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Apollo 11’s Journey to the Moon

By Brian Jirout, Curator of Science and Technology


On a hot September day in 1962, President John F. Kennedy delivered a rousing speech at Rice University declaring that we, “choose to go to the Moon … before this decade is out.” He had given this speech before Congress a year earlier, but it lacked the details, charisma and determination he displayed in Texas. The address set into motion an 11-year, $135 billion project that involved over 400,000 people across multiple states.

At the time of the speech, the Soviets had vastly outperformed the United States in space. The successful launches of Sputnik 1, the ill-fated yet heroic flight of Laika, and the flights of Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova all applied heavy pressure on the United States to respond. Several failed Navy Vanguard flights only added to the anxiety.

The U.S. government decided to form, NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, to lead the United States’ mission to the moon. The administration planned out the Moon shot over a series of test flights starting with the Mercury missions, which included America’s first spaceflight of Alan Shepard. The Gemini missions followed until the project assumed the title of Apollo. Apollo 8 was the first mission to the moon in which the crew orbited the Moon before returning to Earth.

Each of these missions built up to Apollo 11, the first lunar landing in 1969. Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida aboard a massive, 363 foot Saturn V launch vehicle. Within a couple of days, Armstrong proclaimed his first step on the moon was, “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Replying, “Roger, Tranquility, we hear you on the ground,” was South Carolinian Charles Duke who served as Capsule Communicator (CAPCOM) and later flew on the Apollo 16 Moon landing mission.

In addition to Charles Duke, other South Carolinians played important roles in the Apollo missions. When Apollo 8 returned from its lunar orbit, it splashed down in the South Pacific. The U.S.S. Yorktown, now anchored at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant, served as the recovery vessel on which the astronauts and spacecraft returned to the United States. Anderson, SC native Thomas ‘Milt’ Putnam was a senior Navy photographer who photographed the recovery missions of Apollo 8, 10, and 11.
You can learn more about Apollo 11, see objects from the space program and more in the museum’s exhibit, Apollo 50: Journey to the Moon.