Manned spaceflight became a practical possibility on 3 October 1942 with the first successful flight of von Braun's A4 rocket from Peenemunde on the Baltic Sea. Von Braun's mother had spent her childhood there and commended it to her son when he was searching for a site to test the A4, the prototype for the Third Reich's Vergeltungswaffe 2 (V2).
Space travel had always been von Braun's obsession, so after the war, he and 120 of his engineers signed contracts with the US Army.
On 4 October 1957, the USSR launched into orbit the world's first satellite, Sputnik 1. It was a tremendous propaganda coup: the Earth had a new Moon and it bore the letters CCCP.
But Von Braun's moment had come, and his team launched the first US satellite, Explorer 1, on 31 January 1958. Six months later, President Eisenhower created Nasa, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which immediately began the Mercury programme to launch a manned space vehicle. Then, on 12 April 1961, the Soviets stole another march on the Americans when Vostok 1 took Yuri Gagarin for a single orbit around the Earth, becoming the first man into space. The American response was a 15-minute suborbital flight for Alan Shepard, on 5 May 1961, launched by a von Braun-designed rocket.
After Shepard's successful flight, on 25 May 1961, President John F Kennedy told the US Congress 'that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth'. The Apollo project had been born.
But the Americans had still not managed even to get a man into orbit. That came when an Atlas rocket sent John Glenn into space for 5 hours on 20 February 1962.
Behind the scenes, however, Nasa was wracked by uncertainty on precisely how to get a man to the Moon. Von Braun and his colleagues favoured sending two rockets into earth orbit, one to refuel the other which would then travel to the Moon. But John Houbolt and others at Nasa's Langley Research Centre preferred a lunar orbital rendezvous: a two-part spacecraft fired direct to the Moon where it would separate, with two crew members descending to the surface while a third circled the Moon in the other part; the lunar landing over, the Moon- men would rejoin their companion and jettison their landing vehicle. It was the riskier procedure, but Houbolt's concept became the model for the Apollo programme.
On 23 March 1965, a Titan II rocket launched the first of 10 Gemini flights to test the procedures for space rendezvous and docking. Von Braun and the Marshall Spaceflight Center, meanwhile, concentrated on designing the rocket which would send Apollo to the Moon. The result was the Saturn V, a colossal three- stage rocket, 110m high and weighing 3,200 tons at launch.
The maiden flight of Apollo, with a crew aboard, was Apollo 7 in October 1968, but this went no further than earth orbit. The second manned Apollo flight was a circumlunar mission in December 1968. Two more flights followed before, on 16 July 1969, Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins set out for the Moon in Apollo 11. After four days in space, Aldrin and Armstrong crawled into the lunar module, which had been named Eagle, leaving Collins behind in the command module, Columbia. For three hours, Armstrong piloted Eagle before landing on the Sea of Tranquillity to report back to Mission Control at Houston: 'Tranquillity Base, here. The Eagle has landed.'
Then Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder and stepped off on to the surface of the Moon. Millions watched the blurred images on television as Armstrong took 'one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind'. Two and a half hours later, it was all over. The two men returned to the lunar module and rejoined Collins in lunar orbit. Apollo 11 splashed down on 24 July 1969.
The second manned lunar mission followed in November. But, at the height of Nasa's triumph, the American public began to get bored by lunar spectaculars. The television ratings began to drop, NASA's budget was cut, and three Apollo missions (18 to 20) were cancelled.
High drama returned in April 1970 when an oxygen tank exploded on board Apollo 13 destroying much of the life-support system. The crew had to crawl into the lunar module and live off its supplies for three days before they could return to earth. Apollo 15 employed a lunar rover to transport the astronauts across the surface of the Moon. Apollo 17, in December 1972, carried the first scientist to walk on the Moon, the geologist Harrison Schmidt.
And that was it. The last humans left the surface of the Moon on 15 December 1972, just over 30 years since that first A4 rocket lifted off from Peenemunde.
When Neil Armstrong and 'Buzz' Aldrin landed on the Moon they received a highly publicised telephone call from President Richard Nixon. The crew of Apollo 17 also received a less publicised presidential message: 'This may be the last time in this century that men will walk on the Moon.' Nixon was right.
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