IMAGE: Voyage of the Millennium
Special to MSNBC
updated 2/6/2000 12:21:36 PM ET 2000-02-06T17:21:36

America’s drive to reach the moon began as a Cold War battle on the high frontier. By the end, it had turned into the scientific exploration of another world “for all mankind.” The first moon landing in July 1969 was the climax of the quest, but there were other high points as well. In pictures and words, photojournalist Roger Ressmeyer tells the story behind the history.

‘We choose to go to the moon’

for high-bandwidth version. for low-bandwidth version.In the beginning, there were so many questions: Did the success of Sputnik mean the Soviets were taking control of the skies? Could the Americans ever hope to catch up in the space race? Would astronauts survive being sent up on rockets that had an annoying tendency to blow up?

In 1962, President John Kennedy addressed those questions dramatically: “We choose to go to the moon,” he said, not because it was easy, but because it was hard. For seven years, hundreds of thousands of people - engineers and explorers - worked to answer the challenge. And some paid a terrible price.

‘One giant leap for mankind’

for high-bandwidth version. for low-bandwidth version.Three men rose into space on July 16, 1969, to begin the world’s greatest adventure: Apollo 11. On July 20, while Michael Collins lingered aboard the Columbia command module in lunar orbit, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin headed for the surface in the lunar lander, known as Eagle.

With the fuel supply dwindling, Armstrong realized that the computerized trajectory was sending them toward a field of boulders. He overrode the computer controls, setting the lander down on the lunar shore with 20 seconds’ worth of fuel to spare. The Eagle had landed. The space race was won.

The images were icons for a new age: Earth and moon against the blackness of space ... a flag that falsely seemed to flutter in the vacuum ... bootprints in moondust. It was, as Armstrong said, “one giant leap for mankind” - a mental leap as well as a technological leap.

‘We leave as we came’

for high-bandwidth version. for low-bandwidth version.Apollo 11 marked the achievement of Kennedy’s goal: America had proven its prowess in space. What else was there to prove?

For scientists, there was still a world of questions to be answered: How was the moon formed? What forces shaped it over billions of years? What could the moon tell us about Earth’s origins, and its fate? New tools, such as a lunar rover, were devised to make the quest more efficient.

IMAGE: The Space Transporter
But for astronauts, there were the same old risks, the same potential price - as demonstrated by the near-tragedy of Apollo 13. Further giant leaps would have to wait. After Apollo, America would have to take more gradual, safer steps.

When Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan stepped off the lunar soil in 1972, he knew it would be a long time before the next moonwalker arrived - although he never expected that the gap would extend beyond a quarter-century. “We leave as we came,” he said, “and God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”

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