Space & Earth Sputnik 1 marked the beginning of the space age and the space race.

Published on September 3rd, 2012 | by Carl Mundy


The Space Race, Apollo & The Future of Space Exploration

A proposal to the United States Congress in 1961 by then president John F. Kennedy marked the beginning of a space exploration programme the likes of which the world had never seen and would not see again. At a time when relations between the the United States and Russia could be described as tense, the Cold War created a rivalry that would extend far beyond Earth’s orbit and ultimately change the way the world looked at itself.

“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 the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”


John F. Kennedy
May 25, 1961

The Space Race

The Soviet launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite which collected information on Earth’s atmosphere, heralded the space age and ignited the space race between the world’s two biggest superpowers. Although Sputnik is considered the predecessor to the high-tech satellites that support the modern way of life, the primitive Soviet craft was not the first man made object to cross the border into outer space. This record is awarded to the Germans during World War II, almost 15 years previously, in their efforts to skirt around a ban on long range cannons. The rocket that would eventually come to devastate London and Allied targets across Europe flirted with outer space during its test flights. Known as the Vergeltungswaffe 2, or rather innocuously as the V-2 rocket, the aftermath of the war saw the Americans, Soviets and British acquire both the rocket technology and the German scientists that created it.

Where a common enemy in Nazi Germany had brought the United States and the Soviet Union together to fight side by side, the decade after the end of the war brought increased tensions. Soviet development of nuclear weapons combined with increased ideological and economic conflict resulted in an arms race between the democratic and communist superpowers. The respective governments plowed money into research and development of new nuclear weapons as well as long range delivery systems capable of delivering the most sinister and deadly of packages to their enemies. Both sides commenced development of the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with the first operational system developed and demonstrated by the communist power. The advent of ICBM production by both parties opened up space as another tool of war and national pride. By the end of the 1950′s, the race to conquer space had begun in earnest with the Soviets winning the first battle with the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957.

With the launch of man-made satellites, however primitive, attention soon turned to the task of placing a human into orbit and returning him safely. Both the United States and Soviet Union began programmes to research, design and build the ability to do so, as well as pip the other to the post. Through the Project Mercury and Vostok programmes both states successfully placed a human into Earth’s orbit and returned him safely to terra firma. Once again, the Soviet Union had bested the United States by becoming the first to put a human into outer space and to place a human in orbit. That pioneering human was Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin. Although the US caught up only one month later in February of 1962, the damage to national pride had been done and the Soviet Union scored yet another communist propaganda goal at the expense of their enemy. By 1965, humanity was eagerly eyeing up the grey ball of rock that orbited the Earth – the Moon was closer than it appeared.

Astronaut Ed White became the first American to perform a 'space walk' in 1965.

Astronaut Ed White became the first American to perform a ‘space walk’ in 1965. (Credit: NASA)

The previous decade had proved the technical feasibility of space flight and the United States were vigorously determined to beat their cold war enemy and snatch the greatest prize the space race had yet to offer. The race to land a man on the Moon and bring him home had well and truly begun. The US began with the Project Gemini program in order to develop the technology, plans and skills needed for such a monumental mission. Extra-vehicular activity (EVA), docking and piloting skills were all honed by brave astronauts, often demonstrating unproven and dangerous technologies. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union were falling behind for the first time with the ill fated Voskhod program. After traversing the technological dead end, the Soviets introduced the Soyuz spacecraft in 1967 and finally began their journey to the Moon. NASA‘s Apollo program had benefited from the knowledge and lessons learnt from Project Gemini and was ready to take a giant leap the world would never forget.

Apollo Takes Flight

“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 … .”


John F. Kennedy
September 12, 1962

Beginning in 1961, the Apollo programme was tasked, by President John F. Kennedy and Congress, with landing the first humans on Earth’s cellestial companion, the Moon, before the decade was out. With dedicated research, development and funding that only a bitter political and economic war could provide, the Apollo programme produced the necessary equipment and know how to get humanity to the Moon. More importantly it did this before the Soviets although the journey was not without sacrifice.

The first manned demonstration of the command and service modules was scheduled for February of 1967, with three astronauts primed to take Apollo’s first real steps in space. Beforehand, tests were needed to confirm that the command module could survive on its own power after separation – a vital prerequisite to a manned lunar mission. January 27, 1967 saw astronauts Command Pilot Virgil Grissom, Senior Pilot Edward White and Pilot Roger Chaffee enter the command module and close the hatch. The atmosphere inside the command module was replaced with pure oxygen at high pressure and the crew began to look over their checklist of tests they would have to complete during the simulation. It was at this point that a fire was reported inside the command module. Shortly after the alarm, White attempted to follow emergency procedure and open the hatch. Attempts to do so were hampered by the extreme internal pressure and the fire overcame the command module and its crew, fueled by the pure oxygen atmosphere. The deaths of all three crew ushered the first and only loss of life over the entirety of the Apollo programme.

Lessons were quickly learnt from from the tragedy that struck Apollo 1; the command module was upgraded, flammable materials such as Velcro were replaced or removed, the spacesuits worn by astronauts were made from non-flammable materials instead of nylon and Nitrogen was introduced into the atmosphere inside the command module at launch with a reduced pressure. Subsequent tests of the Saturn V rocket, Command and Lunar Modules were deemed successes and the end of October, 1968 saw the first manned Apollo mission since the tragedy on the launchpad in 1967 – Apollo 7. The mission launched without fault and the new Command/Service Modules orbited the Earth for ten days whilst the three crew tested systems and relayed results. More spacious than previous cabins, the crew experienced motion sickness and actively defied commands sent from Earth – a decision that would lead to all three Apollo 7 crew members from being considered for future Apollo missions.

Christmas in 1968 saw NASA journey tantalisingly close to fulfilling President John F. Kennedy’s goal with a manned mission that would escape the relative safety of Earth’s orbit to visit the Moon. Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders were launched atop a Saturn V rocket on December 21, 1968 and were given the go ahead to travel to the Moon only three hours later. After firing the engines to put them on a lunar trajectory, the spacecraft was rotated. The manoeuvre gave the crew a view that no human had ever seen with their own eyes before and one that would inspire an environmental movement. A view of the whole planet Earth lit the craft’s windows and marked another first for humanity. Returning home safely after just ten orbits of the Moon, Apollo 8 set the stage for the first manned landing on another celestial body. Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong’s famous words were close.

Earthrise captured by Apollo 8 astronauts

Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1968. (Credit: NASA)

Both Apollo 9 and 10 further tested the rocket, command, service and lunar modules as well as their associated systems. The latter mission edged even closer to the Moon than Apollo 7 did, by bringing the lunar module within just eight and a half miles of the lunar surface. This dry run mission was carried out flawlessly and demonstrated that the technology and training was ready to be put to the ultimate use. Less than two months later, a man would step foot on the Moon and everyone would be witness.

The Eagle Has Landed

On July 16, 1969 Commander Neil Armstrong, Pilot Michael Collins and Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin launched atop a Saturn V rocket and fired their engines towards the Moon; Apollo 11 was on course to make history. During the three day voyage to meet the Moon, the command/service module docked with the lunar module to create a single spacecraft. Pulled by the Moon’s gravitational pull, the crew journeyed to the far side and fired their engines in order to be captured and begin orbiting their target. Flawlessly executed, the manoeuvre placed the crew in orbit and the signal was received exactly when they predicted, calming a tense, waiting command room back on Earth. On July 20, the lunar module separated from the command module, ferrying Armstrong and Aldrin towards the space race finishing line and leaving  Michael Collins in orbit.

Five minutes into firing the lunar module’s engines, the guidance computer started sounding alarms. Unable to complete its calculations in the required time, the crew were alerted and Armstrong eventually took over some of the controls. With training and experience, Armstrong landed the lunar module, dubbed Eagle, with only 25 seconds of fuel left to spare – much less than previous tests had estimated would be left. The words ”Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,” spoken by Armstrong, marked the safe landing of humanity on the Moon and the people of Earth responded by gathering around their radios and television sets to watch what was arguably man’s greatest achievement.

An estimated 15% of the world’s population watched or heard Neil Armstrong’s famous first steps onto the Moon which represented both an end to the space race and the completion of a goal John F. Kennedy set eight years previously. Armstrong and Aldrin spent only 2.5 hours outside of the lunar module, planting their nation’s flag and carrying out a check list of tests and scientific experiments. One in particular, Lunar Laser Ranging, involved setting a high-tech mirror on the lunar surface. Lasers fired from Earth would be fired at the Moon and be reflected back, allowing the distance between the two celestial bodies to be calculated to within centimetres – a process that still continues today.

Retroreflectors left by Apollo 11

Retroreflectors left by Apollo 11. (Credit: NASA)

The historic galavant gave way to more commotion as both astronauts returned back to the lunar module in preparation for the journey back into orbit in order to rendezvous with Collins. Both safely inside, Aldrin caught and broke off a circuit breaker that was responsible for the engine burn they needed to return home. Luckily, and indeed ingeniusly, Aldrin used a felt-tip pen to activate the switch and avoid the fate of being stranded 240,000 miles from Earth with no hope of rescue. Three days later, Apollo 11 splashed down in the Pacific ocean and became global heroes. Not only had their return signalled the end of the space race, it demonstrated that human beings can achieve things previously only dreamt of thanks to their ingenuity and strive to achieve the best.

The Future

A further five manned Apollo missions visited the Moon, sandwiching the ill fated Apollo 13 now immortalised in a Hollywood blockbuster film. Twelve humans set foot on the Moon in just under four years, yet in 1973 it was decided not to go back. While it took only 66 years between the first flight by the Wright brothers and man setting foot on the Moon, in the four decades since we have not taken a single human step out of Earth’s grasp. This said, the depth of mankind’s knowledge about the solar system and indeed beyond it has immeasurably increased thanks to what has arguably been smarter spending and international cooperation in space  - a great example of which is the International Space Station. Man has sent swarms of robotic explorers into space, venturing where we cannot or where we cannot afford to. These craft and the media they beam back have captured imaginations and inspired generation after generation of budding scientists, something many consider more important than the race for national pride.

Since the space race, more nations and even companies have developed the technology and know how to send goods and their own citizens into space. These advances as well as the political and economic tensions that have arisen over the past decade are ushering in yet another race to the Moon and beyond. NASA currently has plans to return man to the Moon by 2021, albeit without a manned landing, in the new Orion spacecraft and have Mars in their sights. China, the third independent nation to develop the capability of human spaceflight, will enter the second phase of their lunar exploration programme (CLEP) in 2013 when they land rovers on the Moon’s surface. Additionally, the European Space Agency (ESA) intends to develop human spaceflight capability over the next two decades with the aim of a manned Moon mission.

Missions and plans can and have already been cancelled or modified. Economic problems are currently a global problem which forces space exploration and indeed science as a whole to take somewhat of a back seat. Man will return to the Moon and venture beyond, there is no question about that, but we may have to be patient. In the mean time, we will no doubt continue to send robotic scouts out into the cosmos in our place to perform science and prepare us for a future where hearts and and minds are once again captivated by one man’s footprint.

First footprint on the lunar surface.

First footprint on the lunar surface. (Credit: NASA)

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About the Author

Astronomy PhD student from the UK with a passion for astronomy and science outreach projects. Involved with weekly science-based radio programme The Science Show on University Radio Nottingham (URN).

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