The First Moon Landing: Apollo Program & Astronauts

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about the first moon landing in 1969. We will learn about the astronauts involved and highlight key facts from this important event. We will also discuss the Apollo program and the United States' race to space.

John F. Kennedy and the Space Race

In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy gave a famous speech. In this speech, he pledged that America would land on the moon before the end of the decade. If you think about it, this was a pretty bold move. It was only three years earlier that the United States had even entered space with the launch of the first American satellite, Explorer I. Throughout the decade of the 1960s, the American space program would need to make tremendous technological breakthroughs if it wanted to fulfill Kennedy's pledge.

President Kennedy proposing a program to land a man on the moon.
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Before we discuss the specifics of the first lunar landing in 1969, we need to mention what was going on throughout the 1950s and 1960s. After World War II ended in 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union became embroiled in the Cold War. This was not an actual war fought with weapons and men, but it was a 'war' of threats and ideas. Basically, the Cold War was a competition.

A major part of this competition was the space race. The space race was exactly what it sounds like: it was a race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to see which nation could develop the best space program and the most important space-related accomplishments. After the Soviets sent up the first man-made satellite, called Sputnik I, in 1957, the United States determined that it would beat the Soviets to the moon. See, the first nation to land on the moon would have all kinds of 'bragging rights.'

The Apollo Space Program

The first American space program was called Project Mercury. Between 1958-1963 Project Mercury was responsible for one-manned spaceflight. After Project Mercury, came Project Gemini between 1961-1966, and featured a two-astronaut crew. The Apollo Program lasted between 1963-1972 and was responsible for manned moon landings. It consisted of a three-man crew. The Apollo program was committed to fulfilling Kennedy's dream of 'landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.' The first Apollo space mission called Apollo 1, ended in tragedy in 1967. The mission was intended to orbit the earth, but a cabin fire killed all three crew members during a launch test. The next several missions consisted mainly of orbits, in which various tests and experiments were completed. These missions were good practice for the ultimate goal of a moon landing.

The crew of Apollo 1 was killed when a cabin fire broke out during a launch test.
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The Apollo spacecraft was a three part design consisting of a command module for three astronauts, a service module which supplied power, oxygen and other necessities, and the lunar module, the part actually built to land on the moon. Most of the Apollo missions were launched by the Saturn V rocket.

Man Lands on the Moon

After years of practice and preparation, it was finally time to fulfill Kennedy's vision. On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 crew landed their lunar module on the surface of the moon. It was the first time human beings had ever set foot on the moon. The three-man crew consisted of commander Neil Armstrong, and his two pilots, 'Buzz' Aldrin and Michael Collins. As Armstrong stepped out onto the moon's surface he said: 'That's one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.'

Buzz Aldrin walking on the surface of the moon.
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