The Race For Space: “We choose to go to the Moon”

Aldrin poses on the Moon. | Courtesy of NASA

The United States is the greatest country on the planet. While we don’t always win (Vietnam War), we do always prevail (back to back World War champions). But our venture to continue to be the dominant super power of the world does not stop at war; it is furthered with the cultivation of our curiosity. When Americans looked up to the moon, they wondered if they would ever go there. They wondered if it was even possible. Little did they know that it was, and that we would be the first to get there.

When the space race began in 1955, the goal was simple: best the Soviet Union in all their endeavors for space supremacy, get a human to the moon, and cure man’s curiosity and will to explore the unknown frontier of space. Through years of trial and error with the Gemini program and Apollo missions at NASA, it would finally be time to give the country what it had asked for. It was time to go to the moon.

Following the immense toll that was taken during World War II, the United States received a technological advantage over the Soviets when it came to various technologies. As it relates to NASA, the capture of German long range ballistic missile technology from the Wehrmacht’s Aggregat program was most important. From the seizure of German scientists and technology through what is known as Project Paperclip, the United States also acquired one of the most notable rocket engineers in the world, Wernher von Braun.1

Wernher Von Braun and John F. Kennedy walking together.

Wernher would come to serve as director of the Marshall Space flight center. While it is widely known of his capture, participation, and works in American scientific and political life, his case file was never documented or transferred among the other 1,500+ German scientist dossiers by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).2 Wernher would become known as the father of space rocketry, space science, and the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle for Apollo 11. Through his genius the United States was going to be able to go to the moon by utilizing the same Wehrmacht military rocketry developed by him for the V-2 guided ballistic missile. It was the downfall of the Nazi regime that led to the dominance of space by the United States.

We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…

To get to the moon, NASA was going to need money, and a lot of it. When John F. Kennedy delivered his “we choose to go to the moon” speech, it wasn’t merely a simple gesture to the American people, but rather a rallying call to them. To fund NASA’s expenditures for the upcoming Apollo missions, Kennedy had to assure the American people that this is not a useless endeavor, but one of National Security and the securement of future peace. To fulfill a budget of what Kennedy described as 5.4 billion dollars, people would need to pay “somewhat less than we pay for cigarettes and cigars,” arguing that space expenditures would increase from 40 to 50 cents for every man, woman, and child in the country.3

Kennedy delivering an historic and convincing speech before a joint session of Congress May 25th, 1961 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Even with public support, he still needed to convince politicians that it was within the country’s best interest. Surely, Kennedy thought about this long before this moment. By gaining public support for the Apollo endeavor, in directly putting himself in the line of fire by promoting it, politicians would have no choice but to succumb to the demands of their constituents regardless of what they thought, or be faced with the possibility of not being re-elected. In a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, he delivered to them his goal of getting a man on the moon before the end of the decade.4 Finally, the political cogs of bureaucracy were in motion.

Many of Apollo’s initial missions were unmanned. It was important to test the physics of objects and fluids in Zero G in orbital flights and take offs. A shift in payload, fluid, or one small error could cause others and become possibly fatal. Apollo 1 is a sad example of what can happen when there are miscalculations or oversights in safety protocols. During a launch simulation on January 27, 1967, a fire broke out in the cabin of the Apollo 1 spacecraft due to what was believed as an electrical vulnerability, resulting in the death of all three astronauts, Vigil I. “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White, and Roger B. Chaffee.5

Administrators of Apollo program testifying before a Senate hearing on February 27th | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

With the death of these astronauts, people began to understand what was really at risk here. It’s not just fighting to win a space race, but it’s also fighting to keep American astronauts safe. Ultimately, when good men have to perish for something that could’ve been avoided, we are only taking steps backward in our progress. To prevent taking steps further backward in the Apollo endeavor, NASA Deputy Administrator Robert Seamans oversaw the establishment of the Apollo 204 Review Board. This review board was to provide answers to a concerned Congress and public as to what exactly happened, ultimately ensuring that the same mistakes would not be made again.

The commander of Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong, was no rookie when it came to space travel. Before being installed as the commander, he had become a seasoned astronaut through participation in the Gemini and Apollo Programs. Although what separated him from most was a distinguished career as an experimental test pilot for NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which later became what we know and refer to as NASA. With his career and experience in mind, it was only right that Neil Armstrong was to be the commander of Apollo 11.

It was only four missions after Apollo 1 that most notable and historic Apollo 11 spaceflight and landing would take place. Its preceding missions, including the unmanned ones, would bring more and more knowledge about the propulsive maneuvers that would bring us to the moon, and the details of the lunar surface itself, for future landings.6 Finally, it was then on July 16, 1969, that the Saturn V rocket would launch Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins, and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” E. Aldrin Jr., into Earth’s orbit. They would then complete one and half orbits to prepare for a Translunar Injection (TLI) burn procedure, a propulsive maneuver that would set them on course for a pathway to the moon to eventually orbit it.History was in the making here. Everything was riding on the success of Apollo 11 and NASA’s endeavors. The Soviets had yet to place a man on the moon and we were on the fast track to defeating them in that endeavor. With no reported errors upon entering Lunar orbit, Apollo 11 was ready to begin its descent stage onto the Lunar surface after a quick visual inspection of the Eagle by Collins. It was after they began their descent that some errors and issues arose, but they were manageable. Not only did Apollo 11 actually overshoot its originally intended landing position by miles to the West, the crew became distracted by their computer system’s executive overflow 1202 and 1201 program errors. Their guidance computer could not complete the task it was given in real time, due to an error in the checklist manual, meaning that those task would have to wait.7 Luckily, NASA’s computer engineers planned for many possibilities, including many computer failures. Its computers recognized such errors, for they had recovery programs to mitigate such issues.

If the computer hadn’t recognized this problem and taken recovery action, I doubt if Apollo 11 would have been the successful moon landing it was.—Director of Apollo Flight Computer Programming, Margaret H. Hamilton 8

It was through an incredible feat of human engineering and bravery before those famous words were finally uttered: “Houston, Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed.” The last bit of the phrase is one that is referenced to frequently in pop culture and Hollywood media. Little did Armstrong know how those unrehearsed words would continue to echo beyond Apollo 11’s landing for the rest of time, making its way into the average vocabulary synonymous with that of an arrival.

To go where no man has gone before, Neil Armstrong became the embodiment of the American spirit. Although we know that many men and women worked countless hours to make it happen, the names that are remembered are those who embody bravery, honor, and intellect altogether. Neil Armstrong is the name we know and will never forget, for allowing us to say we did get on the Moon first. We the United States did it first.

  1. Annie Jacobson, Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program to Bring Nazi Scientists to America (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2014), Prologue-ix.
  2. National Archives and Records Administration, “Foreign Scientist Case Files 1945-1958 (Entry A1-1B)” last modified October 11, 2016. https://www.archives.gov/iwg/declassified-records/rg-330-defense-secretary.
  3. John Kennedy, John F. Kennedy Moon Speech – Rice Stadium, https://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/ricetalk.htm
  4. Steve Garber, “The Decision to Go to the Moon: President John F. Kennedy’s May 25, 1961 Speech before a Joint Session of Congress,” NASA History Office, Updated October 29, 2013, https://history.nasa.gov/moondec.html.
  5. Richard W. Orloff, Apollo by the Numbers: A Statistical Reference (NASA History Division, Office of Policy and Plans: Washington D.C, 2004), https://history.nasa.gov/SP-4029/SP-4029.htm.
  6. NASA, Apollo 11 Lunar Landing Mission (Washington D.C: NASA, 1969), https://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a11/A11_PressKit.pdf.
  7. Michael Collins and Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., A Yellow Caution Light (NASA: Washington D.C, 1975), https://history.nasa.gov/SP-350/ch-11-4.html.
  8. Margaret H. Hamilton, “Computer Got Loaded,” Datamation, March 1971, 1.
The Race For Space: “We choose to go to the Moon”
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