“I believe we should go to the moon,” said President John F. Kennedy to Congress in May 1961. “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

JFK Statue Space View Park
Statue of JFK giving his space speech, Space View Park, Titusville

He made his plea just 20 days after Alan Shepard became the first American to reach space. While John Glenn’s orbit of Earth was still to come, the efforts of thousands of engineers, technicians, and support staff at Cape Canaveral inspired our youngest President to even loftier goals.

The Mercury program had the purpose of putting the first Americans in orbit, proving that we had the know-how to get them there and bring them back, just as the Russians had already done with Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin a month before Shepard’s flight.

The Gemini program was on the books, planning to put a team on each spacecraft with the goal of accomplishing tasks in orbit, including the first spacewalks outside the capsule and rendezvous of spacecraft in orbit.

Kennedy’s pitch for the necessary funding for a lunar-focused program came at a time when the Cold War with Russia was well under way. Russia shocked the United States, and the world, by launching their Sputnik satellite in 1957, the first ever man-made device to orbit the earth.

With Gagarin’s earth orbit beating out the first success of the Mercury program, a new goal, one that would stretch the imaginations and capabilities of American science and industry like no other, was set forth as a challenge.

In a public speech at Rice University in September 1962, President Kennedy said “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…”

He understood that the focused effort to make this happen would enrich the fields of science and education; would inspire technological advances that we, as a nation, had never thought of yet; and would employ a massive amount of people in a ripple effect across industries.

Reaching for the Moon

At Cape Canaveral, a massive structure had to be designed and built just to work with the components that would launch man to the moon. Completed in 1966, it remains the most recognizable object on Florida’s Space Coast. It is one of the largest buildings in the world.

The reason? The height of the powerful Saturn V rocket. With the Apollo capsule carefully attached on top, it stood 363 feet tall, almost 60 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty.

Apollo 4
Apollo 4 inside the immense Vehicle Assembly Building (NASA)

To move the assembled vehicle out to its launch pad at nearby Complex 39, a special slow-moving crawler had to be developed. It crept along at a mile an hour, taking nearly five hours to reach its destination.

In January 1967, the Apollo 1 team climbed into the command module on the launch pad for a preflight test. The inward-opening hatch proved to be fatal for astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee when a fire broke out during the test. They were unable to escape.

After investigations and redesign, the first Saturn V was launched in November 1967 carrying Apollo 4, a test mission without a crew aboard. It was the first rocket launch from Launch Pad 39A, where most of the Space Shuttles also launched and SpaceX launches their Falcons today.

Two more unmanned Apollo test flights preceded the first crewed flight, Apollo 7, in 1968. In orbit around Earth for 11 days, the three astronauts aboard tested the new-to-Apollo concept of turning the spaceship around for a rendezvous with the lunar module.

Launched two months later, Apollo 8 was the first to orbit the moon. Astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell Jr. and William Anders became the first humans to see the far side of the moon. They photographed its surface for future missions and reported their findings back, including in telecasts broadcast worldwide.

Apollo 8 moon NASA
High altitude oblique view of lunar surface taken from Apollo 8 spacecraft (NASA)

In Earth orbit in March 1969, the astronauts of Apollo 9 proved that the Command Module and Lunar Module could separate and dock again. They also did a spacewalk to ensure that the new portable life support system backpack would work. It was developed as a back-up plan in case the modules wouldn’t dock and the astronauts in the Lunar Module would need to walk over to their flight home.

Apollo 10 was the dress rehearsal for the moon landing. Just two months before Apollo 11 was scheduled to launch, astronauts Gene Cernan and Thomas Stafford undocked the Lunar Module – named Snoopy – and flew it over the planned landing site on the moon, the Sea of Tranquility.

Apollo 10 CM
Apollo 10 Command and Service Module as seen from Lunar Module after separation (NASA)

John Young remained in the Command Module, Charlie Brown, steering it to a rendezvous with the returning Lunar Module. After the successful test, the crew continued to orbit the moon 15 more times, tracking landmarks and taking photos, until it was time to return to Earth.

First Steps: Apollo 11

On July 16, 1969, from Launch Pad 39A, the crew of Apollo 11 – Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin – headed for the moon.

Apollo 11 39A
Apollo 11 on its way to the 39A launch pad on the crawlway (NASA)

Four days later, successfully undocking the Eagle, Aldrin and Armstrong skillfully piloted the Lunar Module to settle down on a less-rocky area than the original coordinates had called for, running the fuel to its last remaining seconds in the process. The world held its breath. Neither Armstrong or Aldrin could sleep, as the schedule called for. They were eager to step on the moon.

Although 12 astronauts had that honor during the remainder of the Apollo program, Neil Armstrong made that first step. The images that he took with a Hasselblad camera mounted to his chest remain the most iconic images of the moon that are known throughout the world today, particularly that of Buzz Aldrin and the American flag. Ironically, both cameras used by the crew were left behind for weight savings. Only the film returned.

Apollo 11 Buzz Aldrin
Buzz Aldrin and the American Flag (Neil Armstrong / NASA)

While the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 meant he never saw his grand vision accomplished, it finally happened on July 20, 1969.

Fifty years ago, Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon achieved that dream.

Apollo 11 Lunar Rendezvous NASA
It was important to return home from the moon, too. The Apollo 11 Command Module approaches the Lunar Module (NASA)

It Took A Team

Attending a reunion last weekend for the workforce who put the Apollo astronauts in space, it was a reminder of just how many people contributed to meeting the goal that President Kennedy had set and Congress funded.

We accompanied John’s dad Jim, who oversaw a crew in the Vehicle Assembly Building that worked with the Apollo Command Module and Service Module as contractors for North American Rockwell.

Rockwell Jim Keatley
Jim Keatley (center) and Rockwell colleagues, Apollo era

At the event at the Astronaut Memorial Foundation, in a room with more than six hundred people, at least a quarter of them had worked on some aspect of the Apollo program. Nearly all of them are over 80, with the oldest attendee, at 96 years old, a World War II veteran and former Apollo launch director as well.

Fred Haise speaks at Apollo 11 reunion
Fred Haise speaks at the Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Workers Reunion

As family members of Apollo workers at Kennedy Space Center, all of the people in the room were impacted by the program.

The raw intensity of pushing for the moon with the Apollo program changed lives, as Apollo 13 astronaut and keynote speaker Fred Haise acknowledged. It strained family bonds while creating a camaraderie between competing contractors that has never again been replicated.

As Jim told us today, “For Apollo 11, my crew put in the decking around the Command and Service Module so the Grumman guys could come in and take care of their lunar module. Everyone worked well together. We were the last ones to see the LM before it was lowered inside the SLA.”

Apollo 11 assembly
Assembly of Apollo 11 happened in stages inside the VAB (NASA)

With all components stacked in place, his crew took the temporary decks down around the Spacecraft-to-LM adapter (SLA) and the next stage of work proceeded. He showed us pages of timelines for scheduling for the workflow. Just in the VAB, the complexity of what had to get done was mind-boggling.

When you think about the people who were involved, from Command and Service Module designer Max Faget – the engineer who also came up with the design for the Mercury spacecraft, and the first concept of the Space Shuttle – to the designers of windows, bolts, and life support systems, to the folks on the ground at Kennedy Space Center who assembled and tested everything, the number of people who contributed to putting Americans on the moon is amazing. NASA says that more than 400,000 nationwide contributed to the effort.

The Apollo Legacy

While there were many Americans fifty years ago who felt tax dollars could and should be spent on other goals, reaching the moon brought about technical innovations that are taken for granted today.

Apollo 50 exhibit LM
Apollo 11 50th Anniversary exhibit at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

While we know that giant leaps forward were taken with computers, miniaturization of electronics, and the development of strong lightweight materials, some of the Apollo spinoffs are less obvious in their origins.

Some we use daily and don’t even think about, like water purification and shock-absorbing footwear, smoke detectors, memory foam, cordless appliances, solar panels, home security systems, and the satellites that now circle the planet, enabling cell phone and GPS use.

Others are critical to medicine, including CAT scans and MRIs, insulin pumps, artificial limbs, space blankets, and wireless pacemakers.

Still others keep first responders safe, like fire-retardant clothing, HAZMAT suits, and portable air purification systems.

As NASA says, “there’s more space in your life than you think!”

Learn More

See the Apollo Capsules

All of the Apollo command modules from the manned flights are now museum pieces. Here is where you can find them.

Apollo 7: Frontiers of Flight Museum, Dallas, Texas

Apollo 8: Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, Illinois

Apollo 9 (Gumdrop): San Diego Air and Space Museum, San Diego, California

Apollo 10 (Charlie Brown): Science Museum, London, England
On loan from the National Air and Space Museum

Apollo 11 (Columbia): Museum of Flight, Seattle
On tour from the National Air and Space Museum

Apollo CM Yankee Clipper
Yankee Clipper in Hampton, Virginia

Apollo 12 (Yankee Clipper): Virginia Air and Space Center, Hampton, Virginia

Apollo 13 (Odyssey): Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, Hutchinson, Kansas

Apollo 14 (Kitty Hawk): Apollo Saturn V Center, Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida

Kitty Hawk at Kennedy Space Center
Kitty Hawk at Kennedy Space Center

Apollo 15 (Endeavor): National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, Dayton, Ohio
On loan from the National Air and Space Museum

Apollo 16 (Casper): U.S. Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, Alabama

Apollo 17 (America): NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas