Apollo Missions NASA / History

The Space Race

Getting to the Moon
A war-born rivalry fueled the journey

Since the end of World War II, a growing political rivalry between the United States and the then Soviet Union led to a competition to see which power would reach space first

In 1955, during planning for the International Geophysical Year, the U.S. announced it would launch a satellite, and four days later, the U.S.S.R. said it would do the same “in the near future.” And so the Space Race began.

The Soviets were quickest off the mark. In October 1957, they sent the first artificial satellite into space, Sputnik 1. One month later, they launched a second satellite, Sputnik 2, carrying a dog named Laika.

To separate the military and civilian efforts, the U.S. established NASA in July 1958. The following March, NASA launched the Pioneer 4 space probe, and in May it sent two monkeys into space on the Able-Baker Mission.

Meanwhile, the Soviets made three secret attempts to send a lander to the Moon. In September 1959, they finally succeeded with Luna 2, the first spacecraft to crash-land on the Moon.

The two nations were neck and neck. In May 1961, President Kennedy started NASA on the long journey to the Moon with the creation of the Apollo program.

On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin was the first person in space, when he orbited Earth on Vostok 1

Shortly afterward, on May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, piloting a suborbital 15-minute flight

These missions sending men into space required complex mathematics. The trajectory taken by Alan Shepard was calculated by mathematician Katherine Johnson. Her work was critical to the success of the first crewed missions.

On May 25, 1961, in a speech before Congress, John F. Kennedy announced, “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon”

In February 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth

But it wasn’t always a success story for NASA’s early spaceflight programs. On January 27, 1967, tragedy struck when astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee died during a fire in a preflight test. This mission was later given the name Apollo 1.

On November 9, 1967, Apollo 4 launched. This uncrewed flight was the first all-up test of the Saturn V rocket.

After four successful test flights, including two missions around the Moon and back, the United States won the Moon Race in July 1969, when Apollo 11 finally put people on the Moon

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"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind"