It is now 50 years, half a century, since that fantastic night that kept the whole human race in suspense. The man had finally set foot on the Moon. Dreamed for millennia, ever since it aroused curiosity in our ancient ancestors, who used it to make the first calendars.
The United States was late, they knew it. Russia was hitting one goal after another, there was a need for a large company to close the game. They moved all-in, but still had some poor cards. Their experience in space was inferior to the Soviet one and basically there was still nothing to get to the moon. The command vehicle, the landing craft, and a rocket powerful enough to carry the required tons in lunar orbit was missing.
But this had not frightened President Kennedy, who, in 1961, in front of the congress, had launched the biggest challenge of all time. The president would reaffirm the concept at Rice University, in front of 35,000 people:
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.
The beginning is not the most promising. On 12 January 1967, the astronauts of the mission Apollo 1, Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee died in a fire during a test. There was no time to cry though, there was a race to be won. It was another era. Even today the skeptics say that we never went, because if it were true we could go there today without problems. Today we think more about safety, the health of astronauts, we do tests, simulations. Then there were only thousands of engineers, Russia to beat, and a handful of men flying over powerful rockets, without thinking about their safety, but only about victory.
Despite the incident the program went on. Apollo 8 was the first mission to fly around the Moon. Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders became the first humans to leave Earth’s orbit, enter the gravitational sphere of another celestial body, see the Earth in its entirety, admire the hidden side of the Moon and see the rising of the Earth . They didn’t allude, but I think that this certainly didn’t leave them without satisfaction. Their Christmas message is famous, when during one of the last orbits around the Moon, at the rising of the Earth, they read to all the world the first verses of Genesis. A speech that still gives me the chills, even though I wasn’t born yet at the time.
Perhaps it was here that America realized that it could do it, and Russia that was slipping toward checkmate. Apollo 9 tested the lunar module in Earth’s orbit, Apollo 10 tried all the maneuvers in lunar orbit, arriving only 15.6 km from the surface of the Moon. Everything was ready now. Russia knew it, and in fact tried last to launch its own Luna 15 automated mission, which was supposed to bring back samples of moon rock to Earth, showing that it was not necessary to risk the lives of men to achieve the same result. An attempt to save face, which was unsuccessful.
Launched from Cape Canaveral on 16 July 1969 at 13:32 UTC, the Apollo 11 mission arrived on the Moon three days later. On board, the astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, felt all the responsibility to realize not only a unique challenge for all humanity, but also to fulfill the dream of Kennedy, who unfortunately could never attend the event. On 20 July 1969 at 20:17:40 UTC, Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, followed after a few minutes by Buzz Aldrin. His words are now in all the history books:
That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.
The two astronauts remained on the lunar surface for about two hours and a quarter, deployed some scientific instruments and collected 21.5 kg of lunar rocks, which were returned to Earth to be examined. The event was followed live around the world, regardless of the time zone. Even Russia, exceptionally, communicated to NASA the flight plan of their Lunar mission and guaranteed that there would be no interference. It was probably the first sign of relaxation between the two superpowers, at least at the scientific level. The space race was won.
Other Apollo missions followed, including Apollo 13‘s missed tragedy. The last mission was Apollo 17, the next ones were canceled to allocate funds to other NASA programs, such as the Skylab and the Space Shuttle. By now the Moon had been conquered, there was nothing left to do.
Today, fifty years after the historic landing, probably due to political interests and prestige, the race for the Moon has returned to the fore. In fact, NASA has announced the Artemis program, which should bring humans back to the moon within five years, perhaps more realistically ten, with the intention of staying there. But we will see this in a later, more detailed article.