For far too long, the Soviet Union dominated the space race.
The Russians were the first ones to send up a human-made satellite. They launched Sputnik 1 into the Earth’s orbit on Oct. 4, 1957.
Then the Soviets launched the first living creatures into space. Laika, a dog, was sent into orbit Nov. 3 of that year on Sputnik 2. While she died during the journey, pooches Belka and Strelka survived their round-trip experience on Aug. 19 1960.
The Russians sent the first human, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, into space on April 12, 1961. Valentina Tereshkova was the first women to orbit the Earth, which she did on June 16, 1963. And cosmonaut Alexei Leonov conducted the first space walk on March 18, 1965.
To top it off, the Soviets beat everyone else in placing the first spacecraft on another celestial body. On Jan. 2, 1959 — a full decade before NASA attempted this same feat — the Russians landed Luna 1 on the surface of the moon.
These achievements were incredibly impressive. They initiated a fierce competition between our two countries.
While exploring space was a lofty goal, the Soviets and Americans worried about how rocket technology would be used. Missiles that went up had to eventually come down.
What they carried and where they landed constituted a major threat to each nation’s security. We simply didn’t know for sure if we’d have sufficient time to duck and cover.
So the Russians racked up some big wins in space and managed to menace us in the process. But one question lingered: Who would be the first to send humans to the moon?
NASA’s Mercury and Gemini missions were designed to get U.S. astronauts into orbit and test different types of spacecraft. Each successful stage put us closer to our objective.
The administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the U.S. space program. NASA was created in 1958 and handed huge goals.
President John F. Kennedy expanded on what Eisenhower started. Delivering a speech before a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, the new president committed the country to sending an astronaut to the moon and returning him back to Earth alive — all before the end of the decade.
Kennedy would not live to see his dream come true. But it was advanced by his predecessors, Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon.
The United States finally achieved this ambitious goal 50 years ago today. Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took humanity’s first steps into an unimaginable reality. Michael Collins oversaw the command module, a vital job in ensuring all three would return to Earth safely.
There were setbacks and tragedies as we moved toward this accomplishment.
A fire broke out in the capsule of Apollo 1 during a routine test on Jan. 27, 1967. This resulted in the deaths of Roger Chaffee, Gus Grissom and Ed White.
It would have been easy to conclude that the potential loss of life was not worth continuing our space program. We didn’t yet know what we could gain or how much it would cost.
But we persevered. And on July 20, 1969, millions of people around the world witnessed the height of human achievement.
All the people of NASA and its affiliated contractors along with the Apollo 11 crew deserve our deep gratitude for making this history. We discovered the extraordinary things we can do when we set our minds to it. By pushing ourselves beyond our perceived limits, we glimpsed future possibilities that are out of this world.