America’s High Frontier

On May 25, 1961, in a speech before Congress, President John F. Kennedy announced the goal of sending an American to the moon and back before the end of the decade. Eight years, one month, and twenty-five days later, on July 20, 1969, American astronaut Neal Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface, joined a few moments later by Buzz Aldrin.

To fully appreciate how much the Americans accomplished in just over eight years, consider the situation in mid-1961. On April 12th, the Russians had embarrassed the U.S. by blasting cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space. And while American astronaut Alan Shepard followed Gagarin into space a few weeks later on May 5th, his mission was only a 15 minute suborbital flight. Gagarin’s flight lasted 108 minutes and completed a full orbit around the planet. We were way behind.

Moreover, compared to what eventually became the Apollo lunar spacecraft, these early forays into space were extremely primitive. Basically the entire Mercury program, designed to achieve spaceflight in low earth orbit while keeping an astronaut on board, consisted of putting an aerodynamic pressure vessel atop a souped-up intercontinental ballistic missile. By contrast, the many modules and maneuvers required to safely deliver three astronauts to the moon and back, was orders of magnitude more complex. Yet America made all that progress in just over eight years.

Back in 1969, if you told anyone that nobody would return to the moon for another fifty years, they would have laughed. The […] Read More