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From the Earth to the Moon: The Origins of NASA and the Space Race (1514-1972)

Apollo 17

“Failure is not an option.” – Gene Kranz (NASA Flight Director, during Apollo 13) 

Just 66 years after the Wright Brothers first took flight in 1903, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon during NASA’s Apollo 11 mission, in 1969, but it was a long journey made possible by centuries of great thinkers, dreamers, scientists, and daring explorers who paved the way…

Since the dawn of time, mankind has gazed at the night sky in wonder. Many cultures around the world, from the Ancient Egyptians to the Mayans of the Americas, sought mystical meanings in the constellations, building entire pantheons of gods and mythologies around the mysteries of the cosmos. Thousands of years ago, great philosophers from the Greeks, Persians, and Babylonians, pondered the implications of what lay beyond our earthly realm.

Some hoped to figure out the enigma of the heavens, while others dared to dream of one day visiting far away lands, beyond our terrestrial plane. In fact, many of these early star gazers discovered the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter long before telescopes had even been invented! In 1092, Chinese astronomer, Chang Ssu-Hsün, invented the “Cosmic Engine” – a massive water-powered mechanical astronomical clock to track celestial bodies in the sky! Then around 1390, according to a Ming Dynasty legend, Wan-Hu allegedly strapped 47 rockets to a wicker chair to try and visit the moon… 

However, it was the Italian Renaissance and the European Age of Enlightenment that pushed our scientific understanding of outer space to new heights!

1514-1840: The Pioneers of Modern Astronomy 

It all started with Nicolaus Copernicus, when he came up with the Heliocentric Model of the universe in 1514, correctly inferring that the Earth was not in fact the center of the solar system, but rather the sun. In the year 1600, Giordano Bruno fell prey to the Roman Inquisition when the Church literally *burned him at the stake* for (correctly) stating that not only was the sun not the center of the universe, but that each star in the sky was a sun with its own planets, some of which maybe like our own… He was right.

In 1608, Italian astronomer, Galileo Galilei created the first telescope! (Prior to this, all observations were made with the human eye!) He soon proved Copernicus correct, observing that the sun was at the center of our solar system, and even discovered Saturn, as well as the four largest moons of Jupiter: Calisto, Europa, Io, and Ganymede!  Unfortunately, he too was a victim of the Inquisition – he was placed under house arrest for heresy by supporting the (true) Copernican Heliocentric Theory of the Universe, and not going along with religious doctrine, which focused on the idea of an Earth-centered universe.

Around 1609, Johannes Kepler (the former apprentice to Tycho Brahe – an eccentric astronomer known for his false nose) discovered his basic “Laws of Planetary Motion”. Sir Isaac Newton then expanded on these concepts with the basic fundamental laws of modern physics, regarding gravity, motion, and friction. Frederick William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus in 1781. Finally, in 1840, a chemist named John W. Draper created the first astronomical photograph of the Moon, heralding the start of ‘Modern Astronomy’ – leading to the discoveries of Neptune in 1851, and Pluto in 1930 (later demoted to a Dwarf Planet by Neil deGrasse Tyson in 2006).

By the Victorian Era, many people began to suspect that there might actually be life on either Mars or Venus. In fact, in 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli saw what he *believed* to be continents, oceans, and even canals on the surface of the red planet. Although we now know the Martian surface to be a barren wasteland, many scientists now believe that Mars may have been like Earth in the distant past.

1865-1937: The Dawn of Science Fiction

In 1818, Mary Shelley wrote “Frankenstein”, often considered the first work of Science Fiction, but it wasn’t till much later that the Sci-Fi genre really took off. In 1865, another classic Science Fiction author, Jules Verne, wrote “From the Earth to the Moon” – a landmark work that would prove somewhat prophetic a full century later! While he could not have predicted certain scientific advances in the decades to come, there were a surprising number of things that he got right! Verne’s novel served as the inspiration for one of the earliest Silent Films in France, with 1902’s “A Trip to the Moon” – often regarded as the earliest Science Fiction movie!

Other early notable works of Science Fiction like H.G. Wells’s “The War of the Worlds” (1898), and “A Princess of Mars” (1912) by Edgar Rice Burroughs – helped to kick start a Golden Age for the genre throughout the first half of the 20th Century. One of the earliest Sci-Fi pulp magazines to take off was “Amazing Stories”, which first started its print run in 1926, while the “Golden Age of Science Fiction” is credited to John W. Campbell, who became the editor of “Astounding Science Fiction” in 1937. Many of the best classic Sci-Fi writers like Isaac Asimov, Ursula K Le Guin, and Arthur C. Clarke got their start during this time.

While fictional, these early works of Sci-Fi would go on to inspire an entire generation of scientists and innovators who would go on to make space travel a reality!

1895-1926: The Explosive History of Rocket Science! 

In 1895, a Russian scientist named Konstantin Tsiolkovsky came up with the first rocket propulsion equation and even managed to calculate the speed needed for a rocket to break Earth’s gravity! (For those wondering: Escape Velocity is about 6.9 miles per second, or 25,020 miles per hour!) Between 1903 and 1911 he published “Exploration of Outer Space by Means of Rocket Devices” in two volumes where he explained the concept of multi-stage rockets, and theorized mixing liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen for rocket fuel – decades before it was even possible!

Robert Goddard

Meanwhile, in 1916, Robert Goddard, an American physics professor from Massachusetts, earned a $5,000 grant from the Smithsonian to test out his own theoretical rockets. In 1926, he was almost seriously injured in an accident when one of his rockets exploded, nearly burning his lab to the ground! Regardless, later that year, he earned the title: “the Father of Rocket Science” after managing to successfully launch the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket on March 16th, 1926! Goddard’s 10-pound rocket flew 41 feet into the air in just 2 and a half seconds! By 1930 he managed to launch a rocket 2,000 feet in the air at about 500 miles per hour!

1905-1939: Enter Einstein

Swiss-German scientist, Albert Einstein, published four papers in 1905, including the “Theory of Special Relativity” (E = mc2), followed soon after by his Theory of General Relativity”  in 1915 – forever changing our understanding of Newtonian physics and the universe!

After a humble start, working at a patent office in Bern, Einstein quickly went on to become one of the most influential minds of the 20th Century – winning the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921 for his explanation of the Photo-Electric Effect, he created the Science of Cosmology with famed astronomer Edwin Hubble, came up with the concept of wormholes with Nathan Rosen, and together with Max Planck helped to form the basis for Quantum Mechanics! In 1932, Albert Einstein fled Nazi Germany for the United States, where he set up shop in Princeton, New Jersey.

By the late 1930’s, Einstein suddenly realized that his equations predicted the possibility of an Atomic Bomb! Despite being a lifelong pacifist, Einstein wrote to FDR in 1939, urging the US to begin development of the Atomic Bomb *before* the Nazis – leading to the creation of the Manhattan Project. Although he never managed to come up with a unified “Theory of Everything”, his work went on to inspire several other prominent theoretical physicists, including Stephen Hawking – who built on Einstein’s work in studying the physics behind Black Holes and other cosmological phenomenon! (Fun side note: in 1947, Einstein co-authored a paper, in secret, with J. Robert Oppenheimer – the lead developer of the Atomic Bomb, on what we should do if we ever make first contact with an alien civilization…)

1927-1934: The German Society for Space Travel

Founded in 1927 by Johannes Winkler, the German “Society for Space Travel” (Verein für Raumschiffahrt) theorized about the future of space exploration, and conducted liquid-fuel rocket experiments. Members included: famed rocketeer Max Valier, Wily Ley (a science writer), and Hermann Oberth. Unfortunately, with the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, the Society for Space Travel was shut down by Hitler in 1934. However, several former members were recruited to develop the V-2 rocket – most notably, a man named Wernher von Braun

1934-1939: Jack Parsons launches JPL

In 1934, an eccentric young dropout named Jack Parsons founded a rocket club with his buddies at Caltech called “GALCIT”, nicknamed “The Suicide Squad” – which later became known as JPL (The Jet Propulsion Laboratory) in 1943! After several close calls, the ‘Rocket Boys’ gained funding from the National Academy of Sciences in 1939.

Jack Parsons

Parsons himself was an interesting guy to say the least. Throughout his life, he had a number of run ins with the law, was accused of being a communist during the Red Scare (like Oppenheimer and a few other geniuses of their time), and got swept up in a cult with the likes of Aleister Crowley and L. Ron Hubbard. Parsons was the first in a long curious tradition of NASA and CERN scientists with an avid interest in the occult. Jack Parsons eventually died in a lab explosion under mysterious circumstances in 1952…

1942-1945: The Nazi V-2 Rockets (WWII)

The Nazis developed the V-2 Rocket in 1942 with the help of Wernher von Braun (former member of the previously mentioned “German Society for Space Travel”) and his designs for the A-4 prototype. Von Braun’s A-4 looked more like a retro spaceship from a classic sci-fi show than a modern missile. Originally intended as an orbital rocket for science, the A-4 was redubbed by the Nazis as a ‘Vengeance Weapon’, for use against the Allies in World War II…

During the initial tests, they ran into every possible malfunction: The first test model slipped out of its restraints and fell two meters, smashing its fins. The navigation system failed, during the prototype’s second launch – causing it to spiral into the Baltic Sea where it exploded! The third test rocket’s nose-cone broke off. Some test rockets blew up in mid-air, others flew off course, or just unceremoniously fell over on the launchpad. In fact, Hitler began to suspect that Von Braun was sabotaging the program. The first successful test was carried out on October 3rd, 1942 – the V-2 traveled 52 miles into the air, reaching supersonic speeds. Adolf was unimpressed.

Von Braun was later arrested by the Nazi Secret Police as a traitor in 1944, after getting drunk at a party where he ranted about how the Nazi’s were going to lose the war. He was cleared of charges once they realized that no one else understood rockets as well as him, and forced him to get back to work.

Soon after, three-thousand V-2 missiles were launched against civilian targets in Great Britain and Belgium, with casualties estimated around 9,000. There’s a lot of speculation regarding just how culpable Von Braun really was in his role as a Nazi Scientist – some say that he was reluctant and had no choice, others say that he was indifferent to the suffering of the Jewish people who were used as forced labor to develop the V2 bombs, but in his own words, it’s fairly clear that his primary interest was in space exploration, not in conquest: “The rocket performed perfectly, except for landing on the wrong planet.” 

1945-1949: The Cold War Begins… 

The world changed forever on July 16th, 1945 when the world’s first Atomic Bomb was detonated at the Trinity Test Site in Los Alamos, New Mexico. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of The Manhattan Project, gasped in awe and horror at the mushroom cloud stating simply, “It worked.” He would later go on to quote the now famous (and ominous) Hindu proverb, “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” Shortly after, WWII came to a swift end as the Empire of Japan surrendered following the devastating nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Unfortunately, Stalin’s spies had managed to infiltrate the Manhattan Project, and by 1949 the Russians had reverse-engineered a bomb of their own. The United States and the Soviet Union were locked in an existential battle of wills that would last for decades. Each one trying to our match the other in an unwavering nuclear arms race that went on for over 40 years. The Cold War had officially begun…

The Atomic Age may have ushered in the Cold War, but it was also the genesis of a new chapter in scientific discovery – as both the US and USSR attempted to outdo one another in technological innovation, in order to prove the superiority of their ideologies. Somewhat ironically, what started as an arms race, soon gave way to “The Space Race!” According to William Burrows in “This New Ocean” – “The cold war would become the great engine, the supreme catalyst, that sent rockets and their cargoes far above Earth and worlds away.”  

Click here for 10 Times We Nearly Nuked Ourselves By Accident! 

1945: Operation Paperclip 

As WWII came to a close, Allied forces were closing in on Berlin. Hitler ordered all rocket research destroyed, but the German scientists decided to hang on to what they could as Russian and American forces began to divvy up the region. Known today as “Operation Paperclip”, the United States Army was given Top Secret orders to recruit the best Nazi scientists to help boost their own Research and Development, while the USSR did the same, gathering up as many rocket scientists as they could, regardless of their background, or history.

While many of the German Scientists gladly renounced the Nazi Party, a small percentage were categorized as opportunistic ‘true believers’. Among the recruited scientists that were brought into the fold was one Wernher von Braun, who would go on to become a key component in NASA’s success, in an attempt to redeem his past with the Third Reich – later developing the Saturn-V rocket that would eventually send Apollo astronauts to the moon…

1947: The Hermes Incident (White Sands / Mexico)

Shortly after being recruited by the US military during WWII, Von Braun and his team at JPL (Cal-Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) got to work on furthering their rocket research. As with any groundbreaking scientific endeavor, the team had their fair share of failures. One such incident occurred on May 29th, 1947 at the White Sands test site in New Mexico, where a prototype Hermes II rocket malfunctioned during launch. The four and a half ton Hermes rocket flew wildly off course before crash-landing south of the border – in Mexico! The rocket left behind a 24-foot-deep, 50-foot-wide crater, right outside of Juarez, Mexico. Thankfully, no one was hurt, and an international incident was avoided…

1947: Chuck Yeager Breaks the Sound Barrier! (Bell X-1) 

Read all about it in my article – Pioneers of the Sky: 25 Epic Aviation Milestones! 

1949: Bumper 5 (US Army)

On February 24th, 1949, the Bumper 5 Rocket was launched by the US Army from the White Sands test site, becoming the first artificial object to reach space – at an altitude of 244 miles!

Meanwhile in Russia, the Soviets had begun testing their own rockets as Cold War tensions continued to ramp up…

1953: The R-7 (USSR) 

In 1953, Sergei Korolev (with the help of former Nazi Rocket Scientists) began development on the R-7 Semyorka for the Soviet Union – the world’s first Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). Initially intended to launch a thermonuclear weapon, the R-7 has since become a staple in Russian space missions in the decades since!

In an effort to keep up with Russia, the Americans developed three separate rocket programs throughout the 1950’s: Atlas (the US Air Force), Redstone (the US Army), and Vanguard (the US Navy). All the while, speculation began to circle regarding which country would be the first to put a man in space…

1954: Testing the Limits of Human Endurance! 

Col. John Stapp, a US Air Force flight surgeon tested the upper limits of human endurance against incredible G-Forces on a rocket sled at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. During one such test, in 1954, Colonel Stapp experienced an insane 46 g’s! Stapp was bruised and disoriented, after having survived 40,000 pounds of thrust when the Sonic Wind No 1 travelled 3,000 feet in just a few seconds! He barely managed to walk away from the test, but triumphantly held a land speed record of 632 miles per hour – faster than a speeding bullet!  

1957: Sputnik – The First Satellite (USSR) 

The world changed forever on October 4th, 1957 when the Soviet Union successfully launched the world’s first (artificial) satellite into orbit: Sputnik 1! 

Launched by a R-7 rocket, Sputnik was a small metallic sphere, weighing a mere 14 pounds, and just 2 feet wide. The small metal ball flew at an incomprehensible 18,000 miles-per-hour at an altitude of 560 miles, and circled the planet once every hour and a half! It was equipped with a battery-powered transmitter that sent out a radio signal which could be heard as it passed overhead – which caused panic throughout the United States as people feared an imminent communist take over!

Sputnik was followed by a few sequels: Sputnik 2 launched the first dog into space (Laika), Sputnik 3 was a gigantic one-and-a-half ton satellite, chock-full of scientific instruments, and “Sputnik 4” (Korabl-Sputnik) crash-landed in Wisconsin…

1957: The Vanguard TV3 Rocket (Cape Canaveral – Round 1)

Following Russia’s stunning achievement with Sputnik-1, the United States was falling behind in the Space Race, and was desperate to catch up. Crowds of Americans showed up at Cape Canaveral, Florida to witness the launch of America’s first satellite aboard the TV-3 Vanguard Rocket on December 6th, 1957! Unfortunately, just two seconds into its attempted launch, the Vanguard rocket immediately toppled over and erupted into a ball of fire on the launch pad…

The Daily Express called it “Kaputnik”, while The Daily Herald referred to the incident as “Flopnik”, and the News Chronicle’s headline read “Stayputnik”! 

1958: Explorer-1 (Cape Canaveral – Round 2)

Following the embarrassing debacle of the Vanguard launch failure, Von Braun and JPL scrambled to put the Explorer-1 satellite into orbit as quickly as possible, to make up for all the bad PR. They strapped the scientific satellite to a four-stage Jupiter C Rocket, and by January 31st, 1958, the Explorer-1 was ready for launch! This time, the Jupiter C Rocket took off from Cape Canaveral without a hitch. The Explorer satellite surpassed Sputnik in every conceivable way, and unlike the early Soviet satellites, managed to stay in orbit for the next 12 years!

1958: The Birth of NASA! 

Following the first (successful) launch of an American satellite into space, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established NASA – the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, by signing the organization into existence on July 29th, 1958! Launched alongside DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), NASA was created as a civilian-led effort in the pursuit of science rather than warfare. Employing thousands in the pursuit of human spaceflight, NASA combined the resources of the Langley Research Center, JPL (the California Institute of Science and Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory), NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), and the Army’s Rocket Research Team. Their first mission was to launch a man into space and bring him back – alive…

1958-1963: The Mercury Seven (NASA)

After a rigorous selection process, NASA’s first astronauts, the “Mercury Seven” were selected and announced to the public: Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper, and Deke Slayton!

1961: Vostok-1 – Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man in Space! (USSR)

Another huge win for the Soviets – Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth aboard the Vostok-1 spacecraft, on April 12th, 1961!

1961: Freedom 7 – Alan Shepard becomes the first American in Space! (NASA)

Although the Soviets had beaten the US into space by a month, NASA wasn’t about to give up. On May 5th, 1961, at 5:15 AM, Alan Shepard (the first of seven Mercury astronauts) climbed aboard the tiny, cramped, tin can that was the Freedom 7 Space Capsule, which stood atop a 30-ton Mercury-Redstone Rocket! After several delays due to technical difficulties, including an embarrassing incident where Shepard was forced to pee in his space suit in order to avoid even more delays, he complained to Mercury Control, “Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?” 

Freedom 7 finally lifted off the launch pad without incident at 9:34 AM. 45 million viewers watched the event live from home on TV, as America’s first astronaut left the planet behind. 15 minutes later, Shepard returned safely back to Earth, splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean.

1962: “We Choose to go to the Moon…” – JFK 

Following John Glenn’s iconic mission aboard Friendship 7 (where he orbited the Earth 3 times), and on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy gave a famous speech at Rice University in Texas, where he proclaimed a new mission for NASA: “We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.” 

Although JFK tragically wouldn’t live to see this mission carried out, the brilliant scientists at NASA made his dream a reality of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade…

1965: Voskhod 2 – the First EVA / Space Walk! (USSR)

Read more about that one here! 

1965-1966: Project Gemini (NASA)

While the Russians may have had the upper hand with a series of *firsts*, NASA decided to play it safe, doing their best to ensure that every variable was accounted for, and while things still went wrong at times, it ultimately paid off.

Project Gemini was the key to the Apollo program’s success, laying down the groundwork for NASA’s “Moonshot” by first working out all the complex technical details ahead of time – and much closer to Earth. From orbit, the Gemini astronaut teams practiced EVA’s (Extra-Vehicular-Activities), docking procedures, and even dealt with a few emergency situations, including but not limited to misfiring boosters, and the infamous “Corned-Beef-Sandwich Incident”… 

1968-1972: The Apollo Missions (NASA)

The first full photo of Earth from Space – Apollo 8 (1968)

Following the unfortunate tragedy of Apollo 1 (a freak accident that caused the untimely deaths of three astronauts) and the incredible success of Apollo 8 (the first crewed spaceflight *around* the moon), all that was left was to land on the lunar surface…

The 36-story-tall Saturn V Rocket lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center! – July 16th, 1969

On July 20th, 1969Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin achieved the impossible when Apollo 11’s “Eagle” module successfully touched down on the lunar surface at the Sea of Tranquility, a whopping 238,855 miles away from our home planet! 530 million people around the world watched in stunned awe as Armstrong stepped off the foot of the lander with the now iconic words: “That’s one small step for man… one giant leap for mankind.” 

This epic milestone in human history was made possible thanks to the brilliant scientists at NASA, with the support of 400,000 men and women, over $25.8 billion dollars in funding, several years of trial and error – from Mercury to Gemini, and of course all the decades of research and innovation that came before them by countless others around the globe! Apollo 11 was just the first of six missions to the moon, with a total of 12 astronauts exploring the surface of the moon between 1969 and 1972, with Apollo 17 being the last (manned) mission to the moon so far… well, at least until NASA’s Artemis missions get underway in the next few years.

Apollo 17 (1972)

For more on that story however, you’ll have to grab a copy of my book, “EPIC FAILS – The Race to Space: Countdown to Liftoff” – covering the early days of NASA, including the infamous “Corned-Beef Sandwich Incident”  aboard Gemini-3 (1965), the “Successful Failure” of Apollo 13 (1970), and the groundbreaking Apollo-Soyuz Mission of 1975, the very first joint US-Soviet space venture!

NASA has gone on to accomplish so much more in the 50 years since then: from the creation of GPS, Mars Rovers, and the International Space Station to Hubble, Voyager, Kepler, Cassini, and the recent launch of the James Webb Space Telescope! NASA along with the ESA, JAXA, India, China, and others around the world have continued to explore the far reaches of space, on a bold mission of discovery, to understand the infinite mysteries of the universe and our place in it. But none of it would have been possible without the ancient stargazers who paved the way, the philosophers who pondered the cosmos, the early astronomers who dared to defy convention, and the writers who inspired a generation with their dreams of faraway worlds…

 – Erik Slader

Other Epik Articles Worth Reading: 

Erik Slader
Erik Slader
Erik Slader is the creator of “Epik Fails of History” a blog (and podcast) about the most epic fails… of history. With Ben Thompson, Erik is the co-author of the Epic Fails book series. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Digital Media, once managed a comic book shop, has a weakness for fancy coffee and currently lives in Green Cove Springs, Florida with too many cats.

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