Apollo 11: A Journey to Magnificent Desolation

This article covers the seemingly impossible wonder of the Apollo 11 space mission and the origins of NASA.


4/25/202310 min read

"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." - John F. Kennedy

The words above were spoken amid a time that could only be described as the tensest, yet the most confident period in American history. Before the creation of the Apollo space program, created to send the first man to the moon, the United States was one of two competitors in The Space Race. The Space Race was a new frontier of the raging Cold War. It pitted American Individualism and Soviet Collectivism against each other in one of the most high-stakes contests the world has ever seen. The Space Race was one of, if not the most, prominent symbol of the Cold War itself. With the looming threat of nuclear warfare on the horizon, the United States had to look to other means of beating the Soviet Union in the Cold War. John F. Kennedy’s timeless words were the pinnacle of American nationalism that lit the fuse of intense international support and effort needed to win The Space Race.

John F. Kennedy in a suit and tie standing at a podium
John F. Kennedy in a suit and tie standing at a podium
The Beginning of the Space Race

The period of space exploration during the Cold War began in the 1950s. The Soviet Union and the United States were not exactly focused on getting men to the moon, so much as sending satellites and men into space itself. The Soviet Union got the fastest jump at the beginning of the race when, in 1957, they launched the world’s first artificial satellite into Earth’s orbit. Americans, as you may assume, were not pleased. In 1958, the United States fired back with Explorer I, a tiny satellite that was launched into orbit. This satellite was launched and created by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which came into existence the same year under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The act of the United States and the Soviet Union exchanging launches and competing to send the highest volume of satellites to outer space was just the beginning of a more heated competition—who would send men into space?

Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin; the first man in space
Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin; the first man in space
American Defeat

The Soviet Union struck back once again in 1959 with the launch of Luna 2, the first space probe used by man to hit the moon. In 1961, Soviet Yuri Gagarin became immortalized in Soviet history as the first man to orbit the Earth. Just a year after, in a desperate attempt to catch up to the Soviet Union, the United States astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. At this point in time, it seemed as though the United States was utterly failing at keeping up with the Soviet Union. From the perspective of Americans back then, the Russians had beat them into space and had done so far more quickly than they expected. Ironically, it was these major defeats that led NASA to develop three programs vital to sending the first man to the moon. First, the Mercury Program, then the Gemini Program, and finally, the Apollo Program.

The Mercury Program

NASA’s Mercury Program was started in 1958 and finished in 1963, consisting of six manned flights with the

purpose of completing the following mission objectives: To orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth, investigate man's ability to function in space, and recover

John Glenn next to Friendship 7
John Glenn next to Friendship 7

man and spacecraft safely from space. In order to become an astronaut within the Mercury Space Program (and an astronaut in the programs to follow), there were extremely specific requirements that one had to meet. The astronauts had to be less than 40 years old, less than 5 feet 11 inches tall, in excellent physical condition, have a bachelor's degree, be a graduate of test pilot school, have a minimum of 1,500 hours total flying time, and be a qualified jet pilot. Astronauts Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton were the seven selected pilots chosen to man the flights that would change the NASA space program forever. Further, these seven astronauts embodied the dreams of children all across the United States of America during this time period: to be an astronaut. The six total flights of the Mercury Program were Redstone 3, Redstone 4, Atlas 6, Atlas 7, Atlas 8, and Atlas 9. The two most significant of these flights were Redstone

3 and Atlas 6. Redstone 3 put the first American man (Alan Shepard) into space and Atlas 6 placed the first American (John Glenn) into orbit. The Mercury Program proved to NASA and the United States that man could survive in space. Now, it was the Gemini Program’s job to teach them how to fly in space.

The Gemini Program

NASA’s Gemini Program flights occurred in 1965 and 1966, consisting of 19 launches, 2 initial uncrewed test missions, 7 target vehicles, and 10 crewed missions. These missions were meant to develop a bridge between the past Mercury Program and the coming Apollo Program. The Gemini’s Mission Objectives (according to NASA) were: long-duration flights, testing the ability to maneuver a spacecraft and to achieve rendezvous and docking of two vehicles in Earth orbit, training of both flight and ground crews, conducting experiments in space, extravehicular operations (standup sessions and spacewalks), active control of reentry to achieve a precise landing, and onboard orbital navigation. The capsule used for the Gemini program was much larger than the one built for the Mercury missions, with a few goals in mind. One, to fit two astronauts within the space capsule, and two, to enable procedures such as docking and features such as enhanced maneuverability. The Gemini Program featured many flights that allowed the first American astronauts to maneuver freely outside of their spacecraft (the Soviet Union had already accomplished this). Further, the program accomplished never before seen docking methods in outer space, which were vital to the Apollo program being developed afterward.

The Apollo Program

The beginning of the Apollo program had goals in mind drastically different than what Americans saw during the launch of Apollo 11. At first, NASA wanted to take a simple, straight path to the moon. However, this idea of direct ascent was far too expensive and far too heavy. Because of this, NASA chose Plan B, a precise ballet of docking, transferring, rendezvous, and skill. All of these were chosen as NASA’s lightest and least expensive option that would put the first man on the moon. The goals of the Apollo Program included: Establishing the technology to meet other national interests in space, achieving preeminence in space for the United States, carrying out a program of scientific exploration of the Moon, and developing the human capability to work on the lunar surface. Which rocket would NASA use to send their astronauts to the moon? Executives chose the magnificent and unsurpassed pinnacle of engineering: The Saturn V. However, before jumping forward to the launch of the Saturn V and Apollo 11, we must recognize the complete failure and terrible kickoff that the Apollo program began with. During Apollo 1, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee lost their lives serving their country.

The Apollo 1 Tragedy

The tragedy of Apollo 1 was the biggest hit to American morale citizens had seen in The Space Race so far. The astronauts mentioned above were participating in a simulated launch when a fire broke out in their capsule. All three astronauts sadly passed away due to cardiac arrest induced by carbon dioxide asphyxiation. This test showed the United States and NASA that they had a lot more work to do before they could step foot on the moon.

Apollo Missions 7, 8, 9, and 10

Apollo 7 introduced the first manned space flight within the Apollo Program. Its purpose was to test the rendezvous and docking capabilities of the Command and Service Module. The CSM was used to store the astronauts, water, fuel, reentry equipment, etc that were meant to bring

the astronauts back to Earth. Apollo 7’s tests of the CSM were reportedly sufficient to continue on to Apollo 8. Apollo 8 was a further test of the crew’s coordinated performance, the performance and navigation of capabilities of the CSM, and other tests necessary to landing men on the Moon. With that, NASA continued on to Apollo 9. This mission was focused on the Lunar Module, NASA’s key to landing on and exiting the lunar surface. The flight plan’s top priority was to ensure the LM and CSM could dock and undock successfully, placing NASA one step closer to the biggest mission to ever take place on planet Earth. Apollo 10 was the last mission before the groundbreaking Apollo 11 mission that followed. Its goal: To orbit and operate the LM and CSM around the Moon. Essentially, Apollo 10 was Apollo 11 without the lunar landing. All of these programs and missions were centered around the next mission, with all the eyes not just in America, but in the world, focused on what would happen on July 16, 1969.

The Soviet Union

It’s important to note that as these Apollo missions were taking place, the Soviet Union was still working to beat the United States in The Space Race. However, a lack of technological superiority, good leadership, and a huge budget slowed the Soviets on their way to the finish line. With the failure of the Luna 5, designed to visit the moon and return unmanned, the Soviet Union realized it wouldn’t defeat the United States in making it to the Moon.

Apollo 11: 650 Million People Holding Their Breath

It was time. The Command and Service Module, Lunar Module, and Saturn V rocket were finally ready to work together in tandem to execute the Apollo 11 mission: To place men on the moon, collect samples of substances, collect data, and return the men home to the United States (to add to that list—unofficially beat the Soviet Union in The Space Race). In order for this mission to work perfectly, the engines on the Saturn V had to successfully propel the astronauts into Earth’s orbit, deactivate, reactivate to send the astronauts on a trajectory into the Moon’s orbit, successfully detach the LM from the CSM, descend the LM onto the moon, bring it back to the CSM, dock it, and have one last engine fire the astronauts safely back to Earth. Even still, there were many other processes and maneuvers that were not mentioned just before. The mission sounds impossible.

On July 16, 1969, at 9:32 AM Eastern Time, the Saturn V along with Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins, and Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin was launched into space. Step 1: Success.

Two hours, 44 minutes, and one-and-a-half revolutions after launch, the S-IVB stage reignited for a second burn of five minutes, 48 seconds, placing Apollo 11 into lunar orbit. Step 2: Success.

At 1:44 PM ET, the LM and CSM undocked. Then, a separation maneuver was performed, moving the two spacecraft apart. Step 3: Success.

Success after success after success. After this, the Apollo 11 Lunar Module, manned by Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, began its descent onto the lunar surface. It was then that the astronauts were faced with five computer errors, forcing Armstrong to land the Lunar Module kilometers away from the original landing destination safely.

The Lunar Landing

On July 20, 1969, at 4:17 PM ET, The Lunar Module landed on the surface of the Moon. It was this time that millions of people all across the world were watching the high-stakes moment during which the Americans won the space race. They beat the Soviet Union to the Moon. “Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed,” Armstrong’s words to Houston after he and Aldrin had touched down on the Moon. It wouldn’t be until 10:51 PM ET, that Armstrong would descend from the LM and begin to step foot on the Moon. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong’s words will echo until the end of time. The most triumphant moment for all mankind and the fulfillment of President Kennedy’s words many years ago had finally happened; a man was on the Moon. Speaking to the astronauts from Washington D.C., President Richard Nixon said these words to Collins, Armstrong, and Aldrin: “For one priceless moment—in the whole history of man—all the people on this Earth are truly one; one in their pride of what you have done, and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth.” Even though we had just become the victors of The Space Race, humanity wasn’t thinking about that when we landed on the Moon. Instead, everyone was thinking of the accomplishment this embodied for all of mankind. The plaque that was on the Lunar Module was evidence of this; not bragging about America’s accomplishments, but rather a recognition of the monumental achievement of man. It said, “Here men from the planet Earth set foot upon the

Moon”. There’s no mention of the Soviet Union

or the United States and no mention of The Space Race. After a short moonwalk, Armstrong and Aldrin return to the LM and blast off back to the CSM, returning safely to Earth and ending the most significant space mission in history. The Apollo program and the Apollo 11 mission pushed the boundaries of what was possible, and the enduring legacy of the mission is a symbol of human ingenuity and innovation. This bears the question, what will we do next?



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