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Setting the Stage

If we are to win the battle that is going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, if we are to win the battle for men's minds, the [Soviet Union's] dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all...the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.... We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.... 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 earth.

President John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961¹

Evidence of man's insatiable curiosity about space can be found throughout human history--in the Greek myth of Icarus trying to fly to the sun, in Galileo's observations of the solar system, and in the first flight of the Wright brothers. The Apollo project to put a man on the Moon was also a product of the 1960s, a period of heightened Cold War tensions. Allegations of a dangerous "missile gap" between the Soviet Union and the United States had been an important element in John F. Kennedy's successful presidential campaign in 1960. In April 1961, Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet cosmonaut, became the first human to fly in space, and the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion, intended to lead to the overthrow of Fidel Castro in Cuba, turned into an embarrassing failure. For the Kennedy administration, the project to put a man on the Moon was a way to recapture the prestige that the nation seemed to have lost.

Closely following the United States' first manned space flight by astronaut Alan Shepard, Kennedy's commitment immediately captured the imagination of the American people. Shepard's short suborbital flight had been part of Project Mercury, underway since 1958 to develop the basic technology and hardware for manned space flight and to investigate man's ability to survive and perform in space. Project Gemini, begun in 1964, formed the link between the Mercury program's short flights and the Apollo program. The Gemini program provided astronauts with experience in returning to the earth from space, in linking between space vehicles, and in "walking" in space without the protection of a spacecraft. A series of unmanned satellites yielded information about the Moon and its surface that was critical to ensuring that the astronauts could survive there. The Apollo project built on the work of its predecessors to carry out President Kennedy's 1961 commitment. Between July 16 and July 24, 1969, as the whole world watched, Apollo 11 carried three U.S. astronauts to the Moon and returned them safely to earth.

¹John F. Kennedy, "Urgent National Needs" speech, Congressional Record--House (May 25, 1961), 8276.



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