Roger D. Launius
NASA History Office
July 1999 marks the thirtieth anniversary
of the epochal lunar landing of Apollo 11 in the summer of 1969.
Although President John F. Kennedy had made a public commitment on 25
May 1961 to land an American on the Moon by the end of the decade, up
until this time Apollo had been all promise. Now the realization was about
to begin. Kennedy's decision had involved much study and review prior
to making it public, and his commitment had captured the American imagination,
generating overwhelming support. Project Apollo had originated as an effort
to deal with an unsatisfactory situation (world perception of Soviet leadership
in space and technology), and it addressed these problems very well. Even
though Kennedy's political objectives were essentially achieved with the
decision to go to the Moon, Project Apollo took on a life of its own over
the years and left an important legacy to both the nation and the proponents
of space exploration. Its success was enormously significant, coming at
a time when American society was in crisis.
A unique confluence of political necessity, personal commitment and activism,
scientific and technological ability, economic prosperity, and public
mood made possible the 1961 decision to carry out an aggressive lunar
landing program. It then fell to NASA, other organizations of the federal
government, and the aerospace community to accomplish the task set out
in a few short paragraphs by the president. By the time that the goal
was accomplished in 1969, only few of the key figures associated with
the decision were still in leadership positions in the government. Kennedy
fell victim to an assassin's bullet in 1963, and science adviser Jerome
B. Wiesner returned to MIT soon afterwards. Lyndon B. Johnson, of course,
succeeded Kennedy as president but left office in January 1969, just a
few months before the first landing. NASA Administrator James E. Webb
resolutely guided NASA through most of the 1960s, but his image was tarnished
by, among other things, a 1967 Apollo accident that killed three astronauts.
Consequently, he retired from office under something of a cloud in October
1968. Several other early supporters of Apollo in Congress and elsewhere
died during the 1960s and never saw the program successfully completed.
The first Apollo mission of public significance was the flight of Apollo
8.On 21 December 1968 it took off atop a Saturn V booster from
the Kennedy Space Center. Three astronauts were aboardFrank Borman,
James A. Lovell, Jr., and William A. Andersfor a historic mission
to orbit the Moon. At first that mission had been planned as a flight
to test Apollo hardware in the relatively safe confines of low-Earth orbit,
but senior engineer George M. Low of the Manned Spacecraft Center at Houston,
Texas, and Samuel C. Phillips, Apollo Program Manager at NASA Headquarters,
obtained approval to make it a circumlunar flight. The advantages of this
could be important, both in technical and scientific knowledge gained
as well as in a public demonstration of what the United States could achieve.
After Apollo 8 made one and a half Earth orbits, its third stage
began a burn to put the spacecraft on a lunar trajectory. It orbited the
Moon on 24-25 December and then fired the boosters for a return flight.
It "splashed down" in the Pacific Ocean on 27 December. That flight was
such an enormously significant accomplishment because it came at a time
when American society was in crisis over Vietnam, race relations, urban
problems, and a host of other difficulties. And if only for a few moments
the nation united as one to focus on this epochal event. Two more Apollo
missions occurred before the climax of the program, testing critical systems
and procedures and confirming that the time had come for a lunar landing.
That landing came during the flight of Apollo 11,which lifted off
on 16 July 1969 and, after confirmation that the hardware was working
well, began the three-day trip to the Moon. Then, at 4:18 p.m. EST on
20 July 1969, the Lunar Modulewith astronauts Neil A. Armstrong
and Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin aboardlanded on the lunar surface while
Michael Collins orbited overhead in the Apollo Command Module. After checkout,
Armstrong set foot on the surface, telling millions who saw and heard
him on Earth that it was "one small step for [a] manone giant leap
for mankind." Aldrin soon followed him out, and the two plodded around
the landing site in the 1/6 lunar gravity, planted an American flag but
omitted claiming the land for the United States as had been routinely
done during European exploration of the Americas, collected soil and rock
samples, and set up scientific experiments. The next day they launched
back to the Apollo capsule orbiting overhead and began the return trip
to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific on 24 July.
This flight rekindled the excitement felt in the early 1960s during the
first Mercury flights, and set the stage for later Apollo landing missions.
An ecstatic reaction enveloped the globe, as everyone shared in the success
of the mission. Ticker tape parades, speaking engagements, public relations
events, and a world tour by the astronauts served to create good will
both in the United States and abroad. Five more landing missions followed
at approximately six-month intervals through December 1972, each of them
increasing the time spent on the Moon. The scientific experiments placed
on the Moon and the lunar soil samples returned have provided grist for
scientists' investigations ever since. The scientific return was significant,
but the program did not answer conclusively the age-old questions of lunar
origins and evolution. Three of the later Apollo missions used a lunar
rover vehicle to travel in the vicinity of the landing site, but none
of them equaled the excitement of Apollo 11.
Project Apollo in general, and the flight of Apollo 11 in particular,
should be viewed as a watershed in the nation's history. It was an endeavor
that demonstrated both the technological and economic virtuosity of the
United States and established national preeminence over rival nationsthe
primary goal of the program when first envisioned by the Kennedy administration
in 1961. It had been an enormous undertaking, costing $25.4 billion (about
$95 billion in 1990 dollars), with only the building of the Panama Canal
rivaling the Apollo program's size as the largest non-military technological
endeavor ever undertaken by the United States and only the Manhattan Project
being comparable in a wartime setting.
There are several important legacies (or conclusions) about Project Apollo
that need to be remembered at the anniversary of the Apollo 11
landing. First, and probably most important, the Apollo program was successful
in accomplishing the political goals for which it had been created. Kennedy
had been dealing with a Cold War crisis in 1961 brought on by several
separate factorsthe Soviet orbiting of Yuri Gagarin and the disastrous
Bay of Pigs invasion only two of themthat Apollo was designed to
combat. At the time of the Apollo 11 landing, Mission Control in
Houston flashed the words of President Kennedy announcing the Apollo commitment
on its big screen. Those phrases were followed with these: "TASK ACCOMPLISHED,
July 1969." No greater understatement could probably have been made. Any
assessment of Apollo that does not recognize the accomplishment of landing
an American on the Moon and safely returning before the end of the 1960s
is incomplete and inaccurate, for that was the primary goal of the undertaking.
Second, Project Apollo was a triumph of management in meeting the enormously
difficult systems engineering and technological integration requirements.
James E. Webb, the NASA Administrator at the height of the program between
1961 and 1968, always contended that Apollo was much more a management
exercise than anything else, and that the technological challenge, while
sophisticated and impressive, was also within grasp. More difficult was
ensuring that those technological skills were properly managed and used.
Webb's contention was confirmed in spades by the success of Apollo. NASA
leaders had to acquire and organize unprecedented resources to accomplish
the task at hand. From both a political and technological perspective,
management was critical. For seven years after Kennedy's Apollo decision,
through October 1968, James Webb politicked, coaxed, cajoled, and maneuvered
for NASA in Washington. In the process he acquired for the agency sufficient
resources to meet its Apollo requirements.
More to the point, NASA personnel employed a "program management" concept
that centralized authority over design, engineering, procurement, testing,
construction, manufacturing, spare parts, logistics, training, and operations.
The management of the program was recognized as critical to Apollo's success
in November 1968, when Science magazine, the publication of the
American Association for the Advancement of Science, observed:
In terms of numbers of dollars or of men, NASA has not been
our largest national undertaking, but in terms of complexity, rate of
growth, and technological sophistication it has been unique....It may
turn out that [the space program's] most valuable spin-off of all will
be human rather than technological: better knowledge of how to plan, coordinate,
and monitor the multitudinous and varied activities of the organizations
required to accomplish great social undertakings.
Understanding the management of complex structures for the
successful completion of a multifarious task was a critical outgrowth
of the Apollo effort.
Third, Project Apollo forced the people of the world to view the planet
Earth in a new way. Apollo 8 was critical to this sea of change,
for on its outward voyage, the crew focused a portable television camera
on Earth and for the first time humanity saw its home from afar, a tiny,
lovely, and fragile "blue marble" hanging in the blackness of space.
When the Apollo 8 spacecraft arrived at the Moon on Christmas Eve
of 1968, the image of Earth was even more strongly reinforced when the
crew sent images of the planet back while reading the first part of the
Bible"And God created the heavens and the Earth, and the Earth was
without form and void"before sending holiday greetings to humanity.
Writer Archibald MacLeish summed up the feelings of many people when he
wrote at the time of Apollo that "To see the Earth as it truly is, small
and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to
see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright
loveliness in the eternal coldbrothers who know now that they are
truly brothers." The modern environmental movement was galvanized in part
by this new perception of the planet and the need to protect it and the
life that it supports.
Finally, the Apollo program, while an enormous achievement, left a divided
legacy for NASA and the aerospace community. The perceived "golden age"
of Apollo created for the agency an expectation that the direction of
any major space goal from the president would always bring NASA a broad
consensus of support and provide it with the resources and license to
dispense them as it saw fit. Something most NASA officials did not understand
at the time of the Moon landing in 1969, however, was that Apollo had
not been a normal situation and would not be repeated. The Apollo decision
was, therefore, an anomaly in the national decision-making process. The
dilemma of the "golden age" of Apollo has been difficult to overcome,
but moving beyond the Apollo program to embrace future opportunities has
been an important goal of the agency's leadership in the recent past.
Exploration of the solar system and the universe remains as enticing a
goal and as important an objective for humanity as it ever has been. Project
Apollo was an important early step in that ongoing process of exploration.
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