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Mankind’s Greatest Achievement Posted by on Jul 18, 2019 in American history, News

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.”

Photo courtesy of Pixabay, CCO

That quote, by President John Kennedy on May 25, 1961, set the stage for what may well have been humanity’s greatest moment. There are certainly many who think so. When Neil Armstrong stepped down from the Apollo Lunar Module on July 21, 1969, the world was watching. I certainly was. It wasn’t just historic; it was also thrilling in a way that nothing else in my lifetime has ever seemed.

The Space Race

It’s important to understand that the United States and the Soviet Union had been engaged in what was known as a space race since 1957 when the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first unmanned space satellite. They also sent the first man into orbit around the Earth in 1961. Therefore, the US responded with Kennedy’s audacious challenge as an attempt to show superiority over their geopolitical rivals. Within a short period of time, all Americans took great interest in the programs which brought our astronauts into space.

We got to know the names and faces of these men of destiny (no women were ever considered for the job in those days). First came the Mercury 7 astronauts, who had been selected in 1958 and continued after Kennedy’s speech for another couple of years. The Mercury flights were single man capsules, meaning that only one person was launched into space for each mission flight.

Then came the Gemini astronauts. Named for the constellation and zodiac sign, Gemini is symbolized by twins. Therefore, the Gemini space capsule carried two astronauts per mission. Although the last syllable of Gemini is pronounced -eye, the astronauts and support personnel tended to pronounce the last syllable -knee. Eventually, Nasa’s public affairs office announced that the correct pronunciation of Project Gemini was “Gem-ma-nee.”

Project Apollo was the name of the program which would take a man to the moon. Three astronauts would take off, then two would take another vehicle to the surface of the moon, with the third remaining in lunar orbit to rendezvous and dock with the Lunar Module later. When Apollo 1 was almost ready for its first test flight, a fire in the cabin of the spacecraft killed all three astronauts on board. Although it was 52 years ago, and I was quite young at the time, I have never forgotten their names – Grissom, Chafee, and Young.

The Danger

By the time Apollo 11 launched, taking Armstrong, “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins on their historic mission, the world knew the immense danger the astronauts faced. The Saturn V rocket, used to launch the spacecraft, was not only incredibly powerful and highly flammable (it used 20 million tons of fuel per second), but it weighed 6,540,000 pounds! On the Apollo 6 space flight, the rocket shook so violently that large pieces of it flew off on takeoff.

There was also the problem with returning to Earth. Not only did reentry into the atmosphere involve intense heat, but they landed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. They had to rely on all the flotation devices working or they could possibly sink. Those last few minutes of every flight, when the transmission was lost, were always nerve-wracking for everyone watching at home. And, no doubt, for the astronauts as well.

You have to understand that we had no idea what was going to happen. Although there had been tests and simulations, this was still something which had no precedent. NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) could practice all it wanted, until you actually landed on the moon and returned, this was all just theory.

There was fear that the lander would sink or topple over into the lunar surface. Were the rocks radioactive, or possibly contain germs which could infect the astronauts? We were pretty sure that there was no life on the moon, but we were far from certain. The astronauts were quarantined for three weeks after they landed back on Earth just to be safe.


An estimated 400,000 people worked on the Apollo program at its peak, and nearly 20,000 companies were involved in various ways. It was such an all-consuming project that it was considered an immense source of pride to say that you contributed to the moon landing.

Yes, I remember watching the moon landing on July 20th and the first time a man walked on the surface of something non-terrestrial (not of the Earth) the next day. It was the most exciting, thrilling event of my lifetime.

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  1. Cody:

    I would say it’s subjective of ‘greatest’ accomplishments but it’s certainly an amazing feat (or ‘feet’ if you prefer). But it’s also a great example of how even the most amazing and wondrous things have a dark history at times. This includes entering space. Where to begin?

    Well it was the Nazi scientists who first created a rocket that entered space. Yes the infamous V-2 rocket. The trouble is the absolutely appallingly atrocious conditions in the labour camps e.g. Dora. Slave labour was something that the Nazis were also punished for. At least.. some. After the war the Americans (also Soviets) decided to work with some of the scientists. America got hold of the one behind the V-2 rocket (see also Project Paperclip). He’s arguably the most significant figure in NASA and he was given freedom in exchange of helping America enter space. I won’t get into the details of the Dora camp because it’s horrible but it’s still a reminder that reductionism is a bad thing; there is no such thing as ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ i.e. ‘just good’ or ‘just evil’: everything is a many coloured rainbow.

    If you cannot understand this then you cannot learn, you cannot grow, you cannot move forward. Sadly too many people are reductionists. It I guess comforts them to call people e.g. ‘monsters’ but that’s contrary to reality. Never mind that though. What does matter: it would be also a disgrace to the sufferings of the people to not use the knowledge and creations that Herr von Braun &c put others through.

    As for the space race let’s also go to the nuclear arms race. What did that lead to? It led to the predecessor to the Internet; called the ARPANET it was designed as a network of networks. As for your post about ‘blended’ words (the word being ‘portmanteau’ which is itself one) the author states that the ‘Internet’ is ‘International + Network’. Not at all true. It’s ‘Interconnected network’ (you can also just say ‘inter network’). It doesn’t even have to be international; it’s simply a network of networks. You can have an internet (versus ‘The Internet’) too. Yet what do we have without space exploration? A lot fewer things we would have and that includes these wonderful things we have available. At the unfortunate expense of lots and lots of suffering.

    Like it or not humans tend to thrive on and strive for conflict. It’s terrible but at the same time would any of us have things differently? That’s a difficult question to answer if one is completely honest. Because we don’t know anything else.

    Oh and as an aside about Sputnik it’s what inspired the US to create the GPS.

    Lastly I want to point out that if it was not for von Braun the US would not have entered space; the question then becomes: did America enter space by their own innovations or was it the Nazi scientist? I know what many would like to believe but it’s not the truth. And that also means slave labourers were part of it. Some would argue that they would have anyway but they cannot prove that at all. They want to believe it maybe but there is no way to prove it; meanwhile there is proof of how it happened.

    • gary:

      @Cody Wernher von Braun is a very complicated figure in history, at least as far as Americans are concerned. Reconciling his past with the aid he brought to this country during the cold war is an uncomfortable paradox. I actually met him sometime in the early 70s, when he went on a kind of victory tour for the American space program. I was able to get a seat in the hall because protestors had kept some people away. I looked upon him as this amazing scientist and futurist, which was precisely how the government wanted me to regard him. Later, after his death and the waning of interest in space exploration, America’s conscience began to bother itself. So did mine.