In 1961, President John F. Kennedy made a big announcement: The United States would put a person on the surface of the moon before the end of the decade. The project captured the nation’s imagination. The idea of going to the moon seemed incredible to people at the time, says Chaikin. “It was something verging on the unbelievable. It seemed like science fiction.”
Meeting Kennedy’s goal would be a huge engineering challenge, unlike anything ever attempted before. Getting astronauts safely to the moon—384,500 kilometers (238,900 miles) away—and back required skills and equipment that didn’t exist yet.
NASA launched a series of preparatory missions that began with Project Mercury. It sent the first Americans into Earth’s orbit one at a time in small capsules for short flights (see Timeline of Humans in Space). Next, the Gemini program launched pairs of astronauts into space for up to 14 days and had them perfect complex piloting maneuvers. They also practiced working outside their capsules in spacesuits, helping NASA improve suit designs. These missions were “the training ground for reaching the moon,” says Chaikin.
After seven years of breakneck research and testing, it was time to head for the moon with the Apollo missions. Following several test flights of the Apollo spacecraft, the crew of Apollo 8 became the first to orbit the moon, in 1968. Less than a year later, Apollo 11 landed the first people—Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin—on its surface. It took them almost three days to reach the moon, and they spent just 21-and-a-half hours there. During that time, the astronauts collected samples of dust and rocks and set up a seismometer to record quakes on the moon. They also installed a laser reflector that scientists on Earth could use to precisely measure the distance to the moon. Five additional Apollo missions landed on the moon—the last in 1972.