20 Successes and Failures of the American Space Program in the 1960s
20 Successes and Failures of the American Space Program in the 1960s

20 Successes and Failures of the American Space Program in the 1960s

Larry Holzwarth - September 19, 2018

America’s space program did not begin in the 1960s, but through the medium of television and the growing discipline of public relations it took off, as it were, during that decade. Astronauts, especially the first seven, became national heroes and household names. Outer space and space exploration dominated the advertising industry, toys, entertainment, and even food and drink. During the 1960s the manned Mercury and later Gemini missions were presented to the American public as a series of unbridled successes by NASA and the press and television. Unmanned missions received the same applause. The nation watched with bated breath as the missions unfolded, each of them one more step closer to achieving President John F. Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth by the end of the decade.

There were failures, many of them kept from the public, and some of them which occurred during the manned missions were potentially deadly. A fire which killed three astronauts during a test for an early Apollo mission disrupted the program at a time when it was evident that the Soviets were no longer planning a lunar mission, and nearly ended America’s. NASA and the program’s supporters managed to keep the program going, and it was the ultimate success of the moon landing in 1969 which became its crowning achievement, as well as ending the public’s enthusiasm for the space program. Before America’s final (to date) lunar mission in 1972, the public’s enthusiasm had waned and its attention gone on to other things.

20 Successes and Failures of the American Space Program in the 1960s
Technicians work on the tail section of Redstone rocket boosters in the early 1960s. NASA

Here are twenty examples of the successes and failures of America’s space program during the 1960s.

20 Successes and Failures of the American Space Program in the 1960s
A Mercury test capsule sits atop a Redstone booster prior to a test launch at the Redstone Arsenal circa 1960. NASA

1. America was never really behind the Soviets in the Space Race

It is often presented that the United States was taken aback when the Soviet Union launched its first satellite, Sputnik, and was from that point until sometime in the late 1960s behind the Soviets in the space race. America scrambled to catch up. The image is a false one. The United States had been preparing satellites for orbit for several years, and though its rocketry program was problematic, the contributions of former Nazi rocket experts rapidly brought the Americans to parity with the Soviets. It was the American public which was shocked, since it was for the most part unaware of American activity in the exploration of space. That shock was readily exploited by politicians and the Space Race was underway by 1958. NASA funding grew exponentially, as the responsibility for space exploration was shifted to it from the Air Force.

The Soviets too were the first to put a manned vehicle in space, in April 1962, but the United States responded with a manned mission, Alan Shepard in a Mercury spacecraft, only three weeks later. Still, the perception that the United States trailed the Soviets in the exploration of space was present, and the public affairs office for NASA and for its contractors recognized the value of being considered the underdog in the race for the stars. The United States celebrated its astronaut heroes, who became celebrities on the expanding medium of television. The first and possibly greatest success of the space program, since it led to an almost blank check for funding, was the public relations triumph which presented a small but gallant band of brave Americans standing up to the Russians.

20 Successes and Failures of the American Space Program in the 1960s
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, shown her leading Jim Lovell on the way to the Gemini XII mission, commented years after retirement, “Tang sucks”. NASA

2. General Foods created a space drink, in the public eye

Tang, a powdered fruit flavored beverage, was developed by General Foods in 1957, as a more healthful alternative to Kool-Aid and other powdered drink mixes. The American consumer was unimpressed. Sales of the beverage were poor for several years. Despite being fortified with vitamin C and other nutrients, its benefits were ignored by American housewives, who in those days made most grocery purchasers, and it was to them most food advertising was directed. That changed in 1962, when American astronaut John Glenn made NASA’s first manned orbital spaceflight. Glenn conducted experiments with drinks during the flight, and Tang was one of the products he consumed while in space.

General Foods exploited the use of Tang in space, marketing it on television during Saturday morning programming, which at the time was mostly cartoon shows directed at children. General Foods marketed Tang as being a part of the space program, and touted its taste to children, its nutritional value to mothers, and its exciting modernity to all. Tang sales exploded as the excitement over the space program grew throughout the 1960s. The development of Tang led to an array of food products being linked to the space program, including a food which was the forerunner for the energy bars and snacks which came decades later. Some foods were developed for actual use in space, and others were merely linked to it through advertising.

20 Successes and Failures of the American Space Program in the 1960s
After Pillsbury dropped the word Space from their Food Sticks sales plummeted. Clickamericana

3. Pillsbury created food for astronauts which was later marketed to consumers

In 1962 astronaut Scott Carpenter flew in Aurora 7, an orbital Mercury mission during which he consumed cubes of food prepared for the purpose. The Pillsbury Company created a special team to develop nutritional foods for consumption in space, which conformed to guidelines created by NASA. During the 1960s these foods were created with both nutritional considerations and taste, though according to the reports of the astronauts, taste was an area in which they fell short. During the lengthier flights of the Gemini program, food became a pressing issue, both for the health of the astronauts and the means of storing sufficient quantities for the duration of the missions.

By the end of the decade Pillsbury created a consumer version of the foods which it marketed to the public as Space Food Sticks. As with Tang, they were marketed towards children, as a form of candy with nutritional value, in several flavors which included chocolate and peanut butter. The precursor of the energy bars of a later date, the Space Food Sticks came individually wrapped in boxes, though no nutritional information was provided. Sales of the product were excellent, and they appeared in supermarkets and food stores around the world. In the late seventies for some inexplicable reason Pillsbury dropped the word Space from the product and sales plummeted until they disappeared in 1982. They returned as a retro product, no longer manufactured by Pillsbury, twenty years later.

20 Successes and Failures of the American Space Program in the 1960s
Both the Redstone (seen here) and the Atlas boosters used for Project Mercury suffered a series of failures even after manned spaceflight was achieved by NASA. NASA

4. Project Mercury began with a series of booster failures

Three different rocket boosters were used for the Mercury program, and all of them were problematic at times. The Redstone booster was used for the suborbital flights of Alan Shephard and Virgil Grissom, while the Atlas booster was designated for the later orbital flights. Both failed catastrophically in testing with the Mercury capsule in unmanned flights in 1960 and 1961. On April 25, 1961, less than two weeks prior to Shepard’s planned flight (using a Redstone booster) a test of the Mercury capsule in an unmanned orbital flight was aborted when its Atlas booster failed to pitch and roll downrange, instead continuing to climb straight up in the air.

The vertical climb meant that when the rocket exploded the resultant debris would rain straight down on Cape Canaveral and the nearby town of Cocoa Beach. The higher the altitude at the time of destruction the wider the area of the debris field would be. The capsule itself used an escape rocket when the booster was destroyed deliberately by the flight controller, and was later recovered by naval salvage. Materials from the destroyed booster rained down from the sky. Two months after the aborted flight, materials in various sizes and weights were still being found buried in the beaches and other areas surrounding the launch facility. There were no personnel casualties from the incident, but the reliability of the boosters was clearly questionable as preparations for manned flight went ahead.

20 Successes and Failures of the American Space Program in the 1960s
Mercury-Redstone 1 failed on the pad, causing its escape rocket to fire though it left the capsule behind. NASA

5. Mercury Redstone 1 flew a total of four inches

Mercury Redstone 1 (MR 1) was a scheduled test of the capsule/booster combination as well as several capsule systems which was originally scheduled for launch on November 7, 1960. The flight was unmanned, so the flight abort system was uninstalled. Problems with the capsule led to the flight being rescheduled for November 21, 1960. On that date the countdown went smoothly and the launch was initiated at 9.00 AM. The rocket ignited, MR 1 rose about four inches, the rocket shut down, and the vehicle settled back down on the launch pad. The observers waited for it to explode, but it merely remained on the launch pad for a few moments before a series of seemingly unrelated and bizarre events took place.

The MR 1 escape rocket jettisoned, launching itself without the capsule and landing about 400 yards from the launch pad. Several minutes after the escape rocket vacated the scene the capsule released it drogue parachute, which in flight would have been used to deploy the main parachute. The capsule then released the main and backup parachutes, as well as ejecting the radio antenna. Meanwhile the rocket remained on the pad with nothing securing or supporting it, a potential bomb waiting to explode, with the dangling parachutes threatening to catch the wind and knock it over. In the end it didn’t fall over or explode, and after the liquid oxygen aboard boiled away the technicians secure the rocket and examined the vehicle for the cause of the failure. Alan Shepard’s scheduled flight was only four months away.

20 Successes and Failures of the American Space Program in the 1960s
The original seven Mercury astronauts pose before a Mercury capsule, with Scott Carpenter on the extreme right. NASA

6. Mercury Atlas 7 missed its landing target by 250 miles

MA 7 was named Aurora 7 by Scott Carpenter, the astronaut it carried over three orbits of the earth on May 24, 1962. Aurora 7 was the second American orbital mission. Carpenter had several scientific experiments to conduct on the flight, which was scheduled to last five hours. Carpenter also carried solid food into space for the first time in the American program, though problems with crumbs from the freeze-dried cubes raised concerns over clogging the ventilation system, and he decided to avoid eating them. The temperature within the capsule reached over 100 degrees during the flight, which melted the other solid food he was supplied, chocolate bars.

With most of his experiments completed successfully and having solved the mystery of the “tiny fireflies” reported by John Glenn on his earlier flight (ice crystals dislodged from the capsule) Carpenter began re-entry later than planned and was rushed in the completion of his check list. Carpenter activated his retro rockets late, and the result was an error which led to his landing 250 miles from his intended target. It took several hours of searching before the recovery vessels located the capsule and astronaut northeast of Puerto Rico. Carpenter was taken aboard the USS Farragut, a destroyer, since the aircraft carrier designated to recover him and the capsule was over 200 miles from the scene.

20 Successes and Failures of the American Space Program in the 1960s
This early test of the Mercury-Atlas ended when the booster exploded in flight. NASA

7. Mercury failures continued through the end of the program

MA 9 was the final manned mission of the Mercury Program, as NASA continued preparations for the Gemini Program. It was also the longest of the Mercury missions, a 22 orbit day and a half flight, and the last time an American flew solo in space. Gordon Cooper named his capsule Faith 7. Despite the mission being the sixth manned Mercury mission problems with the capsule, which had plagued all of the missions in one way or another, continued to be encountered. The Mercury capsule had to be modified to support the demands of the extended mission, with increased batteries and oxygen supplies. The number of orbits widened the area of the globe which would be covered, and increased ground and sea support personnel were assigned to the mission.

Cooper’s flight was fairly smooth until the nineteenth orbit, when false alarms raised concerns that he was re-entering the atmosphere. Shortly after determining that the alarm was false he lost his attitude indicators, and then electrical power to his stabilization and control system. With John Glenn working with him from a tracking ship, Cooper created a checklist to perform the necessary procedures to align the capsule for re-entry, Glenn eventually giving him a verbal countdown for firing the retro rockets. They were accurate to the point that Faith 7 hit the water less than four miles from the recovery vessel, the most accurate landing of the Mercury flights. Faith 7 was carried by helicopter to USS Kearsarge with Cooper inside the vehicle, another first for the space program.

20 Successes and Failures of the American Space Program in the 1960s
The first test of the Gemini spacecraft and launch system, Gemini I, April 8, 1964. NASA

8. Project Gemini put America into a clear lead in space exploration

Project Gemini began in 1961 and continued through 1966, a program in which capsules manned by two astronauts developed the techniques and skills required to fly to the moon. These including rendezvousing with other spacecraft, docking, flying in tandem, and extravehicular activities. The ability to function on flights of longer duration required adapting to the demands of working, eating, and sleeping in zero gravity. Gemini was used to train astronauts in on the job circumstances while the Apollo Program worked on the lunar missions. At one point there were discussions about using modified Gemini spacecraft for the lunar mission, but NASA discarded those ideas and went ahead with Apollo.

The expansion of the spacecraft and the need to fly at least two spacecraft at once had led to the expansion of the astronaut corps while Mercury was underway, and though some of the original seven astronauts flew in Gemini, others did not. John Glenn would not return to space until he was in his seventies. The Gemini capsule was designed by a Canadian, with input from the Mercury astronauts, especially Gus Grissom, whose involvement was so heavy that his fellow astronauts began to call the capsule the Gusmobile. During Gemini, Mission Control in Houston became the focus for NASA, and most of the astronauts began living in Houston rather than in Cocoa Beach, near Cape Canaveral.

20 Successes and Failures of the American Space Program in the 1960s
The Gemini spacecraft named Molly Brown being mated to the Titan II booster in 1965. It was the only named Gemini spacecraft. NASA

9. Gemini revealed a two part space craft with only the capsule returning to earth

The Gemini orbiting vehicle was a two part spacecraft which consisted of an adapter module and a re-entry module. The re-entry module was the capsule, considerably larger than Mercury, and in an improvement over Mercury used all solid state electronics, modularized for ease of replacement. The booster system consisted of rocket engines which used fuel that spontaneously combusted when combined with an oxidizer, providing a more stable lift vehicle, and a less dangerous one for the astronauts. Because the risk of rocket explosion was lower and the size of such an explosion was smaller, Gemini was equipped with ejection seats, rather than an abort rocket to pull the capsule away from the booster.

To the general public, Gemini’s ten missions were a rousing success, including America’s first spacewalk and television transmissions from space, but underneath the glamor presented by NASA there were problems, several of which could have resulted in fatal accidents had the crews and ground support not have come up with innovative ways of dealing with them. Gemini had only two test flights of unmanned spacecraft before beginning manned flights in 1965, using the Titan II rocket for the booster on all of them. The Titan II was the primary rocket used by the US Air Force for its ICBM program at the time, and it took considerable testing and modification before it was approved for use in manned flights.

20 Successes and Failures of the American Space Program in the 1960s
Astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom and John Young shared a corned beef sandwich of Gemini III, drawing a reprimand from NASA officials. NASA

10. Gemini III introduced the corned beef sandwich to spaceflight

When Gus Grissom was recovered from the second manned American spaceflight his Mercury capsule was lost to the sea (it was recovered decades later). Because of the incident Grissom named the first manned Gemini mission’s spacecraft Molly Brown, after the survivor of the Titanic sinking. It was the only officially named capsule of the Gemini program, all of the other missions were identified by their mission number. Grissom and his co-pilot, John Young, also violated NASA rules when it was revealed that Young had smuggled a corned beef sandwich aboard, in a pocket of his spacesuit, which both astronauts sampled during the three orbit flight before realizing that the crumbs released into the atmosphere were potentially dangerous to equipment.

The flight was not without problems, which were observed by the astronauts and reported to Mission Control. An inflight experiment failed because of a damaged piece of equipment involved in it and the capsule developed a continuous drift to the left due to equipment venting. While the capsule was descending following re-entry it shifted abruptly under the parachutes, causing Grissom to strike his helmet faceplate on a control panel with enough force to crack it, which led to a change of material for all future helmets. The crew overshot their landing area by more than 80 miles and Grissom, understandably given his earlier experience, left the hatch closed until approached by Navy divers.

20 Successes and Failures of the American Space Program in the 1960s
Astronaut Ed White became the first American to exit his spacecraft while in flight in June, 1965. NASA

11. Gemini IV included the first repair on a spacecraft in flight by its occupants

Gemini IV featured America’s first attempt to rendezvous with another body in space, which failed, and America’s first extravehicular activity (EVA) when astronaut Ed White remained outside of the orbiting spacecraft, on a tether, for about twenty minutes. The spacewalk, as it became known, was considered with awe by the public when pictures of White floating in space were released. The spacewalk was the most notable success of the mission, and it nearly led to its most devastating failure, one which if not corrected would have led to the deaths of both astronauts, either in orbit or upon re-entry. The problem was not reported in the press at the time, overwhelmed by the story of the spacewalk.

When White exited the spacecraft to begin his EVA, he encountered a problem with the latch on the hatch, which failed to release. White had seen a similar problem during training and had observed the technician while he completed the repair. The astronaut followed the procedure and opened the hatch. Upon re-entry the latch again failed, and the astronauts were unable to secure the hatch and re-pressurize the cabin. For the second time, White tinkered with the latch system until he managed to get it to secure the hatch. During preparations for re-entry, the crew was to have opened the hatch and disposed of White’s EVA equipment; both astronauts agreed to wait and dispose of the equipment on the ground.

20 Successes and Failures of the American Space Program in the 1960s
Gemini VII photographed from Gemini VI A during their historic rendezvous in December, 1965. NASA

12. Gemini VI was launched after Gemini VII as Gemini VI A

Gemini VI was originally supposed to be launched on October 25, 1965 following the launch of an Agena Target Vehicle which it was scheduled to rendezvous with during its flight. The Agena launched but exploded in flight causing the mission to be cancelled. In December, Gemini VI was scheduled to rendezvous with the already orbiting Gemini VII, which was on a fourteen day endurance flight in a stable orbit. The first attempt to launch Gemini VI A failed on December 12, when the booster ignited and then shut down. Procedure required astronaut Wally Schirra to activate the ejection seats, but he elected not to since he had not felt the booster move. Ejection would have likely been fatal, and would have at least destroyed the spacecraft even if the astronauts had survived.

Gemini VI A was finally launched on December 15, and on its fourth orbit it achieved rendezvous with Gemini VII. Schirra was able to perform a fly around inspection of his fellow spacecraft, and the two capsules flew side by side, keeping station on each other and communicating over the radio. At one point the spacecraft were as close as one foot to each other. The rendezvous and the ability to fly together were techniques necessary for a trip to the moon, and the two American capsules performing the maneuvers exhibited clear evidence that the Americans were now ahead of the Soviets in the Space Race of the 1960s. Gemini VI withdrew to a safe distance during the sleep period following the rendezvous, which lasted four and one half hours. It returned to earth the following day.

20 Successes and Failures of the American Space Program in the 1960s
Gemini VIII prepares to dock with the Agena Target Vehicle, before malfunctions of the spacecraft led to the mission being aborted. NASA

13. Gemini VIII was the first in-space disaster which required the mission to be aborted

Gemini VIII was scheduled to be a three day mission in which the spacecraft would rendezvous with an unmanned Agena docking vehicle and dock, both steps necessary as part of the planned Apollo program. It also included a spacewalk to retrieve a piece of experimental equipment from the docking vehicle. Neil Armstrong was the Command Pilot for the mission, and David Scott was the Pilot. It was the first space mission for both men. When Gemini VIII arrived at the rendezvous with the Agena it spent about thirty minutes inspecting the docking vehicle for any damaged sustained during its launch. Finding none, Armstrong moved forward and docked the spacecraft, the first docking operation of any spacecraft.

Shortly after docking the Agena began to yaw, and Armstrong, after attempting to stop the motion using the Gemini’s thrusters, decided to undock. As Gemini withdrew from the dock, which was by then tumbling, it entered into a tumbling pattern of its own which increased in speed with the loss of mass from the dock. Armstrong’s ability as a pilot and engineer allowed him to analyze, diagnose, and correct the problem as his spacecraft was tumbling at a rate of one revolution per second. After realizing the problem was with the Gemini, the decision was made to return to earth after one more orbit, allowing them to get closer to a recovery zone. The problem was later determined to have been a malfunctioning thruster on Gemini VIII.

20 Successes and Failures of the American Space Program in the 1960s
Gemini IX A was unable to dock with the target vehicle because its payload fairing failed to detach after launch. NASA

14. Gemini IX A was plagued with failures of other equipment.

As with the earlier Gemini VI, Gemini IX was originally scheduled to dock with an Agena docking vehicle (Agena was controlled from the ground) but the dock was destroyed during its launch failure. The mission was rescheduled to dock with another type of docking vehicle and was finally launched in early June, 1966, carrying astronauts Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan. Besides the docking operation the mission was to include a lengthy spacewalk, including the first using a type of jet pack, while untethered to the spacecraft. When the Gemini spacecraft rendezvoused with the docking vehicle it discovered that the fairing which covered the docking port had not been completely ejected following launch, rendering docking impossible.

After the failure to dock, Cernan began an EVA using a new type of suit which had been designed to resist the hot gases expelled by the Astronaut Maneuverability Unit (AMU), essentially a jet pack. The new suit, once pressurized, rendered the astronaut almost unable to move. He managed to work to the base of the spacecraft where the AMU was kept, but his heart rate reached up to 180 beats per minute, and his exertions in the hot suit caused him to sweat excessively, which in turn caused his visor to fog over, limiting his visibility. Stafford ordered the EVA ended over Cernan’s objections, recognizing the hazards which would be faced getting out of the AMU by the exhausted astronaut. Gemini IX A returned to earth later that same day.

20 Successes and Failures of the American Space Program in the 1960s
After Gemini X successfully docked with the Agena Target Vehicle the latter boosted the space capsule into a higher earth orbit. NASA

15. Gemini X targeted two different vehicles for rendezvous

Gemini X followed the launch of an Agena Target Vehicle in July of 1966, docked with the ATV, and then used Agena’s engines to reach the highest altitude of any of the Gemini flights yet attempted, more than 400 nautical miles. Astronauts John Young, of corned beef sandwich fame, and Mike Collins, then undocked and maneuvered their spacecraft to join the dead Agena which had been docked with by Gemini VIII before that mission had to be aborted. After Gemini VIII returned to earth the ATV ground controllers had continued to maneuver the vehicle until its fuel was expended. Gemini VIII had intended to retrieve experimental equipment from the vehicle before its emergency led to its hasty departure.

Gemini X rendezvoused with the dead ATV, but made no attempt to dock with the vehicle, which had no lights. Astronaut Collins left the spacecraft on an EVA (his second EVA of the mission) and went to the Agena, where he found difficulty obtaining handholds near the docking port. He was able to reach the upper portion of the ATV, which he later reported to be in good condition, and retrieved the micrometeorite collector which was to have been picked up by Gemini VIII. As with earlier EVAs on other missions, securing the hatch following the EVA was a problem, though this time it was because of the unwieldy fifty foot umbilical Collins had used. The umbilical and chestpack required for the EVAs were later disposed of by ejecting them from the spacecraft into space.

20 Successes and Failures of the American Space Program in the 1960s
Richard Gordon connects a tether between the Gemini spacecraft and the Agena Target Vehicle in an experiment in 1966. NASA

16. Another record for altitude in space was set by Gemini XI

The ability to maneuver and dock with another vehicle to be used to boost the spacecraft out of low earth orbit was a critical phase of the planned Apollo missions, which was why it was stressed during the Gemini program. Failing to complete a docking maneuver would require a mission to the moon to be aborted. Gemini XI docked with an Agena and used it to boost its orbit to the Gemini record of 739 nautical miles, then disengaged and connected the two spacecraft with a tether. Spinning the connected vehicles created a small but measurable amount of gravity in one of the experiments conducted by astronauts Pete Conrad and Richard Gordon. The docking was done on the first orbit, simulating an ascent from the surface of the moon to an Apollo command module.

The many scientific experiments conducted by Gemini XI included the use of power tools, which were evaluated for their effectiveness and ease of use in zero-gravity conditions. Re-entry for the mission was the first for an American mission that was completely controlled by computers, and the spacecraft returned to earth less than two miles from its planned landing point, within sight of the recovery ship USS Guam. Gemini XI was the penultimate flight of the program, and one of the most successful missions of the entire space program to that point. One remaining Gemini mission was completed, during which Buzz Aldrin completed over five hours of EVA, demonstrating that many of the problems encountered on the Gemini missions had been resolved.

20 Successes and Failures of the American Space Program in the 1960s
View of the interior of Apollo 1 following the fire which killed astronauts Grissom, White, and Chafee in January, 1967. NASA

17. The disaster of January 1967

Gemini missions came to an end in November of 1966, and the focus of NASA and the general public was on the growing excitement over Project Apollo and the manned mission to the moon. In 1967 it was clear that the United States was far ahead of the Soviets, and American pride in the Space Program had been reinforced by the successes of the Gemini program, with its frequent launches and the reports to the public which ignored the failures, most of which they never heard of at the time. Gemini veterans Gus Grissom and Ed White were assigned to the first Apollo mission, along with rookie astronaut but veteran pilot (including of the U-2) Roger Chafee. The flight was scheduled to launch in February, with a mission of testing the Apollo command module and the ground support systems.

In January 1967, during a communications test while the capsule was on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, a fire broke out, which in the oxygen rich atmosphere expanded quickly, splitting the side of the spacecraft, killing the three astronauts, and bringing the space program to a halt which lasted twenty months. For the first time, some of the accidents and potential accidents which had always been a part of the program were revealed as Congress investigated and the newspapers reported their findings. Support for the space program waned as its costs and potential benefits were debated. There was also a growing belief that the Soviets were no longer interested in a trip to the moon, rendering such an effort unnecessary.

20 Successes and Failures of the American Space Program in the 1960s
Earthrise as seen by the crew of Apollo 8 while orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve, 1968. NASA

18. The Christmas telecast from Apollo 8

In December of 1968, one of the most divisive and troubled years of American history, American astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders became the first human beings in history to leave earth’s orbit and travel to the moon. The mission was changed from its original profile, which was to test the Lunar Excursion Module while in low earth orbit, in part because the LEM wasn’t ready and in part because the Soviets sent a mission to lunar orbit and returned, which carried live tortoises, on a spacecraft called Zond 5. US intelligence did not believe that the Soviets possessed the ability to land on the moon, but the flight which carried living specimens prodded NASA administrators to send American astronauts to orbit the moon as a morale builder and public relations boost.

The night before the first lunar mission was launched the astronauts were visited by Charles Lindbergh, a graphic example of how far human flight had advanced in the course of a single lifetime. The mission was far from flawless, but problems encountered were resolved sufficiently for Apollo 8 to achieve lunar orbit. On the evening of December 24, Christmas Eve, with dramatic pictures of the earth being telecast from lunar orbit, the astronauts read passages from Genesis before wishing their audience on earth a Merry Christmas. The mission to orbit the moon was a triumph for NASA, with public approbation of the space program largely restored, and the drive to walk on the moon by the end of the decade was restored.

20 Successes and Failures of the American Space Program in the 1960s
Apollo 10s Lunar Module ascent stage returning to the command module during the full dress rehearsal of the lunar landing in 1969. NASA

19. The dress rehearsal took steps to ensure the astronauts wouldn’t land on the moon

Apollo 10 was a full blown dress rehearsal for a lunar landing, including approaching the lunar surface in the LEM, closing to within eight miles before activating the ascent stage engines of the LEM to return to the command module in lunar orbit. Astronauts John Young, Gene Cernan, and Tom Stafford were all veterans of space flight during the Gemini program. A lively discussion developed in the media and among the astronauts regarding the necessity of the dress rehearsal. The argument was along the lines of; Why go so far and come so close without landing? NASA administrators, well aware of the traits of the astronauts, who were likely to find some sort of excuse to go ahead with a landing once they were there, needed to find a means to prevent one.

NASA mission planners ensured that the astronauts in the LEM, Stafford and Cernan, would not attempt to usurp the first landing on the moon by limiting their fuel supply. Well aware that if the astronauts did go ahead there would be no way of disciplining them – they would be international heroes and celebrities – they instead provided only the amount of fuel necessary to return to the command module from their closest approach point. Had the LEM descended toward the lunar surface any further, there was insufficient fuel to get back to the command module. NASA administrators also ensured that the astronauts were fully aware of the nature of their supply. The dress rehearsal was a complete success, setting the stage for the mission of Apollo 11.

20 Successes and Failures of the American Space Program in the 1960s
Buzz Aldrin at Tranquility Base on the moon, July 1969. NASA

20. The goal achieved was the capstone of the American space program

By the end of the decade of the 1960s, the finish line of President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to the nation, four Americans had stood on the surface of the moon and returned safely to earth. Twelve Americans had seen the moon’s dark side with their own eyes. Traveling to the moon had become, in the eyes of many, routine. America turned its attention to other things. Debate arose over continuing the flights to the moon as questions over cost versus benefits attained were asked in the media and in the Congress. The first mission of the 1970s was fraught with drama when an accident aboard the spacecraft threatened the lives of the crew, but the Apollo 13 mission ended in a successful rescue which again boosted national pride in the astronauts and their abilities.

The Apollo program was cut short in the 1970s, and national interest in the space program never again reached the level it attained in the drive to reach the moon. Accidents which led to fatalities during space missions, twice affecting the space shuttle, brought the space program and NASA under increased scrutiny and public disapproval. NASA has never since faced a challenge such as the one expressed by John Kennedy, nor the public support for its achievement. Despite enormous successes with unmanned probes and exploration missions, public support for manned missions steadily waned since the successes of the 1960s. Someday Americans, or others from earth, will return to the moon and will travel to other celestial bodies; when that will occur remains unknown.


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“Lost Moon”. James Lovell and Jeffrey Kruger. 1994

“Telecasts from Apollo 8”. The American Experience: Race to the Moon. Public Broadcasting System. September 22, 2005

“The Last Man on the Moon”. Gene Cernan and Donald A. Davis. 2000

“Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon”. Craig Nelson. 2009