Moons of our Solar System
Moons of our Solar System

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Moons of our Solar System

2 Race to the Moon

Learn about the space race, and one of the iconic moments in history when humankind first stood on the Moon. See what it was like to walk on the Moon and some experiments the astronauts undertook, like the ‘hammer and feather'.

Listen to the story of the Space Race, part of the Cold War, in which the two most powerful nations on Earth battled for supremacy in sending a manned mission to the Moon – and in those days the term used was ‘manned’ though these days we would say ‘crewed’.

There was genuinely a race, starting with the earliest Soviet success, Sputnik, that orbited the Earth in 1957. Soviet dominance of the early Space Race in the late 1950s and early 1960s included launching the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into space in 1961. The USA reaction included establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and President Kennedy’s famous speech setting out the aim of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth (and yes it was specifically a man) by the end of the decade.

The Space Race continued apace for the rest of the decade and even in the final few days, spacecraft from both nations were in the race to the Moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin fulfilled Kennedy’s promise and landed on the Moon on 20 July 1969. (The Soviet Luna 15, referred to near the end of the video, was an uncrewed mission. It attempted to land on 21 July after completing 52 orbits of the Moon, but contact was lost 3 km before it reached the surface.)

Download this audio clip.Audio player: moons_1_aud001.mp3
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When the Soviets launched Sputnik on the 4th of October 1957, the world was stunned. Amateur radio enthusiasts to around the world tracked the relentless beeping of the satellite. Newspaper headlines declared, 'The Space Age Is Here,' and - more ominously - 'Red Moon Over London.' This mood of panic was captured at a White House press conference on the 9th of October when a US journalist asked President Eisenhower:
President, Smith of the United Press. Russia has launched an Earth satellite. They also claim to have had a successful firing of the intercontinental ballistics missile, none of which this country's done. I ask you, sir - What are we going to do about it?
Caught off guard, Eisenhower hesitated and contrasted the goals of the two sides.
Well, I think first the Earth satellite - as opposed to a missile - because they're related only indirectly in the physical sense. And in our case, not at all.
When the following month, the Soviets launched another satellite - this time, with the dog Laika onboard - this was another poke in the eye for the US. The Soviet success forced the US to act. Within a year of Sputnik's launch, Congress passed the National Defence Education Act to pour billions of dollars into the US education system. Science funding went from $150 million to nearly $1 billion annually between 1953 and 1960. To manage the actual space programme, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which created NASA, on the 29th of July, 1958.
The Soviets continued to race ahead of the US, notching up one first after another in the late fifties and early sixties, including the first images of the far side of the Moon taken by Luna 3 in October 1959. On the 12th of April, 1961, with a cry of 'Let's Go,' Yuri Gagarin blasted off from Baikonur 1and mankind entered the Space Age. It was another stinging blow to US pride and prestige.
While everyone knew the Space Race was on, no one was clear where the finishing line was. The only way to beat the Soviets was to make the race a marathon not a sprint. The US needed to pick a long-term goal that would give them time to catch up, and then pass-- the Soviets. On the 25th of May, 1961, to a packed Congress, Kennedy declared his goal:
I believe that 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.
However, with political tensions reducing, on the 20th of September, 1963, in a speech at the United Nations, Kennedy made a surprising offer - a joint US/Soviet moon mission.
Finally, in a field where the United States and the Soviet Union have a special capacity, there is room for new cooperation, for further joint efforts in the regulation and exploration of space. I include among these possibilities a joint expedition to the Moon. Surely, we should explore, whether the scientists and astronauts of our two countries, indeed, of all the world, cannot work together in the conquest of space, sending some day in this decade to the Moon, not the representatives of a single nation, but the representatives of all of our countries.
Initially, Krushchev rejected the proposal. Although as costs increased and the delays mounted with the Soviet space programme, he became inclined to accept Kennedy's offer. However, on the 22nd of November, 1963, with Kennedy's assassination, the chance of the Space Race becoming a team game vanished. While Krushchev had developed a rapport with JFK, he had none with the new president, Lyndon Johnson. And less than a year later, in October 1964, Krushchev himself would be removed from the scene in a coup. The Soviets continued to push their old technology to its limits to beat the US.
On the 15th of September, 1968, the Soviets launched Zond 5. The craft was tracked all the way to the Moon by NASA, who picked up snippets of conversation between a cosmonaut and the Soviet ground station. Zond 5 orbited the Moon and then successfully returned to Earth. It looked like the race was over. After sending a cosmonaut around the Moon, surely the Soviets were only months away from another attempt - this time, a manned landing - and all before a single Apollo craft had left the launchpad.
Imagine the surprise in NASA when the Soviets unveiled the two brave cosmonauts who made the perilous journey - a pair of Russian tortoises. Why the Soviets had used the recorded cosmonaut conversations on the journey - were they an obscure security device or simply a cruel joke - isn't clear. These creatures may have been the first biological specimens to be sent to the moon and returned safely, but their real importance was that they signalled that the race was still on.
A few months after Zond 5, on the 21st of December, 1968, Apollo 8 repeated the tortoises' journey. But this time, with real people onboard. On the 24th of December, astronauts Bill Anders, Frank Borman, and Jim Lovell became the first humans to orbit the Moon. Their Christmas Eve broadcast from a lunar orbit became one of the most-watched TV programmes of all time.
Further, US successes were matched with corresponding Soviet failures, as new rocket designs were rushed to the launchpad before being properly tested. By July 1969, both sides knew they were on the last lap. In the US, they were all geared up for a manned landing. And the whole world was watching, waiting for them to try. In the Soviet Union-- despite all the recent failures-- the cosmonauts were begging to be allowed to make the attempt before the US.
On the 13th of July, 1969, Luna 15 blasted off from Baikonur. On the 16th of July, Apollo 11 blasted off from the Kennedy Space Centre. Luna 15 reached the Moon on the 17th of July and went into orbit for two days as the ground controllers tested the onboard systems and prepared the craft for landing. The observatory at Jodrell Bank picked up the signals.
The noise we hear is from the Luna 15, which is now beginning its 52nd orbit. The period was still further reduced an hour ago. So it's now only been one hour, 53 minutes. And there has just been a rumour from a weather source in Moscow that this 'lunik' is going to land this evening and return samples of lunar rock to the Soviet Union.
Apollo 11 reached the Moon on the 19th of July. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin quickly transferred to the lunar module Eagle and began their descent. 2,982 days after JFK's speech, 161 days to go before the end of the decade, the Eagle landed. And Kennedy's promise was fulfilled. The USA had put a man on the Moon and beaten the Soviets in the process.
End transcript
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