Apollo programme

The Apollo project

The Apollo programme was a massive project to land a man on the moon, probably the largest peacetime project ever.

I find it fascinating because it includes science, history, discovery, politics and the human aspect.


The first object to orbit the earth was the Russian Sputnik. The US President Eisenhower formed NASA in 1958 and started a space rocket programme.


In the early 1960’s the Russians were ahead of the Americans with the first man in space, the first woman, the first time two men went into space and the first space walk.


With this Russian superiority and following the humiliation in the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, President Kennedy wanted to find some high profile project where America could trounce the Russians. On 25th May 1961, when the US had only 15 minutes experience of a man in space, the President addressed Congress with the challenge to land a man on the moon and to return him safely to earth by the end of the decade.



I am not sure whether Kennedy championed spaceflight for political purposes or because he believed in it, or both.


The pace of the moon programme was breath taking, with 400, 000 people working on it.

At the dedication of the Manned Spacecraft Centre in Houston Kennedy gave a speech at Rice University (12th September 1962) that is thought to be one of the greatest speeches ever:

For the eyes of the world now look into space…………..

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. 

 (abbreviated clip with background music)

(full speech)


At this time NASA had astronauts that had become celebrities, and uplifted public morale.

NASA started with the one man Mercury programme and the two man Gemini programme which tested the hardware and the manoeuvres needed in space. The first Apollo ended up in tragedy when three astronauts died in a test on the launch pad.

This led to a reassessment of the same programme, trying to keep to deadlines without compromising safety.

The first Apollo was a test in earth orbit (Apollo 7). At Christmastime 1969 Apollo 8 took three men around the moon. 1968 had been an awful year, with racial unrest, riots, Vietnam and the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Apollo 8 saved 1968!

Famous broadcast from the moon at Christmas 1968.

Apollo 9 was another test in earth orbit and Apollo 10 took two men to the moon with a practice landing.

It was Apollo 11 that fulfilled Kennedy’s goal. On 20th July the ’Eagle’ landed on the moon with astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

Clip of Armstrong landing on the moon “One small step for (a) man, a giant leap for mankind”


This was closely followed by a successful Apollo12 but Apollo 13 was a near disaster when an oxygen tank exploded. The next flight became increasingly sophisticated and the last one was Apollo 17. The commander was Gene Cernan, the command module pilot was the late Ron Evans. Harrison Schmitt was the lunar module pilot, an astronaut like no other because he was a geologist, the first and only scientist to walk on the moon.


Schmitt joined NASA in 1965 and helped to train astronauts in geology to help them make scientific discoveries when on the moon. He trained to be a pilot and was originally scheduled to fly on Apollo 18. When this flight was cancelled, Schmitt replaced Joe Engle who was supposed to fly on Apollo 17.

The most successful of the Apollo flights, Apollo 17 lived for 75 hours on the moon and actually walked outside for over 22 hours and drove around in a rover for 36 kilometres.


Following the Apollo programme nobody has ever traveled out of earth orbit. For the last 37 years astronauts have only flown in the shuttle and Soyuz in earth orbit and to rendezvous with space stations.


The US has announced the Constellation project to replace the space shuttle, to reach the space station, reach the moon and eventually Mars. It has been described as “Apollo on steroids” because it utilises the same concepts with more modern technology. Constellation will start flying in 2015, at the earliest.



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