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On 20 July 1969, American astronaut Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the Moon. It was a huge technological and human achievement. But why had the race to the Moon become such a focus, and how did the Americans get there first?

1950s: early space programmes

A photograph of the front of the International Geophysical Year booklet Science Museum Group Collection
International Geophysical Year commemorative booklet on display at the Science Museum

The space race was part of the Cold War (1947–89).

The development of long-range ballistic missiles by the main protagonists—the Soviet Union and the United States of America—enabled the space race.

However, it was actually a global scientific research programme that both sides used to signal their intention of launching into space.

In 1955 both the US and the USSR announced their intentions to launch artificial satellites into orbit. This was part of the International Geophysical Year, a research programme to study the Earth during what would be the next period of heightened solar activity (1957–58).

The Soviet Union grabs the space firsts

To the surprise of many, it was the USSR that launched first with its Sputnik (Fellow Traveller) satellite on 4 October 1957.

Replica Sputnik satellite
Science Museum Group Collection More information

The following month, the Soviets launched a far bigger satellite—Sputnik 2—carrying the dog Laika into orbit.

This, perhaps, had a bigger impact.

In the context of the Cold War, the larger satellite size implied the Soviets had the means and power to launch the then very heavy nuclear weapons and threaten mainland USA.

The creation of a new space agency—the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)—in 1958 was part of the American effort to better coordinate and plan an effective space programme.

But for the next six years the Soviets continued to grab the headlines with more firsts, none more significant than putting the first human in space—Yuri Gagarin in Vostok 1 on 12 April 1961.

Within a month the US responded: Alan Shepard became the first American in space.

The space race to the Moon is declared

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon

US President John F Kennedy, Address to Joint Session of Congress (25 May 1961)

US President John F Kennedy had initially shown little interest in spaceflight. But he changed his mind after seeing the public adulation given to both Gagarin and Shepard.

Asking his advisors how the Soviets could be beaten, Kennedy decided that a manned Moon mission would be necessary.

This fired the starting gun for what—eventually—became a race between the United States and the Soviet Union to reach the Moon first.

Hear Kennedy arguing in support of the United States' space program:

The Soviet Union starts to drop behind?

While the USSR continued to rack up more space firsts—first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova, 1963); first multiple space crew (Voskhod 1, 1964); first spacewalk (Alexey Leonov, 1965)—this was at the expense of any significant planning and resourcing of a Moon mission.

The first spacewalk carried out by cosmonaut Alexey Leonov

In 1964, the Soviet government gave the authorisation—undeclared to the world—to proceed with the Moon mission.

But this was now three years after the US had started serious planning of its Apollo project, the programme which would get a man on the Moon.

The US completed its Mercury programme, flying a total of seven astronauts into space to test the survivability of the human frame in space. This was followed by Project Gemini, a space programme which flew ten crews of two into space between 1965 and 1966.

These missions paved the way for the Apollo programme.

The Soviet Union starts to drop behind?

These NASA missions demonstrated the ability to manoeuvre spacecraft, dock them together and for astronauts to perform extended space walks, or EVAs (Extra Vehicular Activities).

All these functions were necessary to land astronauts on the Moon and bring them back safely to Earth.

The human cost of spaceflight

However, there was a human cost to this push to the finish flag.

Tragedy struck in 1967 when a fire broke out in the first manned Apollo capsule during a test on the launch pad. All three crew members perished—Ed White, Roger Chaffee and Gus Grissom.

A portrait photograph of three male astronauts - they are dressed in blue and sitting behind a table with a model spacecraft on it NASA
Portrait photograph of the three Apollo 1 astronauts. (L-r) Edward H. White II, Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, and Roger B. Chaffee

The Soviet Union too suffered a horrendous setback that year when cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov crashed to Earth on the first flight of the Soyuz spacecraft—a new design intended for the core module of the USSR’s manned lunar spacecraft design.

This disaster followed on from the loss of Sergei Korolev, the Soviet Chief Space Designer during a routine medical operation in 1966. He had only recently been authorised to run the Soviet Moon programme and the loss of this consummate manager was a blow for Soviet space ambitions.

Summer 1968: A dilemma changes the momentum

By summer 1968, with the Apollo programme near to returning to flight, the senior management of NASA was faced with a dilemma: intelligence suggested the Soviets were near to launching a massive rocket, probably to the Moon.

The choice was between sticking with the Apollo mission schedule to test the lunar lander—which wasn’t ready—or to go ahead with the inaugural manned flight of NASA’s own rocket, the Saturn V. This mission would aim to send three astronauts around the Moon.

After feverish consultation across NASA, the outgoing Administrator James Webb decided to proceed with the Saturn V mission. This would give the initiative back to the US and with it the necessary political momentum to try soon for an actual landing.

The Soviets were indeed planning a mission around the Moon, but with a crew of plants and small animals, including a pair of tortoises, rather than cosmonauts. This flew in September 1968—just three months before Apollo 8 took astronauts around the Moon for the first time.

One small step...

The Apollo 8, and its circumnavigation of the Moon, was a near total success and grabbed all the right headlines for NASA, not least those accompanied by the first Earthrise pictures taken from lunar orbit by astronaut William Anders.

Photograph of the Earth from orbit captured by the astronaut Bill Anders NASA
An Earthrise photograph captured by William Anders during the Apollo 8 mission in 1968.

Five months later Apollo 10 flew a lander to within a few kilometres of the lunar surface. This was the first and only test of the Apollo spacecraft at the Moon before the actual landing.

A man - astronaut Eugene Cernan - stands in front of Apollo 10 at the Science Museum in London Science Museum Group
Eugene Cernan, the Apollo 10 lunar module pilot, stands in front of the Apollo 10 command module at the Science Museum in London

Just two months after the Apollo 10 mission, Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder of ‘Eagle’ to make ‘One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind’.

Ultimately, the better organisation and higher funding levels to the American space programme fuelled their space race success.

The race to the Moon was won.

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