The journey to the Moon

On the 25th May 1961 President John F Kennedy told Congress: "I believe that this nation should commit itself, before this decade is out, to the goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth."

Earthrise over the lunar surface taken from Apollo 8

Many people have expressed their amazement that not only was the goal of landing a man on the Moon achieved, but that it was achieved in only 8 years, as Kennedy said it should. This is however, ignoring the fact that at the time Kennedy made his statement NASA already had in the pipeline over nine different Moon landing flight plans in a project they had named 'Apollo'. They were already designing a huge Moon booster called 'Nova', that was to generate 40 million pounds of thrust, and were already considering various methods for landing a man on the Moon. At the the time of Kennedy's speech however, NASA were concentrating not so much on landing a man on the moon but on just putting a manned craft around it. Kennedy's speech changed all that.

Had NASA not been put under pressure to meet Kennedy's deadline, they would have chosen a far different approach to land a man on the Moon than the one used. It was originally hoped to do it stage by stage using a permanent Earth orbiting station that would make future flights a lot easier, but instead had to settle for a 'one time' system to meet the deadline. With the new system going from launch pad, to orbit, to the Moon and back, using disposable components, it was possible to achieve within the time frame, but it meant each mission was a 'one off' and contributed nothing towards the overall mission plan that could be used by following Moon flights.

The mission to land a man on the Moon was not an 8 year period of starting spaceflight from scratch and ending with a Moon landing. Spaceflight began in 1957 with the first satellite placed in orbit and developed from there.


 Sputnik 1  4 Oct 1957  USSR  Orbit
 Sputnik 2  3 Nov 1957  USSR  Orbit
 Vanguard  6 Dec 1957  USA  Failed
 Explorer 1  31 Jan 1958  USA  Orbit
 Vanguard  5 Feb 1958  USA  Failed
 Explorer 2  5 Mar 1958  USA  Failed
 Vanguard 1  17 Mar 1958  USA  Orbit
 Explorer 3  26 May 1958  USA  Orbit
 Sputnik  27 April 1958  USSR  Failed
 Vanguard  28 April 1958  USA  Failed
 Sputnik 3  15 May 1958  USSR  Orbit
 Vanguard  27 May 1958  USA  Failed
 Vanguard  26 Jun 1958  USA  Failed
 Explorer 4  26 Jul 1958  USA  Orbit
 Explorer 5  24 Aug 1958  USA  Failed
 Vanguard  26 Sep 1958  USA  Failed
 Beacon  23 Oct 1958  USA  Failed
 Score  18 Dec 1958  USA  Orbit

The launch of the first satellites spurred rocket scientists into action, and with only five satellites safely in orbit the first attempt was made to send a spacecraft to the Moon.


 Pioneer 1A  17 Aug 1958  USA  Failed
 Luna  23 Sep 1958  USSR  Failed
 Pioneer 1B  11 Oct 1958  USA  Failed
 Luna  12 Oct 1958  USSR  Failed
 Pioneer 2  8 Nov 1958  USA  Failed
 Pioneer 3  6 Dec 1958  USA  Failed
 Luna 1  2 Jan 1959  USSR  Missed Moon
 Pioneer 4  3 Mar 1959  USA  Success. Fly-by
 Luna  18 Jun 1959  USSR  Failed
 Luna 2  12 Sep 1959  USSR  Success. Hit Moon
 Pioneer  24 Sept 1959  USA  Failed
 Luna 3  4 Oct 1959  USSR  Success. Lunar loop
 Pioneer  26 Nov 1959  USA  Failed
 Luna  12 Apr 1960  USSR  Failed
 Pioneer  25 Sep 1960  USA  Failed
 Pioneer  15 Dec 1960  USA  Failed

So far, not very encouraging, but at least unmanned rockets had reached the Moon. During this period both countries were sending animals into orbit to pave the way for manned flights.



NASA was formed on October 1st 1958, and the man in space programme was introduced just six days later, almost three years before Kennedy's pledge to land a man on the Moon. The program was renamed "Project Mercury" on Nov. 26, 1958, just prior to the commencement of the astronaut candidate selection process. NASA selected seven pilots to train for flights in the one-man capsule called Mercury. It was a bell-shaped capsule that could be controlled in space by its pilot, maneuvering in three axis called pitch, roll and yaw. The pilot could take full manual control or just monitor automatic systems. He had the ability to override systems and troubleshoot problems. The Mercury had an ablative heatshield on its blunt end which would take the brunt of the intense heat on its high speed re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere, carefully controlled at a specific angle. A parachute would enable the craft to splash down in the sea. The first manned flights would involve suborbital "up and down" rides launched on a Redstone rocket and would be followed by orbital flights on the Atlas, America's first ICBM.

A major American milestone was reached with a Redstone boosted suborbital flight of the chimpanzee Sam, in January 1961. This was soon put into the shade however by the USSR three months later with the first man in orbit, Yuri Gagarin. The American response was their first manned spaceflight, using a Mercury capsule, Freedom 7, a brief 15 minute suborbital flight on May 5th 1961. No match for the Russian Yuri Gagarin's trip into orbit. The Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was ecstatic and milked all the propaganda he could from the flight. This did not go unnoticed by America's newly elected President and 20 days after Alan Shepherd's space hop, Kennedy responded to the Soviet lead by making his pledge to land a man on the Moon before the decade was out. The race was on.


 1  Vostok  Yuri Gagarin  USSR  Orbital 1  1 hr 48m
 2 *  Freedom 7  Alan Shepherd  USA  Suborbital  15mins
 3  Libertybell 7  Gus Grissom  USA  Suborbital  15mins
 4  Vostok 2  Gherman Titov  USSR  Orbital 17  1d 1 hr 18m
 5  Friendship 7  John Glenn  USA  Orbital 3  4h 55m
 6  Aurora 7  Scott Carpenter  USA  Orbital 3  4h 56m
 7  Vostok 3  A. Nikolyev  USSR  Orbital 64  3d 22h
 8  Vostok 4  O. Popovich  USSR  Orbital 48  2d 23h
 9  Sigma 7  Wally Schirra  USA  Orbital 6  9h 13m
 10  Faith 7  Gordon Cooper  USA  Orbital 22  1d 10h
 11  Vostok 5  V. Bykovsky  USSR  Orbital 81  4d 23h
 12  Vostok 6  V.Tereshkova  USSR  Orbital 48  2d 22h


*In 1961 when Kennedy made his now famous pledge to land a man on the Moon, the USA had only 15 minutes piloted spaceflight experience and only 5 minutes of that was in space, but as already mentioned, plans were already well in place.

COUNTDOWN: 8 years 7 months remaining.

NASA had already studied three options of landing a man on the Moon.

1) The Direct Ascent Method. This would involve the construction of a huge booster, the Nova, that would launch a large spacecraft and send it on a course directly to the Moon. The craft would land on the Moon, and after a period of exploration, would take-off and fly directly back to the Earth. This method was ruled out as being too expensive and requiring too high a level of technical sophistication of the Nova.

2) Earth-Orbit Rendezvous. This called for the launching of all the components required for the Moon trip into Earth orbit, where they would rendezvous, be assembled, refueled, and sent to the Moon. This method was dropped due to problems associated with manoeuvring at rendezvous and assembling components, and dangers of refueling.

3) Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous. This proposed sending the entire lunar spacecraft up in one launch. It would head to the Moon, enter into its orbit, and dispatch a small lander to the lunar surface. It was the simpler of the three models, but it was risky. In the plan, three astronauts would be launched in a mother ship, first reaching Earth orbit, then heading for the Moon, to enter an orbit around it. A landing vehicle, manned by two astronauts, leaving one in the mother ship, would touch down on the Moon using its descent engine. After a Moonwalk, the top half of the Lunar Excursion Module would take off, leaving the bottom half on the surface, and rendezvous and dock with the mother ship in lunar orbit. The mother ship would break out of lunar orbit and head back to Earth. Since rendezvous was taking place in lunar, instead of Earth orbit, there was no room for error or the crew could not get home. Also, some of the most difficult course corrections and manoeuvres had to be done after the spacecraft had been committed to a circumlunar flight.

This method, though risky, was adopted in 1962 as it was technically the simplest, and the Apollo project was on its way.

COUNTDOWN: 8 years remaining.

By now the Americans were having great success with their Mercury programme. On the 20th February 1962 John Glenn was launched into orbit by an Atlas rocket in a Mercury capsule called Friendship 7. The first American in orbit, he completed 3 orbits. This was followed by Scott Carpenter with 3 orbits, Wally Schirra with 6, and Gordon Cooper with 22.

COUNTDOWN: 7 years 10 months remaining.

Rendezvous and docking of spacecraft together was to be a crucial part in the Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous method and the next series of US piloted spacecraft that succeeded Mercury was designed to demonstrate these manoeuvres in Earth orbit and to rehearse as much Moon flight as possible without going there. Testing out spacesuits during spacewalks (EVA's) and flying in Earth orbit longer than it would take to fly to the Moon and back were also on the agenda for this next series of spacecraft which would carry two astronauts.

Mercury met all three of its objectives: orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth; learn about man's ability to function in space; and safely recover the man and spacecraft. The project ultimately put six men in space, four of whom made orbital flights around Earth. It proved that men could function normally for up to 34 hours of weightless flight. Over two million people worked on the project for almost five years. By 1963, Project Mercury wrapped up and Project Gemini was two years into its development stages.

COUNTDOWN: 6 years remaining.


The Gemini spacecraft would become the first to alter its orbit and manoeuvre in space, which was crucial for it to be able to rendezvous and dock. Two unmanned test flights of Gemini were made before Gemini 3 made its first manned flight in March 1965. It carried two astronauts and made a modest three orbits, but successfully demonstrated the first manned manoeuvres in orbit as a crucial test for Apollo. The command pilot was Gus Grissom, who had flown the second suborbital Mercury mission in July 1961 and the first person to make two spaceflights.

COUNTDOWN: 4 years 9 months remaining.

The remarkable Gemini programme then soared ahead with nine more piloted flights ending in 1966, meeting all its goals during one of the most frenetic and exciting periods of the Moon Race. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and David Scott completed the first space docking on 16 March 1966 when Gemini 8 joined up with an unmanned Agena target rocket, simulating the ascent of a lunar module from the Moon docking with a mother ship in lunar orbit.

COUNTDOWN: 3 years 9 months remaining

Meanwhile in June 1966, when Gemini 9 was flying, the first mock-up of a Saturn V booster was being rolled out at Kennedy Space centre.

COUNTDOWN: 3 years 6 month remaining


 3  23 Mar 1965  Orbit change
 4  3 Jun 1965  EVA
 5  21 Aug 1965  Record duration
 6  4 Dec 1965  Record duration
 7  15 Dec 1965  1st Rendezvous
 8  16 Mar 1966  1st docking
 9  3 Jun 1966  Record EVA
 10  18 Jul 1966  Re-boost orbit
 11  12 Sep 1966  Record altitude
 12  11 Nov 1966  Record EVA

The remarkably successful Gemini programme ended with the landing of Gemini 12 in November 1966 and NASA felt confident that the major requirements for a Moon mission had been mastered.

COUNTDOWN: 3 years 1 month remaining

Moon probes

From the period 1962 onwards, both America and the USSR were involved in sending unmanned probes to the Moon with the aim of finding suitable landing sites. Some scientists, for example, thought that a craft would disappear in a vast layer of soft lunar dust. Fortunately this turned out not to be the case. America launched its Ranger series of probes in 1962, and in 1965 Ranger 8 and Ranger 9 returned over 12,000 images before crashing into the surface as designed. Ranger 8 imaged the Sea of Tranquillity, and this was eventually selected as the first landing spot. This was followed in 1966 by Surveyor 1, a soft landing probe, that sent back spectacular images from the surface that were shown live on TV. In 1967 Surveyor 3 soft landed and scooped up surface material. Lunar Orbiter had 5 successful missions and sent back thousands of pictures, almost the entire Moon. This enabled NASA to select up to 20 candidate landing sites for the Apollo programme.


The Apollo lunar spacecraft comprised of three major components: the Command Module, the Service Module and the Lunar Module. The Apollo modules were lifted into earth orbit and sent on their way to the Moon by the massive Saturn V rocket, referred to as a 'booster'.

The conical Command Module is the crew living quarters where the crew ate and slept and worked on their way to the Moon and back. At the nose of the Command Module was the docking mechanism that allowed it to join up with the Lunar Module that was in fact stowed beneath it for the launch. A vital part of the Command Module was the heatshield which protected the crew from the 1600 C (3000 F) temperatures experienced during the plunge into Earth's atmosphere, which begins at a speed of 25,000 mph.

The Service Module supplied electricity and water to the spacecraft and maneuvering power. It provides the 'burn' to slow down the craft to enable it to enter lunar orbit, and also the 'burn' to get home from lunar orbit. The Service Module was attached at all times to the Command Module until just before re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, when it was jettisoned. For Command and Service Module diagram see CSM

The Lunar Module, or LM, is a two-part, totally self-contained spacecraft that used its own rockets to land on and take off from the surface of the moon, and even served as its own launch pad. The Lunar Module was the compartment in which two of the crew landed on the Moon and took-off again to re-join the Command and Service Module, which remained in lunar orbit with the third crew member. For Lunar Module diagram see Lunar Module

Apollo missions were launched atop two different boosters, the Saturn 1B used for the Earth orbiting missions and the mighty Saturn V, the Moon booster. For Saturn V diagram see Saturn V
Another major element of the spacecraft during the first 100 seconds of flight was the launch escape system in case the Saturn V booster malfunctioned.

The mighty Saturn V booster was in three stages and its job was to lift the Apollo spacecraft into earth-orbit and then send it on its way to the Moon. The first two stages were used and discarded on the way up to earth-orbit. The third stage was only partially used to reach earth orbit and was then shut down. The Apollo spacecraft and third stage of the Saturn V would then complete an orbit or two while system checks were carried out. One final burn from the Saturn V third stage would then put them on course for the Moon.

Once dispatched towards the Moon (Trans Lunar Injection) the Command Module and Service Module combination separated from the third stage of the Saturn V rocket, turned around and docked with the Lunar Module nestled inside the third stage and extracted it from the spent booster. The booster was then discarded.

The combined Apollo craft journeyed to the Moon from the momentum given it by that final Saturn V burn. The crew were then able to transfer between the Command Module and Lunar Module via a transfer tunnel, once the docking probe had been removed. Had this not been the case, then the Apollo 13 crew would not have made it back.


The intense efforts being made to get the whole Apollo system in gear for the first piloted flights was illustrated by the development of the first Saturn V to its first launch. It took just five years.

It has to be remembered that an awful price was paid. On Friday 27th January 1967, Apollo 1 was on launch Pad 34 at Cape Canaveral on top of the massive Saturn V booster, for what was to be a countdown demonstration test during which the rocket was unfuelled. This was to be followed on 14th February 1967 with a shakedown orbital flight. There were three crew onboard, Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee. The Command Module, as usual, was pressurised with pure oxygen. Bad workmanship had resulted in some electrical wiring losing its insulation and this caused a spark under Grissom's seat. Within seconds the arc had become an inferno in the oxygen atmosphere. All three men died within seconds. Those men were test pilots, but more, they were heroes of spaceflight.

The Apollo 1 disaster revealed carelessness and bad workmanship in design and production. The programme was delayed while modifications were made.

COUNTDOWN: 2 years 11 months remaining


On 9th November 1967, the first Saturn V booster was launched from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Centre. With the Apollo 4 system on top, the monster rocket was 363 feet high and weighed 2,888 tons.


The complete Saturn V rocket on the launch pad

Versions of the Apollo modules had made a number of previous test flights in Earth orbit using smaller Saturn 1 and 1B boosters. The Lunar Module was due for testing in early 1968.

The Saturn V moon booster is the most powerful rocket ever made. The 5 first stage engines produced 7,600,000 pounds of thrust. Within 40 seconds of liftoff the Saturn V goes supersonic. By the time the first stage fuel is spent the crew are experiencing a force of acceleration of over 4g. At this point stage 1 is jettisoned and stage 2 kicks in. After around 5 minutes the emergency escape rocket is discarded, taking with it the boost protective cover and allowing the crew their first outside view as the windows are uncovered. After almost 9 minutes stage 3 kicks in picking up the last bit of velocity. Just 11 minutes 30 seconds after liftoff stage 3 shuts down and they are in orbit travelling at 17,400 miles per hour at an altitude of 115 miles. After an orbit or two the third stage is lit up a final time to raise their speed up to 24,226 mph, the speed necessary to reach the moon on a free-return path. The burn takes around 5 minutes. The third stage is then jettisoned (goodbye Saturn V and thanks for the ride) and after this all maneuvering power comes from the Service Module, which apart from some small mid-course corrections, will not be used until braking is required to enter lunar orbit.

When they are 38,900 miles from the moon they reach the top of the gravity hill and cross over into the moons gravity well. At this stage the craft has slowed down from its initial 24,226 mph to a 'slow' 2,223 mph, but from now on will accelerate again as it 'falls' towards the moon. By the time they need to start their burn to slow down they will have picked up speed to 5,000 mph and will require a burn of 4 minutes to bring the speed down to 3,700 mph, slow enough to go into lunar orbit. In order to break out of orbit and return home takes a 3 minute burn. When they reach the earth's atmosphere they will be travelling at 25,000 mph but braking will not require any burn, the atmosphere will slow them down, so rapidly in fact that the g-force will hit 6 g.

COUNTDOWN: 2 years 1 month remaining

In 1968, NASA planned one Earth orbit mission, to be followed by a combined Apollo Command and Service Module and Lunar Module test mission in Earth orbit, after launch on a Saturn V. This would be followed in 1969 by a deep Earth orbit test and a final Moon landing dress rehearsal in Lunar orbit. If all went well an American could be on the Moon by mid-1969.


Apollo 5

January 22 1968 1st test of Lunar Module in space.

COUNTDOWN: 1 year 11 months remaining


Apollo 6

April 4 1968.  Final uncrewed Apollo test flight. Full systems check.

COUNTDOWN: 1 year 8 months remaining


Apollo 7

October 11-22, 1968. First manned earth-orbit test of the Apollo Command and Service Modules. (CSM)

COUNTDOWN: 1 year 2 months remaining


Apollo 8

December 21-27, 1968. Lunar orbit mission. This was the first mission to place men into an orbit around the Moon. Completed 10 orbits of the moon on Christmas eve, 1968. This mission did not include the Lunar Module.

COUNTDOWN: 12 months remaining


Apollo 9

March 3-13, 1969. This mission was an earth-orbit only test of the entire Apollo spacecraft - the CSM and LM. Included rendezvous maneuvers between the Command Module and Lunar Module.


COUNTDOWN: 9 months remaining


Apollo 10

May 18-26, 1969. Lunar orbit mission. This was a full dress rehearsal of a Moon landing, with the Lunar Module making a descent from lunar orbit to within 9 miles of the lunar surface before firing its engine and returning to dock with the Command and Service Module. Every system, every procedure, to be used in the actual Moon landing was tested, apart from the actual landing itself, and worked flawlessly. They were now ready to make the attempt to land on the Moon.

The Apollo Lunar Module after separation from the Command and Service Module

COUNTDOWN: 7 months remaining


Apollo 11

July 16-24, 1969. Apollo 11 blasted off from the Kennedy Space Centre on 16 July 1969, watched by one million spectators from the nearby beaches and causeways, and 600 million people around the world, including me. Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the surface of the Moon on 20th July 1969.

The Apollo CSM in lunar orbit. Photograph taken from the Lunar Module after separation


COUNTDOWN: Goal achieved with 5 months to spare.

The rest is history

Buzz Aldrin climbing down onto the lunar surface

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