The successful Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969, ushered in an era of moon exploration that has so far gone unrivaled.
(Find out about NASA's plans to return humans to the moon in Naked Science: Living on the Moon, which premieres Sunday, July 19, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.)
President Kennedy's moon mandate came at the height of the space race—a kind of subplot to the Cold War between the United States and what was then the Soviet Union.
(Hear sounds of the space age with an interactive version of a pressed vinyl record that was included in the December 1969 issue of National Geographic magazine.)
The U.S.S.R. had made the opening gambit, sending the first artificial satellites into orbit, starting with the 184-pound (83.5-kilogram) Sputnik I in October 1957.hings came to a head in April 1961, when the Soviets sent the first human to space. Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made a 108-minute suborbital flight in a Vostok 1 spacecraft and returned safely to Earth.
A month later Alan Shepherd became the first American in space with his suborbital flight aboard the Freedom 7 spacecraft.
From there the two countries started upping the ante by increasing the number of orbits per flight. Meanwhile Kennedy's moon directive had signaled a change in tactics for the U.S.
Swallowed by Moondust?
At first a moon-landing mission probably raised a lot of eyebrows at NASA—particularly among the astronaut candidates.
"Atlas rockets [which launched spacecraft] were blowing up every day at Cape Canaveral" in Florida, recalled