In 1961 President John F. Kennedy spoke to the American people and promised that the United States would land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. America’s goal was to show the world that it had the best technology and was the most powerful nation. On July 20, 1969 Apollo 11 landed on the moon and astronaut Neil Armstrong was the first human to put a foot on the lunar surface.
Before the Apollo project began NASA’s Mercury and Gemini programs put astronauts into an orbit around the Earth. But Project Apollo was a very difficult and different mission. NASA needed a powerful rocket that could escape the Earth’s gravity and travel all the way to the moon. After Kennedy’s speech, NASA started work on such a rocket. The Saturn V booster was finished in 1967. It was the greatest rocket ever built.
The Apollo spacecraft was made up of three parts. The command module was main part. It was where the astronauts lived during the trip to the moon. It had all the instruments and computers that were needed for such a mission and it was the only part of the spacecraft that returned to Earth.
The service module had its own rockets. They were used to slow down the Apollo spacecraft when it entered the moon’s orbit. Without these rockets the spacecraft would be too fast and fly right past the moon.
The third part of the Apollo spacecraft was the lunar module. It was rather small and had legs that looked like a spider’s. When the astronauts got into the moon’s orbit they separated the lunar module and flew it down to the moon’s surface. The landing craft had two parts: the lower part was used for slowing it down so that it could land gently, the upper part would let the astronauts return to the command module.
In 1967 a tragic accident almost ended the Apollo project. A fire broke out in the Apollo 1 spacecraft during a test on the ground. All three astronauts were killed.
After more testing and some unmanned flights Apollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft to fly to the moon. It entered lunar orbit, flew around the dark side of the moon and back to Earth again. After two more Apollo missions NASA was ready for a moon landing.
On July 16, 1969 Apollo 11 took off from Cape Kennedy, Florida. Aboard the spacecraft were 3 astronauts: Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins. Three days later they entered the moon’s orbit. Armstrong and Aldrin got into the lunar module; Collins was left behind in the command module.
On July 20, 1969 the “Eagle”, as the lunar module was called, touched down softly in a lowland called Sea of Tranquility. A television camera that was attached to the side of the spacecraft sent live pictures back to Earth where millions of people were watching. After checking Eagle to see if everything was all right, Armstrong lowered a ladder and stepped down on the moon’s surface. It was “one small step for man, but one giant leap for mankind.”
The astronauts spent about two and a half hours on the lunar surface. They put up the American flag, collected rocks and set up instruments. After lifting off from the surface of the moon they flew back to the command module and successfully joined Michael Collins. On July 24, 1969 Apollo 11 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. The first American moon mission was a success.
In the years that followed there were five more lunar landings. But not all Apollo flights were successful. Apollo 13 almost ended in disaster. During its journey to the moon one of the two oxygen tanks exploded. They were vital for breathing and for the power systems of the command module. The three astronauts had to get into the lunar module, which had its own power and oxygen, but the LM was planned only for two astronauts, not three. All unnecessary systems had to be turned off so that it could save as much power as possible. Although Apollo 13 didn’t land on the moon NASA managed to bring the three astronauts back to Earth safely.
On Apollo 15 the astronauts took a battery-powered car with them. The lunar rover traveled a distance of over 27 km on the lunar surface.
Although Project Apollo cost the Americans a lot of money it demonstrated the technological power of the USA. One of its aims was also to show the western world’s superiority in the Cold War. The data that the Apollo missions brought back to Earth gave scientists much information on how the moon and the solar system developed.