• Exploring American History

America’s Amazing 66 Years – Part 3 – to the Moon and Back

On September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy spoke to a crowd of approximately 40,000 gathered in Houston, Texas at the stadium of Rice University. During his speech, he stated:

We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do other things; not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

In 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth. This achievement apparently lit a fire in the president’s heart – one that sought to outdo the Russian’s accomplishment – and he wanted the arrival on the lunar surface to occur within that decade. Though Kennedy would not live to see the event take place, the first two Americans to set foot on the Moon (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin) arrived there on July 20, 1969 – fulfilling the president’s dream to have it happen in the decade of the ’60s. Shortly after the lunar module touched down at 4:18 p.m., a group of individuals at NASA’s Mission Control in Houston heard Neil Armstrong tell them - and the world, “the Eagle has landed.”

America’s program of manned space travel began in 1959 when the Mercury Project was launched by the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) and was composed of seven astronauts (the Mercury Seven). Included in the group were: Deke Slayton, Gordon Cooper, Wally Schirra, Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, Gus Grissom and Alan Shepard.

On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard started things off. Even though his flight was short, it accomplished the tasks assigned to it by NASA. (This would not be Shepard’s only time away from gravity. 10 years later he became the 5th man to walk on the Moon – and the first to play golf while he was there.) Two years later, Astronaut Gordon Cooper’s 34-hour flight in “Faith 7” on May 15, 1963, heralded the conclusion of the Mercury program.

Following Mercury, the first Gemini flight lifted off on March 23, 1965. “Molly Brown” carried her two passengers – Virgil “Gus” Grissom and John W. Young – into space and won for Grissom the title of “the first man to travel in space twice”. The Gemini program ran from 1962 – 1966, with 10 crewed missions. Waiting in the wings was Apollo.

Before an Apollo flight ever took off, the program experienced a grave tragedy. On January 27, 1967, astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee – the crew of Apollo 1 – were in the capsule on the launch pad when a fire broke out. The pure oxygen environment was immediately engulfed in flames and claimed the lives of the three astronauts. The disaster forced NASA to closely examine a number of aspects regarding the spacecraft prior to moving forward.

Apollo 8 was the first American spacecraft to orbit the Moon. Looking down on the lunar surface on Christmas Eve, 1968, the crew read from the Book of Genesis for the entire world to hear.

On July 20, 1969, President Kennedy’s goal became a reality when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the Moon’s surface and were heard to announce, “the Eagle has landed.”

Before long, Neil Armstrong exited the module and became the first man to step on the lunar surface. Leaving his footprints in the dust, he stated, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind!” Aldrin joined him a short time later. The two men then went about collecting rock samples and setting up some experiments. Prior to returning to the module, they planted an American flag on the lunar surface, along with a plaque and medallions to honor the crew of Apollo 1.

When you stop to consider the immense amount of progress required to go from Kitty Hawk to the Moon, 66 years does not seem like a very long timeframe – and says a great deal about American ingenuity.

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