How It Works

The Apollo Program

The Apollo Program
The trailblazing NASA missions that took us to the Moon

In the late 1950s, the US and the Soviet Union were racing to reach a major milestone in spaceflight: put humans on the Moon then return them safely back to Earth. In July 1969, NASA launched Apollo 11, carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Armstrong’s famous words, broadcast from the lunar surface, clinched the title for the Americans and changed the course of human history: “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”NASA was formed in 1958 and the Apollo Program was only its third major spaceflight initiative. In order to achieve this ambitious goal, it designed and built a whole new breed of vehicles. The Saturn V rocket, which eventually launched all six manned lunar landings, was taller than the Statue of Liberty and weighed as much as 400 elephants. It was more powerful than any rocket that came before it.

The astronauts themselves rode in the Apollo spacecraft, a small portion at the top of the enormous launch vehicle. Once the rocket had put Apollo on course for the Moon it fell away, leaving the spacecraft to complete the four-day journey and return to Earth. From 1969 to 1972, 12 astronauts walked on the Moon, some staying for as long as three days to conduct detailed surveys and experiments on their surroundings. Over the six missions, almost 400 kilograms of lunar samples were collected and brought back to Earth. The astronauts also installed six observatories on the surface of the Moon, which operated for many years after the surface was free of human footsteps. The wealth of data has not only transformed our understanding of the Moon but also hinted at the history of Earth and the entire Solar System.


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