At 20:18 on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the surface of the moon. This staggering testament to human ingenuity had come just 8 short years after Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space. The 10 years between 1960 and 1970 that culminated in Armstrong’s first steps are arguably some of the most important in our pursuit to conquer the stars. This is the story of the unique recipe of staggering intellects, boundless imagination and a touch of madness that made Apollo 11 possible.
The story begins two years after the end of World War 2. The Soviet Union and the United States were no longer allied against a common enemy and began to draw new battle lines in what would come to be known as the Cold War. Unlike a traditional war, the Cold War largely involved each side developing technology and stockpiling large amounts of armaments in what was essentially a continental pissing match. In 1961 when the Soviets became the first nation to send a human being into space, the US was caught unprepared. Although they had been working on a space programme having founded the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958, they were well behind the work being done in the Soviet Union.
NASA began laying the foundation for their human spaceflight efforts with Project Mercury. The program was created with the formation of NASA in 1958. Although NASA would send Alan Shepard into space less than a month after Gagarin, it would be another year before a Mercury spacecraft would match the achievements of the Vostok by orbiting the Earth. In total, the Mercury program would launch 6 crewed missions between May 1961 and May 1963.
Building on the success of Project Mercury, NASA began work on the Gemini capsule in 1961. Project Gemini was a direct precursor to the Apollo missions developing much of the technology and procedures that would eventually be used to send humans to the moon. In addition to completing a 14-day mission, validating the agency’s ability to keep a crew alive long enough to get to the moon and back, the missions pioneered orbital maneuvers vital to successfully achieve space rendezvous and docking. These maneuvers would be essential to the Apollo missions. The program also doubled the crew compliment making space for a Pilot and a Command Pilot.
Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin were all selected for Gemini missions serving on the crews for Gemini VIII, Gemini X, and Gemini XII respectively. The final Gemini mission, Gemini XII splashed down on 15 November 1966. Less than three years later, Armstrong and Aldrin would step onto the surface of the moon as Collins orbited above.