him
out, and the two plodded around the landing site in the 1/6 lunar gravity, planted an
American flag but omitted claiming the land for the U.S. as had been routinely done
during European exploration of the Americas, collected soil and rock samples, and set up
scientific experiments. The next day they launched back to the Apollo capsule orbiting
overhead and began the return trip to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific on 24 July.
The flight of Apollo 11 met with an ecstatic reaction around the globe, as
everyone shared in the success of the mission. Ticker tape parades, speaking
engagements, public relations events, and a world tour by the astronauts served to create
good will both in the U.S. and abroad.
Five more landing missions followed at approximately six month intervals
through December 1972, each of them increasing the time spent on the Moon. Three of
the latter Apollo missions used a lunar rover vehicle to travel in the vicinity of the
landing site, but none of them equalled the excitement of Apollo 11.
The scientific experiments placed on the Moon and the lunar soil samples
returned through Project Apollo have provided grist for scientists’ investigations of the
Solar System ever since. The scientific return was significant, but the Apollo program did
not answer conclusively the age-old questions of lunar origins and evolution.
Project Apollo in general, and the flight of Apollo 11 in particular, should be
viewed as a watershed in the nation’s history. It was an endeavor that demonstrated both
the technological and economic virtuousity of the United States and established national
preeminence over rival nations–the primary goal of the program when first envisioned by
the Kennedy administration in 1961. It had been an enormous undertaking, costing $25.4
billion, aproxemently $95 billion in 1990 dollars, with only the building of the Panama
Canal rivaling the Apollo program’s size as the largest non-military technological
endeavor ever undertaken by the United States and only the Manhattan Project to build
the atomic bomb in World War II being comparable in a wartime setting.
There are several important ?legacies? about Project Apollo that need to be
remembered at the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. First, and probably
most important, the Apollo program was successful in accomplishing the political goals
for which it had been created. Kennedy had been dealing with a Cold War crisis in 1961
brought on by several separate factors–the Soviet orbiting of Yuri Gagarin and the
disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion only two of them–that Apollo was designed to combat.
At the time of the Apollo 11 landing Mission Control in Houston flashed the words of
President Kennedy announcing the Apollo commitment on its big screen. Those phrases
were followed with these: TASK ACCOMPLISHED, July 1969. No greater
understatement could probably have been made. Any assessment of Apollo that does not
recognize the accomplishment of landing an American on the Moon and safely returning
before the end of the 1960s is incomplete and innaccurate, for that was the primary goal
of the undertaking.
Second, Project Apollo was a triumph of management in meeting enormously
difficult systems engineering and technological integration requirements. James E.
Webb, the NASA Administrator at the height of the program between 1961 and 1968,
always contended that Apollo was much more a management exercise than anything else,
and that the technological challenge, while sophisticated and impressive, was largely
within grasp at the time of the 1961 decision. More difficult was ensuring that those
technological skills were properly managed and used.
Webb’s contention was confirmed in spades by the success of Apollo. NASA
leaders had to acquire and organize unprecedented