Florida Launches the Great Moonshot: 50th Anniversary

Editors Note: This is the third part of our special series on Apollo 11 and the Moon Landings that were launched from Cape Canaveral this week.

Our article on the adversity faced by the Apollo Program is here

The Florida History Podcast presented by The Florida Squeeze discussion on the space program, Apollo 11 and Florida can be found here or on any podcast app.

Fifty years ago the eyes of the world focused on Florida and the flight of Apollo 11.  

Hundreds of thousands worked on the program but there were still a million things that could go wrong.  President Kennedy called the space race “the most hazardous, dangerous and greatest adventures on which man has ever embarked.”  

Apollo 11 mission officials relax in the Launch Control Center following the successful Apollo 11 liftoff on July 16, 1969. From left to right are: Charles W. Mathews, Deputy Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight; Dr. Wernher von Braun, Director of the Marshall Space Flight Center; George Mueller, Associate Administrator for the Office of Manned Space Flight; Lt. Gen. Samuel C. Phillips, Director of the Apollo Program

From a Cold War perspective, the mission to the moon had to succeed to surpass the technological progress of the Soviet Union.  Prior to the Apollo program the Soviets were not just beating the U.S., they were cleaning the country’s clock. The Soviets put the first satellite, animal, man and woman’s in earth’s orbit.  They also landed the first spaceship on the moon in 1959.    

That same year Senator John F. Kennedy warned, “The people of the world respect achievement.  For most of the twentieth century they admired American education and American science, which was second to none.  But they are uncertain about which way the future lies.” Kennedy argued the Eisenhower Administration allowed a “missile gap” and “space gap” to develop with the Soviet Union.  After Kennedy was elected President, he announced in 1961 that the county would reach the moon by the end of the decade.  

It would take shared sacrifice to make this goal a reality.  Taxes would be increased, employees would work impossible hours, families would be destroyed and lives would be lost to reach this goal.  Gemini astronauts Elliot See and Charles Bassett died as they crashed during a training mission. Three additional astronauts were killed in a test launch of Apollo 1 in 1967.  These sacrifices and more would be needed to put a man on the moon which was accomplished fifty years ago and launched at the Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, Florida.  

America’s greatest achievements are often thought to be events that occur on the battlefield.  While there were clear military applications for many aspects of the space program it was fundamentally a civilian mission.  The creation of NASA as a civilian agency was bitterly resisted by the military but accomplished through the dedication of President Eisenhower and Senator Lyndon B. Johnson.  

The moonshot required the best in astrophysics, chemistry, engineering, math, computer science, medicine and aviation.  Men and women born inside and outside the U.S. worked together. Key members of the Apollo program were born in Argentina, Poland and Germany.    

As the movie Hidden Figures reveals some of the best in math, engineering and computers were African-American women.  These women were joined by Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, a NASA engineer, and Margaret Hamilton, an MIT software engineer.  

Reverend Ralph Abernathy, representing the SCLC, came to protest the launch.  His eloquence was as true then as it is now. “We may go on from this day to Mars, to Jupiter and even to the heavens beyond.  But as long as racism, poverty, hunger and war prevail on the earth, we as a civilized nation have failed.” After Apollo 11 took off he added, “For that particular moment I was one of the proudest Americans.”

As Neil Armstrong’s son explained, “When you have all those people working so hard committed to something, amazing things can happen.”  These workers’ dedication and pride was such that many of them told Apollo astronaut Alan Bean that nothing could go wrong with their part of the program.  Walt Whitman might have said, “I hear America singing.”  

Historian David Brinkley said, “I think the moonshot is going to be seen as America’s great achievement” and called the Saturn rockets which powered the mission the “the biggest most important engineering marvel of mankind.”  Brinkley explained, “People can go and look at the Pyramids if they want, they can go look at the wall in China, but when you look at the Saturn rockets designed in Huntsville, Alabama, there really has been nothing like it.”

By NASA – Great Images in NASA Description, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6448924

The space program was a catalyst for social change even as the country’s political system stubbornly dragged behind.  Brinkley explained in his book, American Moonshot, “Kennedy was pleased that (Wernher) von Braun wasn’t tolerating Jim Crow segregation or white supremacist banter at the Marshall Flight Center in Alabama; if only his friend Senator George Smathers of Florida, would be similarly enlightened on civil rights.”  Von Braun developed the Saturn rockets and his management was emblematic of the integration that was occurring in other parts of the program.  

Lyndon Johnson wrote, “Space was the platform from which the social revolution of the 1960s was launched.  If we could send a man to the moon, we knew we should be able to send a poor boy to school and provide decent medical are for the aged.” 

The story of the space program is set in the American South.  Huntsville, Alabama was chosen for historical reasons. During World War II it was home to the Redstone Arsenal, in the Korean War it housed the Army’s missile program and in 1956 it became home to the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, with von Braun as its technical director.  This is where his work put the U.S. ahead of the U.S.S.R. in military and civilian fields. Brinkley called von Braun the “Albert Einstein of rocketry.”

Merritt Island, Florida, was chosen based on its geography.  The country needed a place on the East coast to launch missiles that would descend into the ocean rather than a populated landmass.  Its proximity to the equator was an advantage as well. In the early days of the space program Cape Canaveral included “ICBM row.” Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) carried nuclear warheads that would detonate in the Soviet Union.  ICBM row had launch pads for Atlas, Titan and Saturn rockets.   

The Manned Spacecraft Center was located in Houston based on politics.  Brinkley wrote, “If the story of NASA’s economic effect on…the Florida coast was transparent, the mechanisms that brought the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) to Houston was the opposite: a brew of back rooms, boardrooms, barbeques and Texas politics bubbling thick.”    

Florida Squeeze readers will not be surprised that Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson leveraged his position to bring NASA largess to Houston.  Less well known is Congressman Albert Thomas of Houston who had a hammerlock on NASA funding as the Chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Independent Offices.  Thomas had limited NASA spending and planned to keep it that way absent a direct benefit to his district. “The key to the selection (of the MSC) seems to lie in Congressional approval of the vastly increased budget asked by this administration.”

Ultimately, the space race was driven by domestic and international politics.  From the most selfish motives sprung the most selfless efforts to make it to the moon.  Neil Armstrong was very aware of this and thanked both the astronauts that paved the way for his trip and the hundreds of thousands of workers in the astrophysics, chemistry, engineering, math, computer science, medicine and aviation fields who drove the Apollo program.  

The space program reflected President Kennedy’s “faith in exactly what a gargantuan, well-funded, centralized federal government project could achieve in breakneck time,” according to Brinkley.  It was this faith that drove him in 1961 to tell Congress, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving this goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”  The success of Apollo 11 demonstrated that his faith was not in vain.  

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