May 25, 1961
The 35th U.S. president John F. Kennedy delivered a stirring speech before a joint session of Congress. In it, he declared his intention to focus U.S. efforts on landing humans on the moon within a decade. His words ignited the work of a decade and ultimately achieved the dream of a moon landing, via the Apollo missions. Among other things, he said:
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. None will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.
We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft … to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior [and we propose] additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations. Those explorations are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight.
The Eagle has landed
The first human footsteps on the moon were taken during the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969. That historic flight had launched from the Kennedy Space Center, just off the coast of Florida, on July 16, 1969. Three NASA astronauts were aboard: Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins.
While in flight, the crew of Apollo 11 made two televised broadcasts from the interior of the ship. They made a third transmission as they drew closer to the moon, as they showed the lunar surface to a waiting world.
Mission planners had studied the surface of the moon for two years, searching for the best and safest place for the lunar module to land. That module was nicknamed the Eagle. Planners had used the most detailed, high-resolution photographs at the time, taken by crafts employed in the Lunar Orbiter and Surveyor programs. They’d considered craters, boulders, cliffs, hills, and other lunar obstacles. Finally, they narrowed the candidate list from 30 sites to one: the Sea of Tranquility.
After the three astronauts reached lunar orbit, Armstrong and Aldrin entered the Eagle. They separated from the Command Service Module (Columbia). While Collins piloted Columbia in orbit around the moon, the Eagle touched down in the Sea of Tranquility. It was 4:17 p.m. EDT on July 20, 1969. And that’s when Armstrong notified the world with the historic words:
Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.
The Apollo missions
Six Apollo missions went to the moon: Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17. Apollo 7 and 9 preceded Apollo 11 and orbited Earth as a test of the lunar modules. Apollo 8 and 10 tested technical components while orbiting the moon and returned quality photos of the lunar surface.
Apollo 13 in 1970 didn’t land, due to a dramatic malfunction that risked the lives of the crew. This mission was made famous for a new generation in the 1995 space docudrama Apollo 13, directed by Ron Howard. And even Apollo 13, disabled as it was, returned photographs.
The Apollo missions returned a wealth of data about the moon, and 842 pounds (382 kg) of rocks. The astronauts also performed experiments on lunar soil mechanics, meteoroids, seismic activity, heat flow, lunar ranging, magnetic fields and solar wind experiments.
The Apollo missions, first declared as a goal in John F. Kennedy’s May 25, 1961 speech, is now the stuff of legend. Man’s first step on the moon soon led to giant leaps in technology on Earth and modern life continues to reap its rewards. For example, new technologies were developed, including breathing apparatuses, fabric structures, communications, and protective coatings.
When will we have another moon landing?
In February, 2021, NASA’s ongoing Artemis mission got a positive mention in a White House press briefing. It was a welcome boost to those waiting to hear how Artemis will fare under the new Joe Biden administration. The stated goal of Artemis is to return men and women to the moon by 2024. During the briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki (@PressSec on Twitter) said:
… I’m very excited about it now to tell my daughter all about it … To date, only 12 humans have walked on the moon, more than half a century ago. The Artemis program, a waypoint to Mars, will increase that number.
The 2024 date is the only date announced so far in connection with Artemis. But there are technical challenges, which likely will delay it.
Bottom line: On May 25, 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy gave a stirring speech to a joint session of Congress. In it, he declared his intention to lead the country to a moon landing by the end of the decade.