Apollo 11: The Mission That Unified America

Today marks 50 years since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history by landing on the moon, beginning their mission with John F. Kennedy’s Rice speech and completed by his successor. Their accomplishment unified our nation.

Reaching the Moon was no simple endeavor. Teasel Muir-Harmony, an historian, unearthed documents that revealed its associated political turmoil.

Kennedy’s Space Vision

Kennedy set an audacious and ambitious goal of landing men on the Moon “before this decade is out,” in order to reenergize America’s lax space program. He stressed the responsibility of government leaders in making it possible for astronauts to travel safely from Earth to Moon and back, tying this ambitious objective closely to national security concerns as well as democracy versus communism struggles, in order to galvanize all available financial resources across America.

As President John F. Kennedy spoke before Congress, America had just amassed 15 minutes of human space flight experience following Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight. Yet JFK remained confident that NASA could achieve his ambitious vision for space exploration.

Teasel Muir-Harmony of the Smithsonian Institution has demonstrated, through her book ‘Operation Moonglow: Political History of Project Apollo,’ that Kennedy’s interest in space exploration was more than simply scientific in nature; rather it represented part of his larger strategy for global dominance. A Cold War warrior himself, Kennedy took several initiatives designed to catch up with Soviet progress in space exploration such as this race to reach lunar orbit.

This period was one of immense transformation, tragedy and division within the United States as civil rights protesters marched through Cape Kennedy while America engaged in war in Vietnam. American public opinion initially was not enthusiastic about spending billions on space race projects vying with Soviet ones; according to a Gallup poll on June 2, 1961 58 percent opposed spending so much money for such purposes.

NASA Administrator James Webb persuaded President Kennedy that sending astronauts to the Moon was essential in maintaining America’s leadership in science and space exploration, noting how rapidly Soviet space capabilities were growing at that time. Furthermore, Webb asserted that sending such missions would give America economic and political prestige.

At last, President Johnson chose to prioritize the Apollo program; however, political contention over its scope continued into indefinitum.

The Race to the Moon

After Yuri Gagarin’s historic spaceflight on April 12, 1961, the race to reach the Moon quickly intensified. Although America lagged behind at first, by May that same year Navy test pilot Alan Shepard became the second person ever to travel into space – not seeing stars due to his capsule’s porthole positioning; nevertheless he gained an incredible view of Earth and beyond!

Soon after, President Kennedy stood before Congress and pledged that NASA would land a crew on the Moon by the end of this decade. Although he had previously made this pledge in speeches, this one galvanized public support and increased government investment. John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University and an expert in space exploration history believes that Kennedy may have had specific reasons for setting such an aggressive timeline for exploration.

He believed the public would rally behind this effort. Furthermore, he wanted to put pressure on the Soviet Union by showing their inferiority in human spaceflight technology and make an impressionful statement about American dominance in human spaceflight. Additionally, he wanted the American people to know their leaders were taking an unprecedented risk that could turn the tide of Cold War history.

As a result of Kennedy’s decision, NASA employees more than doubled in number while contractors working on Apollo quadrupled. Most workers involved were aged 40-50 with considerable military or aeronautical experience – engineers Max Faget and Chris Kraft designed spacecraft that would eventually carry astronauts to the Moon; flight controllers such as Henry Hartley and Michael Collins devised ways of landing it safely; while German immigrant Werner von Braun created rockets necessary for it all to work successfully.

Apollo was successful due to its clear goal, with an outline and timeline. Without these parameters, discussions over how best to reach their destination might have continued for longer; plus the short timeline meant swift decisions had to be made quickly.

The Apollo Program

JFK set into motion an unprecedented expansion of America’s space program through his 1961 speech promising to send man to the Moon. This narrative examines all of the factors that came together to facilitate that audacious feat, positioning NASA’s Apollo missions as central components of American identity and strategic interests; further illuminating their bold vision and rigorous scientific inquiry that produced technological marvels that have significantly altered modern life on Earth.

Apollo 8, the first crewed flight ever taken by humans into space, saw Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders reach low-Earth orbit and deploy a TV camera for broadcast back home. Unfortunately, their launch date was delayed further putting pressure on NASA to meet their lunar landing target before Soviet’s Energia rocket could send Yuri Gagarin into orbit.

Apollo 9 was an even greater undertaking, yet had only 10 days from launch to complete its mission – forcing astronauts Charles “Pete” Conrad, Alan Bean and Richard Gordon to expedite their planned tasks to test out docking procedures necessary for lunar landing.

Apollo 11 launched, docking Columbia to Eagle. Once all four astronauts had adjusted, Collins stayed behind while Armstrong and Aldrin conducted their first moonwalks.

Over two hours, astronauts explored within 60 meters of Eagle and conducted various tasks. They collected 21.6 kilograms of samples as well as deployed seismometers to measure moonquakes, laser ranging retroreflectors to determine Earth-Moon distance and devices designed to sample solar wind composition.

But America faced steep odds. The mission was an expensive research endeavor undertaken during peacetime, while political and social unrest meant both public and congressional support began to diminish, making it harder for NASA to meet their lunar landing goals.

The Final Mission

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s landmark lunar landing marked a momentous victory of 400,000 workers for nine years spanning two administrations, an accident which claimed three astronauts’ lives, turbulent 1960s politics and more tumult. NASA’s initial human spaceflight program cost $28 billion – although only 53% of Americans believed its worth by 1973 when its first human flight ended.

Recorded audio from just 10 weeks after Rice’s speech shows an entirely different side to Kennedy and his immense space exploration project: He spent much of the meeting asking Webb questions about budgets and timelines, suggesting something wasn’t quite going according to plan.

President Kennedy was clearly angry over the mounting challenges to his space effort. After setting in motion a project that required immense political and fiscal resources, and now congressional critics were downgrading it further – all while trying to maintain public trust while the Vietnam War continued at such great cost (16,899 soldiers had died already).

He made it clear to Webb that he believed more money might help bring the lunar landing closer to 1967; however, he did not believe it could happen sooner. Either way, he asserted his convictions regarding space exploration by emphasizing its “conquest.”

Armstrong and Aldrin spent 21 hours and 36 minutes exploring the moon’s surface, conducting scientific and engineering experiments, taking photographs, reading an inscription plaque, reading its text, reading its plaque’s inscription, photographing their surroundings and collecting soil and rock samples for return to Earth. On this voyage, they also recorded a television image of Earth, took a telephonic call with President Richard Nixon back at NASA’s control center in Houston and jettisoned their lunar module before rejoining Collins in Eagle. At that momentous moment, an estimated 650 million television viewers watched Armstrong take “one small step for man, one giant leap for humanity”. (Photo credit: NASA) Kennedy used the podium from Apollo 11 while at Space Center Houston; our Destiny Theater now displays this historic item!

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