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Racing to the Moon

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The Race Begins
Competitors in the Race
Vostok and Voskhod
Mercury and Gemini
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A Soviet Moonshot?
Apollo Lunar Suit
The Moon Rocket Challenge
The Moon Race Ends


The United States had been planning to launch its first scientific satellite in late 1957. However, two launch attempts using the Navy's Vanguard rocket ended in disaster.

Public response to the Vanguard failures prompted national soul-searching in the United States. The media questioned why "Ivan" could accomplish things that "Johnny" could not.

Vanguard 1 launch failure
169 k jpeg
SI#: 83-309


This damaged Vanguard satellite was recovered after the December 6, 1957, launch attempt ended in an embarrassing explosion. Its designation TV3 means "Test Vehicle #3."

Vanguard TV3 satellite
86 k jpeg
SI#: 97-16258-5


After the first Vanguard failure, the Army gained approval to attempt a satellite launch. On January 31, 1958, a modified Redstone missile, the Jupiter-C, lofted America's first satellite, Explorer 1, into space. In March the Navy's Vanguard succeeded in its third attempt to launch a satellite.

Although still behind, America had rallied after its initial stumble and was now in the Space Race.

Jupiter-C/Explorer 1 launch
117 k jpeg
SI#: 81-3375

Pointer The backup Explorer 1 satellite is displayed overhead in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall, and a model of Explorer 1 is atop the Jupiter-C launch vehicle in the missile pit.


Immediately after Gagarin's flight, President Kennedy wanted to know what the United States could do in space to take the lead from the Soviets. Vice President Lyndon Johnson polled leaders in NASA, industry, and the military. He reported that "with a strong effort" the United States "could conceivably" beat the Soviets in sending a man around the Moon or landing a man on the Moon. As neither nation yet had a rocket powerful enough for such a mission, the race to the Moon was a contest that the United States would not be starting at a disadvantage.

On May 25, 1961, when President Kennedy announced the goal of landing a man on the Moon, the total time spent in space by an American was barely 15 minutes.

JFK giving speech
108 k jpeg
NASA#: 70-H-1075

Pointer A videotape of part of President Kennedy's speech is playing near the entrance of the Apollo to the Moon gallery.

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