If someone asked me what the greatest show on television was 50 years ago, I could say Sesame Street or Monty Python’s Flying Circus (blogs about those shows are coming up) but I would be lying because the greatest show of 1969 was really the moon landing. A show that was seen around the world and made people stand up and cheer. Arguably the greatest moment in television history but it was obviously more than that.
Before the fifties, the idea of going on a “trip to the moon” was relegated to the movies. These may have sparked our imaginations but NASA didn’t exist until after Sputnik, so it was really the Russians that motivated America to make fantasy into a reality.
Starting in the late fifties, the United States was engaged in a geopolitical tension with the Soviet Union known as the Cold War. After World War II, the U.S. and the USSR jockeyed for power due to differing economic ideals, the U.S. and its NATO allies favoring capitalism and the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies favoring communism. The tension between America and Russia got even worse in 1957 following the Soviet Union’s launch of the first manned spaceflight of Sputnik 1, which the U.S. saw as a threat to their power.
The Space Race, at least in the government’s point of view, was more than just a pointless race. The whole world had misjudged the Soviet Union’s technological capabilities and were totally surprised by Sputnik, and it was reasoned that the USSR now had the hypothetical ability to transport nuclear weapons intercontinentally, which the U.S. saw as a challenge to their previously unchallenged technological superiority.
As a result of Sputnik, President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) with the intention of being the first nation to put a man in space.
However the Soviets beat them to it in 1961 when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth. American Alan Shepard went up nearly a month later but only lasted 15 minutes. It wasn’t until 1962 that John Glenn became the first American to go into orbit.
President John F. Kennedy ran with the Space Race and declared it was America’s duty to be the most superior nation in both perception and actuality, and he found the Soviet Union’s superiority in space exploration intolerable.
Work began on the Apollo spacecraft, which would have three parts:
The Command Module was the cabin for the astronauts and the only part of the spacecraft that would return to Earth.
The Service Module was the support for the Command Module that provided oxygen, propulsion and electrical power.
The Lunar Module was the module that helped the astronauts descend and ascend from the moon to the Command Module.
The spaceflight was known as Apollo 11 and after many lunar tests, evaluations and accidents, it was ready for launch in 1969.
The Apollo 11 crew would consist of three astronauts. Neil Armstrong, aeronautical engineer and naval aviator in the Korean War, would serve as the commander, Michael Collins, major general of the United States Air Force, would serve as the pilot of the Command Module, and Buzz Aldrin, mechanical engineer and jet fighter pilot who graduated MIT with a degree in aeronautics, would serve as the pilot of the Lunar Module.
The rocket that launched Apollo 11 was the Saturn V and it took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 16, 1969.
Armstrong was the first astronaut and first human to set foot on the moon when they got there, famously describing the event as “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It was televised live around the world and 20% of the world’s population shared in the awe of the moment at the same time as the astronauts did. It was a milestone in human capability and it effectively caused America to win the Space Race.
Collins kept the Command Module in orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin spent 21 and a half hours gathering lunar material and planting the American flag on the moon’s surface before rejoining Collins and flying back to Earth.
They splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24 after spending more than eight days in space, and this was of course followed by a slew of celebrations: parades, state dinners, Presidential Medals of Freedom, stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, commemorative stamps, Google doodles, voice roles in The Simpsons, and worldwide popularity.
It’s important to note that many Americans saw this mission as a waste of time and money. Protesters wondered why money was being spent on a mission that was basically just a way for America to flex its muscles in front of Russia while ignoring the problems that people on Earth were facing. Of course many of these protesters were also in awe of the moon landing, because regardless of the reasons why the mission happened, there is still something inarguably awe-inspiring about the fact that it did happen.
It’s hard to describe the impact of the event or how people in 1969 felt when they witnessed a man walk on the moon for the first time in history. There has never been anything on television as powerful or as inspiring as that moment since it happened. The fact that Americans were able to land on the moon and make it safely back to Earth was the most risky and foolhardy thing ever attempted but the technical brilliance that made it successful inspired the imagination and made Americans feel good about themselves at a time when people were rightfully becoming cynical about America. In terms of technical brilliance, it was mankind at its peak, and it will likely never be matched again.
Brilliant post! If I had a time machine, I’d love to go back and watch the Apollo 11 landing as it happened.
One minor correction: Alan Shepard’s 1961 spaceflight was a suborbital hop – he basically went straight up and straight down again, in about fifteen minutes. The first American to go into orbit was John Glenn in February 1962.
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I just watched the 2007 documentary In the Shadow of the Moon today and they confirmed what you just told me about Alan Shepard. This was after I had already published the article with incorrect information but I am going to edit it. Thank you for reminding me!
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