One Giant Leap: The Apollo Space Program at 50

Today’s post comes from Garet Anderson-Lind from the National Archives History Office.

President John F. Kennedy’s Special Address to a Joint Session of Congress, May 25, 1961. (JFK Library Digital Identifier JFKWHP-ST-M19-1-61)

Fifty years ago, one of the greatest enterprises in human history began: the Apollo Space Program. Through the collective effort of a nation, it was going to put a man on the Moon.

While many here in the United States are aware of the program, and even more with its zenith—the Moon landing—its origins, its technological victories, and the national pride the program as a whole brought are less well known.

The motivation for the Apollo Space Program and the goal of landing a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s originated in President John K. Kennedy’s speech to a Joint Session of Congress on May 25, 1961.

While the U.S. Space Program was well under way by the time Kennedy came into office, he was a major advocate for space exploration and the first to set the greatest goal for NASA—and the country.

As Kennedy stated:

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. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

Press copy of Kennedy’s Special Message to Congress, May 25, 1961. (National Archives Identifier 193915)

This statement put pressure on the fledgling NASA space program, given the agency had only put their first man into space less than a month before. Yet before the decade was out, the agency not only caught up to but far surpassed the USSR’s space program.

Despite the fact that the Apollo project would reach the heavens and land on the Moon, it had a saddening and eye-opening start.

crew of apollo i
Crew of Apollo 1: Virgil “Gus” Ivan Grissom, Edward Higgins White, II, and Roger Bruce Chaffee. (NASA Photo, JFK Library, ca. 1967)

On January 27, 1967, while conducting a simulated launch pad test called a plug-out test for Apollo 1, the cabin of module caught fire, burning through the interior and killing the three astronauts that were inside.

NASA immediately halted the space program and dedicated an immense amount of time to first figuring out what had caused the fire, and then making sure it would not happen again for future missions.

The NASA investigation was overseen by both the House and Senate, which led to the removal of two NASA executives. Though a tragedy, the fire and subsequent investigation taught NASA valuable lessons and helped ensure the ultimate completion of the Apollo program.

While NASA conducted several space and rocket tests in the wake of the Apollo 1 disaster, it was not until Apollo 7 reached space in October 1968 that the program was back on track to completing Kennedy’s promise. Upon reaching space, the astronauts of Apollo 7 orbited the Earth for 11 days, testing spacecraft hardware and the new Apollo command/service module.

Upon the technical achievements and successes of the previous missions, NASA launched Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969.

Photograph of the Apollo 11 Crew, left to right, Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin,” ca. 1969. (National Archives Identifier 4957611)

Manned by astronauts Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong, the Americans succeeded in becoming the first human beings to set foot on the Moon when Armstrong and Aldrin stepped out of the lunar module.

Planting the Stars and Stripes on July 21, the astronauts fulfilled Kennedy’s promise to a nation eight years before and the hopes of a generation striving for peace.

Through the concerted efforts of the people at NASA and other American innovators, the Apollo missions gave us some of the greatest technological innovations in the history of mankind.

Thanks to the Apollo space missions, technologies like heat-resistant reinforcement and freeze-dried food help make our modern world possible.

Besides the material benefits of going to space, the success of putting a man on the Moon before the Soviets gave Americans intense national pride. While Soviets had obtained many space “firsts” like the first artificial satellite and putting the first man in space, Apollo 11 cemented America as the winner of the “space race.”

As President Nixon said in a phone call to the astronauts after landing “For every American, this has to be the proudest day of our lives.”

President Richard Nixon Greeting the Apollo 11 Astronauts on the USS Hornet, July 24, 1969. (National Archives Identifier 17409727)

Without the courage and intelligence of the NASA personnel, one of the greatest chapters in American history may never have been written. Though bogged down by delays, disasters, and an overwhelming deadline, the workers and astronauts of NASA persevered, eventually conducting many successful space missions and advancing the cause of peace loving people everywhere.

Watch an excerpt from Kennedy’s address before a Joint Session of Congress, May 25, 1961, from the JFK Library. 

Documents related to JFK’s call to land a man on the moon will be on display in the Public Vaults gallery of the National Archives Museum in Washington, DC, from October 12, 2017, through April 26, 2018.

And visit the National Archives website for more information on researching the history of the Space Program. 

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