My writing interests are general, with expertise in science, history, biographies, and how-to topics. I have written over 70 books.
To a large crowd at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas, President Kennedy delivered a speech with the famous tagline, “We choose to go to the moon.” His speech was to persuade the American public that supporting the Apollo program and its ambitious goal of reaching the moon was worth the great expense to the nation. The Apollo program started in 1960 and launched the first manned flight, Apollo 7, in 1968. Less than a year later, it finally achieved its goal of a manned lunar landing when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin safely landed the Lunar Module on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. While Apollo 11 was the crowning success of the program, the lunar landings continued after Apollo 11 with five other missions. In total, twelve men walked on the moon in the six spaceflights.
Project Apollo is widely considered the greatest technological achievement in human history, but its success did not arrive without sacrifices. The most devastating event that occurred throughout the program was the loss of the Apollo 1 crew in a cabin fire during a prelaunch test.
Extremely complex and expensive, the Apollo program tested not only humankind’s technological and engineering skills, but also human endurance and resilience in the face of the unknown, all with spectacular results. Although the main goal of Project Apollo was accomplished on the Apollo 11 mission, each step of the program was essential for the success of the mission, which would not have been possible without the testing, research, and hard work that laid the groundwork. This is the story of the events leading up to the Apollo 11 flight putting the first man on the moon.
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
— President John F. Kennedy
The Space Race
The road to putting a man on the moon began with Project Mercury, which put the first Americans in space. This was successfully initiated during the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who encouraged NASA to further develop its space programs. In its conception phase, Apollo was meant as a follow-up to Project Mercury, with no set goal other than advancing American space exploration. The idea of a moon landing, which would determine the development of the entire program, emerged during President John F. Kennedy’s term.
When John F. Kennedy was elected president, the disparity between the technological achievements of the Soviet Union and those of the United States was a sore point for Americans. The Soviet Union had demonstrated a staggering superiority in terms of space exploration and missile defense, and Kennedy began to speak about space exploration as an area where the United States should establish its dominion and thus gain more international prestige.
On April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union set a historic milestone in space exploration when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to fly in space. To add insult to injury to America’s standing in the world, five days later the CIA launched a failed attempt to overthrow the Soviet backed communist government in Cuba. The debacle became known as the Bay of Pigs fiasco. This was a serious black eye for President Kennedy and his administration. Gagarin’s flight made it clear to Americans that the Soviet Union had advanced technology and America was falling behind.
The realization prompted waves of reaction at the highest levels of the administration. In a speech addressed to Congress on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy outlined his hopes for future space exploration and promised Americans that by the end of the decade, the United States would land a man on the moon and bring him back to earth safely. Arguing that the project would be the most impressive space exploration achievement in the history of mankind, Kennedy admitted that it would also be extremely difficult and expensive. Less than a month before Kennedy’s speech, the first American had flown in space, but the president’s proposal was met with reluctance even by NASA. Many doubted this ambitious plan could be achieved, considering that NASA had only 15 minutes of manned space flight experience at the time.
As he learned the detailed aspects of the Apollo program, President Kennedy realized the massive financial burden that a manned moon landing would put on the budget and grew more reluctant. In September 1963, in a United Nations speech, he made the shocking suggestion that the United States and the Soviet Union should collaborate for the lunar mission. The president’s proposal for “a joint expedition to the moon” revealed his fears that the program was too costly. Due to Kennedy’s assassination two months later, the idea never came to fruition.
Project Apollo remained thus an exclusively American pursuit, and its goals were embraced eagerly at a national level. The missions were gradually outlined, but some of the main goals included circumlunar flights and manned lunar landings. To achieve these goals, the program’s first step was to spur an advancement in spacecraft development. If the previous program, Mercury, had used a capsule that could only support one astronaut on a limited earth orbital mission, the goal for Apollo spacecraft was to make it able to carry three astronauts. As an intermediate step from Project Mercury to Apollo, NASA developed Project Gemini, a two-man program aimed at conducting separate space test flights in support of Apollo.
To be able to land men on the moon by the end of the decade, NASA needed not only massive financial resources, but also an impressive burst of technological innovations. The estimates suggested a cost of around 20 billion dollars which, corrected for inflation, would amount to over 109 billion dollars in today’s money. The estimated cost shocked the president but proved accurate at the end of the program. It was the largest expenditure any government ever made in times of peace. Naturally, the program also created a lot of economic effervescence by employing 400,000 people at its peak of development. Besides the 34,000 NASA employees, the program also involved 375,000 external contractors. Numerous new links were created between industries, research centers, and universities, and thousands of industrial firms and universities were involved to various degrees in the program.
NASA entered its new development phase with the foundation of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1960. Here, engineers, scientists, and designers worked on the Saturn launch vehicles. In order to meet the requirements of its two expansive space programs, Apollo and Gemini, NASA could no longer operate solely from Langley Research Center, where Robert R. Gilruth directed the manned space program. Consequently, the Manned Spacecraft Center was opened in Houston, Texas, in September 1963. A new Mission Control Center was also included in the Houston facility. The existing launch facilities in Florida were considered inadequate for Apollo as well; NASA needed a bigger facility for the massive rocket required to launch the manned lunar mission, so in July 1961, the construction of the Launch Operations Center began at Merritt Island, immediately adjacent to Cape Canaveral. The center was renamed in honor of Kennedy in 1963.
Another area that needed strict organization was project management. To keep the program’s cost under control without sacrificing quality of innovation and research, NASA’s administrator, James Webb, appointed Dr. George E. Mueller as Deputy Associate Administrator for the Manned Space Center. Robert R. Gilruth was the director of the Manned Spacecraft Center, German scientist Werner von Braun the director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, and Kurt Debus the director of the Launch Operation Center. All of them, however, reported to James Webb.
In dire need of skilled top managers who would be suitable for NASA’s fast-facing, demanding rhythm, Mueller decided to bring on some high-ranking officials from the U.S. Air Force at NASA. He was given permission to recruit General Samuel C. Phillips, who was known as a highly effective manager. Phillips became Apollo Program Director, managing the program during its most intensive years.
The First Missions
One of the first main challenges of the Apollo mission planners was to design a spacecraft capable of achieving President Kennedy’s goal. Besides allowing manned lunar landing, the new spacecraft had to minimize risks to human life and costs, while also working with the available technology. Another important step was choosing the astronauts who would fly the Apollo missions. The first group of astronauts consisted of veterans from the Mercury and Gemini programs. NASA later ran selections for two other groups, but all missions were commanded by the veterans of the other two space programs. In total, throughout the program, twenty-four astronauts left earth’s orbit and flew around the moon during Apollo—twelve of whom would walk on the lunar surface.
The first flights of Project Apollo were focused on testing the spacecraft in different conditions. During six unmanned flights, NASA tested both the Saturn launch vehicles and the components of the Apollo spacecraft, the Lunar Module, and the Command Service Module. The first three unmanned flights were named Apollo-Saturn (AS) and were numbered AS-201, AS-202, and AS-203, while AS-204 was planned as the first manned flight.
Fire on the Launch Pad: Apollo 1
In January 1966, Deke Slayton, Director of Flight Crew Operations, announced the crew of the first manned Apollo mission, AS-204, consisting of astronauts Edward White, Virgil Grissom, and Donn Eisele. The assignments were changed, however, when Eisele hurt himself during training and was hospitalized for surgery. He was replaced by Roger Chaffee.
Each of the three astronauts selected for the first manned flight had a major role in NASA’s space program in the run-up to Apollo. Grissom was the second American to fly in space and the first American to fly in space twice, first in Project Mercury’s second flight and secondly, as the pilot of Gemini 3 in 1965. White was the first American to walk in space during the Gemini 4 mission in 1965, during which he spent 36 minutes outside the spacecraft. Chaffee, on the other hand, had not flown in space before, but he served as capsule communicator for Gemini 4.
When the spacecraft for the first manned flight arrived from the manufacturer with a series of technical issues, NASA lost hope of launching a manned mission by November 1966. Due to the delays, the AS-204 was postponed to February 1967. The crew renamed the flight Apollo 1 because it was the program’s first manned mission.
On January 27, 1967, the crew of Apollo 1 began a routine prelaunch test which simulated a launch countdown. While on the launch pad, a wiring issue triggered a fire that spread in seconds in the oxygen-only atmosphere of the cabin. The fire extended to the pad area and any attempt to rescue the astronauts proved futile. They had asphyxiated by the time the hatch was opened.
After the devastating accident, NASA immediately initiated investigations and all space operations at NASA were halted for the following eighteen months. A review board decided that the Command Module presented several operational deficiencies. The spacecraft and operations procedures underwent several changes in an attempt to eliminate the risk of fire. All flammable materials were removed from the cabin. The spacesuits were promptly designed to be fire-resistant. Overall, the design improvements triggered by the Apollo 1 accident greatly increased safety and performance during following missions, but the accident had been a great loss of morale for the astronauts.
What We Learned from the Apollo 1 Fire
In April 1967, Mueller presented the Apollo mission scheme with a change in numbering. Apollo 4, 5, and 6 were planned as unmanned flights aimed at testing the Saturn V launch vehicle and the Lunar Module. By September, NASA had established the objectives to be accomplished by the following missions, which were essential in ensuring the success of the first manned lunar landing. Moreover, the success of every mission depended on the success of the previous one.
Apollo 4 launched on November 9, 1967, by a Saturn V rocket. The flight tested the behavior of the Command Module’s shield in conditions of extreme heat. Apollo 5 was the first unmanned test flight of the Lunar Module in earth’s orbit and was launched on January 22, 1968. The flight tested the Lunar Module engines, but a computer error cast some doubts on the reliability of the ascent and descent stages. While Grumman, the spacecraft manufacturer, asked for a second test, this was not carried out. Apollo 6 was launched on April 4, 1968, but failed to achieve its goals due to cumulated engine errors. Instead, the mission repeated the goals of Apollo 4. Overall, the mission was considered a success, and the Saturn V was declared ready for manned flights.
The first manned mission was Apollo 7, which launched on October 11, 1968. During the flight, astronauts Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele, and Walt Cunningham made the first live television transmissions from inside a spacecraft, taking their audience on a tour of the spacecraft and making interesting demonstrations in the zero gravity atmosphere.
In the summer of 1968, NASA realized that the Lunar Landing Module wasn’t ready for Apollo 8, which was meant as a rehearsal for later missions. Instead of wasting time and resources by repeating previous milestones, NASA decided it was ready for moon orbits. This way they would remain on schedule. When on September 15, 1968, the Soviet Union sent two tortoises and some small organisms into the moon’s orbit, NASA management began to feel an even greater sense of urgency, believing that the Soviets could soon send the first humans to the moon.
The crew of Apollo 8, veteran astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell and newcomer William Anders, made ten lunar orbits during the mission. Right on Christmas Eve, they transmitted the first live televised images of the lunar surface and of the earth seen from the moon. They even read from the creation story in the Book of Genesis. According to estimates, the transmission had an audience of one quarter of the world’s population. The huge success of the mission raised everyone’s optimism and confidence, and the program continued with Apollo 9, launched in March 1969.
Apollo 9 made a successful demonstration of the Lunar Module behavior during flight, rendezvous, and docking. Astronaut Rusty Schweickart took the spacesuit outside the Lunar Module for the first time and tested its performance. Finally, in May 1969, only two months before the lunar landing, the Apollo 10 mission, crewed by Stafford, Young, and Cernan, took the Lunar Module very close to the lunar surface. By now, everything suggested that Apollo 11 could be carried out successfully. NASA and the Apollo 11 crew, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, were ready to embark on the historic mission that would make Project Apollo an unprecedented feat in human history.
- Barbree, Jay. Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight. Thomas Dunne Books. 2014.
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- Historical Facts. MSFC History Office. Accessed December 1, 2018.
- Kennedy, John F. Special Message to Congress on Urgent National Needs. May 25, 1961. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Accessed December 1, 2018.
- Kranz, Gene. Failure is Not An Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. 2000.
- NASA Langley Research Center's Contributions to the Apollo Program. Langley Research Center. NASA. Accessed December 1, 2018.
- Shepard, Alan, Deke Slayton, and Jay Barbree. Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Apollo Moon Landings. Open Road Integrated Media. 2011.
- West, Doug. The Journey of Apollo 11 to the Moon (30 Minute Book Series 36). C&D Publications. 2019.
- Soviets Planned to Accept JFK's Joint Lunar Mission Offer. October 2, 1997. SpaceDaily. SpaceCast News Service. Accessed December 1, 2018.
© 2019 Doug West
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on February 12, 2019:
Wonderful article, Doug. There were incredible challengs, but NASA got mankind's first landing on the moon. This was a great telling of the story.
Well written and well researched,