Today in History – July 20, 1969 – Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, fulfilling President Kennedy’s challenge to put a “man” on the moon before the end of the decade. With a tight development and execution schedule, any number of things could have gone wrong. Instead, the major flaw, from the public’s knowledge, was when there was some question about Armstrong’s historic words. At 10:56 p.m. EDT, with more than half a billion people watching on television, Armstrong takes the first step on the moon. Armstrong maintains that he said: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” The press heard and quoted: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Listen and decide for yourself. Aldrin joined him soon after and collected rocks that are still of value today. He described the lunar surface as “magnificent desolation“.
The moon walk and the Apollo mission accomplishments validated to the nation the importance of U.S. leadership in space exploration and the formation of NASA as a separate agency to head these efforts. Before the launch of Sputnik, the United States felt confident in its position on space technology. The modern liquid fueled rocket had been invented in America by Robert Goddard. In addition Wernher von Braun, the developer of the successful German V2 rocket was working for the US Army’s rocket program. The view in Washington was that the government should only develop purely military rockets and leave the rest to the private sector. Wernher von Braun was even discouraged from developing rockets that could carry satellites. That all changed when the Soviet Union launch Sputnik on October 4, 1957. The United States had clearly lost its edge in space technology and it was decided that a new federal agency should be established for non-military space programs.
On July 29, 1958 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Eilene Galloway was instrumental in drafting the legislation and and making the case for its emphasis on international collaboration and peaceful exploration.
Many parts of the Naval Research Laboratory and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency were incorporated into NASA at its start, including the participation of Wernher von Braun. NASA quickly ramped up its human space flight program resulting in the launch of the first American in space on May 5, 1961, and the first American in orbit on February 20, 1962. One of NASA’s largest accomplishments was just seven years later with the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969. During this short amount of time NASA helped America regain its confidence as a leader in space flight.