On July 20th 1969, Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the surface of the moon.
This event was not in isolation. The Moon Landing was a culmination of a series of a events, decades of hard work and even political subterfuge, that was essentially a competition between two world superpowers – the US and the Soviet Union – that we now call ‘the Space Race.’
The Space Race itself began in 1957, at the height of the Cold War. The Soviet’s launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, into space. This kick started a competition between the two states to reach higher, faster and further into the depths of space. Satellites became rockets, rockets become shuttles and suddenly making it to the moon was not just a dream, it became a very real possibility. The only question was; who would get there first?
The success of Sputnik also had deeper implications, proving to the world (America especially) that the Soviets could successfully launch nuclear weapons over intercontinental distances, furthering the anxiety in a post-WWII world that nuclear war between America and the Soviet Union was imminent.
On May 25 1961, US President John F Kennedy spoke to the United States Congress, saying: “I believe that the nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon (…) It will not be one man going to the Moon – if we make this judgement affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there”
Kennedy’s speech was meant to galvanise public support for the Apollo Programme, and it did just that. Kennedy’s dream of seeing a man on the moon before the decade was out would be accomplished, even if he would not live to see it, having been assassinated in 1963.
Apollo 11 was the fifth manned mission into space from NASA’s Apollo programme. Apollo 1 lead to a disastrous fire, where all three of its crew died. Apollo 7 would be the US’ first success at sending a crew into space, but they were still a long way from landing on the Moon.
The Space Race seemed to be in the Soviets favour, but a run of bad luck diminished their lead. The development of their N1 Launcher – similar to NASA’s own Saturn V – was marred by difficulties and failures. In a last ditch attempt to win the Race, however, the Soviets launched the satellite Luna 15 three days before the scheduled take-off for Apollo 11. The satellite did reach lunar orbit before Apollo 15, but its mission to bring lunar soil back to Earth was a disaster. The satellite crashed on the surface of the moon mere hours before Apollo 11 took off for its flight back home.
When Apollo 11 landed on the surface of the moon on July 20th 1969, the Space Race was over.
But, the story doesn’t end there. Keep your eyes peeled on the 50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing for more information about the mission that ended the Space Race.