On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced before a special joint session of Congress the dramatic and ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade. Kennedy felt great pressure to have the United States “catch up to and overtake” the Soviet Union in the space race.
After consulting with Vice President Lyndon Johnson, NASA Administrator James Webb, and other officials, Kennedy concluded that landing an American on the Moon would be a very challenging technological feat, but an area in which the U.S. actually had a potential lead. At the time of Kennedy’s announcement, America’s first human spaceflight effort, Project Mercury, was already underway. During the five-year life of the Mercury project, six human-tended flights and eight automated flights were completed, proving that human spaceflight was possible.
On November 4, 1967, NASA released the planned schedule for Apollo missions to be flown in 1968 and 1969, leading to a lunar landing. The announcement came just five days before the launch of Apollo 4, the first flight since the Apollo 1 fire in January 1967 and the first unmanned flight of the Saturn 5 rocket. The timetable was highly dependent on Apollo 4 and the assumed success of all subsequent missions. Critical components were the timely completion and delivery of the Command and Service Module (CSM) and especially the Lunar Module (LM) — at the time, significantly behind schedule. The plan outlined six Apollo flights in 1968 and five in 1969, a combination of unmanned tests and manned flights on both the Saturn 1B and Saturn 5 rockets.
On October 11, 1968, Apollo 7 — the first manned Apollo mission — successfully got to space.
And on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the Moon. Six more Apollo flights followed. On December 14, 1972, the Apollo 17 Lunar Module ascent stage lifted off the Moon — the last time man would be on the Moon.
The Moon has remained of great interest to NASA and scientists around the world. In the half-century since people visited the Moon, NASA has continued to push the boundaries of knowledge to deliver on the promise of American ingenuity and leadership in space.
NASA stands on the verge of commercializing low-Earth orbit. These experiences and partnerships will enable NASA to go back to the Moon in 2024 — this time to stay — with the U.S. leading a coalition of nations and industry.
The Moon will provide a proving ground to test technologies and resources that will take humans to Mars and beyond. NASA’s work at the Moon, which is pressing forward right now, is preparing us for “the next giant leap” — missions to Mars and other deep-space destinations.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing this month, NASA is moving forward to the Moon and on to Mars — and wants the world to come along.