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MOONSHOT: Saturn V and the Mission to the Moon

Jeffrey Syken

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth”

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President of the United States

It was with these noble words, given in a speech to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, that mankind’s greatest adventure would begin in earnest. To achieve this literally lofty goal, a minimum of $20 billion would be required and the greatest talents in science and technology would be summoned to the cause. But before a manned-moon-mission could be made manifest, a vast infrastructure and a rocket capable of the task would need to be developed. The infrastructure would come together at Cape Canaveral (later renamed “Cape Kennedy”), FL, and the Saturn V rocket, with its five “F-1” engines, would defy gravity by lifting the tremendous payload into space. The “proving-out” for the requirements of space flight would be the mission of both the Mercury and Gemini program/s of the early and mid-1960s, but the moon mission itself would be assigned to the aptly named “Apollo” (Greek god of youthful energy) program.

It has been man’s ambition to “reach for the stars" since time immemorial. First would come flight via hot-air balloons, dirigibles and, by the early 20th century, heavier-than-air flying machines. Both World Wars would advance the technologies of flight dramatically and the inter-war years would see significant experimentation with rocket propulsion, both in the U.S. and Europe. A diminutive New England professor by the name of Robert H. Goddard would lead the way with his extensive experiments and belief that a rocket engine could operate efficiently in the vacuum of space. Despite naysayers (i.e. The New York Times), his theories were, ultimately, proven correct. In Europe, a young Werhner von Braun would develop his skills as a rocket scientist in the 1920s and ‘30s and, by WWII, head Germany’s successful V-2 rocket program. Brought to America by “Operation Paperclip” (along with many other distinguished German scientists and engineers), in the post-WWII years the technology needed to reach the moon would be built upon the shoulders of the technology developed in Nazi Germany prior to and during WWII.

Indeed, captured V-2 rockets would provide the test-bed for the American space effort. By the late 1940s, an estimated $750 million in research and development costs was saved by the contributions of these German expatriates. The fundamentals of stratospheric flight had been developed in the 1920s and ‘30s and in October 1947, the sound barrier was broken by the “X-1” rocket plane, piloted by Charles “Chuck” Yeager. By the 1950s, a “space race” had developed as part of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Each had their successes and failures and the competition helped expedite the technologies necessary for space flight. When, in October 1957, a small metal sphere was successfully launched by the Soviet Union into a low Earth orbit, a new urgency to reach the moon before the Soviets resulted in the formation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) a year later. The race for the moon was on.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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