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MAKING THE MODERN WORLD
Stories about the lives we've made

module:Gravity

The triumph of Apollo

page:Introduction


Gravity frontis

On 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to stand on the Moon. Eight years earlier, President John F. Kennedy had committed the United States to achieving this goal, motivated by the Space Race with the Soviet Union.


On 12 April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin (1934-1968), was launched into orbit by a Vostok rocket and became the first man in space. After completing one orbit, the automatic controls of the spacecraft brought him safely back to Earth. picture zoom © National Aeronautics & Space Administration/Science & Society Picture Library

It is impossible to fully understand the development of the Space Race without some knowledge of the Cold War. This was a period of prolonged international tension, which raged from 1945 to 1990 between two contemporary world superpowers, the Soviet Union (USSR) and the USA. The origins of the conflict were complex, but many historians have focused on the competing ideologies that both countries sought to project onto the world, while others have interpreted the conflict as a more straightforward rivalry between two great superpowers.

Whatever its origins, it is important to understand the way in which the Cold War was fought. The postwar era was a nuclear era, and countries rushed to build up nuclear stockpiles as their preferred weapon. But if such weapons were ever used, the result would be the mutually assured destruction (MAD) of both sides; as a result both the USSR and the USA eschewed direct military confrontations with each other. Unable to resort to conventional tactics of warfare in order to secure victory, they created new theatres of war to demonstrate their superiority. One of these was space.

You can read more about the race to conquer this new territory in the following scene:


STORY: Space: The final frontier?
SCENE: The space race
launch scene

During the early 1960s, the USA lagged behind the USSR in terms of its space program.


Cold War goal: The Moon, 24 December 1968. picture zoom © National Aeronautics & Space Administration/Science & Society Picture Library

In April 1961, nearly a month before the USA's Alan Shepard made a brief flight into space, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth once in his Vostok spacecraft and returned safely to the ground. Kennedy realised that the USA could not catch up with the Soviets and proposed that America focus on a long-term goal. Thus his declaration of 5 May 1961: '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'.


Apollo 11 mission badge, 1969. picture zoom © National Aeronautics & Space Administration/Science & Society Picture Library

On 20 July 1969, eight years after Kennedy's declaration, Apollo 11 blasted off from Cape Kennedy, sending Armstrong and Aldrin, along with capsule pilot Michael Collins, to the Moon and into the history books.

The realisation of this goal was the greatest achievement of humankind in the twentieth century. It was also a comprehensive experiment that tested our understanding of one of the principal forces in the universe – gravity.


Apollo 11 astronauts return home and are greeted by their families while still in quarantine, 1969. picture zoom © National Aeronautics & Space Administration/Science & Society Picture Library


Resource Descriptions

On 12 April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin (1934-1968), was launched into orbit by a Vostok rocket and became the first man in space. After completing one orbit, the automatic controls of the spacecraft brought him safely back to Earth.
Cold War goal: The Moon, 24 December 1968.
Apollo 11 mission badge, 1969.
Apollo 11 astronauts return home and are greeted by their families while still in quarantine, 1969.
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