Despite talk of missions to Mars and a renewed interest in returning to the moon, nothing can match the awesome feat of that first lunar landing 50 years ago today, writes
The words are those of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The date: September 12, 1962. The place: Houston, Texas.
His stirring speech to 40,000 spectators at the football stadium of Rice University would come to be one of the defining moments of his abbreviated presidency.
His rousing words gave a new urgency to the space race between the US and the Soviet Union and at the time it was clear who the winner was. America’s efforts included two predecessors to Project Apollo: Project Mercury, which began in 1958, and Project Gemini, which followed in 1961.
But, until the moon landing itself, the Soviet space programme had already made stunning advances.
In 1950, the Soviets were working on their version of the V-2, the infamous self-propelled bomb developed by the Germans in the latter stages of World War II.
They were also building, like the Americans, an arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles to deliver atomic bombs while at the same time experimenting with space exploration, launching Sputnik in 1957.
David Whitehouse in his book Apollo 11 – The Inside Story, recounts the global reaction and, in particular, that of the Americans.
“A few hours after the launch, the duty officer at the CIA phoned the White House to say that the Russians had launched a satellite.
President Dwight Eisenhower, who served from 1953 to 1961, had left for his farm in Gettysburg to play golf. He wasn’t worried, Satelites were about science, he said, not military might. A satellite did not have any effect on the United States’ ability to defend itself.
Eisenhower was right, but he was also wrong, spectacularly misjudging the public mood. America was shocked. NBC News described the beep-beep of Sputnik as the sound that forever separates the past from the future.
Texas Senator Lyndon B Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy and was later to play a crucial role in the Apollo programme, declared: “In the open West, you learn to live closely with the sky. It is part of your life. But now somehow, in some new way, the sky seemed almost alien.”
There was a joke going around the White House after the shock of Sputnik — President Eisenhower called in his experts and asked: “What happened? How did the Russians get so far ahead of us in rocket technology?’’ His advisers answered: “Their Germans were better than our Germans.’’
This was an oblique reference to the role played by wartime German rocket scientists in both the Russian and American space programmes.
Captured German scientists produced rocket designs that led directly to the Soviet R-7 ICBM, the awesome rocket started the space race, and is still in use today as the Soyuz 11A511U space launcher.
It took Eisenhower a year to respond fully. He finally did so by establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa). But the Soviets continued to race ahead, with successful missions including Luna 2, the first space probe to land on the moon. Luna 2 touched down on September 13, 1959. It was the the first man-made object to make contact with another celestial body.
“I think in America, at least, there [was] a feeling of a great lack of self-confidence, a feeling of ‘We are falling behind,’” Asif Siddiqi, a space historian at Fordham University in New York, told Space.com.
Pretty much every single major event in the space race in the early days was a triumph of Soviet space achievement.
The space race wasn’t just a scientific battle, either; it was an ideological one — communism versus capitalism.
The two Cold War rivals were both determined to outdo each other and be the first to land on the moon. Kennedy’s words in Texas represented both a promise and a challenge. A promise to restore American pride and a challenge to American’s finest brains to make the dream become a reality.
The daunting invitation to American scientists, aeronautical engineers, computer analysts and technicians came only seven months after John Glenn, on board Friendship 7, became the first American to orbit the Earth.
That showed what the US was capable of but the fledgling American space programme had already been eclipsed a year before by the Soviet Union’s earth-shaking achievement of putting the world’s first man, Yuri Gagarin, into space.
Kennedy had promised, after the trauma of watching that monumental event, to put an astronaut on the moon before the decade ended. In the years that followed, the sight of the moon moved from the realm of inspiration to the status of a destination.
It might never have happened if it wasn’t for the pioneering efforts of a man who has been all but airbrushed from history. In the America of the 1930s rockets were regarded as the stuff of science fiction but an earnest engineering student named Frank Malina set out to prove otherwise.
In Escape from Earth, Fraser MacDonald, who teaches the history of science at Edinburgh University, tells the inspiring story of Malina’s achievements and of a strange, if endearing, pioneer of American rocket science who flirted with communism and pacifism, and then gave it all up – rocket science included - to become a painter.
Malina was a student of Theodore von Karman, now regarded as one of the foremost applied mathematicians of the 20th century. With von Karman, Malina started the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, now Nasa’s leading facility for planetary exploration. It was Malina’s initiative and leadership that transformed early rocketry in the United States from fantasy to science.
While Malina helped to satisfy the demands of the military establishment, he was constantly under surveillance as a suspected subversive. It didn’t help that he expressed his revulsion at the devastation caused by Germany’s supersonic V-2 rockets by declaring: “I can’t get very enthusiastic over making rockets for murdering purposes.”
Another key figure was Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun, a major in the SS and member of the Nazi party who developed the feared V-2. Operation Paperclip was the code name for the secret removal of scientists from Germany, undertaken not only for the benefit of the Americans but also to deny the USSR.
More than 1,600 German engineers, including von Braun, were transferred to the US, many with laundered war records.
By the mid-60s, NASA was consuming more than 4% of the US federal budget, but while the Soviets were achieving more firsts — the first woman in space (1963), the first spacewalk (1965) — the Americans experienced various setbacks, including a launchpad fire that killed all three Apollo 1 astronauts.
Eventually, though, the tide began to turn for the American space programme and it became clear that, as well as making huge advances, the Russians had given the US the impetus it needed. They had awakened a sleeping giant.
It took 400,000 NASA employees and contractors to put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. It took brute force in the shape of the Saturn V rocket. At 36 storeys high, it ranks as one of the greatest technical and engineering achievements of the 20th Century.
Fuelled by liquid oxygen and kerosene, the rocket was made up of multiple stages. The lowest part — or first stage – was fitted with five giant F-1 engines. Two further stages — and a total of six further engines —carried it into orbit.
Above the engines were the compartment for the lunar lander, and then the service and command module for the three-man crew. The Saturn V was topped with an escape rocket, designed to blast the command module to safety if anything went wrong during launch.
It also took ingenuity, imagination and courage. This was at a time when computer guidance technique was in its infancy. As Neil Armstrong told an Irish audience during an interview with Gay Byrne in the National Concert Hall in Dublin in 2003, “there is more technology in a digital watch than in the capsule that me and my crew took to the moon and back in 1969”.
He had carried a sextant, a sailor’s navigation device, on his trip to the moon. On Armstrong’s death in 2012, Gaybo recalled: “Neil told me he had a plumb line, too — a piece of string with lead on the bottom. Both, in case the NASA technology failed and they had to find their own way home.”
After years of preparation and simulation, the odyssey began on July 16, 1969 as astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were strapped into their Apollo spacecraft on top of Saturn V and propelled into orbit in just over 11 minutes.
It was a perfect launch but things started to go wrong during moon orbit four days later. As Armstrong and Aldrin descended from 50,000ft above the moon, radio communications with Earth broke down while the on board computer started flashing error codes that the crew had never before seen.
In the final few seconds, it looked like they might run out of fuel. Armstrong took manual control. After steering to avoid a large crater, he had only 20 seconds of fuel left when he finally landed the module safely between boulders. From inside the capsule, he reported back to an emotional Mission Control in Houston that “the Eagle has landed”.
As he disembarked from his lunar nest, he uttered his famous phrase: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”.
He meant to say “a man” but, in the circumstances, most people forgave the slip.
Before leaving the lunar surface, the astronauts removed a sheet of stainless steel to unveil the plaque attached to the lunar module leg under the descent ladder: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 AD. We came in peace for all mankind.” It was signed by Armstrong, Collins, Aldrin, and president Richard Nixon.
Those words were later echoed by Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon. He said: “As we leave the moon at Taurus Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.”
A speech was prepared for President Richard Nixon, written by White House speech writer Bill Safire on July 18 1969, in the event of tragic failure. and the deaths of Armstrong and Aldrin.
“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace,” the speech said. “These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery.
“But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.
“These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.” Fortunately, it never had to be used.
Armstrong’s small step was supposed to herald a giant leap, not only in space exploration but also in inter-planetary tourism. We were told that after a few years of lunar exploration — a decade at the outset — holiday trips on commercial rocket ships would be commonplace. Walt Disney was even said to be toying with the idea of building a theme park on the moon.
But the world grew weary of the same-again space exploits and, already bogged down in a hugely expensive war in Vietnam, the US government abandoned its Apollo programme.
No one has walked on the moon since 1972 and, for many people today, the idea of landing there again has been overtaken by the prospect of missions to Mars and beyond.
Despite this, renewed efforts are being made to return. India, China, Israel, Europe and Russia are all headed there and the US has pledged to set up lunar laboratories.
Suddenly, everyone’s going to the moon but whoever returns, they will never match that first landing. The footprints left by the American astronauts on the lunar surface are more permanent than most solid structures on earth. Barring a chance meteorite impact, those impressions in the lunar soil will last for millions of years.
For those space cadets who, like myself, witnessed the event on television, the spirit of those pioneers will live on.
Kennedy’s challenge of September 1962 had been met. The following year, on November 21, 1963, a day before his assassination in Dallas, Kennedy spoke at the dedication of the Aerospace Medical Health Center at San Antonio, Texas. The theme was space but he chose a more earthly allegory to make his point.
“The conquest of space must and will go ahead. Frank O’Connor, the Irish writer, tells in one of his books how, as a boy, he and his friends would make their way across the countryside, and when they came to an orchard wall that seemed too high and too doubtful to try and too difficult to permit their voyage to continue, they took off their hats and tossed them over the wall — and then they had no choice but to follow them.
This Nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it.
Kennedy died without ever knowing his challenge had been met but, on July 20, 1969, someone placed flowers on his grave in Arlington cemetery, and a note: ‘Mr President. The Eagle has landed.’