When JFK stood up and said in 1961 and announced the US would land a man on the moon by the end of the decade it was a ludicrous statement.  NASA had no plan to build a rocket capable of reaching the moon and no idea how to land a ship let alone take off again.  By 1972 NASA had spent over $20 billion but they had achieved their goal; a man stood on the lunar surface on July 20th, 1969.

It is hard to place the Apollo program among the pantheon of human achievements as it compares not only to 20th century scientific ventures like splitting the atom and sequencing the human genome but deserves a place among the great engineering feats like the pyramids of Egypt and the Roman Colosseum.   Over 400,000 people were employed to send 6 missions to the lunar surface and doing so required materials from all over the world and industry across America.  Traveling the 384,000 km from the Earth to the moon is made all the more impressive when you consider the fact the first powered flight happened only 66 years earlier over a distance of 36.5m.

Manned space flight has always faced budget problems and Apollo was no different.  The perceived Soviet threat loosened Congress’ purse strings but many were looking for excuses to cancel the program altogether.  The 3 fatalities during the Apollo 1 test mission very nearly spelled the end of the Moon dream before it had even gotten off the ground.  The now infamous explosion on Apollo 13 almost spelt doom for the science portion of Apollo as all the flights up to that point had been merely to prove such a task could be accomplished.  As it was Apollo 18 through 20 never flew and as NASA shifted gears towards the reusable shuttle the plans for Apollo’s future simply evaporated.  Many said going to the moon was simply to much money and too dangerous but on 12 manned space missions there were no fatalities and tallying up the distances involved it cost $2500/km which doesn’t seem too unreasonable to get to the moon.

I think the most telling fact about the Apollo missions is the generational divide it has created.  For those who remember July 1969 it is a seminal moment; something none of them will forget.  For those of us born since the moon landings it doesn’t have the same impact.  For many people my age the lasting image of Apollo is not Neil Armstrong stepping off of Eagle into the lunar dust but Tom Hanks aboard the ill-fated Apollo 13.  This is why it is so important to mark the 40th anniversary of the moon landing.  Apollo should not be remembered merely as disaster averted but as the great achievement it truly was.

The JFK Presidential Library has created a new site dedicated to Apollo 11 located at www.wechoosethemoon.org.  If like me you were unable to witness the original landing this is the next best thing.