The Apollo programme and the golden era of space exploration

Its success had much to do with the intensification of space rivalry and the Cold War.

WrittenBy:Martand Jha
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2019 marks the 50th anniversary of NASA’s human spaceflight to the moon. Under the Apollo 11 mission, when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, his words “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” depicted the huge achievement of the American space programme. Today, when India is preparing for the mission Gaganyaan (its first human spaceflight programme), it becomes essential to look back at the history of the Apollo programme.

The Apollo programme is one of NASA’s biggest space programmes, designed primarily to land man on the moon, and came after the Mercury programme of the 1950s. Also known as Project Apollo, its idea was conceived during Eisenhower’s presidency. The project became a national goal for the US after President John F Kennedy’s decision to send a man to the moon by the end of the 1960s. When Kennedy announced his proposal on May 25, 1961, only one American had travelled to space till then—Alan B Shepard on May 5 that year. There was a lot of apprehension in the US regarding how achievable this ambitious plan was—to not only send a man to the moon, but to have him safely return home.

The apprehensions rose considerably when the three members of the Apollo 1 crew were killed due to a cabin fire during the rehearsal test for the flight in 1967. This was supposed to be the first manned mission of the US Apollo programme. After the Apollo 1 accident, the “Philips Report” was made public, bringing out the gaps in the programme, the reasons for its delay, and what led to the accident in the first place.

Despite the setbacks and delays, the first manned mission to the moon was Apollo 8—launched on December 21, 1968, it became the first manned spacecraft to leave low earth orbit, reach the moon, and return to earth. This was when Lyndon Johnson was the president of the US, and the country was starting to match up to USSR’s capabilities as a “space power”. The major part of the Apollo programme fell under Johnson’s presidency. During his initial tenure, on March 23, 1965, Johnson talked about his continued commitment to the lunar goal in a private phone conversation with Senator John McClellan: “We hope it works out all right. We got a long ways to go. These boys [the Soviets] are kind of running rings around us, but we don’t get hot until we get real behind and then we start looking for somebody to make a scapegoat out of … but … we think we got a fair chance to keep up with these people by ’70.”

McClellan responded, “We should keep up.” Johnson replied, “Oh, this research is the most important thing we can do. John, 75 per cent of the things we will be making 25 years from now we have never heard of now. That’s how fast the world changes.”

The US finally placed a man on the moon in 1969—the biggest achievement of the US space programme—eight years after John F Kennedy talked about it before the US Congress. The mission was Apollo 11, with astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, on July 20, 1969. The famous moonwalk took place the next day.

The magnitude of Apollo 11’s success was even bigger in space history than Yuri Gagarin’s space travel eight years earlier in 1961. The perception battle about who was winning the space race tilted towards the US after Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk. Questions raised about Soviet superiority in outer space were drowned after the noisy success of Apollo 11. It also resulted in NASA stamping its mark at an international level as a premiere space agency.

And so the 1960s ended on a high for the US, especially with the success of Apollo 12, which had the objectives of a detailed scientific lunar exploration—which was subsequently achieved by the Apollo 12 crew. What’s noteworthy about this particular mission is that it was designed for a precision landing on the moon. Precision landing means that unlike Apollo 11, which landed on the moon wherever the crew felt it safe to land the spacecraft, Apollo 12 was landed on a pre-decided target.

Spanning a decade, the ambitious and successful Apollo programme had much to do with the intensification of Cold War space rivalry and the Cold War itself. On the whole, space became an area of great national and international importance. The decade following Sputnik 1’s launch in 1957 was the height of the space race. If one wanted to pick an era which signifies the height of the space race, 1957-1969 would probably be that period—which also coincides with the middle of the Cold War and the bipolarity after the Second World War. Both the superpowers invested, developed and built their space programs tediously after Sputnik 1.

The decade post 1957 was one of great advancement in space, science, technology and engineering. The genius of Sergei Korolev and Werhner Von Braun was seen and appreciated by the world in this decade. The 1960s defined the discourse of the space rivalry between US and USSR and also left room for co-operation between them in the future. The period also generated huge interest among the masses about outer space travel and made astronauts as big as superheroes.


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