A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

Apollo astronauts land on the Moon

Photo: Lunar module and astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the moon, photographed by astronaut Neil Armstrong

The start of America's effort to get humans to the moon is often linked to President Kennedy's 1961 speech, which set this as a goal to achieve by the end of the decade. His speech boosted funding for NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), but the journey to the moon really goes back to 1959, when NASA was just beginning.

NASA's first space exploration program, named Mercury, was an urgent attempt to catch up to the Russians, who had already launched an orbiting satellite and put a dog into space. Mercury successfully put an American into earth orbit in 1961 for 24 hours -- a month after the Soviets. The next stage of the U.S. space program, called Gemini, advanced spacecraft design by engineering dockable components. The Apollo program followed, named for the Greek god of music, prophecy, medicine, light, and progress.

Apollo spacecraft were designed for travel to the moon. Improving on Gemini's component parts, Apollo spacecraft were made up of three modules. The command module could carry three astronauts. The service module held the engines, electric power generator, and oxygen and water stores. The lunar module was itself a two-stage vehicle, designed to get the astronauts from the command module orbiting the moon to the moon's surface, and then to serve as their shelter while on the moon. Several test flights were accomplished, but on January 27, 1967, a fire in the command module on the launch pad killed all three crew members. A faulty hatch had prevented their escape. NASA took a step back from its hurried pace.

The missions of Apollos 7, 8, 9, and 10 tested equipment in Earth and lunar orbit, but Apollo 11 was slated to land on the moon. It launched on July 16, 1969 at 9: 23 a.m. Seventy-six hours later, it entered lunar orbit. There was a television camera on board the lunar module, so the entire world could see mission commander Neil Armstrong climb lightly down the ladder in the moon's low gravity and could hear his slightly scratchy voice transmitted to Houston: "That's one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind."

Apollo 11, like the spacecraft before it, returned to Earth by splashing down in the ocean; the astronauts left the command module wearing survival suits and were plucked from the water by helicopters. After Apollo 11, ten more humans would walk on the moon on five different voyages. But within six years came the United States' last flight of human-occupied, expendable spacecraft. Symbolically, it was a joint mission with the Soviet Union, with whom the U.S. had competed fiercely in its journeys to space. Another six years would pass without any U.S. space flight, until the space shuttle program began.

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