On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepherd rode a Redstone rocket on a short, fifteen minute hop into suborbital space, becoming the first American astronaut. He flew alone in a Mercury capsule. A few weeks later, on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy spoke to a joint session of Congress and committed the United States to what may have seemed, at the time, an improbable goal:
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this
decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”
A total of five more launches were made of the Mercury capsule following Kennedy’s speech. One more flight on a Redstone rocket, on a suborbital hop, followed by five into orbit aboard Atlas missiles—missiles originally designed as ICBMs to rain nuclear destruction on the Soviet Union. All of the Mercury flights occurred between May 1961 and May 1963.
The single astronaut Mercury program was followed by ten manned missions of Gemini, a larger capsule that could hold two astronauts, lofted into orbit aboard the more powerful converted ICBM, the Titan II. These flew between March 1965 and November 1966.
The first launch of the three passenger capsule Apollo 7 was in October, 1968, atop a Saturn 1B. It tested systems in Earth orbit, flying no higher than Mercury or Gemini. The very next launch of Apollo that occurred barely two months later, the Christmas time launch of Apollo 8 in 1968, went all the way to lunar orbit. Apollo 8 circled the moon ten times and returned safely. In one leap, we went from merely circling the globe—something we’d done just fifteen times—to orbiting the moon.
Two more flights of Apollo followed. Apollo 9 tested the lunar module that would land astronauts on the moon in Earth orbit. Apollo 10 tested the lunar module in lunar orbit. The fourth launch of an Apollo was Apollo 11, which landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin successfully on the moon on July 20, 1969, achieving Kennedy’s goal. Looking at how things have gone since then, it’s hard to believe we were able to accomplish so much so quickly.
After spending the modern equivalent of about 150 billion dollars, the United States managed to make Neil Armstrong the first man on the moon barely eight years after Kennedy gave his speech. Eleven men would follow him over the next three years.
That was a remarkable achievement.
When Neil Armstrong flew, barely sixty-six years had passed since the Wright Brothers had flown their first aircraft. Robert Goddard had conducted the first tests of liquid fueled rockets just forty-three years before.
Reaching the moon was hard, but it demonstrates an important point that we often overlook. Humanity is capable of achieving anything that it really wants to accomplish. The key is simply a willingness to commit whatever is necessary to that goal. What is rare in human affairs is that single-minded will to spend whatever needs to be spent, to do whatever needs to be done, until we do what we plan to do. More often, part of the way along, we lose our focus and decide it isn’t worth the cost. We look at the mountain we’re climbing and decide, while the summit was a grand goal, perhaps we should go fishing instead.
While there are always physical and technological challenges, they are not what keep us from accomplishing miracles. Instead, the hardest challenges are all the people who work against us, whose goal is to stop those who dream of greatness.
During the years that NASA worked to get people to the moon, there were many in government who did everything they could to bring the whole enterprise to a halt. Senator Walter Mondale, for example, was a tireless critic of the space program. Whenever something went wrong, he was quick to criticize. When the three astronauts of Apollo 1 tragically died in a fire during a test on the launch pad, he saw it as an opportunity to shut down the program.
Thankfully, in the case of the Apollo program, the naysayers were unsuccessful.
The arguments against anything great that anyone ever attempts to do are always the same: it costs too much, it’s too hard, we don’t really need it, aren’t there other things we should be doing instead? Only afterward, will often those same critics praise the effort and use it then as an analogy for whatever project or program they are wanting to accomplish.
The reason we haven’t ventured beyond Earth orbit since 1972 is simple: we lack the will. The naysayers—people like the egregious Walter Mondale—are standing in the way. Eventually, though, the dreamers among us will find a way around them.