It’s amazing what any nation can achieve when its government and citizens agree on a common objective – even if it’s something as lofty as putting a man on the moon.
And yet that’s what happened 50 years ago this week. The Americans on July 20, 1969 put a man on the moon. And an estimated 600 million people were witness to the historic spectacle courtesy of their TV screen.
But the moon launch didn’t happen overnight. In fact, one could argue that the race to the moon began on Oct. 4, 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth.
Or, one could further argue that it began on May 8, 1945, when the Second World War ended in Europe, and when the Americans and Soviets began to scramble to find those Nazi scientists and researchers who were responsible for the Germans’ astounding rocket technology.
The Soviets rounded up hundreds of German scientists, while the Americans, through something called Operation Paperclip, were able to locate and bring back to the U.S. an estimated 1,600 scientists between 1945 and 1959.
The most famous was Wernher von Braun, whose rocket technology amazed Nazi brass in the early 1940s while striking terror in civilian populations in Allied nations such as Britain.
Von Braun’s already well-established work in Germany provided a foundation for the Americans and was harnessed to help put a man on the moon in 1969.
But the political impetus to get the job done happened when the Russians launched Sputnik. It was a tiny satellite (only 23 inches in diameter) that orbited the Earth for just a few weeks in October 1957. But its presence and success was enough to embarrass the Americans into making a much larger commitment to the so-called “space race.”
President John Kennedy codified that commitment in May 1961 when he announced that the U.S. would put a man to the moon before the end of the decade. It was an audacious and almost irresponsible promise, but enough to capture the collective heart of a society that, at least in that era, was beginning to believe it could accomplish anything it set its collective mind to.
That the Apollo mission was successful remains an achievement that belongs not only to the United States but to all humanity. Even five decades later it boggles the mind to comprehend the technology, science and political will required to ensure the mission was successful.
What’s even more remarkable is to understand that the last person to walk on the moon did so in December 1972 – almost 47 years ago. No one has done it since. And no one has even tried to do it since.
Indeed, only 12 people have ever walked on the moon’s surface. And only four are still alive.
As amazing as the historic success of the Apollo mission was in 1969, the achievement looms even larger half a century later.