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Neil Armstrong and the Moon Landing

Written by: Bill of Rights Institute

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain the causes of economic growth in the years after World War II

Suggested Sequencing

Use this Narrative at the beginning of the chapter to discuss how the Space Race culminated in the United States’ launch of Apollo 11.

The Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union took shape as a geopolitical struggle around the globe, an ideological contest between capitalism and communism, a nuclear arms race, and a space race. The nuclear arms race helped lead to the development of rocket technology that made putting humans into space a practical reality in a short time. Only 12 years after the Russians launched a satellite into orbit around the Earth, Americans sent astronauts to walk on the moon. The space race was one of the peaceful competitions of the Cold War and pushed the boundaries of the human imagination.

The origins of spaceflight occurred a few decades before World War II, with the pioneering flights of liquid-fueled rockets. American Robert Goddard launched one from a Massachusetts farm in 1926 and further developed the technology on a testing range in New Mexico in the 1930s. Meanwhile, German rocketeer Hermann Oberth read Goddard’s research and fired the first liquid-fueled rocket in Europe in 1930, with the dream of spaceflight in mind. In Russia, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky developed the idea of rocket technology, and his ideas bore fruit when they influenced Sergei Korolev in the 1930s.

The greatest advance in rocket technology took place in Nazi Germany, where Werner von Braun led efforts to build V-2 and other rockets that could hit England when launched from continental Europe, spreading terror among the British population during World War II. At the end of the war, Russian and Allied forces raced to Berlin as the Nazi regime collapsed in the spring of 1945. Preferring to surrender to the Americans, von Braun and his team turned over 100 unfinished V-2 rockets and 14 tons of spare parts and blueprints. The United States secretly brought more than 100 German scientists to Texas and then to Huntsville, Alabama, to develop American rocket technology as part of the nuclear arms race to build intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

President John F. Kennedy walks with Werner Von Braun on a runway. Military planes are behind them.

The former Nazi scientist Werner Von Braun (left) helped the United States develop missiles during the Cold War. He is shown here with President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

On October 4, 1957, the Russians shocked the United States by successfully launching a satellite into orbit. Sputnik was a metal sphere weighing 184 pounds that emitted a beeping sound to Earth. Although President Dwight Eisenhower was unconcerned because the United States was preparing its own satellite, the American press, the public, and Congress were outraged, fearing the Russians were spying on them or could rain down nuclear weapons from space. Moreover, it seemed as if the Americans were falling behind the Soviets. Henry Jackson, a Democratic senator from the state of Washington, called Sputnik a devastating blow to the United States’ scientific, industrial, and technical prestige in the world.” Sputnik initiated the space race between the United States and Soviet Union as part of the Cold War superpower rivalry.

Congress moved quickly to compete with the Soviet Union in space. In 1958, it passed the National Defense Education Act to spend more money to promote science, math, and engineering education at all levels. To signal its peaceful intentions, Congress also created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as a civilian organization to lead the American efforts in space exploration, whereas the Russian program operated as part of the military. The United States launched its first satellite into space on January 31, 1958, and NASA announced Project Mercury in December with the purpose of putting an astronaut in space.

For both sides, the space race was about the prestige of being the first to accomplish a goal in space. In April 1961, the Russians again beat the Americans by sending the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into space to orbit the Earth and used the event for Cold War propaganda about the superiority of the communist system. American Alan Shepard made the first U.S. spaceflight shortly afterward, on May 5, and President John F. Kennedy addressed Congress the following month to issue a ringing challenge. “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal,” he said, “before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him home safely to earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space.”

Yuri Gagarin wears his astronaut uniform and helmet and sits on a bus. Another astronaut, his cosmonaut, sits behind him.

The Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin was the first human to enter space, an achievement that only fueled the United States’ desire to put the first human on the moon.

Throughout the next several years, NASA administrator James Webb, an adept bureaucrat, oversaw the growing organization, built its relationship with the aerospace industry, and lobbied members of Congress to get more than $20 billion in funding for a moon landing. More than 400,000 people were engaged in the effort to achieve Kennedy’s goal. The successful Mercury program was succeeded by the two-person flights of the Gemini program, and then by the Apollo program, which worked on spacewalks, rendezvous, and docking in preparation for eventual flights to the moon. On January 27, 1966, three American astronauts died in a launchpad fire during a test for Apollo I, demonstrating the real dangers astronauts faced and leading to extensive investigations to prevent another deadly accident.

Americans generally saw the astronauts as heroes on the front line of discovery and the space race. They were mostly highly educated and experienced military pilots who demonstrated courage, confidence, and competitiveness. Engineers and logical problem solvers who mastered the technical aspects of spaceflight, they pushed limits and took risks but not unnecessary ones. Neil Armstrong, for example, studied aeronautical engineering at Purdue University and then flew jet fighters during the Korean War.

On July 5, 1969, three astronauts – Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins – were answering questions from reporters at a press conference about 10 days before their historic trip to the moon aboard Apollo 11. When asked whether the mission was worth the billions of dollars it cost, Armstrong responded that spaceflight was fundamentally about human discovery. “I think we’re going to the moon because it’s in the nature of the human being to face challenges. It’s by the nature of his deep inner soul,” he said. His answer perfectly captured the curiosity and courage that led humans to stretch the limits of technology and try to land on the moon.

Photograph of Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin Aldrin Jr

(Left to right) Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. were the three members of the Apollo 11 lunar landing crew.

On the morning of July 16, the heat and humidity at Cape Canaveral in Florida were stifling. An estimated one million spectators crowded the grounds, beaches, and water around the perimeter of the launch site, at a distance of at least three and a half miles for safety. The three astronauts, meanwhile, had eaten breakfast before donning their spacesuits and heading to the launch pad. They rode an elevator to level 34, and at 6:54 a.m. they boarded their Apollo command module, named Columbia, atop a 363-foot high Saturn V rocket filled with six million pounds of freezing liquid propellant. They powered up and ran through their safety checklist as hundreds of scientists, engineers, and doctors worked in launch control to ensure the mission’s safety and success. A flight director addressed the three astronauts on a private line and inspired them with a speech about working together as a team to make history.

The final countdown commenced, and the engines ignited with an incredible blast. At 9:32 a.m., the rocket lifted off and soon pitched into its flight plan, with the astronauts pinned to their seats by the growing G force. They blasted into the heavens, leaving an 800-foot trail of fire behind, and soon were rocketing upward at more than 6,000 miles per hour. The astronauts burned the second-stage rocket in the blackness of space while orbiting the Earth as they began to feel the effects of weightlessness in space. Their spacecraft circled the Earth at faster than 17,500 miles per hour until the third-stage rocket hurtled them out of Earth’s orbit at more than 24,000 miles per hour, headed toward the moon.

During the three-day flight to the moon, the astronauts flew their spacecraft, transmitted audio and visual images back to Earth, and slept. After 75 hours in space, Apollo 11 was caught in the moon’s gravity and safely entered its orbit. On Sunday, July 20, Armstrong and Aldrin prepared the lunar lander and climbed aboard, while Collins circled the moon aboard Columbia and waited for them to return. With countless hours of simulation training behind him, Armstrong expertly piloted the lunar landing module, nicknamed Eagle, onto the surface of the moon. “The Eagle has landed,” he reported to billions of people back on Earth.

Armstrong was the first human being to walk on the moon. As he set foot on the surface, he said, “That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.” Once Aldrin joined Armstrong a few minutes later, the pair stood on the surface of the moon 250,000 miles from Earth. Armstrong and Aldrin walked in the footsteps of trailblazing discoverers who had conquered new frontiers for millennia in the human experience. President Richard Nixon spoke to them, saying, “For every American, this has to be the proudest day of our lives, and for people all over the world, I am sure they, too, join with Americans in recognizing what an immense feat this is.”

Despite the weight of their protective suits, Armstrong and Aldrin leaped short distances in the reduced gravity of the moon. They conducted scientific experiments, collected rocks and soil for analysis, and set up an American flag, rigged with wire to make it appear to be flying proudly in the vacuum of space. After several hours, it was time for the pair to return to the landing craft with their samples. Armstrong was too excited and too cold to sleep, so he lay awake and contemplated their achievement.

Buzz Aldrin stands on the moon and salutes the American flag that is planted on the surface of the moon.

On July 20, 1969, Buzz Aldrin saluted the American flag on the surface of the moon.

The astronauts were not out of danger during their return trip. They first had to rendezvous with Collins in the Columbia and then return to Earth. The most difficult challenge was re-entering Earth’s atmosphere at the exact angle necessary to avoiding either burning up or skimming off the atmosphere and hurtling back into space. Meanwhile, the spacecraft’s heat shield would have to hold at temperatures nearing 4,000°F.

The astronauts successfully navigated Columbiato re-entry and entered the atmosphere at nearly 25,000 miles per hour. Columbia slowed until its three parachutes deployed and then drifted down into the Pacific Ocean, where the astronauts were retrieved by a helicopter and swimmers from a U.S. aircraft carrier. Aldrin, Armstrong, and Collins were quarantined for a few weeks and then honored with a ticker-tape parade celebrating their heroic achievement. They proved that humans could walk on the moon and achieve what many others had thought impossible.

The United States won the space race by sending men to the moon and back in 1969. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union’s secret efforts to get there first had resulted in frustration and failure. The Americans used the accomplishment to tout the superiority of freedom over communism. However, the success of the moon landing transcended the competition between rival superpowers or even the practical implications of manned spaceflight. The accomplishment represented the fruit of scientific and technological endeavor as the boundary of space was conquered, and it elevated the human spirit of discovery.

Review Questions

1. Which nation was the first to make the “greatest advance” in rocket technology?

  1. The United States
  2. Russia/Soviet Union
  3. Germany
  4. The United Kingdom

2. The first human to walk on the Moon was

  1. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin
  2. Werner von Braun
  3. Michael Collins
  4. Neil Armstrong

3. The first human in space was

  1. Werner von Braun
  2. Yuri Gargarin
  3. Neil Armstrong
  4. John Glenn

4. All the following aided the United States’ quest to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s except

  1. a drastic increase in federal spending
  2. higher-education opportunities
  3. the desire to be the first to accomplish a goal in space
  4. the desire to dismantle its nuclear arsenal

5. The greatest advance in rocket technology that enabled space exploration in the 1960s was based on

  1. work by the Soviet Union in the 1950s
  2. the United States’ technological developments in the 1920s
  3. work by various individuals in the 1930s
  4. the work of German scientists during World War II

6. One major difference between the Soviet system and its space program and the U.S. system and space program was that the Soviets militarized their program and the United States primarily allowed for

  1. a democratically elected government to make space policy
  2. interplay between private markets and government to make space policy
  3. no military influence in its space program
  4. complete privatization of the space program

Free Response Questions

  1. Describe the development of the U.S. space program.

AP Practice Questions

“Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it – we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.”

John F. Kennedy, Rice Stadium Moon Speech, September 12, 1962

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. Based on the sentiments expressed in the excerpt, the political climate faced by John Kennedy’s administration was characterized by which major foreign policy concern?

  1. Unresolved issues of World War II
  2. Nuclear proliferation
  3. The increase in tension in Vietnam
  4. The Cold War

2. The text in the excerpt was primarily a reaction to

  1. escalation of the Vietnam conflict
  2. the Civil Rights movement
  3. Soviet advances in space technology
  4. unresolved issues from World War II

Primary Sources

National Aeronautics and Space Administration. “Apollo 11.”

Suggested Resources

Brinkley, Douglas. American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race. New York: Harper, 2019.

Dickson, Paul. Sputnik: The Shock of the Century.New York: Walker and Company, 2001.

Divine, Robert A. The Sputnik Challenge: Eisenhower’s Response to the Soviet Satellite.Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Donovan, James. Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11.New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2019.

Hansen, James R. First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.

Nelson, Craig. Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon. New York: Viking, 2009.

Shepard, Alan, and Deke Slayton. Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Race to the Moon.New York: Turner, 1994.

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