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Above and Beyond: The Apollo Space Race to the Moon

In 1969 men set foot on the Moon for the first time. The Apollo space programme that put them there was the product of an age of optimism and daring very different from our own, argues André Balogh.

Photograph of Buzz Aldrin, taken by his fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong, on the surface of the moon, July 20th, 1969It is 40 years since Neil Armstrong took his ‘giant leap for mankind’ on the early summer morning of July 20th, 1969. It was the high point of a vast and expensive space programme initiated by President John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s which ended when Apollo 17’s lunar module lifted off from the Moon on December 14th, 1972. In just under three and a half years, 12 US astronauts walked on the Moon, drove around in their Moon buggy and thrilled television viewers around the world with their barely believable pantomime on a celestial body 236,000 miles from Earth.

The end came suddenly and space has not captured the public’s attention in the same way since, except, in a very different way, in response to the tragedies of the space shuttles Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. The Apollo programme had to compete for attention with other major events: the large-scale unrest in the US over civil rights and against the Vietnam war; then, less than a year after the last Apollo mission, the Watergate scandal which brought down President Nixon. Throughout these upheavals, astronauts walked on the Moon, flew the American flag and displayed the might of US technology and resources to massive global audiences in what remains, arguably, the greatest technical achievement of mankind.

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