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The moon landing Tuesday, 20 July, 1999, 21:30 GMT 22:30 UK
The race to the moon
Apollo 11
Apollo 11 took off over a decade after the space race began
By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

The race to the Moon began fifteen years before Apollo 11, with the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Soviet Union.

It shocked America. One lady interviewed in the street on the nightly news said, "We fear this." Another was frightened that a bomb could be next.

America's fearful reaction was a surprise to President Eisenhower. Yet he never fully realised the importance of space, in either military or propaganda terms.

Sputnik 2 followed, this time carrying a live creature - a dog, called Laika.

Meanwhile, America's first attempt to launch a satellite ended in a launch pad explosion.

Werner von Braun put it well when he pointed out that America's first satellite weighed just 4 lbs, against the 196 lbs of Sputnik 2.

"We are competing only in spirit," he said.

Yuri Gagarin
Major Yuri Gagarin's pioneering flight cemented the Soviets' space supremacy
Soviet space victories unstoppable

Then Russia achieved the big one. Major Yuri Gagarin became the first person to go into space and orbit the Earth. The Soviets, it seemed, were unstoppable.

But there remained a glimmer of hope for the United States.

Years before Gagarin's first flight, US intelligence and space chiefs secretly advised that, although the Soviets would continue with a series of space firsts, with a gigantic effort the USA could get to the moon first.

So, having lost the first rounds in the space race, it was left to another president to lay down the challenge.

The moral alternative to war

The sub-orbital flight of Alan Shephard, lasting just 15 minutes. gave the Americans a comparatively puny amount of manned space experience. Moreover, the Bay of Pigs fiasco was fresh in everyone's mind.

President Kennedy
It fell to President Kennedy to take the space race seriously
But despite all of this, in May 1961 President Kennedy grasped the nettle, and set the USA on course for the moon.

"I believe 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 the Earth," he said, in what became one of the most famous speeches of his presidential career.

Some believe the competition for the moon prevented military confrontation between the superpowers. The moon-race has been called the moral alternative to war.

First came the single-manned Project Mercury. Then, as the techniques of propulsion and navigation, life support and rendezvous were mastered, two-man crews took part in Project Gemini.

Then came Project Apollo.

Voyage to another world

It was on December 21st, 1968, when man finally left the cradle of Earth. To some this was the greatest achievement of the Apollo programme.

The Earth as seen from the Moon
Mankind's only home
In orbit around the Earth, the third stage of the giant Saturn 5 rocket was re-ignited, and with the velocity it provided, three men broke free of Earth's gravity for the first time, and began their pioneering voyage to another world.

Astronauts Borman, Lovell, and Anders were the first to truly see the Earth as a planet. Each hour, as they looked behind them, it had dwindled a little more, being slowly swallowed by the great cosmic dark.

Soon beneath them was a landscape like the aftermath of the final battle. Crossing the lunar limb, they saw the radiant blue and white Earth hanging over the cold grey lunar landscape.

In a way, we had gone to the Moon and discovered the Earth - so beautiful, so fragile, so small and mankind's only home.

The landing was only months away.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Audio
President Kennedy: "No single space project will be so difficult"
Video
The BBC's Pallab Ghosh reports on "humankind's greatest endeavour"
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