Fifty years ago this summer, the U.S. became the first--and so far only--nation to land people on the moon. The anniversary comes just as a new race to the moon appears to be heating up.
In January, China achieved something no other nation has: It landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, the area that's not visible to people on Earth.
In April, Israel attempted to become only the fourth country, after the Soviet Union, the United States, and China, to land a spacecraft on the lunar surface. (The spacecraft appeared to crash on the moon.) Two more moon missions are scheduled for later this year, one by India and another by China.
The U.S.--still the only nation ever to send people to the moon's surface--is also rushing back to the moon. Since taking office, President Trump has vowed to send astronauts there for the first time since 1972, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) said in April that it aims to do so within a decade.
All of these moon missions have people talking of a new space race. The original space race, between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, was part of the Cold War--a larger struggle between the two world powers for political and military dominance. The U.S. took the top prize in the race 50 years ago this summer when Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon.
How did that first lunar landing come about--and why, 50 years later, are countries once again racing to the moon?
'Before This Decade Is Out'
On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy stood before Congress and delivered a bold proclamation. The U.S. should "commit itself," he said, "to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth."
To many, being able to send someone to another world 240,000 miles away (a distance equal to about nine-and-a-half loops around the Earth) within nine years seemed ridiculous--if not impossible. NASA had only just recently launched an astronaut, Alan Shepard, into space for the first time, and U.S. passenger jets had been around for only a few years. Color TVs were just making their way into people's living rooms, and personal computers wouldn't become common in homes for another three decades.
But Kennedy believed the times demanded an ambitious goal. Ever since the Soviets had launched the satellite Sputnik in 1957, triggering the space race (see Timeline, p. 20), the U.S. had been trying to catch up, and many questioned whether it was falling behind its Communist rival technologically.
Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union, had even used the country's early successes in space to claim that "economy, science, culture, and the creative genius of people in all areas of life develop better and faster under Communism."
Desperate to prove that capitalism and democracy were paramount, Kennedy told NASA's administrator, James Webb: "Everything we do ought to really be tied into getting onto the moon ahead of the Russians."
Fire in the Cockpit
NASA created the Apollo program to achieve that goal, employing the efforts of nearly halfa-million people and spending $20 billion (the equivalent of more than $100 billion in today's money). The program didn't get off to a good start, however. In 1967, three astronauts were killed when a fire erupted in the cockpit of a spacecraft during a training exercise for Apollo 1.
But the U.S. soon forged ahead. The following year, the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) learned that the Soviets were on the verge of sending an astronaut into orbit around the moon. In an incredible feat of ingenuity, NASA rushed three astronauts into the moon's orbit before the Soviets. The mission, Apollo 8, delivered the first major victory for the U.S. in the space race.
By then, Kennedy had been assassinated, but for the first time, his dream of sending astronauts to the moon before the decade closed seemed possible.
Possible--but still extremely risky. NASA's next two missions, Apollo 9 and Apollo 10, successfully tested many of the tasks the astronauts of Apollo 11 would need to perform on their voyage to the moon and back. But two things could never be tested: a manned landing on the moon and launching a spacecraft off the lunar surface. So one of the biggest questions leading up to Apollo 11 was whether the astronauts would get stranded on the moon.
President Richard Nixon even had a speech prepared in case that happened. "Fate has ordained," he would say, "that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace."
'One Giant Leap'
The world turned its attention to the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida, on July 16, 1969, the day of the Apollo 11 launch. Armstrong, Aldrin, and a third astronaut, Mike Collins, sat atop a 363-foot-tall rocket with the chemical energy of a small atomic bomb, about to go where no one had ever been before--a celestial body remarkably different from our own, with surface gravity only one-sixth of Earth's and temperatures that range from 260 degrees Fahrenheit to minus 280 degrees.
Armstrong thought there was only a 50-50 chance they'd successfully touch down on the moon. Sure enough, four days into their journey, when it came time to land, they ran into trouble.
While in the moon's orbit, Armstrong and Aldrin boarded the lunar module, the Eagle, and broke apart from the command module to fly the rest of the way to the surface. As planned, Collins remained in the command module orbiting the moon. If anything were to happen to Armstrong and Aldrin, he would be the lone survivor.
The Eagle's descent was supposed to be guided by computer. But at about 1,000 feet from the surface, Armstrong noticed a problem: They were headed for a giant crater, surrounded by boulders. He...