The Space Race of the 1960s

The Fight to Be the First to Walk on the Moon

JFK & LBJ Tour Cape Canaveral
Interim Archives / Getty Images

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy proclaimed to a Joint Session of Congress that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Thus began the Space Race that would lead us to achieve his goal and be the first to have a person walk on the moon.

Historical Background

At the conclusion of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union were decidedly the world’s major superpowers. In addition to being engaged in a Cold War, they competed against each other in other ways. The Space Race was a competition between the U.S. and the Soviets for the exploration of space using satellites and manned spacecraft. It was also a race to see which superpower could reach the moon first.

On May 25, 1961, in requesting between $7 billion and $9 billion for the space program, President Kennedy told Congress that he felt a national goal should be that of sending someone to the moon and getting him back home safely. When President Kennedy requested this additional funding for the space program, the Soviet Union was well ahead of the United States. Many viewed their achievements as a coup not only for the USSR but also for communism. Kennedy knew that he had to restore confidence in the American public and stated that "Everything we do and ought to do should be tied in to getting on to the Moon ahead of the Russians... we hope to beat the USSR to demonstrate that instead of being behind by a couple of years, by God, we passed them.”

NASA and Project Mercury

The United States space program began on October 7, 1958, just six days after the formation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), when its administrator, T. Keith Glennan, announced that they were starting a manned spacecraft program. Its first stepping stone to manned flight, Project Mercury, began that same year and was completed in 1963. It was the United States' first program designed to put men in space and made six manned flights between 1961 and 1963. The main objectives of Project Mercury were to have an individual orbit around the Earth in a spacecraft, explore a person’s function ability in space, and determine safe recovery techniques of both an astronaut and a spacecraft.

On February 28, 1959, NASA launched the United States’ first spy satellite, the Discover 1; and then on August 7, 1959, the Explorer 6 was launched and provided the very first photographs of the Earth from space. On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space when he made a 15-minute suborbital flight aboard Freedom 7. On February 20, 1962, John Glenn made the first U.S. orbital flight aboard the Mercury 6.

Program Gemini

The major objective of Program Gemini was to develop some very specific spacecraft and in-flight capabilities in support of the upcoming Apollo Program. The Gemini program consisted of 12 two-man spacecraft that were designed to orbit the Earth. They were launched between 1964 and 1966, with 10 of the flights being manned. Gemini was designed to experiment with and test the astronaut’s ability to manually maneuver the spacecraft. Gemini proved very useful by developing the techniques for orbital docking that would later be crucial for the Apollo series and their lunar landing.

In an unmanned flight, NASA launched its first two-seat spacecraft, the Gemini 1, on April 8, 1964. On March 23, 1965, the first two-person crew launched in the Gemini 3 with astronaut Gus Grissom becoming the first man to make two flights in space. Ed White became the first American astronaut to walk in space on June 3, 1965, aboard the Gemini 4. White maneuvered outside his spacecraft for approximately 20 minutes, which demonstrated an astronaut’s ability to perform necessary tasks while in space.

On August 21, 1965, the Gemini 5 launched on an eight-day mission, the longest-lasting at the time. This mission was vital because it proved that both humans and spacecraft were able to endure spaceflight for the amount of time required for a Moon landing and up to a maximum of two weeks in space.

Then, on December 15, 1965, the Gemini 6 performed a rendezvous with the Gemini 7. In March 1966, the Gemini 8, commanded by Neil Armstrong, docked with an Agena rocket, making it the first docking of two spacecraft while on orbit.

On November 11, 1966, Gemini 12, piloted by Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, became the first manned spacecraft to make a re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere that was automatically controlled.

The Gemini program was a success and moved the United States ahead of the Soviet Union in Space Race.

Apollo Moon Landing Program

The Apollo program resulted in 11 space flights and 12 astronauts walking on the moon. The astronauts studied the lunar surface and collected moon rocks that could be scientifically studied on Earth. The first four Apollo Program flights tested the equipment that would be used to successfully land on the moon.

Surveyor 1 made the first U.S. soft landing on the Moon on June 2, 1966. It was an unmanned lunar landing craft that took pictures and gathered data about the moon in order to help prepare NASA for the manned lunar landing. The Soviet Union had actually beat the Americans with this by landing their own unmanned craft on the moon, Luna 9, four months earlier.

Tragedy struck on January 27, 1967, when the entire crew of three astronauts, Gus Grissom, Edward H. White, and Roger B. Chaffee, for the Apollo 1 mission suffocated to death from smoke inhalation during a cabin fire while in a launch pad test. A review board report released on April 5, 1967, identified a number of problems with the Apollo spacecraft, including the use of flammable material and the need for the door latch to be easier to open from the inside. It took until October 9, 1968, to complete the necessary modifications. Two days later, Apollo 7 became the first manned Apollo mission as well as the first time that astronauts were telecast live from space during an 11-day orbit around the Earth.

In December 1968, Apollo 8 became the first manned spacecraft to orbit the Moon. Frank Borman and James Lovell (both veterans of the Gemini Project), along with rookie astronaut William Anders, made 10 lunar orbits in a 20-hour time period. On Christmas Eve, they transmitted televised images of the Moon’s lunar surface.

In March 1969, the Apollo 9 tested the lunar module and rendezvous and docking while orbiting the Earth. In addition, they tested the full lunar spacewalk suit with its Portable Life Support System outside the Lunar Module. On May 22, 1969, Apollo 10’s Lunar Module, named Snoopy, flew within 8.6 miles of the surface of the Moon.

History was made on July 20, 1969, when the Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin landed at the “Sea of Tranquility”. As Armstrong became the first human to step foot on the Moon, he proclaimed "That's one small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind." Apollo 11 spent a total of 21 hours, 36 minutes on the lunar surface, with 2 hours, 31 minutes spent outside the spacecraft. Astronauts walked on the lunar surface, took photographs, and collected samples from the surface. The entire time Apollo 11 was on the Moon, there was a continuous feed of black-and-white television back to Earth. On July 24, 1969, President Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon and a safe return to Earth before the end of the decade was realized, but unfortunately, Kennedy was unable to see his dream fulfilled, as he had been assassinated nearly six years earlier.

The crew of the Apollo 11 landed in the Central Pacific Ocean aboard command module Columbia, landing a mere 15 miles from the recovery ship. When the astronauts arrived on the USS Hornet, President Richard M. Nixon was waiting to greet them on their successful return.

Space Program After the Moon Landing

Manned space missions did not end once this mission was fulfilled. Memorably, the command module of Apollo 13 was ruptured by an explosion on April 13, 1970. The astronauts climbed into the lunar module and saved their lives by doing a slingshot around the Moon in order to speed up their return to Earth. Apollo 15 launched on July 26, 1971, carrying a Lunar Roving Vehicle and enhanced life support to enable the astronauts to better explore the Moon. On December 19, 1972, Apollo 17 returned to Earth after the United States' last mission to the Moon.

On January 5, 1972, President Richard Nixon announced the birth of the Space Shuttle program “designed to help transform the space frontier of the 1970s into familiar territory, easily accessible for human endeavor in the 1980s and '90s." This would lead to a new era that would include 135 Space Shuttle missions, ending with the last flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis on July 21, 2011.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Kelly, Martin. "The Space Race of the 1960s." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Kelly, Martin. (2021, February 16). The Space Race of the 1960s. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "The Space Race of the 1960s." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 2, 2023).