The United States’ space program went full throttle in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to claim a leadership role in space and land a man on the Moon before the end of the decade. The Soviet Union, America’s rival in the Cold War, had surged ahead of the United States with spectacular achievements in space that struck fear into the hearts of many American citizens. Soviet leaders hailed these feats as a triumph of Communism. When a leading American physicist was asked what would be found on the Moon, he replied, “Russians.”
Three months into President Kennedy’s administration, the Soviet Union achieved another milestone when Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to go into space, orbiting the earth in a mission that lasted 108 minutes. Soviet leaders basked in his success, while Americans wondered how and when the United States would ever catch up. Nonetheless, President Kennedy congratulated Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev on this feat.
Embarrassed by another high-profile success in space by the Soviet Union, President Kennedy asked Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, chairman of the Space Council, to investigate if the United States could overtake the Soviet Union in the arena of space.
As ordered by the President, Vice President Johnson surveyed the space program, consulted the experts and reported that a manned mission to the Moon was a project in which the United States could conceivably beat the Soviet Union.
On May 5, 1961, Alan B. Shepard Jr. soared into history. Crammed into this Mercury Space Capsule that he named Freedom 7, Shepard became the first American to travel in space. The capsule was blasted into suborbital flight in a mission that laid to rest any doubts that an astronaut could function as a pilot in space. Freedom 7’s mission was a milestone along the course charted by President Kennedy to make the United States the world leader in space exploration.
Three weeks after Freedom 7 safely splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, President Kennedy stood before Congress to deliver a special message on "urgent national needs." He asked for an additional $7 billion to $9 billion over the next five years for the space program, proclaiming that "this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the earth."
Skeptics questioned the ability of NASA to meet the president's timetable, and while President Kennedy received letters in support of his moonshot, he also received letters questioning it. People critiqued the cost and wondered if that money would be better spent on more immediate needs back on Earth.
On February 20, 1962, John Glenn Jr. became the first American to orbit Earth. Launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the Friendship 7 capsule carrying Glenn reached a maximum altitude of 162 miles and an orbital velocity of 17,500 miles per hour. After more than four hours in space, having circled the earth three times, Glenn piloted the Friendship 7 back into the atmosphere and landed in the Atlantic Ocean near Bermuda.
Glenn's success helped inspire the great army of people working to reach the Moon. Medical researchers, engineers, test pilots, machinists, factory workers, businessmen, and industrialists from across the country worked together to achieve this goal. By May 1963, astronauts Scott Carpenter, Walter Schirra Jr., and L. Gordon Cooper had also orbited Earth. Each mission lasted longer than the one before and gathered more data.
As space exploration continued through the 1960s, the United States was on its way to the Moon. Project Gemini was the second NASA spaceflight program. Its goals were to perfect the entry and re-entry maneuvers of a spacecraft and conduct further tests on how individuals are affected by long periods of space travel.
The Apollo Program followed Project Gemini, with the goal to land humans on the Moon and assure their safe return to Earth. On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 astronauts—Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin Jr.—realized President Kennedy's dream.
Photos of Ed White and Buzz Aldrin courtesy of NASA